Jeremiah was living through the last days of the kingdom of Judah. The Babylonians were at the gate; but the people of Jerusalem could not believe that God would abandon them. Had not God pledged to David and Solomon that God would always defend Zion, would always be present in his holy temple, would always hear the prayer of his people? And then along comes Jeremiah and says: ‘do not trust in these deceptive words: “this is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”’. The temple cannot save you, he says. Its sacrifices and ceremonies and rituals, what are they worth if you oppress the alien, the orphan, the widow, if you shed innocent blood, if you go after idols? But amend your ways and act justly with one another: then I will dwell with you in this place. And only then. It’s a stark oracle: this church may be 125 years old, our Cathedral may be a thousand, but they will not save us from ourselves. We cherish our church buildings but we need to ponder Jesus’ reply when the disciples drew his attention to the temple: ‘Look, Lord, what wonderful stones, and wonderful buildings’. And Jesus says that the days are coming when not one stone will be left standing on top of another. Even the best of what human hands can build will not last for ever; and if we build while harbouring pride and injustice in our hearts, they will be our judgment all the sooner.
The New Testament reading is tough too in how it demands of us that we let go the pride and injustice Jeremiah speaks of. Zacchaeus, the little man we used to sing about at Sunday school, wants to see Jesus as he passes by. His strategy of both gaining height but also hiding away in the copious branches of a sycamore tree only partly succeeds. There is no escape from the man who sees into every human heart. Back home they go, ignoring the grumbling of the self-righteous crowd that thinks Jesus should know better than to accept the hospitality of a sinner. And then occurs one of those marvellous transformations in human life that Luke is so good at noticing and recounting. Zacchaeus resolves, without any prompting from the Lord, to give half his possessions to the poor and to repay four times over anyone he has defrauded as a tax collector. Here is a rich young man who, unlike the other in the gospel, is not held back by his great wealth. And there is rejoicing among the angels of God over this sinner who repents. ‘Today salvation has come to this house; for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’ I said it was a tough reading. So it is, because the price of this repentance is a complete turning round of a man’s life. Metanoia never costs less than everything.
How do we reflect on this great church building and the life of this parish in the light of these sobering thoughts? Perhaps they concentrate the mind on what is truly of God. ‘You are God’s temple, and God’s spirit dwells in you’ says Paul in the text that the Bishop of Newcastle preached from at the dedication service here on 17 October 1888. He said that reverence we pay a house of God is not for anything in the building, its dramatic architecture, its stained glass, its mosaics, however beautiful these all are; nor for the beauty of the ceremonial this church was built for. It is all for the sake of the beauty of God the Indweller, so that the eye travels from the house to its owner. You could say that a church built in the arts and crafts tradition would always speak of a God whose artistry and craftsmanship are what we see all round us in the fabric of the world. But like Jeremiah, the bishop issued a warning. He said that if Christ welcomes those who come to this temple with integrity, beware those who come carelessly or in profanity of spirit. The house of prayer belongs together with truth and justice, never to be put asunder.
Today we tell the story of a church that has stood here for 125 years, its campanile a sign for miles around of the spiritual and human values of Christian faith. In that time there will have been many events to celebrate, and perhaps a few to lament: the story of any human institution is always a mixture of light and shadow and it is important that we tell the truth about it. But in the next century, we shall all face challenges and threats our forebears could not have dreamed of in that radiantly confident when Queen Victoria had just celebrated her golden jubilee and it seemed that the sun would never set on the empire. Now, church attendances are in steady decline in most areas, and we know that this diocese is not immune from the eroding effects of secularisation. With slender resources in both people and money, it matters all the more that we harness them all the more carefully. This calls for what spiritual guides call discernment. How do we keep the message of your campanile fresh and vivid in a society that finds itself distanced from religion? An anniversary should mean taking the time to reflect, think, ponder and pray in the light of the question that haunts us in that psalm of exile: how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Our land is increasingly strange to the church, and the church a stranger to it. How then do we sing this song with confidence and hope? How do we live as a church in the generous, life-changing way of Zacchaeus, little in stature but who walked tall in the company of Jesus Christ?
No-one pretends that the tasks of mission are easy in our era. They never were, though we tend to look back nostalgically to the days when St George’s was built when organised religion was powerful, respected and rich. But we should remind ourselves of the world this church found itself in within a generation of its beginning. Next year, we shall remember how Europe was suddenly engulfed in a war no-one predicted. Many young men from this parish and this city had their future taken away from them. In the aftermath of war came the great depression, huge unemployment here on Tyneside, and then war once again. The cost to families and communities was beyond imagining. This church ministered faithfully and well during those decades; it will have called for great vision, courage and skill on the part of both clergy and laity.
What about now? It’s hard to imagine that life is getting easier for most people especially the disadvantaged, the elderly and the chronically sick. Economically, the lights are only fitfully going on again across Europe; the effects of our collective mismanagement of money, our greed like the temple-goers of Jeremiah’s day, like tax collecting Zacchaeus always to acquire at someone else’s expense will continue will be felt across the North East. If this is true, it calls for the same degree of vision, courage and skill on the part of people of faith. We wouldn’t be human if we did not at times feel our spirits sinking, wondering if decline can ever be turned round, and ask, with Paul, ‘who is sufficient for these things?’ Well, his answer is not to lose heart; to go on trusting God to do much through the little that we bring. ‘We have this treasure in earthen vessels’ he says ‘so that it may be known that this extraordinary power belongs to God and not to us’ he says. Who can say what story will be told 125 years from now as our descendants here at St George’s gather to celebrate a quarter of a millennium? In our time, what matters is to be faithful in looking for the kingdom of God, and giving an answer for the hope that is within us. We shall have fought the fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. We shall have done what we can to be obedient disciples of Jesus. All God needs to know is that we are willing and ready and glad to follow.
St George’s Jesmond 125th anniversary service, 13 October 2013
Jeremiah 7.1-11; Luke 19.1-10