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Sermon for Proper 11/Ordinary 16B stones

June 28, 2015

The chief rabbi once said that whereas Christians build cathedrals, Judaism is built into the lives of the people. So Paul is being very Jewish when he talks about Christians being living stones in our second reading.

King David was being very UNJewish in our first reading when he wanted to build a temple. He consults Nathan the prophet but he doesn’t seem to have consulted God. Nathan tells him that God doesn’t want David to build a temple. He wants a dynasty instead. Judaism built into the lives of people, not stones.

Solomon DID get round to building a temple. Archaeologists think that the stones were cut already at a place far away from the temple site. When they were ready, they were bought to the temple site, put in place and held together by the capstone, or cornerstone. Paul says that Christ is our cornerstone and we are the living stones which make up God’s dwelling place. The stones are all different; it is their very diversity which holds the whole together in one harmonious structure.

When Paul writes about how Christians should behave he borrows hand-me-down moral codes from Greek rhetoric but he has sections addressing women, slaves, the poor. The Greeks didn’t write much for them. For Paul, the church includes all sorts and conditions of people. A church made up of only one class of people is lop-sided. That’s why I worry about some of the ideas of the church Growth Movement where you market a particular kind of church.

As Bishop Barry said to the May Diocesan Synod: you can have rave churches, pub churches, business people’s churches, even Choral Evensong churches. Which leaves us asking how the Church of England can manifest unity in a fragmented society and develop ways of being in touch with all kinds of people.

When Bishop Barry mentioned choral evensong churches I wonder if he was partly thinking of the other church in this benefice. Perhaps I should have preached this sermon there.

What sort of stones make up this church? Is there a variety which makes a harmony? In most anglican congregations, the vast majority of people are aged 40-60+. There are very few of the ‘missing generation’ – 20 and 40-year-olds. There’s a handful of teenagers and a little smattering of children. The majority of girls give up church by the age of 13. The majority of boys by the age of 9. Church is for crumblies and remember, anyone over 25 is a crumbly. The average age for ordination is currently 38 so we face what one writer has called the greying of the clergy. Less than half of our churches do any kind of youth or children’s work so some families reluctantly choose a church with good youth work, even if it’s not the parents’ cup of tea or they sadly see their youth go off to another, bigger church on the grounds that it’s better they go somewhere than nowhere.

It needn’t be so. In America, 35% of young people are part of a church youth group Some churches here appoint their own youth worker. St. Michael’s Stoke Gifford has an excellent youth worker who comes into my school sometimes. I was deeply suspicious of him at first, coming as he does from a fairly conservative evangelical tradition. But God uses all these different stones and many of these living stones are not being called into conventional, ordained ministry. A teenage vicar’s daughter commented on a woman being accepted for the priesthood: ‘She’s far too lively to be a vicar – she should be a youth worker.’

Someone called Paul Roberts wrote that many young people refuse to follow the traditional route into Christian leadership because they perceive a growing gulf between the agenda presently pursued by the wider church and the spiritual needs expressed within the culture of their peers. These needs………are not being met by the worship, spirituality, politics and mission agenda of mainstream church life.

I know, from my work with young people, that there is a deep yearning for spirituality and social justice but that there is very little leadership. So these young people are bit like the people Jesus sees in our gospel reading ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. Marginalised by the churches who don’t seem to want them any more.

VGAnglican churches don’t just comprise a majority aged 40-60+. They comprise mainly middle class people. Vincent Van Gogh meditated on the theme of the sheep without a shepherd. Some of his paintings show the underside of society: an old widower looking at his watch as if he had an appointment, a sad almshouse man, hard-working, digging and burrowing people. People who sit in darkness and whom no-one sees, according to Brecht. Van Gogh gives them a holy aura. Tormented, worn out, bowed down people in his paintings have a light shining behind them which somehow draws them in like Christ the cornerstone who holds the various living stones together.

While Christ holds us living stones together, we need to break down a few barriers.

Paul says that those who are far apart have been bought very close. Christ has broken down the wall between us.

November 1989: Do you remember the rejoicing when the Berlin wall came down? When Paul was writing, there was a wall in the temple to separate Jews from Gentiles. In 1871 an archaeologist actually found a fragment of a stone notice, written in different languages, warning Gentiles that if they passed through this wall then the consequences would be their own fault. When Paul wrote this he was behind prison walls , he’d been accused of taking a gentile beyond that temple wall.

