The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:  

s013g11  20/3/2011  Lent 2

‘I will make three dwellings here’  Matthew 17.4

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

I have often had occasion to reflect that it is so much easier to solicit money for building projects than it is to raise the minister’s stipend and the weekly expenses.   Perhaps this is a ‘West Island’ thing, but I suspect not.   Peter was the first follower of Jesus to try to get on this bandwagon, and he was certainly not the last.   So many wonderful buildings, so much energy and talent!   Again, perhaps other churches are different, but generally the wider church has wanted to erect the church building and to determine its design, then they leave it to the congregation to find the money for the minister and the minister’s accommodation.   I have often wondered what would happen if the wider church provided the minister’s accommodation - a place where services could be held initially, and let the congregation design and build the church.   I’m all for letting the folk on the ground have the fun, unhampered by lots of rules and regulations.   Recently I was speaking to a minister in another denomination where they are unable to use their church which hadn’t been inspected for damage in the earthquake.   The congregation met in the lounge room of the manse and the spirit was so much less stiff and formal.

And I suspect that much of the success stories of modern pentecostal churches is due to the fact that people can contribute to the building of a church, whereas Anglicans give to maintain the edifices of past generations - much less exciting!   And because the diocesan authorities determine the design of churches, we have been saddled with replica neo-European architecture rather than indigenous styles which would be rather more suited to the land and rather less expensive to maintain.   Similarly orthodoxy has been imported rather than encompassing a vernacular spirituality.  How much talent has gone to waste in the process!

But I suspect that more lies behind this request than the erection of a church.   I suspect that deep down Peter wanted to delay returning to the hurly-burly of real life.   We read: ‘Many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.’  (Mark 6.31)   It would be good not to have to share Jesus will the rest of humanity even if only for a brief period.

But, like Peter, James and John, we are called to return to real life, to leave our sacred places and share Jesus with others, all others.  And this means that our devotion to Jesus is not the be all and end all of christianity.   Sharing Jesus with others is the most important thing.   And when I say sharing, it is allowing that Jesus associated with others just as surely as Jesus associates with us.   He gives dignity to others as he has given dignity to us.   Others do not have to become like us to be dignified!  As we are accepted unconditionally, so others are accepted unconditionally.

So our creeds, like our buildings, need to reflect a diversity of understandings and spiritualities if we expect them to attract people.   No one is interested in having a spirituality forced on them, either creedal or architectural - that is not to treat others with dignity.   Indeed people who don’t come to church are not interested in HAVING to maintain the memorials of the long dead - there are more recent dead who ache to be memorialised.

Here in Christchurch we are being forced to do things again.   The old verities have come tumbling down with the bricks and mortar during the quake.  We are being given an opportunity to rebuild, and the question before us is will we do it ourselves or will we be like the returning exiles: ‘When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of families and said to them, ‘Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.’   But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, ‘You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us.’    Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.   In the reign of Ahasuerus, in his accession year, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.’  (Ezra 4.1-6)  Or will we build houses ‘of prayer for all people’ - not just white, Anglo-celtic, straight christians?   Will we give dignity to others as Jesus gave dignity to others, or will we rob people of their dignity? .. in the re-construction of our buildings and in the re-construction of our faith?  

Let me immediately say that I do love (some) neo-Victorian structures.   I have served as a ‘priest on duty’ at Christchurch Cathedral, recently so sadly damaged, fortunately without loss of life.  One of the great things about Christchurch Cathedral is that it did try to be a house of prayer for all people.   It had many Maori symbols, a water feature, a menorah for the lighting of candles and it was used by a large range of musical and artistic presentations.  

On Saturday 5/3/2011 I heard the Roman Catholic Cathedral administrator Msgr Charles Drennan of the local Cathedral being asked about the damage to the Basilica of the Blessed Sacrament here in Christchurch, and a listener texted in asking whether the Anglicans and Roman Catholics might build a joint Cathedral.   It is this sort of lateral thinking that we need.

I have commented before that this story of the Transfiguration on the mountain is actually about succession planning.   There were six on the mountain and then there was God.   Moses and Elijah and Jesus handing on to Peter, James and John responsibility for taking the message of God’s love for all to all.   The task was not given to one, but to three, and to three very different personalities.   Peter the fisherman, James the Just, John the Divine.   It shouldn’t be surprising that we have different strands of Christian tradition, indeed we could assume that it was planned from the beginning for this to be so.

The wish to build three buildings also reflects a desire to hold on to the past, and the church continues to suffer from hiding behind ‘hand me down’ orthodoxy.   We are bidden to leave the past behind and launch ourselves back into the real world, just as Jesus leads the three back down the mountain.

And the command to silence is another indication that our presence amongst real people is more important than the spiritual experiences we may have had, which will serve to remove us from other ‘run of the mill’ people.

We like Jesus are not to hide behind the bricks and mortar of our church buildings in our holy huddles, nor are we to hide behind the edifices of our creeds in our holy huddles, but to come down into the real world as just ordinary human beings among other ordinary human beings.

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