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.