Saturday, October 7, 2023

Patronal Festival Sermon

A sermon on the Patronal Festival, commemorating St Faith of Agen (our 'patron saint).  Texts: 1 Kings 8.22-30 & Matthew 21.12-16

There are many so called holy places in the world.  They are those places where, somehow, the veil between our mortal world and the spiritual world seems more fragile.  Some people call then ‘touching places’, or ‘thin places’ – places, that is, where one seems to be able to reach out and almost touch the out-stretched hand of God.

According to the Hebrew scriptures (or the Old Testament as Christians call it), Bethel was one such place.  After his prophetic dream, Jacob called the place ‘House of God’ (which is what Beth-el means.  (El was one of the early names for God).  For many generations, it was one of Israel’s holiest shrines.  The Ark of the Covenant was kept there, until it was transferred to Jerusalem.  Prophets and leaders would go to Bethel, to seek God’s wisdom and instruction. Ironically, though, for such a holy place, no-one can say with certainty today where Bethel actually was.  History and time did their work, and now that holiest of places is gone – just like so many abbeys and great churches in our own land.  Buildings are temporary – no matter how much they are loved.  God is immortal, and God’s immortal spirit lives in us, not in these stones and tiles.

We humans have a fondness for place, don’t we – and especially for ‘thin places’.  Stonehenge still attracts millions of pilgrims, even though they have no idea what actual ceremonies were practices there.  The modern-day druids who gather there at the Solstice are really only making educated guesses about what their ancestors did there.   For devotees of our patron Saint, Faith of Agen, the abbey-church of Conques, France is another such place.  There, the bones of the young martyr are laid – cruelly murdered under the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian, because she refused to renounce her faith in Jesus Christ.  Ask Bishop John and Janet Hind for their account of the place – for they visited it only a few years ago.

In this morning’s reading from the book of Kings, we note that King Solomon himself, at the grand opening of the first Temple acknowledged that God didn’t live in the building.  “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?” he asks.  “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”.  Rather, Solomon prays that God’s eyes may be open night and day towards the Temple.  He essentially asks God to make the Temple a ‘thin place’, a ‘touching place’ where God may especially hear the prayers of his people.

Where is your ‘thin place’?  Where is that you find that the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is somehow made thinner?  For some, it may be a beautiful natural landscape.  For others, it will often be a building, in which hundreds of years of prayer and worship have somehow soaked into the stones.  Perhaps this is your thin place.  Or maybe it’s St Albans, for those who live and work in West Leigh.  Perhaps these are the places where God feels especially present – to which God’s eyes are open, day and night.  No doubt Jesus felt the same about the Temple in Jerusalem – which is why he was so incensed by the way it was being used to cheat and defraud pilgrims.  The crooks were charging extortionate prices for pilgrims to convert Roman money into Jewish coin (the only tender that the Jewish authorities would accept).  They were also selling doves at inflated prices for sacrifices.

In fact, as Jesus found, holy buildings can sometimes get in the way, and they can certainly be abused by unscrupulous men.  In Jerusalem, despite Solomon’s prayer, human priests created a holy of holies – a place in which God was said to actually dwell.  It was a place so holy, that the High Priest could only go into it on one day of the year, after elaborate rites of purification.  The New Testament tells us that the curtain of that ‘holy of holies’ was torn down at the death of Jesus.  It was not a helpful picture of God.  It had to go.  Now (as the book of Revelation has it), God’s dwelling place was with people – not locked up in a back corner of a temple. In fact, you and I are now where God dwells…not in buildings of stone, but in living flesh and blood.

Even our own beautiful building has some challenges – it’s High Altar can make God appear distant and aloof.  It’s stained glass windows of a decidedly romantic, English-looking Jesus are not particularly helpful either.  But, as we shall sing in our Offertory Hymn, here are symbols to remind us of our lifelong need of God, and of God’s grace.  As Fred Pratt Green’s words go on: “Here are table, font and pulpit, here the cross has central place.  Here in honesty of preaching (I love that line!) here in silence as in speech, here in newness and renewal, God the Spirit comes to each.

Those who steward and care-for this church throughout the week will testify, the building has immense value to all those who enter its doors throughout the week, seeking solace, peace, or a place to seek God.  That is why, for all its theological confusion, I think that our continuing efforts to refurbish this place are worthwhile.    Its very age and architectural idiosyncrasies are precisely what draw in those seekers of a thin place, a touching place.

But at the same time, we must not forget that this building is not ‘the Church’.  It is only a shell…at the end of the day, a shelter from the rain in which the actual church can gather.  Fundamentally it is no different from the church of St Nicholas in the parish of Nswam, Ghana – which I visited in 2015.  A few palm branches, spread over a bamboo frame.  Just a shelter from the elements.

For, as St Peter says, we are “living stones…built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”.  We are the church – not these stones.  We could – if the Diocese would let us! – tear this whole place down.  That would not mean that the church was gone.  The people who make up the church would still be here (if a little damp, when it rains!).  The church is the holy house of spiritual people, with heaven in their hearts, and the needs of the world on their mind. People with so much faith, that they too, if ever called upon, might also demonstrate the certainty of purpose and belief of our own patron, St Faith. Amen.

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