Sermon: BLESS THIS HOUSE Revd Roberta Rominger 19-05-2013
Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people. Too bad you don’t have a steeple on this church. Or maybe lucky for you…
Here is the church. See all the people. The jubilation you are feeling today is something I wish every Christian could feel once in their lifetime. The wonderful sense of completion when you’ve done your praying and dreaming together, determined what you are about as the people of God in this town, imagined the building you needed to enable you to be what you felt God wanted you to be, and went for it. Created it. Scrimped and save and gave and waited and prayed and waited and worked and waited and argued and waited and waited for it… And here you are today. It is a special feeling of being someplace brand new but someplace that is already home.
Now what you need is the Holy Spirit. You know what you want to happen here, or at least a lot of it. The worship you hope to offer, the meeting place for a revived, energised congregation. The children’s work and youth work. The music. The weddings and baptisms and funerals. The social events and fundraising events. The meals. The studying and the decision making, the sharing and growing. The safe place for laughter, for tears, for friendships to blossom. This building is built as much of vision as it is of bricks and mortar. The change in the feel of it is about the change you hope and pray there will be to the feeling of you. You, refreshed and renewed and rededicated, you equipped with the best that 21st century know-how can offer, you fit for purpose for the challenges of the day.
Here is the church. See all the people. It’s both, you know. Part of what we can celebrate here this morning is that even in these crazy times, these hard times for the church of Jesus Christ, even today a building can be a powerful witness. After our service this morning we will go have lunch, and after we’ve finished, some poor souls will have a lot of washing up to do. But when they’re done, and the last thing has been put away and the doors are carefully locked behind the last person to leave, the building will remain here. I imagine someone will be around tomorrow to open up for something or other that’s happening here, but even if they don’t, even if there are days when this place is empty and silent all day long, it still stands here proudly in its prominent location in the centre of the town. And because it is attractive, because it is welcoming and obviously loved and cared for, and because there is a signboard outside proclaiming our existence, this building speaks of a living God. Theologically we might rebel against that. Pentecost reminds us that every church in the world could fall to pieces and God would still be every bit as alive, and you would be right. But people don’t know that. For whatever reason, that isn’t how people think. If every last church in the world fell to pieces, what most people would say is, “Well, so much for that God stuff, I guess.” A good building tells the world that we are alive and well and open for business, and our God is alive and well and open for business. The building witnesses for us.
Here is the church. See all the people. In addition to feeling good about what your building is going to say to the neighbours around you, you can also feel good about the space you have created for God to work in people’s lives. During my time in Thames North Synod we produced a strategy document called “Bread to Spare”… In there was a genius of a passage: “the distinctive contribution that the United Reformed Church [will make alongside all the other churches] will be the openness of the spaces it creates … for multi-cultural welcome, for ecumenical initiative, for reconciliation and peacemaking, for an active and vibrant spirituality touching deepest needs, for honesty and non-dogmatic approaches in human relationships, for commitments to social justice and for the full participation of all God’s children, globally, locally and personally.” Isn’t that great? In an ideal world, all churches would be spaces of welcome and encounter across the boundaries that normally keep people separated. But I remember how excited I felt when I first read those words. Yes, I thought, that is our particular vocation, to provide space for people in that way, to be open in that way. You recognise the URC even in the quality of the questions we ask. We challenge boundaries that keep people apart. We offer space for encounters that otherwise would never happen.
A while back I heard a story that has been haunting me ever since. A Church Army officer told about an exercise his congregation undertook, knocking on doors to consult people on what sort of support the church might offer to the community. One lady opened her door to them and at first he thought she wasn’t engaging with his question. He pointed towards the church up the road and explained how they were making plans for some community work and wanted people’s comments on what would be helpful to them. This woman launched into a lament about the old church the way it used to be before they spent hundreds of thousands of pounds refurbishing it. No, no, no, he said, there’s still a church there, we’re from the church, we want to know if there’s anything we could provide for you. And she kept going on about the old sanctuary. “It was so beautiful,” she said. “You could get married there, you could have a christening…” And suddenly the penny dropped. Here was one of those people who only come for rites of passage in their families, who talk about “their church” even though they never attend and have never made the slightest contribution in money or personal investment to keep the place going. But she had a spirituality too, and coming to that old building at those particular points of her life had been her way of doing business with God, and no amount of effort by a well-meaning congregation was going to be able to replace her relationship with that building that had been holy ground to her and now was changed beyond recognition.
