Sermon for Feast of Dedication – Procession & High Mass Sunday 1 October 2017
DEDICATION FESTIVAL, 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar
Readings: 1 Kings 8.22-30; Psalm 122; Hebrews 12.18-24; Matthew 21.12-16
“My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.”
On our wedding anniversary at the end of August, Theresa and I were in Paris and went to the lunchtime mass at Notre Dame. As you would expect, the cathedral was thronged with visitors but a central reservation was kept in front of the nave altar for worshippers, policed by a wee sheep dog of a lady.
Before Mass a priest came out and spoke to the visitors in French and English. He told us that the mass was about to be celebrated and invited us all to join in. This, he said, is an opportunity, for us to move from being tourists to pilgrims; a chance for visitors to become worshippers. While a good many ignored this appeal, a significant number – including some young people from different parts of the world, – and some not-so-young like us – did respond.
Closer to home, on Friday, I was taking my turn as one of the prebendaries at St. Paul’s Cathedral, to preach at the evening Mass for Michaelmas. Again, there was an invitation to the large numbers of visitors in the cathedral to join in, and several hundred did. There were people from all over the World – afterwards I talked to visitors from Argentina and El Salvador, California and the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. “A house of prayer for all peoples.”
The challenge for places like St. Paul’s and Notre Dame is not just how to cope with tourists by the thousand every day, or how to raise the money to maintain and restore these precious historic buildings. To that has now been added the cost of security in an age of terror when these iconic buildings are potential targets: an extra £500,000 on the budget of our cathedral.
But more than that, there is the challenge to keep these places as houses of prayer, places of worship; places where people can experience God, encounter the living faith of Jesus Christ, make that transition from visitor to worshipper, tourist to pilgrim.
This is an increasing challenge when more and more people in our own societies have little understanding of the faith which produced such buildings, the art which adorns them, the music that fills them, the worship and prayer offered in them.
This church is not on the tourist trail – we are not like Notre Dame, or St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey. Yes, we are something of a mecca for students of the church architecture and wandering anglo-catholics; but those are niche markets.
One of our challenges over the past couple of decades has been to restore and maintain this building in a country in which – despite its establishment – the Church of England receives very little state aid in caring for its historic buildings. The people of All Saints have risen magnificently to that challenge and much has been achieved. The latest part – the restoration of the Lady Altar – being completed now, thanks to the generosity of Bishop Ambrose, who loved this place and shared its life and worship for so many years. More mundanely, we are replacing the heating system. The work should be completed by All Saintstide. In the meantime, we must hope for mild weather, a St. Luke’s Summer, or wear more clothes.
While we do not have to balance huge numbers of visitors and worship – one of our challenges at the moment is to balance providing a place of rest for rough sleepers and a house of prayer. Yesterday, some of you were present at a festival at which I had to introduce Bishop Philip North as the keynote speaker. He has been in the news for more than one reason of late – but the one I referred to was his speech to the annual gathering of the charismatic evangelical New Wine network.
In it, he asked, rather provocatively, why it is that enthusiasts for church-planting all seemed to think they were called to do it in Zones 1 and 2 of the London Transport system, with their designer coffee shops, rather than on council estates in the North West of England where he ministers.
In a spirit of full disclosure, I had to own up in my introduction to having worked for 22 years, not just in Zone 1 but in W1: not just well within the cappuccino belt but at its very heart. I had been working in a parish which was a “church plant” -a “fresh expression of church” – to use the current language – but that was in 1850!
Without having spoken to him beforehand but knowing him a little, I had guessed that he might say something about the ministry of St. Vincent de Paul in 17th century France, which we had been celebrating earlier in the week. From being an ecclesiastical careerist whose main aim was to get a rich living or bishopric, he became the apostle of the poor: the founder of the Congregation of the Mission – an order of priests dedicated to mission among the poor; and the Daughters of Charity – a “fresh expression” of the religious life in which nuns were no longer confined to the cloister but ministered to the poor out in the world, with the sleeves of their habits rolled up.
St. Vincent is one of the saints above the Lady Altar in this church. He is pictured holding a child – one of the huge numbers of abandoned children the Sisters took in and cared for. He is there because the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, founded in this parish, were modeled on the Sisters of Charity.
