Sermon for High Mass – Dedication Festival Sunday 6 October 2019
DEDICATION FESTIVAL 2019 HIGH MASS
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: 1 Chronicles 29.6-19; Psalm 122; Ephesians 2.19-22; John 2.13-22
“Then the people rejoiced because these had given willingly, for with a single mind they had offered freely to the Lord.”
The books of Chronicles do not give us a contemporary account of the building of the Temple by King Solomon and the preparation for the project by his father David. The Chronicler wrote centuries later, after the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon had been allowed to return to Jerusalem by the Persians who had conquered the Babylonian empire.
Their task was to rebuild the city and the Temple which had been destroyed. In describing the success of King David’s fund-raising appeal, the Chronicler seeks to encourage a similar generosity among his own contemporaries – whose support for the rebuilding project seems to have been less than whole-hearted.
He operates not by attacking his contemporaries for their meanness – but by praise of the generosity of their forebears – and of God. He states some basic theological realities about possessions, and even about the promised land to which the people have been allowed to return.
In his great prayer of thanksgiving, David acknowledges that the source of everything in heaven and earth is God: “Riches and honour come from you…..All the abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own.”
The people’s very existence and their presence in the Promised Land; their ability to make such a freewill offering, is totally dependent on God. “But who am I, and what is my people,” prays the king, “that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come for you, and of your own have we given you.”
Their forebears were “aliens and transients” before God – without settled status – and in the deepest sense they are too: tenants rather than freeholders. The land and its wealth is entrusted to them as stewards. This passage points to the theological truth that all things belong originally and ultimately to God. As such they are to be used according to God’s will – expressed in the commandments which David prays that his son and heir Solomon will keep “with a single mind.”
This theological truth, if we are honest, is one we are happy to acknowledge in theory but often reluctant to put into practice in our own lives.
The Chronicler balances this spiritual truth with another: that both king and people are happy to have been able to demonstrate generosity. The ability to be generous is something to be thankful for. As St. Paul would say later, when he appealed for aid for the poor of the church in Jerusalem: “The Lord loves a cheerful giver.” The implication is that when giving is not grudging and reluctant, it does make us cheerful.
The Temple building which features in St. John’s Gospel was on the same site as that built by Solomon, and its replacement built by the returned exiles. It was built by Herod the Great as an act, not so much of piety as of politics: a demonstration both of his wealth and power and implicitly of their precarious nature; his need to bolster them by winning over the populace by such apparent generosity. The wealth he used was of course was extorted from them in taxes – which is one of the reasons why some regarded both temple and its wealthy priestly aristocracy as hopelessly corrupt and compromised with their Roman overlords.
Yet even in the midst of this corruption, there was a small sign of resistance. Imperial and pagan coinage, bearing the images of emperors and proclaiming their divinity, could not be used to pay Temple dues. Pilgrims would need to have such money “laundered,” as we now say, before they could offer it to God. Hence the presence of the money-changers.
Those who had travelled far, especially to the great pilgrimage feasts like the Passover, would not be able to bring sacrificial animals with them: they would have to buy them in Jerusalem – so a market where they could be purchased was essential to the apparatus of temple worship.
In the other Gospel accounts of the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus echoes Isaiah: “My house shall be a house of prayer for many peoples,” (56.7) and Jeremiah, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” ( 7.11).
Part of the temple precincts was the Court of the Gentiles, open, as its name suggests, to non-Jews – whereas the inner courts with its altar, were forbidden to them on pain of death. It was in this Court of the Gentiles that the changing of money and the selling of livestock took place. While all this facilitated the worship of the temple, its side-effect was to prevent it from being a place of prayer for all nations, a place where foreigners could join the prayers and praises of Israel.
When Jesus is challenged about his action: “What sign can you give us for doing this?” his answer is, as so often in John, mysterious and misunderstood. Those who have witnessed the action cannot see beyond the external act; they fail to see the sign which points to the work of God. They can think only of the years this physical building has been under construction, while Jesus is speaking of a new means of access to the presence of God: “the temple of his body.” In that body, raised up on the cross and raised up from death and the grave, he would draw all people to himself and into relationship with God. Jesus is not just reforming the Temple, he is issuing a powerful challenge to its very authority. He is speaking of himself as its replacement.
The Letter to the Ephesians echoes this theme when it speaks of the Church and the place of Gentiles in it. In this new temple, there is no dividing wall between Jew and Gentile; the division between them is no more. Gentiles are “no longer strangers and aliens, but….citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”
This universal expansion of God’s people to include Gentiles was something early Jewish Christians struggled to grasp. It has been a struggle for many Christians ever since. Faced with the inclusion of people not like them, they have sometimes built new walls of division. While we might point to the racism which underlies much support for President Trump among white evangelicals in the United States, we should not forget that the Church of England’s record in welcoming immigrants – even those who were devout Anglicans – is not something of which to be proud. They were often cold-shouldered in parish churches and told to go elsewhere.
When this house of God was built over a century and a half ago, it was thanks to the generosity of a group of people who felt called by God to use their wealth in support of the mission of the Church in this city at a time when it was expanding rapidly and the Church was struggling to keep up. When All Saints was built, it not only looked shockingly different in its architecture and decoration, it was also radically different in another way. It was what was known as a “free and open church.” It broke with one of the accepted means of funding churches – the charging of pew rents. If you wanted seats in church for you and your family, you paid an annual fee and a pew was reserved for you. If you could not afford it, you might be allowed a bench at the back or just have to stand – or you would probably conclude, and rightly, that you were not really welcome.
What our founders had seen, surprisingly perhaps given their privileged social background, was that this was not of the gospel. This was not the way the Church Catholic is supposed to be. So, the church they were building was to be not just for them and for people like them. We take free and open churches for granted these days – often not realizing how radical such a move was in its time.
The church is not just for us and people who look and sound like us. In fact it exists for people who are not like us; except of course that we are all God’s children, made in his image and likeness. In fact, we must look a pretty odd bunch to many outsiders.
In its own small way, in this corner of London with its kaleidoscope of people, it is called to be a house of prayer for all nations. This asks of us a generosity of spirit – both in our attitudes to others and in our use of the material gifts we have – which, as the Chronicler reminds us, are gifts from God in the first place.
Material generosity was essential to the building of this place. It has been vital, too, in the restoration we have carried out in recent years. Something we can be thankful for. It has been essential in keeping this building “free and open” ever since; not just for those who come to High Mass on Sunday – but for those who come during the week – to pray, to meditate, to worship, to find spiritual counsel for their Christian lives and the solace of forgiveness for their sins; to find a place of peace and calm in a frenetic and noisy world, to find a place of respite from hard pavements and draughty doorways. Many of these most of you will never see. It remains essential to keeping its doors open and maintaining its daily offering of worship and music, its preaching of the gospel and teaching of the faith; its pastoral and spiritual care of those who come to it; its support of the mission of the wider Church. Whilst we have been and are blessed by the generosity of our forebears and we praise God for it, we too are called to be generous.
We must pray, too, for a generosity of spirit, of welcome, to others. In fact, the two are not separate but bound up with one another. From the generosity of God which we celebrate in our worship, should spring a generosity of spirit, an open heart towards others of his children and an open-hand with the gifts we have received from God; a zeal for God’s house to be a place of prayer for all peoples; a community in which no one is a stranger and alien; in which all, regardless of race or class, age or youth, gender or sexuality, are equally members of God’s household.