It began with a few gathered around a table with bread and wine. They heard the words of Jesus. Jesus’ words changed the bread into the food of heaven and the wine into the cup of life eternal. Time passed. Those few did the same thing again. Others joined the table. And the peripatetic church grew. Over time, a large gathering put down roots. Walls rose from the earth. Beams spanned the space. Roof held back the elements. And these places were dedicated and consecrated as holy places. Within these places, there was water for baptism, a place for Jesus’ words to be remembered. And a table were the heavenly banquet would be glimpsed on earth as it is in heaven.
It happened once upon a time. It has happened through many centuries – and it happened here not quite 150 years ago. A church was built, and a community gathered to meet with God in his Word, in bread and wine and in one another – and as they gathered, they found themselves transformed, blessed by their encounter and sent out to be a blessing to others.
Today, then, is a good time to count our blessings. Sometimes we think of blessings as rather abstract, intangible things - the love of our family, our health and strength, the freedoms we enjoy. But today we're here to celebrate blessings in a far more solid form...the visible, beautiful blessing of a church restored and the still more precious blessing of a dedicated community whose efforts secured that restoration.
You see, though we've just sung “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” - under God a variety of human circumstances – outworkings of providence- have combined to make today possible.
All Saints is blessed indeed...blessed with three kinds of resources:
money from an army of generous donors from all over the world,
the love and dedication of the whole local community
and a whole battery of skills that ensured that those gifts of loving commitment would bring about all that we longed for.
The work that has led up to today is in itself an act of both gratitude and faith...The people of Selsley, looking at their beautiful building, recognised that such a gift should be treasured – and thus they expressed their gratitude to the past...But having looked back they looked forward too– forward with a vision of the church living on to serve future generations, as a place where children and grandchildren might encounter God, and emerge, blessed, to be a blessing.
That's what the concept of “stewardship” is all about...building on a vision that is solid, adding to the heritage of the past with dedication and commitment to the future, even when we have no idea of what that future might hold.
Let me share a story that expresses for me the essence of this stewardship across the centuries. When New College Oxford was founded in the late 14th century, the roof of the college hall was supported by huge oak beams, 5' long by 2' square. In other words built to last! In the nineteen century, it was discovered that the beams were infested with death-watch beetle. But where would the timber be found to replace them? Someone suggested contacting the University forester, and a deputation was duly sent to find him. Their tentative enquiry produced an unexpected response
“Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”
You see it turns out that when the college was built a grove of oaks was planted to replace those beams in the hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. The plan was passed down from one forester to the next – stewardship indeed!
As we celebrate the fruits of our own stewardship , perhaps I may sound just the gentlest note of caution. This is a truly beautiful building in an equally beautiful place. And if we are not careful, we could all turn this church building into something of an idol. But we must remember that it IS only a building and not the church...
The church is, of course, all of you gathered here...all who have built their lives on the rock that is Christ Jesus...all who are temples in which the Holy Spirit is pleased to dwell.
All Saints is a building dedicated and consecrated for God’s holy purposes It stands as a signpost, a reminder to this community and to the many was they pass by, that God has not left us alone to muddle along as best we can...but is completely committed to us, sharing our humanity in Jesus and calling us to fresh visions of a world turned upside down.
May this building be a touchstone and not a millstone.May the blessings made concrete here continue to nurture the spirit and mission of this church. May the walls echo with the sounds of praise. May the light from its many windows illumine our lives. May we find here shelter from the storms of life. May we here find a place to grow in wisdom and spirit.