What an honour it is to be with you, the people of St. Andrew’s, Toronto, as you celebrate the 188th anniversary of the founding of the congregation.
As I have shared with others, I was first in Toronto about 25 years ago and I came into St. Andrew’s during the week and was impressed by the building and what I learned about the outreach and ministry in the community.
Little did I know then that I would one day come here as your guest preacher.
So my wife Missy and I are grateful for the invitation to come from your ministers and for the wonderful hospitality we have received.
I am in awe of the prophetic powers of your ministers, Will and Bob, that allowed us to come to Toronto in the week that the UK experienced its worst winter storm in living memory!!
We came with big heavy coats, knowing what march can be like in the upper Midwest of North America – not realizing we would have 16 C on Wednesday~
It has been a delight to have some time to walk the streets, and experience this wonderful city, to visit the AGO and the ROM – as you can see it hasn’t taken Missy and I long to feel very at home here – we can even distinguish between a Loony and a Toony.
On my first Sunday serving Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago I was invited to give the children’s address during the Sunday School Children’s Chapel program.
“Is he speaking Spanish?”
I hope you Torontonians don’t have as much difficulty with the Scottish accent – I expect not in a Church named St. Andrew’s with such a rich Scottish heritage. I know that while holding that heritage with pride, this is a church which embraces a new and multi-cultural future as seen by your engagement with the Reformed church in Trinidad and Tobago and the commitment to be a relevant presence for people of all ethnicities in this vibrant city.
At the church in Chicago I once found a Bible in the pew that was wrongly bound. You opened it at the front cover but the text was upside down and back to front. I saw this as a kind of metaphor for what the Bible does to us if we take it seriously. It gets in there and it turns things upside down. It takes us not to where we are expecting. Scripture is like that.
I remember Brad Braxton, a noted African American preacher, telling me that on the Sunday after Barack Obama’s election in 2008 he was preaching and his text was this from Psalm 146: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” Scripture shattering expected outcomes.
We find this in the readings set for this, the Third Sunday in Lent and the anniversary service for this congregation.
Our OT passage is the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments. Scholars will often refer to them as the tem words – Decalogue – or ten teachings.
It is important that we consider the biblical context from which the giving of the law grows out of.
It is, of course, the story of Exodus, of the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, to the promise of a new land. It is this departure from the Egyptian system of empire – a system which meant oppression, pain and death for the slaves – which brings the promise of new life. “It is” writes Walter Brueggemann, “a departure to an ominous mountain where the Holy God who bested Pharaoh speaks ten times. In that utterance the Holy God declares an alternative existence.”
Again, the ten words, the ten commandments are not the life limiting demands of an angry God against a wayward people.
The first of the commandments begins, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
Brueggemann suggests that “These commands might be taken not as a series of rules but as a proclamation of who God is and how God shall be practiced by this community of liberated slaves. The God of the commands intends freedom and well being in communion.”
The preacher and writer Tom Long reflects that “in the popular religious consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens, weights and heavy obligations. For many, the commandments are encumbrances placed on personal behavior.”
To reclaim them as being a proclamation of God’s promise of freedom and life-giving grace is to liberate them from this narrow moralistic religiosity – a kind of God-given hammer with which to batter those deemed to be transgressors.
Cleansing of the Temple in John’s gospel. We often focus on the act that Jesus performs – words are important too.
Temple – Dwelling of God – Jesus as embodiment of God’s presence.
Jesus attitude to buildings is not new here; it’s not the first time the subject has come up either in the New Testament or indeed in the Old Testament. You go to the prophets and there is Jeremiah, in chapter 7, sitting at the gate of the temple preaching to the people who believe that God dwells in their midst in the temple in the holy of holies. They believe that that is God’s house and God cannot be moved from it. Jeremiah preaches to them and says, “God will abandon the temple unless you live lives of justice in which you do not oppress the widow and the stranger and the orphan.”
And in the soaring poetry of Micah in chapter six, God’s voice has spoken through Micah’s poetry saying, “It’s not your sacrifices and your worship in the temple that I need. It is that you do justice and you love kindness and you walk humbly with your God.”
In Mark’s gospel the disciples wonder at the majesty and beauty of the Temple when they first see it – Jesus responds “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down.”
Perhaps Jesus is reminding us this morning that what we are marking today is not about the building that is St. Andrew’s Toronto.
That what constitutes true religion is not the edifices we build but the lives we live in faithful obedience to God’s commands born out of God’s liberating love and how we respond to the call to be the body of Christ in the world living relationally with those we share this earth with.
In 1938 in Scotland, there was a minister who was at the height of his game preaching to thousands of people on Sunday morning in Govan Parish Church in Glasgow. To his congregation’s great surprise he abruptly resigned as the minister in Govan. His name was George MacLeod (disclosure – no relation to me.) You see George MacLeod had a vision and it was a vision to build on the Island of Iona, the Holy Isle off the west coast of Scotland where St. Columba had brought Christianity to Scotland in the sixth century and then evangelized the Scots. It became one of the most important centers of Christianity into medieval times.
The Benedictine Abbey from the 12th Century that was built on the site of Columba’s monastery had been restored in 1910. But there was nowhere for pilgrims to stay, so MacLeod had a vision of rebuilding the Chapter House and the kitchen and living quarters which were then in ruins. MacLeod had this dream of an experiment in community in which he would work with people to combine worship together with work. He would bring young ministers from the mainland who would become laborers for the artisans and masons and joiners who were working on the buildings. Many of them had become unemployed from the shipyards in Glasgow.
Out of this visionary experiment grew an organization that we know today as the Iona Community, an organization which is not just based on the island, although that’s its spiritual home, but which throughout the world has touched hundreds of thousands of lives in its work for liturgical renewal, in its work for ecumenical activities, in its commitment to working for justice and peace and finding new ways of living out the gospel in today’s world.
If you have ever been to Iona you know that it is a beautiful place, a holy place – what MacLeod as Celtic wordsmith termed “a thin place.”.
The abbey itself is an extraordinary sanctuary. It is termed ‘The Glory of the West.’ MacLeod, of course, loved the abbey and the chapter house and the rebuilt living quarters. But MacLeod had a recurrent theme in his preaching, in his poetic prayers and it was this:
“We are your temple not made with hands.
If every wall should crumble
and every church decay,
we are your habitation.”
I wonder, is that the word that Jesus has for the disciples at St. Andrew’s Toronto this celebratory day. Do not put your trust in princes or mortals. Do not put your trust in buildings. Put your trust in the community that gathers. The temple not made with hands. Put your trust in that which is the collection of the living stones, in that rich metaphor of building from First Peter. The saints, the faithful, you, and you, and you, and you, and you who are called to live into the future of this congregation. You who collectively as a community are called, not simply to be the occupants of a building, but are called to love and serve.
Perhaps it is most simply put in the children’s hymn
The church is not a building.
The church is not a steeple.
The church is not a resting place.
The church is the people.
Thanks be to God for St. Andrew’s Church Toronto and its faithful, welcoming, inclusive outreach and ministry, it’s building offering a resource to the community in which it stands but most of all for you, the people of this great church called to be the body of Christ – called to love and serve. Amen.