This sermon was given on the feast of consecration (annual celebration of the dedication of the parish buildings to God).
In many ways, what we experience when we come to church is completely foreign to the world of the Bible.
What I mean by that is, most of our readings today mention and reflect on the Jewish temple; but a church building today is not the temple, and does not have the same purpose, structure or functions as the temple did. So we can’t read about the temple and kind of mentally apply those readings directly to our beloved little parish church.
Rather, we have to realise that the reason we have a church building at all, and the reason we use it in the ways that we do, are very different to anything the Jews knew, and very different even to the experiences of the early church, who had no specific church buildings and met in homes.
And so I put it to you today that the church – by which I mean the community of believers in a particular place – creates and maintains the buildings which enable the church – the community of people – to fulfil our purpose and mission.
We have these buildings, and we continue to invest in these buildings, because they are the tools and equipment we need for the work that we do. (Sometimes people kind of get this the wrong way around, and think that our purpose is to serve the buildings by preserving a treasure from the past, or building a statement for the future; but neither is true. The buildings are here to serve us).
So I wanted to take a few minutes today, on this feast of consecration, and reflect on the ways in which the buildings we have serve the church community, and help us to fulfil our purpose and mission. I’m also, as we go along, going to suggest some questions which it would be good for us to reflect on, individually and as a community; and so that you don’t have to try to keep them all in your memory, they’re printed in the pew sheet for handy reference later.
So, how do our buildings help us in our purpose and mission? First, they make us visible. That might seem obvious, but I remember hearing one former dean of Melbourne, when he was speaking about the value of the Cathedral (and its placement opposite Flinders St. Station), as being that it helped us “keep the rumour of God alive.” As long as Christians are a visible presence in our community, that helps us to proclaim our shared belief in God.
In this day and age, in fact, our online presence may be even more important in that regard than our bricks and mortar; and we need to remember that our welcome of people needs to start when they google. But it’s still true that while we have a physical building taking up space, which people see and walk past and come to with their various community groups, it’s impossible to ignore that here is a community which orients its life in response to the good news of Jesus Christ.
It’s also worth pointing out that people who encounter our buildings for the first time will – consciously or subconsciously – draw conclusions from what they see, about how we understand ourselves, and how we understand God. It’s worth sometimes looking at our buildings and asking ourselves,
If I had never been in church before, what would I learn about God, and about being a Christian, from what I can see?
Are there creative ways in which we can enrich what we present to people who are not members here?
And in a way that leads me to my next point, because this is also the space in which we worship; and our experiences of worship shape our beliefs, our thinking and our actions. I have no doubt that the choice of such a radical building design (for its time), and a self-consciousness about this parish as a progressive community, go hand in hand.
And we can look at where the font is, and instantly understand the point that a previous vicar was making about the centrality of baptism to Christian life!
So it’s worth looking at our buildings and asking ourselves,
What is nurtured in me by what I see and hear and encounter here? What does it teach me, about myself, about God, about Christian community? How does it form my character?
Are there creative ways in which we can enrich our own growth as Christians by how we use the buildings?
It’s also the case that the buildings meet some very practical needs. The kitchen, hall and barbecue areas are great for social times and community building. And having a physical space gives us a base from which to coordinate things like charity collections or engage in practical service activities (I think of the trivia afternoon we had last year, to raise funds for Orange Sky, and the time we spent packing safe birthing kits; which would have been much harder if we’d had to do them in someone’s living room!)
After all, we’re meant to be a community of people who exist for the sake of the wider community, reaching out to them with God’s love and care; so having built environments – and garden and even parking space – which allow us to do things which meet the needs of others is a great thing.
So I suggest that we ask ourselves,
How do we currently use our buildings to respond to the needs of the local community?
Are there creative ways in which we might be able to do so more or better?
I’ve already touched briefly on the part of our identity as a parish that has to do with social justice; but last year we made a point of being (quite literally!) noisy about that, as we rang the church bell in protest of the detention of refugee children.
We also have a long history, in particular, of involvement in the reconciliation movement in Australia. But we would, if we were being honest, probably have to admit that we have been doing less in this area than we have in times past. So another question for reflection is,
How do we use our buildings to seek to transform injustice, to challenge violence, and to pursue peace and reconciliation?
Are there creative ways in which we might be able to do so more or better?
There is also one thing which we probably should be doing but which, I would have to say, we have largely ignored, at least certainly in the time that I’ve been vicar; and that is doing what we can to protect the integrity of our environment, and to contribute to sustaining and renewing our local ecology.
In our design principles, our energy and water use, our paper use, our maintenance of the garden, there might be plenty of scope for being more intentional in that regard. So my final question for reflection is,
How do we use our buildings (and land) to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth?
Are there creative ways in which we could take better care of our local environment?
Those of you who have heard me talk about mission a lot, will realise that I’ve structured my comments today, and my questions for reflection, around the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission; which give us some handy reference points as we think about why we exist as a church at all, what we’re here to accomplish, and what we ought to be using our buildings for. If you haven’t heard me talk about the Marks of Mission before, don’t worry, it’s not the last time I’ll ever mention them!
What I’ve been doing today, as we come together to celebrate the legacy of so many people before us who have lovingly and faithfully built up what we have, is to encourage us to think about what we should be doing with what we’ve been given. The buildings are here to serve a purpose, just as we are here to serve the purposes of God; and it’s good for us sometimes to stop and reflect on just how we’re doing that.
I hope that what I’ve said today, and the questions I’ve given you to ponder, are not the final word but the beginning of a conversation; over brunch and over the week ahead and as you think about these things, do talk about them with me and with one another. Because the mission of the church belongs to us all, and the only way we will be faithful inheritors of what has been given to us is to be effective in that mission.