St Bride's: Sermons

Sacred Space

Matthew 10: 40-42

Read text...

40 He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.

41 He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward.

42 And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.

Listen to Sermon
Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

My church in Edgbaston shared a parish boundary with one of the largest evangelical churches in Birmingham, which attracted huge congregations and had dozens of house groups.  But although it was, in that sense, incredibly popular and successful, I used to receive a disproportionate number of enquiries from couples living within that parish, who wanted to get married in my church rather than that one - a major factor being that mine was a traditional mediaeval church building, whereas that church, both inside and out, more closely resembled an airport lounge.

Now you might think that that was simply because they were of the view that my church would look better on their wedding photos.  But over my years of meeting with such couples, I became increasingly convinced that often there was more to it than that.  Because for many of them - even those who would not normally describe themselves as regular churchgoers - it really did matter that they were saying their wedding vows in what they felt was a 'sacred space'.

You see the kind of congregation that is perfectly content to worship in a church that looks and feels like an airport lounge is one that regards a church building as being purely functional.  After all, they would argue, if a church is ultimately made up of people, rather than bricks and mortar - then you can worship God in a garden shed, provided, of course, that it's a big enough garden shed.

Now I would not for a moment dispute the notion that a church is above all made up of the sum of its people; but for me, the space in which we gather for worship is very far from being a matter of indifference - and for several reasons: firstly, that which is beautiful and awe-inspiring can help us to connect with the transcendent - it can feed us spiritually; secondly, a wonderful church like this one represents the very best of human skill, creativity and artifice, which is brought together as itself an offering in praise of God - and there is something wonderful and prayerful about that.  But thirdly, and most importantly of all, because I really do believe that sacred spaces are 'hallowed' - made holy -  by the prayers of the faithful over the centuries: they soak them up.  They are sometimes described as being 'thin' places - 'thin' in the sense that the dividing line between the human and the divine narrows almost to vanishing, enabling us to feel an unusually profound connectedness there with the things of God.  If you sit quietly and attentively you can feel it.  And of course, that also enables us to think about a church being made up of the sum of all its people, including those of the past, whose prayers still surround us - not simply those who happen to be in the current congregation.

My church in Edgbaston was a 'thin place':  On a freezing cold morning in the middle of January, I would arrive there in pitch darkness, unlock the building, and step inside - and I could feel it almost immediately the atmosphere felt alive - almost crackling with warmth and spiritual energy.  And here at St Bride's, a church that is far more ancient than my Edgbaston one, I feel it too.  Our visitors - those who came here knowing little about the church or its history - also comment on it.  That is part of the importance of 'thin' places - and that is also, I suspect, why it is that churches are routinely built and rebuilt on the same site - to maintain that continuity: to enable us, in the words of T.S. Eliot in 'Little Gidding' 'to kneel where prayer has been valid'.

And we are never more in need of such 'thin' places than when we are experiencing the journey of faith at its most turbulent and bewildering - and need a place of refuge, or stillness, or connectedness with God.  And at this point I would like us briefly to turn our attention to the story that we heard as our first reading this morning: that shocking and disturbing story from the Book of Genesis, in which Abraham is ordered by God to take his son Isaac to the mountain of Moriah and kill him - sacrifice him like an animal.

And worse still, the way in which that story is told, seems to highlight its brutality and perversity quite intentionally: God says to Abraham, 'take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love ...and offer him as a burnt-offering.'  Not only is Isaac Abraham's only son but he represents the whole future of the people of Israel.

Why on earth is God asking anything so perverse of his most loyal of servants?  And also why does Abraham consent to do it? - what kind of a loving father would agree to do such a perverse and barbaric act as that, apparently without so much as a word of protest?

At the point at which Abraham raises the knife to strike, God stops him and says in effect, 'Actually, you don't really have to do it - I was only joking - there is a ram you can sacrifice instead' - but for me that still doesn't make it all alright.  Because the hard questions remain about what this suggests about the nature of God and the nature of obedience to God's will.  But perhaps the whole point about that story is to be found, not so much in its specific detail, but rather in the nature of the bleak and perplexing dilemma that Abraham finds himself facing.  Let me explain what I mean.

The life of faith - in which we endeavour to hear Christ's call and act upon it, thereby aligning our lives with the will of God - is seldom straightforward: because God's ways are not our ways, and God's wisdom and understanding is not our wisdom and understanding.  I don't know if you have ever had the experience of putting all your time and energy into a particular task or project, because it is absolutely clear to you that it is absolutely the good and right thing to do - only to hit a sequence of disasters that get in the way of it happening, which seem almost perverse in their illogicality.  As a result, you find yourself asking the question: I am trying to do this thing for God, so why on earth isn't it straightforward? - why doesn't God actually help, rather than hinder me?  In circumstances like that, hope really does have to compete with the temptation to despair and give up.  That is a very difficult place to find yourself in - and it is certainly a place that I recognise from past incidents in my own ministry.

And Jesus knew that one, too: remember his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and its very telling final phrase: 'Father, let this cup pass me by: but not as I will, but as thou wilt.'  Not as I will, but as thou wilt.  To be able to suspend our disbelief, as Christ did, and as Abraham did before him, and be prepared to stay with that task, even though every fibre of our being wants to give up and give way to disillusion - is not only a moment when we learn what it truly means to trust God - but in the process, we can be set free - by offering up our perplexity and saying the most simple prayer of all: 'not as I will, but as thou wilt'.  And oddly enough, when that happens, an impossible challenge can find a way of turning into an unexpected gift.  God's gifts often come very strangely wrapped.

The times when we are experiencing these kinds of challenges are precisely the times when we need our sacred spaces - the places where we can feel close to God.  For Jesus it was the desert, and Gethsemane.  For many of us, particularly those of us living in the heart of the city, we can find those thin places in ancient churches such as this one.  The prayers left by visitors on the board at the back of our church testify to that on a daily basis.

Which is why our buildings matter; and which is why the care of our buildings matter; and also why we owe such a tremendous burden of gratitude to John, for so lovingly and diligently caring for this wonderful sacred space, for so many years, both for our benefit, and for that of generations to come.

John - for all you have done for us and for this wonderful church over so many years, we remain much in your debt.  Thank you.

Amen.

blog comments powered by Disqus