Sermon for the presentation of the Church Record – 27 January 2019

Presentation of St Bartholomew’s Church Record by the Haslemere Arts Society

1 Chron 29. 2-16

1 Peter 2. 4-10

As a few of you know, I was in Southwark Cathedral on Friday for the ordination of an old friend and colleague as a bishop. Southwark has been important to me for many years, not least because its where I was ordained priest, and not surprisingly the location, the ordination service and my memories all came together, so that when I got back I looked up the priests ordination service – slightly less challenging than the one for a bishop, though not by much. Reading through it, I came across some words that the ordaining bishop addresses to the ordinands shortly before the actual moment of ordination. amongst the list of tasks or callings is this….

Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being.

We are here this evening to celebrate and delight in the beauty of St Bart’s: to thank God for it,  to thank all those who care for it today, who have given their time and expertise to record it for posterity, and to remember all those whose task it was to build, beautify and preserve it in past generations….

And we do give thanks, celebrate and delight with grateful hearts and minds, even as we pray for those who will come after us and will inherit the responsibility for the building, its fabric and its traditions. We know how all this beauty can draw people in, how they find rest and peace, comfort and joy in soaring stone and quiet chapels…. Our buildings are a refuge the church can offer to everyone, whether they are believers or not.

But – you will have heard the but coming – did you notice how I changed then from the indefinite article – A Church – to the definite – The Church. That – The Church – is so much more than even the sum of all its buildings across the world , with all their diversity of sizes, styles and ages.

I can remember, when I was meditating on those words of the ordination service, wondering what was meant by  “delighting in the beauty of the church”. In the Screwtape Letters CS Lewis’ has a description of the church as only immortal beings could see it -militant, terrible, spread out with banners across the skies of the  centuries. I imagined all those millions of Christians alive now, and the far greater number who have gone before us. I remembered the particular people in particular churches I had known and loved, and I thought about the particular church where I was serving and would serve as a curate…. with all its diversity of personality and gifts and strengths and weaknesses – all the foibles and idiosyncrasies that are part of every human family and community, including the ones we find deeply irritating and frustrating. You know what I mean!  And I realised -and still believe – that all of these things and much more are what makes up the beauty of the church, in which we are to delight!

Peter writes to the persecuted Christians in Asia Minor that they – and by extension we – are living stones – living stones,

a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Perhaps the clue is in the words God’s special possession…. Or even more in the KJV translation – a peculiar people….

Christians are special, distinctive, peculiar in the old sense… and that means that they aren’t always beautiful or right or virtuous, and definitely not what we might like them to be  – but they, we, are loved and cherished by God who made us and knows us through and through…. And that’s the church, in all its beauty.

One thing we have been good at, and still are, is creating beauty and dedicating it to God. The reading from Chronicles told us what David said – his joy and humility and anxiety as he undertook the mother of all fundraising appeals, to build the temple in Jerusalem. Our own parish records are full of appeals, not least to fund the building of St Christopher’s, and there have been a number in the 7 years I’ve been Rector – reordering St C’s, funding the Queens Jubilee plaque, and the restoration of the organ here. We have cause to be grateful to generations of generous donors for the beauty and excellent state of our buildings here in the parish….

And yet – bear with me – this work relates to the indefinite article, to a church, and another church – and we must not lose sight of the reason that these particular buildings exist – to provide a focus and a centre for the work of THE Church – to draw people in and inspire them, yes, but then to send them out again into the world to spread the word, the good news of Jesus. This is the work of the church…. And unless we are doing it, all the stonework and stained glass and glorious music and wonderful words will be meaningless at their heart….

So as we celebrate the huge effort and achievement represented by the St Bart’s Record, and as we take the opportunity offered by its completion to see and celebrate this church with new and informed eyes, let’s not forget that there is even more to celebrate and to pray for and support and work to grow – The Church – ourselves – God’s own special peculiar people, the living stones that make up his Church.

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

One thing we have been good at, and still are, is creating beauty and dedicating it to God. The reading from Chronicles told us what David said – his joy and humility and anxiety as he undertook the mother of all fundraising appeals, to build the temple in Jerusalem. Our own parish records are full of appeals, not least to fund the building of St Christopher’s, and there have been a number in the 7 years I’ve been Rector – reordering St C’s, funding the Queens Jubilee plaque, and the restoration of the organ here. We have cause to be grateful to generations of generous donors for the beauty and excellent state of our buildings here in the parish….

And yet – bear with me – this work relates to the indefinite article, to a church, and another church – and we must not lose sight of the reason that these particular buildings exist – to provide a focus and a centre for the work of THE Church – to draw people in and inspire them, yes, but then to send them out again into the world to spread the word, the good news of Jesus. This is the work of the church…. And unless we are doing it, all the stonework and stained glass and glorious music and wonderful words will be meaningless at their heart….

So as we celebrate the huge effort and achievement represented by the St Bart’s Record, and as we take the opportunity offered by its completion to see and celebrate this church with new and informed eyes, let’s not forget that there is even more to celebrate and to pray for and support and work to grow – The Church – ourselves – God’s own special peculiar people, the living stones that make up his Church.

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

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