Sermon for Feast of Dedication Sunday 7 October 2012
FEAST OF DEDICATION Sunday 7th October, 2012
Sermon preached by the Vicar at High Mass
Readings: Genesis 28.11-18; Psalm 122; 1 Peter 2.1-10; John 10.22-29
As we have a contingent of American visitors from Nashotah House in Wisconsin with us this morning, I thought I would begin with an American reference.
Nashotah House was founded by Bishop Jackson Kemper who was the first missionary bishop of the American Episcopal Church. Missionary bishops were not chosen to serve an already existing diocese – but to go and found a new one, to establish Church where there had been no Church, on what was then the wild frontier. They were to go out as good shepherds and find Christ’s sheep.
Bishop Kemper travelled far and wide, covering vast distances. He needed clergy to assist in this arduous task and he suspected that most of those trained in and used to the settled conditions of the East Coast would probably not be up to the challenge of frontier life. So he set up Nashotah House to train clergy who would be: priests who would be at home on horseback or in a covered wagon as in their rectories; whose saddlebags would contain their prayer book and bible, their chalice and vestments; who would go to where people were rather than waiting for people to come to them.
Now you may be thinking, this is all very interesting – but what has it got to do with us? My family will tell you that I am a devotee of that quintessential of American culture: the Western, but this is West One, not the Wild West. But there is a connection. Bishop Kemper was not some hellfire revivalist preacher, but a supporter of the Oxford Movement. He drank from the same spiritual wells as our founders who came to set up a ladder to heaven in this seemingly God-forsaken part of London; then on the expanding edge of a rapidly growing city, a slum crammed with people, many newly arrived in London.
We live in a city which is still expanding and which now draws people, not simply from the rest of Britain but from the rest of the world. A couple of weeks ago, the clergy of the diocese of London, over 500 of us, assembled at Church House in Westminster for a study day on “Being the Church in a Global City.” The keynote speaker was the Archbishop of Canterbury. He began by speaking about the early Church as an urban movement. He described how it differed radically from other organisations and associations in society at the time: in a rigidly stratified society, where everyone knew their place – and woe betide anyone who tried to get above their station – it was the only one in which you were likely to sit down next to someone from outside your comfort zone. Slave-owners had to mix with slaves; Jews with Gentiles, and so on.
The Archbishop recalled a visit he had made to a church in the East End of London (perhaps one of those served by priests who have gone from here), and seeing that this was still true. Where else, he asked, in our society, could you find such a mixture of young and old, rich and poor, black and white, single and family, gay and straight, except in church.
Now we know that the Church does not always live up to this as well as it should, Our American visitors will be familiar with the observation that the most racially segregated hour of the week in many parts of their country is 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning.
In our own Church, some of those most wedded to strategies of church growth, pursue mission which is aimed at particular social groups; strangely enough, these often turn out to be those with more money. When Canon Elaine Jones was Vicar of St. Mary of Eton, Hackney Wick, she found that one of these groups was planning to church plant in her parish. “Oh, don’t worry,” they said, “we’re not interested in the kind of people who come to your church.” That would be the poor!
The church to which the First Letter of Peter was addressed was one which was feeling the consequences of the fiercely, even lethally policed social divisions of the Roman world. By this time, Christianity was no longer able to shelter under the wing of Judaism, a bit of an anomaly itself but at least a licit religion. Christians had no place on the map to call their own. They did not belong. They felt alienated and isolated, threatened and vulnerable, anxious and fearful. Like Christians in Muslim societies today, you never knew when mob violence might break out against you, or when you might be dragged before the courts for blasphemy.
Peter writes to reassure them that while they may seem to have been rejected by the world, they do have a place: they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” In they eyes of the earthly kingdom of Roman emperors they might be no more than illegal immigrants; in the kingdom of God they were citizens. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”
But citizenship brought with it responsibility as well as status. Like the people of Israel rescued from slavery in Egypt, they had been called for a purpose not for privilege. They were to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” They were to be a means of blessing to the nations.
Called to be the people of a holy God, they were themselves to be holy. In the opening verses of today’s epistle, we hear allusions to baptism and the Eucharist. They were to renounce, as they had done at their baptism, “malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander;” all of which undermined the community of God’s people.
On the positive side, “Like newborn infants,” they were to “long for the pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”
“Milk” represents the whole range of gifts provided for newborn Christians. That allusion to Psalm 34 sums up what has been said: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Ps.34.8) The milk that the believers drink is not only the gift but the giver: Christ himself.
Just as in baptism we put off the old self, so in the Eucharist, we taste that the Lord is good: we feed on Christ who is truly present. The sacraments shape the wholeness of our lives as individuals and as a people. Allusions to Exodus and Isaiah speak of God’s people still in the wilderness, but even there God cares for them.
Christian life imitates or shares in the reality of Christ’s own life. He is a living stone, and Christians are called to be living stones as well, full of life and life-giving. As stones, believers are to let themselves be built into a spiritual house. In a piling up of images, that house becomes a temple, and believers become a priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices. The cornerstone is Jesus Christ because the whole building rests on him. No Christ; no building.
“Spiritual” in our culture has an air of the unreal and insubstantial about it. Spiritual sacrifices are about what we say rather than what we do. But this is not what Scripture means by spiritual. To offer spiritual sacrifices is to pattern our lives on the faithful, self-giving obedience of Christ. Spiritual sacrifices are real offerings of attention and time and effort and patience and substance to God and to others in whom God comes to us.
People still come to our city from all over the world to find work or a better and safer life and we live on a frontier of constant flux and change. Our calling is to be a place and a community which people will recognise as the “house of God and the gate of heaven:” a place where they are welcome whatever their earthly origins and status; where can know that they belong to God’s people. Here, amid the temples of a consumer-capitalism, which values people only by their credit limits, this church is to stand as a symbol of a radically subversive set of values.
This calls from us that same faithful obedience which took Bishop Kemper on his epic journeys in the West and which brought out forebears to this part of London where they set up their pillar; this house to sing God’s praises. That call to faithful obedience means that we need to come constantly to Christ who is the “pure spiritual milk,” the grace which comes through word and sacrament and prayer and Christian community: those things this place was established for.
In the light of what God has done for us, we are not only to obey but also to declare God’s praises. This means that Christians are to praise God in worship and thanksgiving. The response to being insiders and not outsiders is praise; the response to have been in darkness and now being in light to praise as well.
One of the ways in which we “proclaim the praises of the God who has brought us out of darkness into light” is through our giving to support the life and work and worship and teaching and pastoral and spiritual care of this mission station in the West End.
This morning, we dedicate our pledges to the financial support of the mission of this church. These pledges are not club subscriptions or fees for some service received: weekly spiritual uplift in beautiful surroundings to glorious music. They represent, they embody our response to being called to be part of God’s people in this place. They are our spiritual sacrifices; the giving of our selves, our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice.
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses