Rev Sue preached this sermon on Sunday 17 July 2022. Here it is for you again:
One of the themes that runs throughout the Old Testament is belonging to a particular place. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden, but after eating the forbidden fruit they are expelled and no longer allowed to live there. By the time of Abraham the stories are about a nomadic people and their flocks, who become enslaved in Egypt and then set out across the desert to find the promised land. They settle and cultivate the land. The high point is the time of David when the city of Jerusalem is built, with strong walls to keep the people safe. Then disaster strikes. Various empires attack the city. The Israelites are carried off to Babylon, where they are in exile and weep for their own land. It is a story of a longing to be settled and safe. To cultivate land and pass it on to their children. Place is important.
Today we celebrate the building of St Margaret’s church. It is the symbol of our belonging together as the people of God in this place. It has seen so many celebrations of family life, and so many of those who are no longer with us are buried here. And it is the place where week by week we meet with our Heavenly Father. The very stones are imbued with the prayers of rejoicing, the weeping for those we love and the intercessions for a world that is full of pain and woe. And week by week generations have been nourished and sustained by the body and blood of Christ. We are fortunate here at St Margaret’s. Everyone loves their own church whatever it looks like, just as everyone thinks their own baby the most beautiful in the world, but in St Margaret’s we have a church which is objectively beautiful. I imagine funds and guidance from the Earl of Wilton enabled its good design, and I know that later, after the fire of 1985 we were most fortunate that Father Martin, the vicar at the time, had the gifts to oversee the restoration, and to commission the artwork by Graeme Wilson which makes it the building we love. If we were in any doubt, the closing of the churches during the pandemic brought home to us how much we need to be here. I remember the sheer joy I experienced when we were allowed back into the building to stream services after it had been shut for such a long time, and the reciprocal pleasure of many of those watching who saw the Eucharist celebrated in the church, not the homes of the clergy.
What does it mean to call St Margaret’s my church? I think there are three answers to that. There are the people who live in the parish who can get married or buried here by right and can expect pastoral care from the vicar if they should ask for it. There are you, the people who come Sunday by Sunday who may or may not live in the parish, and there are all those who have now moved away, but who still see St Margaret’s as theirs, even though it is years since they have been here. Their parents lived or worshipped here, and they have always felt a connection. All these people belong to St Margaret’s.
But not everyone has such a sense of place. St Paul was also known as Saul of Tarsus, but we have no record of him ever going back to Tarsus, or indeed of staying in any one particular place for very long. But the letters he wrote were not primarily just good advice to Christians in general. They were to particular congregations, spoke of particular people and were tailored to particular circumstances. For Paul the thing that mattered was his relationships.
Christians believe in the Trinity – God the Father, Jesus his Son and the Holy Spirit. Before people came into being there was the love that binds the three persons of the Trinity together. Love is eternal, and God calls us to share in that love. We relate to him, and in him we relate to each other. The love and acceptance we offer each other has a dimension beyond the friendliness of a club. We love each other because he first loved us, and we welcome all, not just those who have the most attractive personalities or are most like us. And we support each other in our faith, and by that giving and receiving come closer to God.
Sometimes people walk through a church door seemingly at random, but usually they come because someone else has brought them. Perhaps they are returning to the place where they came as babies to be baptised, as children in the Sunday School, or they come as an adult with their friends. Only a few just choose to walk through the door and what brings back many people week after week is the quality of the welcome here. This is not a church to slip into the back and leave without speaking to anyone. We don’t make the mistake of smothering people or inviting them to be on the PCC as soon as they start coming, but anyone who comes can be guaranteed a friendly smile, and if they come again an invitation to coffee, and we are interested in who they are. When they come regularly, they will be asked if they would like to be on the Family List – the very term expressing our vision of our church as a part of the family of God. If we want our church to grow, it will be through relationships. People come across us in a variety of ways. They stay because they feel welcomed and valued.
We are people who belong, and we are called to be people who become. The Christian life is one of both individual transformation and of mission. Like Mary in today’s reading we sit at Jesus’ feet, in prayerful contemplation. We not only worship him here, we read our Bibles and pray at home, go on retreats and join study groups, examine our lives and rededicate them to God. We pray for our church, that we may grow in discipleship and that through our prayers, through our words and through who we are we may attract others to our church, and beyond that to a living faith in Christ.
Like Martha, we serve God in the practical things, doing the jobs, planning the events and engaging with the wider community. St Margaret’s was named after Lady Wilton, who not only was the wife of our benefactor, but also contributed to the life of the parish herself. She strongly believed in the education of girls and set up a Sunday School at Simister for girls only. It grew into a day school and boys were eventually allowed to attend. Service is written into the DNA of our church.
I wonder where Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, was in the story of today’s gospel? My guess is that he was the breadwinner for his sisters, and probably, if they were widowed, for his sisters’ children. For many of us work and family will, at times of our lives, leave little time over for taking on responsibilities in church, or even praying as much as we would like. You, too, are welcome at those times when church is a valued relief from activity, when you need to take more than you can give. So, too, we value those who have given much, but now need to retire from too much activity. We are underpinned by your prayers, your memories and your love.
I wasn’t here in 1985 when the fire destroyed part of the church, but I have been told how meeting together in Church House broke down barriers, as people who sat week by week in their own pews found themselves becoming friends with those they had seen in church but never spoken to. It must have been a time of tremendously hard work, but the church came together in a restored and beautiful building. Out of the loss came new life. We have been through so much in the last few years. Not only have we endured the deprivations, losses and uncertainties of covid, becoming at times exhausted as a result of illness and strain, but we have also had to witness the suffering and eventual death of our beloved Deborah. It is a lot for any church to bear. For now, we need some time to be with each other and to regain our strength. To stay for a while by the still waters and to nurture our relationships. But then, if God wills, to set our hand to the plough once more to make St Margaret’s a growing and thriving church, welcoming new members and reaching out to the local community and beyond in mission and in service.