Homily at St Philip Evans on the weekend of 25/26 October 2014 – the 29th Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church.
29 years ago exactly, this altar which you see laid bare before you was consecrated by the Archbishop of Cardiff. This Church of St Philip Evans was founded on solid rock, and each year we are invited to celebrate the anniversary.
This matters, because this altar defines who we are. We are the community of people who gather on the Lord’s day here in Llanedeyrn, to do what Jesus commanded us to do. We are not the people who gather regularly in Cyncoed, or Llanrumney; with the noble exception of any guests who happen to be with us this weekend, we are the people who gather here, who make this church, this altar, the hub of our community of faith.
Every healthy parish is built on rock; the unseen rock of Christ, and the visible rock of its altar. If we build on both of these rocks, we will build a strong parish, capable of withstanding anything life throws at us. But we must understand what it means to build on both foundations.
We build on Christ when we pay attention to his teaching, and make it part of our lifestyle. The foolish person builds on the values of the world around us; the wise person looks deeply into what Christ taught. Last weekend, the BBC was loudly proclaiming that Pope Francis was ‘defeated’ by other bishops at the Synod in Rome. This tells you more about the BBC than about Pope Francis! The BBC was quick to report that the Pope’s final speech included a warning that religious leaders can fall into the trap of ‘hostile rigidity’, following the letter of the law rather than seeing beyond to the spirit. Strangely, the BBC failed to mention two other warnings given by the Pope, which concerned the temptations to please people and look for quick fixes rather than staying rooted in the challenging teachings we receive from God.
I will not comment further on the Synod now, because what has happened in Rome this month will be completed by a further Synod next autumn, in the light of a year of reflection. I simply highlight this as an example of the foolishness of the BBC. The reporters focussed on their worldly hope for change in the church. They failed to see that church leaders were sincerely trying to work out how to find the right balance, one which finds the right way between the law given to us by God and the compassion of Christ.
The letter to the Ephesians declares that we are being built into a house, aligned on Jesus, one holy temple. Indeed, our parish will be strong if we build one community around this altar set in Llanedeyrn. But there is more than one way to build our temple of living stones!
It is very easy to build a parish out of separate groups which each do their own thing. So I am going to place on this altar, bricks representing some of the different groups and activities which take place in our parish. If I place each brick standing on its own, we do not build a strong structure. If I give the foundations a shake, some of these are going to fall over!
To make a building stronger, we must overlap the bricks so they support each other. Indeed, we do have overlap in our parish. Young people from Jesus Youth are working with our confirmandi. By having members of the Deaf Pastoral group and the Music Group together in our liturgy planning group, we build better liturgy. By bringing all our groups together in a termly Group Leaders’ Forum, we plan more effectively. But a parish is built up not only of groups, but of each individual member.
Two weeks ago, you were invited to stay behind after Mass for a short conversation, over a cuppa. Ideally, it would have been a conversation with someone you didn’t know. Now, I recognise that it’s not always easy to speak to someone you don’t know, but we tried to make it as easy as possible. You have something important in common – the experience of living in Cardiff and worshipping here at St Philip Evans. We even gave you the questions, so there was no awkwardness of deciding how to start the conversation. Some of you stayed, and I am grateful for your feedback slips. But many of you didn’t, or couldn’t.
From now until next summer, we will invite you to have similar conversations once a month. I appreciate that there will be times when you can’t stay – due to work, transport or other factors beyond your control. But I know that some of us will simply be tempted to opt out for other reasons – because it feels uncomfortable, or because you don’t see the point. I say to you today: the strength or weakness of our parish depends on you! To build a strong parish, each brick must bond with the others. A good wall has an overlap for every brick, so each component is in touch with as many others as possible. I am inviting you to these monthly conversations not only to develop the ‘vision’ of our parish, but also to strengthen our community. If you have the courage to speak to unknown parishioners, if you make the sacrifice of adjusting your Sunday routine so you can stay for that extra 20 minutes, you will be a living stone building a secure future for St Philip Evans. If you choose to be a stone which stands alone, you will help us build a weak church which cannot sustain what is to come.
If we are wise, we will build on Christ. When he gave today’s teaching, it was just after he challenged the crowd to forgive their enemies, and practice generosity without limit. He told us to take the speck out of our own eye before we criticise anyone else. So we must start with ourselves. We can choose – to be a living stone supporting our church, or an unconnected brick which only sees a wall excluding it!
And why, you may ask, do we wish to build a strong church? A famous Anglican bishop, with the wonderful name of William Temple, once said that the church is the only society in the world which exists for the benefit of its non-members. If we work together, we can change each other’s lives for the better; we can change Llanedeyrn, Pentwyn and Pontprennau for the better; and, in a small way, we can even make the wider world a better place. Living water will flow from this temple, and bring life to the world around it. We are to bring life to the world – as the psalm says, ‘the waters of a river bring joy to God’s city’. But we cannot do this as individuals. We can only do it by listening deeply to Christ and learning to trust one another.
This time next year, our Archbishop will join us to celebrate Mass for our church’s 30th anniversary. I wonder what account I will give him of our parish life? Will I tell him that I challenged the members of this parish to build strong relationships with one another, but they chose not to do so? Or will some of you be standing at this microphone with wonderful stories of the new or deepened relationships which will have grown, telling of the ways our parish has blessed the local community because we had the courage to build a church of living stones?
Here I am, Lord, a stone called to be a member of your church. Shape me anew, place me where I will do most good, and secure me on Christ. Here I am, Lord – use me as you will!