Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
As a teenager, I grew up in Durham, a city dominated by the great Romanesque cathedral which Walter Scott described as ‘Half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot.’ It had the virtue of being always open during the day, and of having no entry charge, so often when I was in town I would go in and sit and think or pray or light a candle. I’m not sure that at the time I’d have been able to articulate what it was that drew me there, beyond some sense of the numinous and of peace. But draw me it did, again and again. The solidity of its pillars, the soaring arches of its ceilings, the sheer vastness of its interior all gave me a welcome sense of insignificance. By that I don’t mean that I didn’t matter; it just helped put some of my teenage dramas into perspective. The building (and now I would say the God to whose glory it was built) reminded me of a history of which I was but a small part, and of a story in which I wasn’t the central character, and yet in which I had a role. Above all, it was a place I felt safe: a place where whatever it was that was going on for me felt contained, held within a Something that was both beyond me and beside me.
A recent survey done among young people suggests that I wasn’t entirely unusual as a teenager in finding solace and sanctuary in a church. The survey found that around 13% of teenagers said they decided to become Christians after visiting a church or cathedral. Statistics, of course, can be interpreted in all sorts of different ways (in fact the Church was so disbelieving of this survey that it did it again, with the same results). But what was clear was that church buildings are not insignificant. They perform their own act of witness, as sermons in stone.
For the people of Israel, the dedication of whose temple we heard about in our first reading, the building spoke powerfully of the presence of God. The people had first known God’s presence with them on Mount Sinai, where Moses received the law. Then the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets on which the ten commandments were written, became the place of God’s dwelling, a sort of ‘portable Sinai’, the place of God’s presence with his people through the wilderness years. Finally, once Israel has settled in the land, God allows Solomon to build him a house.
For the people of Israel, the temple spoke of God’s presence and their election to be a people holy to him. It was the place of encounter with God: through instruction in the Law; through the celebration of festivals both personal and national; through the forgiveness asked for and received in the offering of sacrifice. God’s presence in the temple did not mean that God was absent from other parts of life, but the particular presence of God, focussed in the temple, enabled the people to remember that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it’. Temple and land were not distinct, opposed realms, much less divided between sacred and secular. The offering of the first fruits of the harvest, for example, marked out the goodness of creation, and gratitude to God for his bounty. And the use of wood and stone to make a building for God’s habitation reminds us that this is not a God who disdains his creation and stands aloof from it, but a God who chooses to dwell among us – even though, as the cross and the tomb show us, wood and stone cannot contain God.
Likewise, our churches are witnesses to the presence of God among his people. We don’t have churches because they keep God safely contained, away from all the corruption and sin of the world ‘out there’ – though too often that’s how our churches are used and perceived. We build and dedicate churches as a sign that God is present, in every community, and so that we have a place to gather, to meet with God, and to learn to recognise him. The focussed presence of God in this place teaches me to recognise God better when I step through its doors, back into the busyness of the city. I need that.
And I need that because while it doesn’t take a lot to prompt me to think of God when I see a rainbow or a beautiful sunset, it is by no means always immediately obvious that God is also to be found in the cancer ward, in the broken relationship, or in the huddled human in a shop doorway. To recognise God in those places, and in so many others, I need a church that tells the story of Jesus Christ and makes his life visible in its actions.
Hundreds of people come through the doors of this church each week. Not all of them will pray or light a candle, but very many do. Some come because their guidebooks tell them it’s the oldest church in Cambridge. Some come for a sleep, or for shelter from the rain. And lots come because it’s a space set apart for God; a particular place of his dwelling. They come because this place is different from the market or the Grand Arcade or the lecture room or the lab. They come to pray for a sick relative or a dead friend; for a new job or a visa; for peace in Syria or to do well in their exams. They come to this particular place of God’s dwelling so they can offer their concerns and their burdens to God and learn that here, too, and in their lives, God is Emmanuel and makes his dwelling with them.
But church buildings on their own will only get us so far. They need to be active places where Christ is preached and loved – in the scriptures, in the sacraments, in each other and in the stranger. Drawn as I was to a Durham Cathedral as a teenager, I also needed people who made God’s love real for me: those who led me to trust God and open up my life to his grace; those who held a space for my questions and doubts; those who could give a good account of the faith that was so transparently in them; those who were my examples and teachers and brothers and sisters on the way.
As we celebrate the dedication of this church, we rededicate ourselves to being this sort of people. We’re sent out at the end of this Eucharist to live what we’ve received: to be witnesses to the God who dwells among us in our homes and schools and colleges and workplaces. And we go out as witnesses to Jesus, not to a world from which he is absent, but to a world in which he is waiting to be recognised, loved and served.
Alice Meynell, in a poem about the suppression of the Church in Portugal after the revolution of 1910, wrote this:
And will they cast the altars down,
Scatter the chalice, crush the bread?
In field, in village, and in town
He hides an unregarded head;
Waits in the corn-lands far and near,
Bright in His sun, dark in His frost,
Sweet in the vine, ripe in the ear–
Lonely unconsecrated Host.
In ambush at the merry board
The Victim lurks unsacrificed;
The mill conceals the harvest’s Lord,
The wine-press holds the unbidden Christ.
As the church buildings were taken by the state, this didn’t mean that Christ was absent. But he was hidden: unbidden and unconsecrated without a people gathered to worship and proclaim him. As we celebrate the dedication of this church, we are also rededicating ourselves to being the people of God, the ones sent out into the world to behold the Lord who is already there ahead of us, and who gathers a people who are able to recognise the Word who becomes flesh, wherever he dwells among us.