How lovely is your dwelling-place

Annual Service at Old Holy Trinity,  August 30, 2015

Psalm 84

I take as my text this morning not one of the readings, but the hymn we just heard around the gospel reading. It is based on Psalm 84 – last week’s psalm. I didn’t arrange that very well.

But really, my text for this week’s sermon is this place: this ancient building, hallowed by the prayers of our ancestors, steeped in history, beloved and respected by so many in the community beyond our own church.

(Steeped in history: I was looking at the historic old prayer book of this church this week.  I discovered that one of my predecessors had taken it upon himself to modernized it, to write in corrections to bring the book up to date. Wherever the book referred to “Our Sovereign Lord, King George”, he had crossed it out and written in “Our Sovereign Lady, Queen Victoria).

Now you have no doubt heard it said that the church is not a building – the church is people.  At least I hope you have heard that.  Because it is true. And it is a liberating truth the church needs to hear today.  So many churches are burdened with unsuitable buildings, buildings that are far too large or impractical, that require huge resources to heat and keep in good repair.  Even in this parish, where we are blessed with buildings that are appropriate to our needs: the amount of time and energy that issues of building maintenance consume at our monthly church council meetings is immense.  All Saints has a beloved building that is showing its age; Holy Trinity has a beautiful new building built with a huge investment of labour and planning. And that is not to mention the monetary expense. So much of the resources of the church across this country are caught up in building maintenance.  It can be a healthy and liberating insight to remember that buildings are not what it is all about, that the church is people, that we are living stones who are being built by the Spirit into a community of friendship and mutual support and encouragement, and hospitality.

But that is another sermon, one I will preach another day.  Today my text is “How lovely is thy dwellingplace”, today in this beautiful old building I want to reflect on the other side: on why our buildings are an important part of our faith.

In the Anglican tradition, at least, faith is sacramental.  That is to say, our faith is not just about having certain ideas and a particular frame of mind.  Because we human beings are more than just our minds, and more than just our feelings and inner state: we are physical creatures of flesh and blood, and our body is a reflection of our soul.  That is why we may choose to stand or kneel or sit for certain prayers: not because God demands it, but because the position of our body will influence our spiritual state and attentiveness – an insight that would be pretty self-evident in any yoga studio.  That’s why we share each week in the bread and the wine: because the readings and the sermon and the prayers, as important as they are, are just words, words that speak to our minds; and the comfort and reassurance we seek is much more visceral. We need also that basic human experience of being fed, in the body as well as the soul.  And that is why we need church buildings as well: they are physical spaces we enter into, which help us to concentrate our attention to encounter God.

Of course we can encounter God anywhere – and indeed, hopefully we do.  Yes, we can find God in nature, and I hope and pray that all of us find the opportunity to have that experience regularly. But God as we encounter him in nature is only one aspect of God – infinitely beautiful in his grandeur and intricacy and freshness, but still only part of who God is.  Because, I suspect, we do not fully belong to nature; we are there always in part as an outsider, visiting from the human world of our civilisation and relationships. In nature we are small and insignificant – and there is a wonderful peace in that that is an important part of our spirituality, but it is only part.  We have to go back to our daily, very human lives, and the question of where we encounter God there, not just around the quiet edges, but the God concerned with our daily cares and struggles.

And so we can encounter God as well in the midst of our daily lives.  Some would argue that this the church’s great missional failure, that we do not succeed in reaching people where they are – and there is no doubt a lot of truth in that.  So they suggest that we should get rid of our buildings, which are too inaccessible and strange, and open up a storefront ministry, or begin to meet again in people’s homes, as the early Christians did.  There is a lot of good ministry being done by churches following these programs.  But I have my doubts whether they really do render the church building obsolete.  I wonder whether storefront ministries have really reflected deeply enough on the danger that they may be making Christian faith just one more consumer option in that great temple of consumerism, the mall – whether the sacramentality of that secular space might overwhelm the Christian promise of critical distance and freedom from the world of buying and selling.

And I wonder how house churches can remain truly hospitable open public spaces, where a stranger might come in, and avoid the danger of becoming closed communities of friends.  I am not saying it is impossible – just that the space may be working against this intention.

A sacrament is defined as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  What are our church buildings a sign of?  I believe they are a sign of the elusive but faithful presence of God in our midst: that we meet God not just on the margins, when we go out into nature, but in the midst of our daily lives; but that God’s presence does not dissolve in our daily business, but remains something a bit strange, a bit different, calling us beyond ourselves.  Think of the presence of our churches in the middle of our towns.  Standing alongside the bank, or the drugstore, or the gas station, they appear rather useless by comparison.  But in that very uselessness, they stand as silent witnesses that there is more to life.  It would be a great loss if they were to disappear altogether.

I think of the witness of the great European cathedrals and historic churches, drawing in tourists, but also people just passing by, desperate for a moment of peace in their busy lives.  And indeed, this place, as a historic church, has a bit of that, when it is open in the summer.

But let’s be realistic: our churches do not play that role in the community, not much anyway.  They are mostly locked, and the only reason most strangers would look by is for food cards.  Even beyond that, our churches are isolated from most people as places that are absolutely strange and incomprehensible.  Some people may have negative experiences of church, and the furnishings and the atmosphere and the smell of the place speak of oppressively uncomfortable Sunday mornings, judgmentalism, and soul-destroying boredom.  More likely, churches are likely to be simply incomprehensible to most people today, beyond a vague suspicion that this place is a cult.

The challenge we face, then, is to become less strange; to help others find in our buildings not some place trying to sell them something, but simply a place to be, to find a time out from their daily lives, to find peace, and maybe a bit of beauty; and in that space and peace maybe, just a bit, to find God.