My house should be a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a market place! (John 2.13-22)
There is a wonderful lady who belongs to this congregation. You’ll know whom I’m talking about (if you are a regular member here). Every month, during our First Saturday Coffee Mornings, if the weather is dry, she and her husband stand outside the church selling homemade marmalade and other items to passing customers….while the rest of us come inside, into the warm.
On the one hand, this act of sacrifice on her part – and her husband’s - is a brilliant advert to the community that our monthly coffee morning is on. But what everybody round here knows is that she also has a worry, directly grounded in this morning’s Gospel reading, that turning the church into a temporary market-place might not be the right thing to do.
I know – and respect - exactly where she’s coming from.
There are two schools of thought, essentially, about church buildings. The first is that they are essentially no more than a dry gathering-place for the people of God and the local community. Many churches meet perfectly happily in school halls, or plain rooms across the country. In Africa, I’ve experienced churches which meet in barns, school-rooms, or under canopies of palm branches. Their worship has been no less real than ours. No less honouring to God. And it hasn’t mattered at all that the same space may be used as a market place the very next day.
But there’s another school of thought – in which buildings like ours have something intrinsically Holy about them. To get a sense of what many in this community feel about our building, you only have to check the visitors’ book, or the prayer book, or just spend a couple of hours in here during the week, watching the people who come and go to pray.
A couple of weeks ago, Vickie and I had one of our annual pleasures – that of introducing Year 5 to St Faith’s as a building. We talked about the arches – and the way they point us towards heaven. We talked about how the Nave ceiling is like an up-turned ship, reminding us of Noah’s Ark, perhaps, and the fact that we are all somewhat at sea on the ship of Faith. We showed the children our beautiful Sanctuary, and some of the silver-ware that we use – telling them how the patten and chalice are made of silver because of the precious blood and body of Jesus that they will contain. We showed them the font, in which some of them had been baptised, and reminded them of its history.
It was wonderful to watch their little faces looking up in awe at the beauty around them – and gaining a sense that there is more to their town than they had thought.
Jesus clearly felt something very similar about the Temple in Jerusalem. As a Jewish boy, growing up outside the big City, the Temple was a special place indeed. It was the place in which God was said to dwell – although Jesus clearly knew that God was present everywhere, because he talked to God all the time. But the Temple was special. It was somewhere where God was especially present, somehow more tangible than in other places.
So when he arrived at the Temple, perhaps 20 years after his first visit as a 12-year old, he was incensed at what he found. There were money changers, everywhere – because the Temple authorities had insisted that the people’s tithe could only be paid in Temple coins. So, if you wanted to give a gift to the Temple, in penance for your sin perhaps, you had to exchange your Roman coins – at a loss – with the money changers. It would be like me printing our own St Faith’s bank notes, and then telling you that you can only give your collection in our money. And you could only exchange your pounds with us…at the exchange rate I set!
And, Jesus found, the place was full of animals. The ancient system of sacrifice required that a penitent sinner had to provide an animal to be slaughtered on the Altar. So, the Temple Authorities set up animal pens, and allowed worshippers to buy the animal they wanted. A dove, perhaps, for a small sin. Or a cow for one of the really big sins!
So, instead of a place that made God feel more tangible, more real, more present, Jesus was confronted with a load of money changers making profit out of a bureaucratic law about coinage, and a load of farmers encouraging pilgrims to buy their goat! Is it any wonder that Jesus was furious? Is it any wonder that he tried to chase them all out of the place? I’d feel exactly the same if I came in here to find a branch of Money Supermarket.com set up in the Sanctuary, and Colin Hedley standing in the prayer area shouting ‘come and buy my cows!’
This is indeed a special place, and we must be very careful how we use it.” There is, however, in our typically Anglican way - a balance to be struck. When all’s said and done, this is only – at the most basic level – a pile of stones with a roof on top after all. And because it’s an old pile of stones with a roof on top, we have a legal and social responsibility to care for it – as the oldest piece of heritage in Havant. And that’s expensive. And there’s clearly a limit to how much you, as a congregation, can afford to give. Did you know, for example, that of the £300,000 we raised last year, only £52,000 came from standing orders and cash collections? That’s just one sixth of the total costs of the parish.
English churches have actually always tried to walk the line between being a holy place and a place for the whole community. Communion rails were first established to keep animals out of the Sanctuary – because the oldest churches did indeed double as market places.
Many churches created a separation between the holy spaces and the common places by erecting a screen between the Nave (where the people, or the ‘knaves’) carried out their business, and the Sanctuary where services were said. The ringing of bells during the Eucharist was first done to invite ‘knaves’ (in the Nave!) to lift their heads from their commerce, and remember for a moment in whose presence they were.
We used to have such a screen here, in fact. The evidence is up there in the wall. That bricked-up doorway would have once led out onto the top of a screen that would have separated you ‘knaves’ down there from the Holy Sanctuary. Such screens were routinely topped off with a big, wooden cross, known in ancient English as a ‘rood’. The screens were therefore called ‘rood screens’ – and were also used as minstrel galleries, before the advent of organs.
This little history lesson reminds us of course that we are custodians of a living breathing, changing building. The rood screen is now gone. The lighting and sound system has been replaced. This week, we placed an order for a new screen and projector so that in future sermons I’ll be able to show you pictures of what a rood screen looked like, or images of Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the temple. Other things have changed too. The pews that you are sitting on were only introduced in the last 50 years…and they are about to be replaced again with more comfortable, useful, stackable ones, if you decide to support the PCC’s plans when they are finalised. Next week, we begin work on re-painting the inside walls of this space.
My hope, however, is that along with our “Lady of the Marmalades”, we will never forget that this is first and foremost a place in which God is tangibly more present, more touchable, more knowable, to the whole of the community we serve. Amen.