This is a sermon for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Psalm 127:1.
For regular readers of my blog, I feel I should explain a little about the new context in which I am working. I have come as assistant curate to work in two neighbouring parishes, which are cooperating and sharing clergy and lay staff. As a result, I will be dividing my time between two quite different communities, with different issues in play, which will shape the way I preach in each place quite differently. As a result of a burst of imaginative inspiration, I will differentiate them here as “the church next door” and “the church up the road.” This sermon is the first I have preached since moving, and it was given in “the church next door.”
I wonder, if you could be any sort of tool, which one would you be? Are you the hammer, knocking everything into shape? Are you the knife, to cut through anything in the way? Are you the tape measure, making sure that everything fits where it needs to go?
Why would I start my first sermon here with such a strange question? Because today I want to think about what we heard in the psalm, that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.” And it got me thinking about building, and the different ways people with different gifts and passions and personalities can approach working together on a common goal.
Here’s the thing. God is at work; God is always at work. At the time that this psalm was written, He was building a local community; later, when it was added to Jewish temple worship, He was building a religious system which could sustain the faith of a nation; and as we use it in our worship, He is at work here and now, building all of us together into something which is more than the sum of our parts, more than each of us can be on our own. And God is doing that so that we can then reach out and invite those around us to participate in His reign, His alternative vision for human life.
The reign – or the kingdom – of God is not just about heaven, or what happens after you die. Nor is it simply the institutional church, with its buildings and programmes and bureaucracy (it’s definitely not the bureaucracy). The reign of God is something much more fundamental in the reality of human life now. The reign of God is real and concrete when we experience relationships and social systems which accurately reflect the desire and the power of God to call us back from our own stupidities, to be as we were created to be by a perfect God.
This implies that even when we are committed, involved, busy members of the church, there are two possibilities in the work that we’re doing. We could be doing the things that God would have us do, following the prompting of the Holy Spirit and effective in bringing about the reality of the reign of God.
Or we could be doing something else; something not necessarily bad, or evil; perhaps something we like or that is even beautiful for its own sake. But if it’s not what God is doing, ultimately those tangents we might be off on won’t last and bear fruit.
Really what I’m trying to say is that our life together is not just about “being church.” Much more than that, our life together is the result of God’s initiative, in creating each of us as unique, cherished and precious human beings, giving us each gifts to contribute to our common endeavour, and calling us to participate in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.
Our life together should make a difference! It should flow out of the doors of the church, down the street and into the whole area. Why? Because God’s loving concern extends beyond the doors of the church, down the street, and over the whole area. And the “house” that God is building – the house that God invites us to participate with Him in building – is the reign of God, which transforms everything with which it comes into contact.
That’s not something the clergy can create on our own. It is something that requires each person – each of you – who is part of a church community to decide freely to participate in what God is building, if we are going to be all that we can be.
So it seems to me that our focus, our guiding question for the next little while needs to be, “What is God building in our context?” We need to be looking for where the Spirit is at work, going ahead of us, stirring up possibilities for us to share the good news of the kingdom, to teach the curious, to respond to the needs of those around us. We need to be looking for evidence of people’s hearts being stirred to challenge the injustices of our society, and to care for and steward the life of the earth, and how we can partner with them in doing that.
I don’t know the answers yet. I’ve only been here a week; and we’re still just getting to know one another. Working out what God is up to, so that we can cooperate with it, is a much slower process; it takes patience and careful observation and listening to other people’s stories. It takes time spent in prayer, getting other distractions out of the way and starting to pick up the rhythm of God’s heart. It takes careful thinking and planning, looking at the possibilities of world around us with an imagination shaped by the big truths of Scripture.
But above all it takes an openness to the reality that God is building. I know that I have come to this church at a time when you are at something of a crossroads. The parish is not able to continue as it has been, and there is a real fear that decline may continue, and that at some point in the near future, the doors of this place might close for the last time.
I don’t believe we’re anywhere near that, though. I would not have agreed to come here if I believed that God was done with this place or this community of people. I believe that as Christians in our particular tradition, we are a distinctive community who hold in trust for the world around us a precious heritage of Christian faith and practice, and that our task now is to find new ways to help people connect with that heritage in life-giving ways, in ways which incorporate those people into the house that God is building.
I may have only been here a week, but already I’ve started to hear your stories, to look around at the photos and displays and objects in the church, and to spend time praying in this space. It seems to me that this parish is like an old tree, sturdy, strong, with deep roots, well-connected to your past and with an established sense of identity. But you have been for some time in a season of winter, and now I wonder whether it’s time for us to rediscover together what it’s like at the beginning of spring?
I wonder whether it’s possible that, if we look for the signs of budding new growth around us, we might find the Spirit’s invitation to come out of winter hibernation and find the beginnings of a new growing season? An invitation to find new ways to extend God’s hospitality and grace to the community around us?
We don’t have to start with big stuff. I think it’s enough to start with thinking about the small things, the things which are totally within our reach but can have a big impact. (And that’s why it’s important to have a clear sense of who we are, which is really where I started; because when we know who we are, we can be confident about what is within our reach to do).
But for now, let me leave you with some questions to ponder.
Where in our life together can we see the promise and the challenge of new possibilities – God’s possibilities – breaking into all of the brokenness of human life? How could we work to bring some of those possibilities to reality? What is God sending us out to do, when we go out in the power of His Spirit, to live and work to his praise and glory?