The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      8th October 2017
Jeremy Fletcher

1 Kings 8. 22 - 30

I do like an oxymoron. It’s a phrase where two words which are normally opposites are put together. The Greek word it derives from means ‘sharp dull’, and you get the picture from that. Try ‘dark light’ or ‘open secret’. There are some great lists of funny oxymorons, like ‘airline food’, ‘jumbo shrimp’, military intelligence’, ‘customer service’, ‘irate patient’ and ‘student teacher’. Interestingly the Christian faith makes much of serious oxmorons. How about ‘precious death’, or ‘washed in the blood’, or ‘in his service is perfect freedom’? And what about ‘God’s house’? 

On Dedication Sunday we give thanks for the life of the church in this place, using the dedication of the ‘new’ building on October 8th 1747 as a focus. I wonder if the trustees, incumbent and architect in the 1740s ever wondered whether they could build something which could satisfactorily contain God. In all the politicking and scheming and planning, did their thoughts turn to King Solomon, dedicating the new Temple in Jerusalem? Those buildings – it was a campus more than a cathedral – were of quarry hewn stone, with timbers of cedar, doors of olivewood, overlays of bronze and gold, fabulous furnishings and sacred vessels. It was a wonder. Even with all this stunning architecture and remarkable art Solomon can only say “even the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built.” God’s house. More than an oxymoron. It is an impossibility. 

And yet, it was God’s house. It was built only for the glory of God, however tempting it must have been for the King and the priests to think they deserved to be in such remarkable surroundings. I’ve worked in the grandest of buildings, and they can make you believe your own publicity. If you can set aside your puny ambitions, and put God firmly at the centre then the soaring architecture and sublime art and music can do their job of reminding you that in them we glimpse eternal glory. The building is not the point. The point is where it’s pointing: the God of heaven and earth. God is worthy of the very best human beings can offer, as our imagination and skill is sanctified and transcended in prayer and worship. God’s house? I hope so. 

When Solomon prayed his prayer of dedication he did not restrict it to the glories of the building. He reminded his hearers that the people Israel only existed because of God’s action and God’s protection and leading. He goes on to remind them that they are a people who pray, and who act in the light of that prayer. Have a look at the rest of 1 Kings 8 when you get home. Solomon’s prayer is that God will hear when the people pray, that God will act when the people turn to him, that God will forgive when there is confession and repentance, that God will protect when there is danger, and that God will bless when the people act in a Godly way, when they take the commandments and laws they have learnt to heart, and when they obey them. This is not a parochial thing. Solomon is keen to remind the people that foreigners too will come to this house. God’s house is for freedom, forgiveness, protection and inclusion. 

In that way the physical house only works when it is a representation of the daily relationships and actions and community and society of God’s people. God is to be found in forgiveness and service and inclusion and healing and security and welcome and generosity. We build that house whenever we welcome the stranger and feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. We build that house when we search the scriptures, learn from our history, read the signs of the times and pray for renewal and challenge and restoration and hope. We build the house of God when there is a new vision of a new humanity, such that people know the Kingdom of God is near when they meet the people of the Kingdom. Those are the foundations on which we build. That is our heritage. And this place, lovely as it is, means nothing without that. 

On Dedication Sunday the tradition here is to reflect on how we continue to build on those foundations. Very practically that means addressing again the way we sustain our ministries financially. Another of my favourite oxymorons – a pedant might say oxymora, for complicated reasons of the latinising of the Greek original – is ‘cheerful giving’. Again, the point of our giving is not the maintenance of this particular building, though it would be good to offer you a crisis you could solve with money. The point of giving is put our money and possessions in their place, and to be involved in the generosity of God. It is cheerful because we put everything we have at God’s disposal. When we give we take part in the vast and boundless generosity of God. Everything we have from God is a gift. 

When Solomon’s father David made preparations for the building of the Temple he made this clear in the prayer he prayed. It’s in 1 Chronicles 29. ‘Yours Lord is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour and the majesty. Everything in heaven and on earth is yours, and of your own do we give you’. I pray that every time I receive the offering in church. We cannot give God anything. In making our gift we show that everything is from God. In giving financially, and in our time and effort and skill and commitment too, we put ourselves to God’s work, and aim to build a house on earth, in relationship and in our building, which reflects the glory of heaven. 

This giving can make a real practical difference. In giving we participate in God’s generosity, and therefore we give away too. Much of our day to day finance supports the ministry of the Diocese of London. We give away ten percent of our income to agreed charities, supporting people in need here and across the world. This is not a grudging requirement: it is an opportunity to discover the generosity of God and the unity of the body of Christ. Jesus had plenty to say about those whose action in the Temple undermined its foundations because their financial transactions were about greed not service. This is a house of prayer. The way we give can make that so. 

God’s house. Cheerful giving. I’ve written to an enormous number of you this week. If you are on our database you should have had something, or you will be getting something from me soon. It’s about money, because the way Christians sort their money is at the heart of the way Christians live the Christian life. But it’s not primarily about an appeal for this building and the management accounts of the PCC 2017. Our house, God’s house, will be properly built, as Solomon saw, when all the people express their love of God in every aspect of their lives. Today is a day to rejoice in our heritage, to jump up and down delightedly on firm foundations, and then to ask how, financially and in every other way, we may continue to build the house of God – that people may say “God’s name is here.”

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