The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      13th October 2019
Dedication Sunday
Jeremy Fletcher

Today is a day to ask what the church is, what it has been, and what it will become. It is a day to recall and discover what we are to do and to be. It is a day to remember and to be re-membered as the body of Christ. The New Testament overflows with images for this. We are citizens with the saints, a holy temple, a royal priesthood, the body of Christ, the ones who are called, the Way, the people of God, a holy nation. If the writers of Scripture can’t sum it up, then we should take the opportunity to stretch our thinking and enlarge our horizons about how to be God’s church in this place. If Dedication is about what we are committing ourselves to, not just a nostalgic looking back, then we need to look all the more carefully for the things which will lead us in the right way.

We have been asking a question in the last few weeks, ready for today. “What is Hampstead Parish Church to Me?” Some of the answers are around you. Take moment to look, to listen, to engage all your senses. The pictures and words you see, the sounds you hear, what you will taste at this table, the touch of peace you will share, the air carrying its smells…all of this is the church to you. You may not have thought of it personally in quite the way someone else has. Words, photographs and banners might draw your attention to things you’ve never seen before or considered. 

I took time yesterday to read every word, consider every photograph. I did ponder the danger that this could become an exercise in self congratulation. Aren’t we beautiful and good? Don’t we do lots? Thankfully the gathering together of our personal responses is not a pat on the back by a cosy club. Of course people are here because the style suits them. Of course the building and its liturgy and its children’s work and its music and its activities are to the taste of the people who come. But the mission of the church is not to be the sum total of the preferences of its members.  Rather it is to enable us to discover and reveal the Kingdom of God. 

What I have seen and read in the responses on display today is a humbling description of people being built into a spiritual temple, a challenging call to be the people of God, gathered in a place where prayer has been valid. People talk about being healed here, reborn here, brought into the light here, about being welcomed here, becoming a member of a family here, rescued here, fed here. People talk about being sent from here, challenged to reach out here, to be connected across the world from here, about helping to right wrongs, to act justly and to trade fairly from here. This is not simply about what makes the church, but what the church makes us. 

It is all too easy for things to slip, for a wrong turning to be taken, for the mission of the church to become crowded out by other things, for focus to become blurred. Jesus is in agony when he declares the Temple in Jerusalem to have lost its way, to have become so mired in the detail of obeying every tenet of the law that the purpose of worship has become obscured. God’s love and forgiveness have been turned into a transaction not a healing, a ritual not a relationship, an impersonation not a lifestyle. Things which started as good can get in the way. Churches can forget their first love. They can be dismembered by disputes, demolished by schisms, fragmented by clashes over art and architecture, liturgy and language. 

Perhaps that’s inevitable. What surround us are expressions of the holy, indications that what we do here goes to the height and breadth of what it is to be human and to touch the divine. We care about these things, and sometimes everything we believe about God and what it is to be a Christian gets encapsulated in a style of worship, the pew we sit on, the colours which surround us. These things become sacramental: outward things which speak of inward grace and belief. It’s the task of a church like this both to treat each other’s sacramental things with care, and to recognise that ours don’t necessarily outweigh other people’s. 

What I see, and hear, and touch, and taste and smell around me today is a living, growing, vibrant community and gathering who’s bumping to each other, whose networks and intersections, even who’s collisions and arguments, are the stuff of the Kingdom of God. Some of what I have read has made me cry. I do that easily, but even so. Read what Steve, who I guarantee you spends more time in this place than anyone else, as he’s here every afternoon, says what it’s like to have no home and find this place as home. The presence of God in Jesus by the Spirit here is such that hesitant people have found security, uncertain people have been given a foundation, broken people have found restoration, tiny people have grown into faith, fearful people have been given assurance. 

Hardly any of that is to do with words I have spoken from the pulpit, or initiatives pursued by the PCC, or good ideas from the diocese, though all of those have their place. Most of it has to do with the joint commitment, the joint dedication, of all who come here to love, to welcome, to include, to worship, to serve. Individually you may feel utterly weak, useless at prayer, ignorant about faith, hesitant about discipleship, unable to say anything about your belief. Together, determined to be here and to learn more, we are greater than the sum of our parts. It only takes two or three, says Jesus, and I am right there. 

Dedication Sunday reminds us of the dedication of those who in their day built this place and handed on both building and community: those on whose shoulders we stand. And it reminds us of our dedication now. You may not know quite why you are here. You may be even more baffled as to why that person in the next pew is here and what they think they are doing. We are a rag tag group of people. But when we sit down together from the youngest to the oldest, when leaders of the nation are schooled by the tiniest of children, when we are called to prefer the poor, give the homeless a bed, weed between the paving stones, bring food to the hungry, offer our utmost in music and art, sweep the pews, empty the bins, take a good look at our money and see how that can serve this place and God’s Kingdom, work out how we can tell others that this is about the God who has found us in Jesus Christ…when we do all that, then truly people will be able to say that God is among us. 

Thank you for being dedicated to that. Thank you for teaching me how to follow Christ. Thank you for challenging me every day about how to welcome, include, challenge and serve. Do not stop that. Be properly proud that this is a place and we are a people who proclaim, humbly and joyfully, that this is the house of God, and here is the gate of heaven. 

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