This Sunday I am preaching on Isaiah 58:1-9a, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20 to a church, Southernhay URC, who are celebrating the end of a phase of building redevelopment.
What are you here for? What a dangerous question to ask a church full of people. You might all suddenly slap your hand to your forehead & say ‘well, now you come to ask, we have no idea – there are so many other things we could be doing this morning – having lie-in, reading the Sunday papers, washing the car .. the list is endless’.
And if it’s not bad enough to have to face up to self-doubt. (why am I here? Let’s try not to obsess on that for the whole sermon) we hear a gospel reading in which Jesus says to us “ you are the salt of the earth” – and we all know that salt isn’t mean to sit in the pot on the table, any more than light is meant to be hidden, it is meant – salt and light – to be spread around, to bring savour and illumination to the whole world.
Jesus makes it clear to his listeners that the law is there to help people to live lives of righteousness, worshipping God with lives of justice and mercy, not locking themselves away in buildings to rehearse the law together. We might conclude that serving God happens out there – in the cold world, not in here in the warm.
Jesus didn’t say anything about buildings for the people who followed him, and some people conclude from this that Jesus didn’t mean us to have church buildings at all – but then Jesus didn’t say anything about coffee and biscuits, either, but no-one can imagine church without those.
So.. to build or not to build? And when we have buildings, to improve or not to improve? I would be a bit of a party-pooper today if I had come to tell you that buildings are all a waste of time and money, and church improvements are going to be included in the new list of deadly sins. But you can all breathe out, because I have come to say that I believe God can and will bless our use, and our better use, of church buildings. (Phew).
Because, much though we would all want to say that the church is the people and not just the building, we also recognize that our God is a God who works through bodies – solid stuff – real matter – and is not just a God of airy-fairy ideas.
Isaiah brings the importance of embodiment home very powerfully. God is described as ‘the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity’ – not much room there for a down to earth theology, you might think. But did you hear what Isaiah says this Holy God is looking for? Not fasting and pleading and religious law-keeping, but justice and freedom and service of others.
Through Isaiah, God says “Is not this the fast that I choose… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn”.
Jesus echoes these very words when he tells his followers the parable of the people separated like sheep and goats who say ‘when, Lord, did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink – when did we see you naked and clothe you, or sick or in prison and visit you?’.
Both Isaiah and Jesus are clear – you cannot call yourself a follower of Jesus or a worshipper of the Holy One if you are indifferent to the bodily needs of other people. Shining like a light is about how you live your life and treat others.
And Paul’s letter to the Corinthians makes it clear that, for Paul, the way to know the mystery and the wisdom of God is to know Christ crucified.
It doesn’t get much more bodily than this – God in human flesh, not just looking like one of us, but actually suffering like a mortal being, dying on the cross – real body, real blood, real pain.
God thinks bodies are so important he made one his earthly home when he came to us in Jesus Christ.
So what does the importance of bodies – the bodily needs of others, the bodily display of God’s love for us in Jesus – tell us about our church buildings?
They are here to be physical signs of God’s love, places of justice and mercy, light and hope. They are to be used to help us to care for others, welcome others. They are here to be places where we hear God’s word to us, remember Christ’s presence with us, and celebrate the living Spirit at work in all our lives. They are here to change and respond to the needs of the society around – not as clubhouses for the faithful people of God, but as lighthouses of God’s gospel of love for the world. Church buildings are here, dare I say it, to evolve.
When I asked ‘what are you here for?’ it is just possible that some of you thought “I am here to mark evolution Sunday”. Today is the nearest Sunday to Charles Darwin’s birthday, when many churches choose to remember the great creativity that emerges from a relationship between faith and science.
I could start a second sermon here on the danger of the supposed conflict, in some people’s minds, between theology, especially the Bible, and science, especially theories of evolution. I could start a second sermon – but I won’t. If you are unconvinced I direct you to the writings of wonderful ordained scientists like John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacocke.
But for those of us who do believe in a God who creates the world through a process of evolution, we find we have a responsibility to take seriously the impact we can have – not only on our physical home which is the church building, but also on our physical home which is the earth itself.
I have driven here this morning from Somerset. Try telling the farmers of Somerset that we’re taking seriously our responsibility for the environment in which we live. Should we be dredging the rivers? Should we be protecting the coastlines? Should we be preventing fast run-off of water from our hills? Should I be driving a car at all? A climate scientist in the United States, Hunter Lovins, instead of talking about global warming has coined the phrase ‘global weirding’ to describe the higher incidence of strange weather across the world – which he claims is caused by humankind’s over-dependence on fossil fuels. The earth itself is changing and evolving – and it may well be that we humans are causing irreparable damage by the way we live.
The good news? We can make a difference – and I won’t start a third sermon by addressing all the things we could be doing – but I would point you towards the Bishop of Crediton’s suggestion that we could all have a ‘carbon fast’ through Lent – looking for ways we can cut our negative impact on our world as individuals and as churches by reducing our energy use.
Bodies matter, what we do matters, the environment matters – because God says it does.
But the Really good news? Jesus says ‘you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world’. Not you can be, you ought to be, or you need to be… you are.
Shine, good people of Southernhay URC, enjoy this new evolution of your church building, and may God bless you and it to be a sign of the rule and reign of God – in hope and joy, peace and justice, now and always. Amen.