HOMILY at the 9h and 10h30 MASSES for the NINETEENTH SUNDAY after TRINITY (A) 2017
The Gospel reading we have just heard is probably one that has been badly interpreted in a whole number of ways over the centuries. When politicians, for example, find themselves challenged by some vigorous Church leader, they are inclined to retaliate by using the words render unto Caesar… as a reason for consigning clergy to ‘religious things’ whilst they get on with the real business of politics. Jesus’ agile and clever answer to the Pharisees has been pressed far too hard in service of ways which cannot be reconciled with both his teaching elsewhere, and our understanding of Christian faith today. In the past, splitting off state and church into two ‘kingdoms’ has had disastrous results – arguably not least in Germany before the second world war. The inscription on Caesar’s coinage indicates a particular realm of authority, it’s true. But it cannot be a realm of authority that is somehow isolated from the kingdom of God. As S. Augustine said, the government of a state behaving without any concern for justice is no more than a band of robbers. We can see plenty of examples in our world today, sadly.
There is much I would like to say about today’s readings and Eucharistic theme and normally I would. But today I would like us to focus on an important moment in our family life based here at Holy Trinity. But don’t worry because coinage will come into it later on!
Today we can announce the new name for our project of renovation and renewal. As you know, we have been working on this for quite some time now, and we felt that it was important to have a name for our project. For various reasons – and I will come to them shortly – it had to be short, and we decided it had also not to be overtly religious.
So on Monday evening, the Council and I chose the name Building Tomorrow. We agreed that it fulfilled a number of our requirements, and that it expressed succinctly what we are about in our project. Soon there will be a number of presentations which will give us all a better idea of the scope of what will be possible, now that we have commissioned our architect. Over the past 18 months, many of us have expressed our own particular wishes as to what we should like to have included. And these wishes are important. Some will be fulfilled, we hope. Others won’t. That is always going to be the way – not least when it comes to a work of faith like this one.
Building Tomorrow is indeed a work of faith and hope, as well as of love. The choice of name expresses the inevitable truth that this project is going to take time. Tomorrow is just that. In the future.
But it is for the future that we must prepare ourselves now. There are those Christians who say that buildings are unimportant. Any old shack will do. The Reformers frequently behaved like this and in my native Scotland you won’t find many ancient church buildings that have survived without serious destruction, sometimes ‘rectified’ by well-intentioned but ill-advised Victorians. The Calvinists in Scotland let the sanctuaries of their austerely beautiful churches fall into decay, whilst keeping the naves as hideous square ‘preaching boxes’, devoid of beauty or any sense of the presence of holiness.
Now there will always be arguments about this. It’s true that as Christian people, we don’t absolutely have to have church buildings. We can celebrate the Eucharist round a kitchen table with the priest dressed in ordinary clothes. And there are times when that is right and necessary. But when we do have buildings, then we should not only make them functional, but beautiful too. Holy spaces where people can encounter God.
So it’s good that here in Geneva, in this busy city, a place where there are many competing claims for people’s attention, there is a building which is dedicated in honour of God the Holy Trinity. Creator of all, Redeemer of all, Sanctifier of all. A building which calls us to contemplate God’s being and God’s purposes. A purpose of renewed humanity. The contemplation and worship of God does not somehow make us less human. It makes us far more human, authentically human in the pattern of Jesus Christ. This is our mission, our calling in this place.
And to do this effectively by use of our building, our sacred space, in an imaginative and creative way.
Much more about that later. Meanwhile, back to the name. Building Tomorrow. It is an expression of hope which is, along with faith and love, one of the three theological virtues. We hope to be here tomorrow. Though we may not be. What we start now, perhaps not all of us will see to completion, though some will, and there will be others by that time who will appreciate what we have been able to pass on.
Building Tomorrow is also non-religious. That was deliberate. We had some really good suggestions, including some from our young people, which had something about the Trinity in them. But as we reflected together, we know that we are going to have to attract money for our project from all kinds of sources, many of them not overtly religious. As I said a moment or two ago, this sacred space is a space where humanity engraced by God may flourish not diminish. The work that we propose on this building must be a work which is of benefit to all humanity even though many may not recognise it immediately. Creating a sacred space relevant to the 21st century is vital. Many people come into this building every day, some in desperation, others in hope that they may find peace and solace in a noisy world, still others looking for some kind of vision that will sustain them in a confusing and frequently painful world.
Building Tomorrow also emphasises that we must do something with our building if it is to remain here tomorrow – that is to say into the future. We may have many preconceptions about what a church should look like, frequently such ideas come from formative moments in our lives a long time ago. If you were to ask me what my ideal church would look like, it probably wouldn’t surprise you very much to hear that amongst its attributes would be an air of mystery, a lingering aroma of incense and flickering votive candles. But equally I hope that I would want such a building to be accessible to people, to be welcoming and encouraging, to be comfortable in the right sense, to be adequate – first and foremost – for the celebration of the Eucharist and of Baptism in our modern way, which is also a more ancient way. And at the same time as all of this, to have flexibility to enable the sacred space to be used, no less for the purposes of God, but perhaps by providing a space for other activities in which we are able to encounter God’s transcendent mystery. Including through, especially for us here, music.
But Building Tomorrow presupposes that we have something today upon which we build. And that is manifestly evident. We have a lively, diverse, and growing congregation of people from many parts of the world at Holy Trinity Geneva. Much to be thankful for – though much still to do.
And this brings me to the last point today, which is not unconnected from all that we look forward to. It’s about the present moment. I have, as a priest, always believed that if God calls us to do something, then the means will be there. Including the money. And I have usually been right, though not necessarily as right as I might have wished! Now we are going to need a lot of help with Building Tomorrow. And though some will come from the generosity of members of the congregation, and their joint works, much will have to come from outside sources. But we have a present problem too. To continue what we are doing now costs us a lot of money. We keep costs as low as we can. But even so, we are struggling. This year things are heading for a big deficit and that cannot go on. I know that many people give with huge generosity now. But if you are waiting for the Building Tomorrow appeal before you give, then I ask you please to think again. There will be such an appeal! No prizes for guessing that! But we do need more money now, and so over the next few weeks, you will receive a note about our present financial situation and ways that you can help. What is puzzling to us is the fact that whilst congregations have increased in size, collections have decreased. There are no doubt good reasons for this. So please tell us if you know what they are!
In the Gospels, Jesus talked quite a lot about money – not just about whose head happened to be on the coinage. If we value what this church building stands for, what we hope to transform in Building Tomorrow then we shall want to support it as generously as we can. That cannot be translated into percentages or anything like that – some are able to give a little, some much and all is equally valuable. But please do ponder these things!