Bishop Ross gave an excellent sermon at the re-opening and blessing of St Chad’s on 3rd March. For those who weren’t able to attend and indeed for those who were but might like to read it again, Bishop Ross has kindly given us a copy of it.
It is a great delight to join you for this very special service today as we mark the great achievement in the repairs and improvements to St Chad’s. My delight is somewhat tempered by the fact that I am here in place of my colleague Bishop Jim, who as most of you know is very unwell, and has this week begun chemotherapy for lymphoma. He dearly wanted to be here to celebrate with you, as he has given particular support to this project. Jim sends his warm greetings, and thanks you for his prayers for him.
A very big thank you to you, the people of St Chad’s Huapai. You have been dedicated and generous in bringing this to pass, raising considerable funds towards the costs involved, and persevering through all of the challenges that unexpected discoveries presented once the contractors actually got into the work and uncovered things. I was personally thrilled when Diocesan Council recognised the strategic nature of this project and so agreed to apply funds to it to ensure it would be completed. It has been a team effort, but I do want to pay tribute to Colin as leader of the team, who has seen it through.
It is a transformation, but this community of faith has a history of facing and embracing change. Worship in this part of the diocese was first provided through the efforts of the Home Missioner who had responsibility for planting new congregations. In fact the curate at Holy Sepulchre in Khyber Pass had Helensville as part of his circuit and could travel up to 35 miles on a Sunday on horseback. Then a parish of Helensville was established in 1910, which became a cooperating parish in 1975. Then the church burned down, and was rebuilt. You made the transition to LSM in 2009. So you have a long history of managing change, and reach another milestone in your history.
You have had the joy of being back in the building since just before Christmas. Today we gather to officially re-open St Chad’s, and to seek God’s blessing on this place and its people as we rededicate not only the space, but our very lives, to the service of Christ and the gospel.
That was the all-consuming focus of your patron saint, Chad. As a bishop in the Midlands of England, he travelled extensively founding monasteries and spreading the good news. He covered a vast area and used to walk everywhere until the Archbishop insisted that he ride a horse. But then I seem to remember a story where Chad gave the horse away to someone he felt had greater need of it.
He was the first Bishop to be based in Lichfield, the Diocese in which Bishop Selwyn became 90th bishop after he left New Zealand. Significant shrines and memorials stand in Lichfield Cathedral today to remember both those saints who laboured to see the work of the gospel prosper on different sides of the world.
The Scriptures today are those set for St Chad’s Day and they remind us of the primary call on our lives to be servants and proclaimers of the good news, and that we are to undertake that work with humility.
We sit with this constant tension between that task and our buildings. A big focus of Chad was to establish religious communities. They needed buildings. When Selwyn arrived here, he began to establish the diocesan and parish structure. That needed buildings, and we can still see evidence of those around the country in the style that is known as Selwyn Churches.
So the proclamation of the gospel, alongside the establishment of places of worship and belonging, places to form community, places in which to form faith in order to go and share faith, places to gather in and build up the Body of Christ, places to stand in a community as a symbol of hope, places to which we can come that speak to us of the divine, places that we can say are sacred.
What is it that defines what is sacred? Nothing that we do today will make this church sacred as such. We express an intention through our prayers and actions today, and we invite the presence of God in a particular way as we set this renewed building aside once again for the purposes of God. So what defines sacred space?
For a moment, I invite you to join me in a right brain moment; to remember a time in your life when you have been conscious of the sacred, of something beyond yourself mysterious, indefinable, but hopeful and reassuring. Remember where it was, what happened and what it was like. It may have been a church building or any building; it may have been an outdoors place, a wild part of creation, or a well-tended garden. Pause for a moment and recapture the experience.
And as you remember let me tell you briefly about a few of my own. I recall a winter visit to Wai-otapu, a thermal park near Rotorua. There were very few people around at that time of the year, and I found myself for a moment alone beside a tiny bubbling mud pool; and there was a sense of the sacred, of God, a sense of being profoundly known and loved.
I remember the experience of spending a day at Gallipoli, of visiting battlefields and cemeteries, of standing on the beach and climbing rugged hillsides and contemplating memorials. I remember being affected by the words of Ataturk:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives. You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now living in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.
There was no one particular moment, but the experience of being in a place that held a defining moment of history in our nationhood, a place that represented death and reconciliation, caused me to come away knowing that I had been in a sacred place.
Each time I have the privilege of presiding at the Eucharist, as I will here today, there is a strong sense for me of the presence of God in the midst of the community gathered around a table and elements that have such great significance for us in the corporate remembering of Christ. God’s presence in Christ becomes real for me through the work of God’s Spirit in that moment.
And I could go on. But I hope in the midst of my words you have had the chance to be of your own moments and the significance of them for you.
I have pondered much over the years about the meaning and definition of sacred space. I have come to realise that it is the combination of many factors: architecture, symbols, events of the past, the presence of people. These human factors interact with the presence of God in all things and in all events to awaken us to that presence, and so to capture moments where the idea of God becomes the reality of God, where what can never be scientifically proven becomes existentially real and thus more convincing than any philosophy or theory.
We set this place aside and declare it to be sacred, in recognition of all that has occurred here to the glory of God through the years, and all that will occur for that glory into the future.
We set this place aside because we declare it to be a place to which people may come and honour God within this community.
We set this place aside and in doing so we cause people to raise their awareness and anticipation of the presence of God when they enter here. The knowledge that this is a sacred space and the experience of being in this space interact with one another to allow us to be open to the presence of God here and to respond.
Buildings and places may facilitate our awareness of the sacred, but ultimately it is the experience of encounter and response that matters. And God is the initiator of the encounter, not us. We have these opportunities to discern God’s presence in moments and places. Through them God invites us to respond.
We set this space aside as sacred, but it is the community of people, the Body of Christ in this place, who will allow that to be real. Heed those words of St Paul that in the proclamation of the gospel he sought to be all things to all people. In other words, he did not let differences of culture and practice stand in the way of making Jesus known. He sought to be open to others, to meet them in their place, and through that human encounter to facilitate an encounter with God and so make Christ known.
Your lives and your life together here, the welcome that you offer to others, will speak of the truth of this place as being a sacred place, set aside to the honour and glory of God.
We offer that intention to you our God today and seek the grace of your presence in this place, within and between us.