How many invisible walls do we put up to put off strangers from our churches? We need these strangers. We might feel threatened that it will mean change. It will. But that change will not somehow take away from our present identity but enhance it.

We have our own, inner, psychological walls. R. D. Laing wrote a book called ‘The Divided Self’. He wasn’t writing about schizophrenics so much as about ordinary people. One part of our personality wants things to be the way they always have been. The other part struggles against it. We need to integrate these two sides of ourselves. Christ enables the two parts to become one new person. nd we need people who are different from us to help bring out our own, latent potential. So we need people who are different and they need us. Paul calls them the uncircumcised; he says they were without Christ, excluded from Israel, aliens, without the covenant of promise, immersed in this world, without hope and without God: Christless, stateless, friendless, hopeless, Godless. Bertrand Russell spoke of himself in the same vein:

‘Some may be able to produce such stoic courage, but all too often human life begins to go to pieces in so bleak a world.’

When we are open to the stranger, then Christ can build us together into a house, a home. When we are told that we are God’s household it means we have entered into the most intimate of relationships as members of God’s family. We are accepted fully, loved freely, greeted warmly and encouraged daily. That’s what families are for. Someone once defined home as the place where, when you show up, they have to let you in. So it should be with the family of God. We don’t always agree; sometimes members of that family get bent out of shape or headed in the wrong direction but they’re still family.

David wanted to build a temple, a home for God but he already has a home – us. Home is where you feel secure, can revel in a warm bath, have your treasured things around you. But home is also where children break the china, butt into your conversations and it’s all right.

Paul says God is building us into a new humanity. New and improved. Research shows we like things new and improved. Manufacturers work diligently to produce products they can describe as new and improved. New and improved dishwashing liquid. New and improved weed killer. New and improved hair colour. Or some us would just settle for new and improved hair! It all points to the biggest need we have; the need for a new life because we’re dissatisfied with who we are at present. And we can’t have this new life on our own. It’s not the sort of deal where you accept Christ as your personal saviour. It’s where you accept all these other people as well.

Together we become fellow-citizens of God’s household. Today we are baptising                         X, a new citizen of God’s household. In Paul’s day, Roman citizenship was a prized possession. With it came certain rights and privileges not afforded to non-citizens. On his travels, Paul took advantage of it on several occasions. But here he is saying that we have entered a new kingdom, we have a new allegiance. An allegiance to God and his people; part of a new culture, a new race, a new nation a new society.

All this change is not without a cost. In the hymn inspired by this and similar passages: Blessed City, heavenly Salem, the writer talks of ‘many a blow and biting sculpture fashioned well those stones elect.’ Those stones for Solomon’s temple, cut already at a place far away from the temple site; bought to the temple site, put in place and held together by the capstone, or cornerstone. They had to stay firm and resilient, firm in adverse weather, yet they also had to be flexibele. The stones in the spire of Salisbury cathedral are flexible enough to weather a storm; the whole structure apparently sways several feet in the wind. Each stone combines with its neighbour to send a pillar here, a buttress there. If the stones aren’t firm yet flexible, if they don’t sit closely together, the whole building will collapse as unstable.

Is the chief rabbi right that whereas we build cathedrals, Judaism is built into the lives of the people? Is the Church of England obsessed with the upkeep of buildings before people? Is this church as open as it says it is?

From a speech in Dorothy Sayers’ play The Zeal of Thine House, here a monk protests about the morals of an architect: Will you not let God manage his own business? My son, – He was a carpenter, and knows His trade Better, perhaps, than we do, having had Some centuries of experience; nor will He, Like a bad workman, blame the tools wherewith He builds his City of Zion here on earth. For God founded His Church, not upon John, The loved disciple, that lay so close to his heart And knew his mind ‑not upon John, but Peter; Peter the liar, Peter the coward, Peter The rock, the common man. John was all gold, And gold is rare; the work might wait while God Ransacked the corners of the earth to find Another John; but Peter is the stone Whereof the world is made. So stands the Church, Stone upon stone, and Christ, the corner‑stone, Carved of the same stuff, common flesh and blood With you, and me, and Peter; and He can, Being the alchemist’s stone, the stone of Solomon, Turn stone to gold, and purge the gold itself From dross, till all is gold.

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