Farewell Sermon to St Mary Magdalene's, Woodstock

So long – and thanks for all the fish . . .

An address for St Mary Magdalene, Woodstock
Sunday 14th May 2017
- The Rector

Having lunch with one of our congregation last Friday, I said, ‘so, what shall I say in my sermon on Sunday?’

She said, ‘Well, that’s easy – just say “so long, and thanks for all the fish”’.

If you haven’t the faintest idea what that means, then you’ve evidently never read The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. [1] ‘So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish’ is the fourth volume of the trilogy – yes, you did hear that correctly – and the title is the farewell message from the dolphins when they all left the Planet Earth just before it is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Sounds crazy? Well, of course. Mind you, there are definite theological possibilities in Douglas Adams’ wonderful books, not least the fact that it turns out that the dolphins create a new Earth just before leaving the old one, and transport everything from the original to the new version. 

Well, this church is not Planet Earth; you and I, as far as can be reasonably determined with our deteriorating lighting, are not dolphins; and, indeed, we are not going to demolish anything. Far from it; our purposes, in these coming months, are very very different. To quote the opening paragraph on the leaflet which, by now, I hope that you have all read, learned, marked, and inwardly digested:

Our beautiful church is going to be reordered and restored to make it even more beautiful. The tiles will be polished. The stained-glass cleaned. The chancel restored. The broken and battered has been dispensed with, our cherished fixtures and fittings will be cleaned and cared for, and new seating, lighting, heating, electrics, toilets, and facilities, are going to transform our worship, our mission, and our service of our community. It is an exciting moment. 
[Find the full leaflet here]

Are you excited? I am. Are you anxious? I am not.  Because we’ve taken our time. We’ve consulted, listened, made plans, changed plans, listened some more, changed those plans too, written letters, leaflets, applied for grants, raised money, petitioned for faculties, consulted English Heritage, The Victorian Society, The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, The Church Buildings Council, not to mention the Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches. Above all, we’ve prayed, and prayed, and prayed, and then prayed some more, because of an absolute conviction that God is calling us to be good stewards of this building because we are faithful disciples of his Son. For mission and ministry to flourish in our own time, and in the times of those who will follow us in this place, the physical building where the people of God gather for worship, to be shaped by God’s word, and nourished by his sacraments, has to be a place which works. 

That’s why our mediæval forebears built the nave and then the chancel. That’s why our Georgian forebears built the tower. That’s why our Victorian forebears built the north aisle, and took down the gallery, and removed the box pews. That’s why our early twentieth century forebears put in more pews, and our later twentieth century forebears built the rooms and the loo out of the old vestry. That’s why we are embarking on this latest, dramatic, thrilling project. Because of an absolute conviction that God is calling us to be good stewards of this building because we are faithful disciples of his Son. 

But today is not principally about the building. It’s about you and me. Let me explain.

The way that language has shifted, from the time of the apostles to our own time, has led to quite a bad thing. And that bad thing is this. If we go out into the street, walk up to pretty much anybody, and say ‘where is the church?’, they will, almost certainly, point to this building. Of course they will. We know what churches look like, don’t we? Towers, steeples, cross on top, you know the sort of thing. Not just in England, but pretty much everywhere – Où est l'église? Dove si trova la Chiesa? Wo ist die Kirche? 

But the church is not a building. Find me a single passage of the Bible to suggest it is. You’ll be looking for a long time. The church is not a building. It is the people of God. It is you and me. It is us. What should happen if we go into the street, walk up to pretty much anybody, and say, ‘where is the church?’, is this: they should point to you. They should point to me. They should point, not to a building, but to us.

You can understand how it happened. As the church grew, and the first Christians started to need bigger places to meet, and Christians stopped being persecuted in the Roman Empire because of Constantine’s conversion and all that, we started getting bespoke buildings, designed around our needs. 

Somewhere to stand (not sit – no one sat down in churches for centuries); somewhere to sing; a place for baptism; a place to read the scriptures; a place to celebrate the Eucharist. And, slowly but surely, rather than the people defining the building, the building began to define the people. 

We are shaped by our environment. We are shaped by our homes, by our living spaces, by the views from our windows, by the sounds of our streets. When I grew up, the view from my bedroom on the seventh floor of our 19 storey council tower block was of the neighbouring 19 storey council tower block. I felt trapped and inhibited by it. So I had to find a different view. I found it in the local church, in music, and in my dreams. In Scripture we read ‘Where there is no vision, the people will perish’. [Proverbs 29.18] Not half. Look at the politics of populism, the blinkered world-view (or, perhaps more properly, lack of view) that leads people to be defensive, parochial, self-concerned, inward-looking.  

Just as our home environment shapes us, our worshipping environment shapes us too. This building had shaped us for years: cluttered, semi-light, Victorian, often cold, uncomfortable, rigid, heavy. All of this has subtly shaped us over time, has made us into a particular kind of people, made us into a particular kind of Christian. 

Jesus, and those who followed him, subverted all of that. Jesus spoke alarmingly about the Temple, the very dwelling place on earth, so thought his hearers, of God. In our Gospel reading today we heard his prophecy – it‘s not going to last. And it didn’t. [Mark 13.1-2]

In our first reading, Peter quotes the psalms to the Jewish leaders who were objecting to their ministry, and their message. And both the text, and the context, are instructive. Peter says

then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.

Jesus is

‘the stone you builders rejected,
    which has become the cornerstone.’ [Acts 4.11-11]

The psalm is Psalm 118. It is rooted in the ancient worship of Israel, an entrance liturgy, to be used in procession, to be used in God’s praise. [2] The central section, from which Peter is quoting, as about deliverance, rescue, salvation. We now know, says Peter, who the deliverer, the rescuer, the saviour, truly is.

And so do we. It is he who makes us who we are. It is he who shapes us. He is the one on whom we build, who fashions us into a living temple to his praise and glory, who makes us living stones, a spiritual house, a people belonging to God. [1 Peter 2.4-9] None of this stops being true after today. It is not this building that defines us: it is Jesus Christ. 

While we are worshipping in the Methodist Church, in the Marlborough School, in the other churches of this town, wherever it is we meet, and celebrate, and serve, Jesus is the environment that shapes us. He is our view, our vision, our rescuer, our Saviour. And we will be changed. And when we return, we will be a different people because of the journey we have made together. And this building, reordered and restored, will be here for us to relate to afresh, exploring its possibilities, discovering its potential, and enabling us to worship and witness in ways of which we can only begin to imagine.

Are you excited? I am. Are you anxious? I am not. Because Jesus is Lord. And if we remain his faithful disciples, he will bless us on the journey that lies ahead. He will bless us when we make our home in him.


[1] Douglas Adams (Pan Macmillan 1984)
[2] Brueggemann & Bellinger Jr, Psalms (Cambridge 2014), p 507

Further details of the whole redevelopment project can be found here.
Full details of where we will be meeting and worshipping in the coming months can be found here.