St Francis, Terriers - Dedication Festival (09.10.2016) Tony Dickinson

Today Francistide comes to an end in our Dedication Festival – or 86th birthday party, as I prefer to think of it. This is the day when we give thanks for the vision of those who saw the need for a new church in Terriers and remember with gratitude those who made that vision a reality. We remember Henrietta Field, whose freewill offering encouraged the Church Commissioners to make provision for the building of a new church on Amersham Hill, and Giles Gilbert Scott, who brought the work to fruition. We remember Bishop Strong who travelled down from Oxford on 11th October 1930 to pray for God’s blessing on this building and on the people who would worship here. And we remember Edwin Shaw, first Vicar of Terriers, who oversaw the creation of the new parish and who was pastor to its people through the first three decades of its life.

We remember, too, the lay-people who joined Edwin Shaw as the core of the new congregation, among them the Beecroft family, who provided our first churchwarden – and a choir member – and Lydia and Richard Brocklehurst and their children Hugh and Amabel, who migrated from our mother-church, All Saints. And we remember those for whom 11th October 1930 was a day of sadness rather than rejoicing, the people who had worshipped on this site for the previous quarter-century in St Mary’s mission church and who had grown to love that unlovely “tin tabernacle”, now downgraded to the role of church hall. Many of them voted with their feet and migrated to Hazlemere or moved out to that other “tin tabernacle”, St Andrew’s in Totteridge, until dwindling numbers and a rising repair bill forced the closure of that church forty years ago.

We remember the changes that these eight decades have seen: the huge growth of this parish, as housing spread up the hill and across the fields; the arrival and growth of other groups of migrants, from the Caribbean, from South Asia, and from Central and Eastern Europe, people escaping poverty or tyranny, or responding to a call from the “mother country” for people to fill jobs for which those born here had neither the skills nor the appetite. We remember with thanksgiving the ways in which their coming has enriched us.

Not least among our memories are others who have ministered here, especially Tony Richards, who was, as the Salvationists say, “promoted to glory” earlier this year, but also Ralph Cartmill and Steven Purnell, happily both still living, and, among the associate clergy, Michael Williams and Allan Woods, as well as those, Jo’, Tim, Martin, who have shared our life more recently.

There is also another memory, going back eight centuries, a memory of a young man praying alone in a half-derelict church outside the city where he lived, a young man seeking direction for a life against which door after door seemed to be closing. We remember him, the cloth-merchant’s son, Giovanni Bernardone, known to his family and friends as Francesco, Francis, “the Frenchman”, for his father’s frequent business journeys into that kingdom and his mother’s Provençal birth. And we remember the voice that broke into his prayer, with the urgent command “Francis, go and rebuild my Church which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”

We remember how Francis tried to carry out that command, raiding his father’s warehouse and selling lengths of the most expensive fabric he found there, so that he, like the leaders of ancient Israel, could make a free-will offering to build a house for God’s holy name. We remember the stories of him buying or begging building materials for the repair of local churches – and we might think back to our efforts over the past five years to raise the money to restore this building.

But Francis came to realise that imitating David wasn’t enough. To rebuild Christ’s Church isn’t simply to pile up wood and stones and mortar. To rebuild Christ’s Church is to move on to that work described in our second reading, creating not a house but a household, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” That’s where we are. That’s the challenge which faces us, all of us. In a society which has forgotten the Christian story and in which there are many competing stories, not all of which have to do with any sense of God, we are called to live God’s love and mercy, to strive for God’s justice and God’s peace, to include, as Jesus our Lord included, the despised and marginalised as equals alongside the prosperous and “successful”, to embrace, as Francis did, the unloved and unlovely.

I’ve recently finished Nadia Bolz-Weber’s latest book, “Accidental Saints” – you may remember me singing the praises of “Cranky, Beautiful Faith”. Nadia writes about her congregation and their life together as “The House for All Sinners and Saints”, and about their attempts to reflect the love of God in the way they live and worship together, in their openness to one another and to those on the outside – not just the outside of Church, but the outside of contemporary American society, LGBT people, people who self-harm, people who struggle with mental illness or addictive behaviours, people whose lives are sharp-edged and irregular.

Nadia writes about her own struggles to remain faithful and to retain integrity as a pastor, despite the increasing demands that are made on her time as a speaker with a growing international reputation (She was in this country at the beginning of last month, speaking at Greenbelt and at St Paul’s Cathedral). She writes honestly about her own failures – whether as a pastor or as a human being – in a way that had me wincing from time to time in self-recognition, and about how God takes even the worst failures and makes something of them. And she writes above all about the love and mercy which are at the heart of the Christian gospel and about how this disparate group of people is being “built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God”.

Nadia’s book reminds us that what matters is faithfulness, not numbers or gimmickry. In today’s Gospel, faced with those who turn religion into a commodity, Jesus cries out “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace”. The Father’s house is not a market-place, but a workshop where sharp-edged and irregular-shaped human beings “grow together into a holy temple in the Lord”, bound together in love, as those sharp-edged and irregular-shaped flints on the outside of this building are bound together by the render in which they are set. Let us keep silence…

Most high and glorious God, lighten the darkness of our hearts and give us, sound faith, firm hope, and perfect love. Let us, Lord, have the right feelings and knowledge, properly to carry out the tasks you have given us for the rebuilding of your Church. Amen.