I reckon that’s probably the opposite of what you expected any preacher to stand here and say today. But all the propaganda these days is that buildings don’t matter, that they cost too much money and the people are the thing. I just want to go on record as somebody who believes in church buildings too. You have created a beautiful space here. As people come here for key moments of their lives, the sense of holiness here will grow, and God will meet you here, and even the most occasional churchgoers will feel it, and it is quite possible that the building will minister to some people in a way that other human beings couldn’t do. God has many ways of channelling grace into the world, and this building will be one of them.
Here is the church. See all the people. My prayer for you is that as this place serves as a focus for your life together as a congregation, others may be attracted to come join you. You’ve written your welcome in brick and glass and open space and beauty. I pray that people may believe it. And that those who come here for Pilots or Urchins or Coffee Shop or the Afternoon Fellowship and catch a glimpse and feel intrigued will indeed follow up with a visit to you when you’re worshipping God, and be well and truly hooked by what they experience here, so that your numbers grow, and you experience that energy that new people can bring as they get involved and contribute their talents to those you’ve already got, and share ideas you haven’t thought of before. I pray that all of that may happen for you.
But now for the bit you knew I would say. God may use this place powerfully, but God will never be confined here. There’s even something a bit bizarre about Christianity being enshrined in buildings, given that it was a faith born on the road, nurtured in people’s homes and normal meeting places, as much at home out in the open as under shelter. Every time someone told the Jesus story and somebody else caught fire with it through the insweeping of the Spirit, Church was there, and it is an alien notion that you’d feel you had to go to any particular place for that to happen. If anything it’s the opposite. The Spirit will always strain against any walls we create. (This is where we’re religious. This is where we pray.) Church isn’t a Sunday morning phenomenon. It is who we are. Christ in us as he is in his Father, all one, and the Spirit as his power and authority living and working in our lives. The possibility that we will do all the things he did and greater besides. The church is only really doing its job if it becomes a powerhouse for the ministry that will take place beyond these walls. Today we celebrate that we belong to a living God with an active ongoing ministry of liberation and transformation in the face of the real hurts of the real world. The Holy Spirit may well meet you here in this building but it will always send you out. The releasing and healing and eye-opening and liberating will mostly happen out where the pain is. That’s how it works.
And that being the case, Christians with a beautiful building they’ve scrimped and saved and worked and waited for need the soberest of warnings. Beware the spiritual traps that lie ahead. Love this building, but only love it to the extent that you understand that the carpet is here to get dirty, and the youth group will still probably break a window someday, and folk will move chairs around and not put them back, and the heat and the lights will be left on and the doors will be left unlocked. All of those things will happen, and it’s OK. That’s how it’s meant to be. For as much as you treasure this building, it must not ever be allowed to become more important to you than the human beings with all their foibles who come to do business with God here.
And danger number two. This place has consumed a lot of your energy for a long time now. Every brick represents an hour of your life for some of you here. Gaze lovingly on it this morning. You’ve earned that. Enjoy it. But then look to Christ. Open yourselves to the Spirit. And wherever God calls you as a congregation, whatever God needs you to do, with this building or outside completely separate from it, be ready to do. Don’t let this place bog you down more than it already has. Its purpose is to release you, not ensnare you.
But you know all of that. Today we celebrate. Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the doors and let the fresh air of the Spirit of God blow in and do its thing. Open the doors and see all the people revelling in belonging to God together. Open the doors and breathe the bracing air of possibility. Amen.