When I am saying mass at that altar at 8 o’clock, and I’m beginning to get distracted or even irritated because one or more of our guests at the back has begun snoring, I look up at St. Vincent and he looks down at me, and reminds me that Christ comes to us not just in the sacrament of his body and blood but just as much in the sacrament of his poor. If I do not recognize him in the one, I will not receive him in the other.
Much of the attention the Church gets in the press these days is about rows over sex and gender, or, tragically, abuse. Less well-known is the work done in parish churches up and down the land for the poor. People who write in our visitors’ book often say appreciative things about the beauty and the peace of the building, but they often also applaud the welcome we give to the homeless because they recognize that, in a small way, it is authentic Christianity. A church once lampooned by a clerical wit for being a place where the “odour of sanctity was eau de cologne,” now has to stock up on air freshener as well as incense.
But that is not our only challenge. The other evening, I was setting up the altar for mass before going to sit in the confessional, when a young woman came into church and began to look around. Then her mobile phone went off. She answered it and launched into an animated and rather loud conversation. I signalled, politely, that she should take it outside. She did, and a few minutes later came back to apologize. We then had a conversation in which she told me that she worked nearby but this was the first time she had ever been in the church. I don’t know if she will ever come back, but I hope that she knows that she can.
She represents that huge number of people who work or study or shop in this neighbourhood, who are our daytime – and sometimes night-time – parishioners. These are people to and for whom we have a responsibility. How do we share the gospel with them? How do we help them make the transition from visiting to worship, from curiosity to faith?
Well, there are some clues in today’s readings.
Solomon consecrates the magnificent temple he has built to be the house of God, the place of God’s presence on earth. But he knows that the God whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain cannot be held within walls. Christians in our tradition love church buildings and believe God is present in them; they are holy places not just convenient meeting places. But at the same time, the Catholic understanding is that because of the incarnation, God can be found anywhere and everywhere. His presence is focused here but not restricted. So the challenge to us is to find him outside – in the coffee shops and offices and shops as well as in the tabernacle. The challenge for us is not to take Jesus out there – although we do that in our Corpus Christi procession – but to find him out there already.
The Letter to the Hebrews contrasts the fear and trembling experienced by the people of Israel at Mount Sinai with the place they have come to: “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of just made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” That truth is what this church was built to represent.
We have to recognize that for many people church is more like Mount Sinai than the heavenly Jerusalem – a place to be frightened of or at least to be nervous about. Perhaps they have had a bad experience, of condemnation or rejection and are fearful of it happening again. Some of them do not need to be told that they are sinners – they know that already. What they need to hear is the “better word” that speaks of forgiveness and reconciliation; that welcomes them home to God.
Perhaps they know little about faith and religion and so are nervous.
That is why our ministry of welcome and hospitality is so important. People are easily put-off and they need to feel welcome, not ignored or cold-shouldered because they don’t know what to do or say or they don’t look like us.
If Jesus were to turn up this morning with his whip of cords, it is not likely that he would set about overturning the table with postcards of the church and CDs of the choir. What he would do would be to challenge us about the nature and quality of our welcome. What are we welcoming them to?
Do we just want more people to maintain what we like?
And speaking of Jesus, which is something as Bishop Philip pointed out yesterday, we usually do our best of avoid. We have so internalized the English convention of not talking about religion on social occasions that we even avoid it after church. But we do need to talk about him, about our faith. If we are nervous about doing it with other people, why not get some practice by starting with each other?
Let’s talk about this building and this community as a place where Jesus meets us, speaks to us, feeds us at his table. Next Sunday, at ten to one, I’m starting a series of short talks on the different parts of the building. I’m not going to be talking about the finer points of Gothic Revival architecture, fascinating as they might be, but about what font and pulpit and altar and confessional and other parts of the church mean for Christians; what they are for.
At the end of the mass at St. Paul’s on Friday evening, Mother Helen O’Sullivan, the celebrant and I went to stand at the head of the nave to say goodbye to those people from all over the world. When the first rush of visitors had left and there was a bit of a lull, she told me that something she had noticed while working at St. Paul’s was a difference between the congregations at Choral Evensong and those when it is replaced by a Eucharist on a feast days. After Evensong folk tend to just get up and go – which is fine because Evensong is part of the Opus Dei, workaday prayer if you like. But when there is a Mass many stay; reluctant it seems to leave the table which is the heart of the house where they sense that they have been welcomed. God’s house has become their house too. The challenge for us is to help people see that this house of God is one where they have a welcome and a place.