Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; St John 14:1-14
Laudabo Nomen Domini
“If you have tasted that the Lord is good ….. Come to him, a living stone ….. and like living stones let yourselves be built into a spiritual house”.
In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the world of politics, at election meetings and annual general meetings, someone is usually given a rather difficult job to do. He is called the warm-up man. It’s a role that I thought I had, with relief, left far behind me in my distant past. And that was so until Father Philip invited me to preach this Sunday, adding in his gentle, subtle way the rider: “I do hope you might be able to link your sermon to the church AGM which is taking place immediately after this service”.
Now as a veteran of far too many less than enthralling AGMs of one kind and another, and knowing that the centrepiece of our AGM is going to be the approval of the church accounts, also knowing via Toby, our Treasurer, that the centrepiece of the accounts is going to be a discussion on whether or not we can afford to repair the unsatisfactory church drains – well, I think you can understand why I felt I might have drawn the short straw this morning.
But sometimes even preachers are called to suffer in the service of the Lord, so my mind began roaming rather despairingly over suitable passages of scripture to link with the AGM - such as Noah’s flood, or Jeremiah’s cistern.
But then I looked at the readings for this Sunday and gradually, - I think I got the point. It’s a point I want to try and share with you this morning as we look at the mysterious themes that run through today’s readings – themes about stones, prayers, and spiritual houses which I suggest do have a real relevance to the year ahead here at St Matthew’s.
In the reading from Acts the stoning of Stephen, the first martyrdom of the early church, is redeemed from its horror by the victim’s wonderful prayer for his killers who included Saul of Tarsus: “Lord do not hold this sin against them”.
Stephen’s words should be a reminder that a church should be, as St Matthew’s is, a forgiving place not a judgmental place. It’s an obvious point but one which some church people forget in today’s environment of polarised Anglicanism which sadly does include some judgmental stone throwers. I doubt whether their squabblings over issues such as sexuality, which are less than central to the message of the Gospel, do anything to please the founder of our church. He is described in today’s reading as our corner stone – a word followed by the pointed reminder that he was a stone rejected by the conventional builders.
Now this idea of God using people in his service whom the world tends to reject brings us to this puzzling and rather adventurous analogy in the letter of Peter about “living stones”. What on earth are they?
Let’s face it, the phrase is a baffling one to modern ears in our material world.
Imagine stopping one of the builders working on Bouryes and Company’s huge development site opposite and asking them: “Excuse me, are you using any living stones in these flats and offices you’re putting up?” You would be lucky to get away before the men in white coats were summoned!
But in the spiritual world here on the other side of Great Peter Street we know that Our Lord was the first living stone who brought many flawed, failed, rejected and spiritually dead stones to life. Just look at what he did to Saul of Tarsus, the self-confessed “worst of sinners”, transforming him into St Paul the great apostle.
Moreover this is a process of personal salvation and individual resurrection which has been going on for over 2000 years, often transforming highly unsuitable material with the most discouraging of surfaces, exteriors and reputations.
Last week I was right in the middle of a great deal of superficially unsuitable material in a discouraging external setting when I spent two days on a prison ministry visit to HMP Dartmoor. Now to old lags Dartmoor as the “the nastiest nick in Britain”, and from its external appearance it looks and feels like the Siberia of the prison system.
Built at the time of the Napoleonic wars, its grim towers and ramparts rise from the emptiness of the moor like a frightening fortress whose granite stones moan in the wind with their own dirge of sadness and deadness.
And as I entered the gate of Dartmoor on Thursday morning I was thinking about our readings today and the question came into my head: “How can living stones speak to dead stones?”
Over the next two days, that question was wonderfully answered, especially among the men on the 300 strong Vulnerable Prisoners Wing, so many of whom wanted to get rid of their burdens, to change the direction of their lives and let themselves be built into a spiritual house which took the form of a special course offered by the chaplaincy, which we were launching. I haven’t got time today to describe these prison ministry experiences. But all I am sure about is that the famous line in today’s gospel reading “In my father’s house are many dwelling places” will surely include dwelling places for the repentant sinners of Dartmoor prison.
Now it’s a long way from Dartmoor to Great Peter Street but there are living stones and dead stones in both places. Coming right up close to home I don’t know what you think of the aesthetic beauty of the new flats immediately opposite the main entrance of the church. To me their unimaginative uniformity is a reminder of Pete Seger’s 1960s folk song:
Little Boxes on the Hillside
And they’re all made of ticky tacky
Little Boxes, Little Boxes
And they all look just the same.
Now of course I’ve got my tongue in cheek as a neighbourhood architectural critic, but what I’m getting at is that these flats, unoccupied at present, may symbolise a profound challenge for St Matthew’s. And it’s the same challenge summarised by the question at the Dartmoor gates: How can living stones speak to dead stones?
Or to put it another way, how do we, the reasonably faithful congregation of St Matthew’s – we who in our own different ways have tasted that the Lord is good – how do we enlarge this spiritual house?
Now no-one should pretend that building a spiritual house is an easy task. A close study of today’s reading form the letter of Peter suggests that being a living stone may involve sacrifices, getting rid of our weaknesses, and growing into salvation.
In practical terms (now I really am warming up for the AGM) I think this means increasing our personal and individual commitment in order to expand and grow the things St Matthew’s already does rather well.
These days we are once again a growing church – praise the Lord! A hundred or so people now come here to the three services on Sunday, with additional numbers in the weekday congregations. But we must not rest on these laurels. We have to cherish, nourish and grow these seeds by building up our existing activities and playing to our strengths which include:
• Our welcoming ministry of hospitality
• Our relational ministry of inclusiveness
• Our stewardship ministry of increased resources
• Our intellectual and theological ministry of discussion groups
• Our informal ministry of the Moot Services
• And perhaps a new pastoral and evangelistic ministry to the new residential and governmental community now moving into the parish
These tasks can’t all be done by the clergy. There simply aren’t enough living stones for the building work unless we the lay congregation join in and support them with real commitment.
Yet whatever form our commitment and all the practical moves finally take after they’ve been discussed at the AGM and the PCC and other gatherings, we all know that the actual process of letting living stones be build into a greater spiritual house is the Work of God. And he will surely respond, as he always does, to by far the most important activity at St Matthew’s – The Ministry of Prayer.
Let the last word on this all-important subject be inspired by the final verse from our Gospel reading today:
St John 14:14 “If in my name you as me for any thing, I will do it.”
So, let’s ask him! Not just today but every day in years ahead as we pray:
“Lord in your name we ask that we, like living stones, may let ourselves be built into a spiritual house that pleases you, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – Amen”