Sunday 6 May - Festival Eucharist - Markus Duenzkofer

Two stories:

With the notable exception of Eddie the Eagle and Scottish curling, winter sports do not featured prominently in these islands. So, you might not have heard of Shaun White, a US-American snowboarder who won gold in the recent Winter Olympics in South Korea. Now this in itself might not be newsworthy on this side of the Atlantic. However, Shaun did garner some considerable attention. Why? Had he cheated? Had he doped? Had he snowboarded over a competitor? No, none of it.


Shaun secured his gold medal by coming very much from behind. Of course, he was elated and excited. Of course, he celebrated. And as he did, he did not notice that he was dragging on the ground the US flag he had been handed. At one point he even stepped on the flag. And you cannot imagine the outrage on social media –  well, maybe you can. The flag was all that mattered. Shaun? Not so much.

Second story:

When I was a wee boy, I had a fascination with fire… Of course, this led to copious parental attempts to hide matches and lighters. But a 6, 7, or 8 year old cannot be stopped! However, the mind of a 6, 7, or 8 year old cannot fully think through all the consequences.

So, one day, I was playing in our basement. And I knew that in little room adjacent – which was very much off limits – stood an old oil stove, kept there for God-knows-what reasons… I furthermore knew that there was a spare canister filled with petrol in our garage. And did I know the difference between oil and petrol? Both burn, right?  But I did know where my mother hid matches. So, yes, you know where this is going… You would have done exactly the same, right?

I fetched the canister and poured the content into the stove. But fortunately I was a wee boy then. And I didn’t quite reached the top of the stove. So, part of the petrol had dripped on a piece of cloth sitting in front of the stove. When I struck the match, the spark ignited that piece of cloth… And this is why I am still here. And this is why my parents’ house to this day is completely intact.

 

In his 1981 treatise “Simulacres et Simulation,” French philosopher Jean Baudrillard critically examines our society. Humans, argues Baudrillard, are symbol-making creatures: We seek to make meaning of reality by creating host of symbols, signs, and metaphors. This is not bad in itself. But because we cannot reproduce past events and realities, it is through a chain of successive symbol-making – starting from the original event – that we try to make sense of reality. Over time, however, these symbols continue to lose their connection with the original event. What Baudrillard believes is that copies of symbols pile up, one on top of another, and each copy becomes more and more corrupt, more and more disconnected from reality. And eventually, we end up with a reality that is not real anymore, but is only symbolic. These symbols in their final stage Baudrillard calls “simulacra,” which very much take on a dynamic and meaning of their own.  

I would argue that snowboarder Shaun White got in trouble, because he desecrated a simulacron: A piece of cloth, void of meaning, but coloured in a particular way, that has taken on identity. It is no more about what the US Declaration of Independence so beautifully phrases, i.e. “that all men [and women] are created equal [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” But it is the flag that matters. And when material fabrics are more important than a person, when a US flag can trump Shaun, than we have moved from celebrating the liberation from a concreted injustice into giving in to a sense of nation and loyalty that is abstract, corrupted, and oppressive.

And this is not just a challenge for the United States in this crazy and scary world of ours. Recent surges of far-right movements in Western Europe have shown how much we have disconnected too. And here in these Islands we must also be careful not to be led astray when we sing songs that vow to the nation “the love that asks no question.” Is this really the right and proper way to relate to the profound beauty of our constitutional reality? Or have we been taken over by simulacra?  

Churches are not immune to the corruption of simulacra. When music, worship styles, polity, governance, or even our cherished liberal or conservative hermeneutics blind us to the profound truth of God’s self-revelation or to the needs of those around us, then corruption has set in. Even the fabric of our buildings can become a simulacra, a symbol more important then the original identity…

And on this splendid day, this might be difficult to say and hear: but buildings have no meaning in themselves. They, just like anything else I mentioned above, are only tools to serve the love of God and the love of neighbour. God’s Temple is first and foremost not made up of stones. But as Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel, God’s Temple is built of God’s children, whoever they are and wherever they find themselves on the journey of faith.

At the core, we, the church, are a nomadic people, without buildings, constantly journeying deeper into the mystery of our triune God. And as people on the move, buildings can only be stopovers, filling stations, and reminders of our roots: reminders of who we are, whose we are, and where we have come from. At the heart of our identity aren’t stone temples, as beautiful as they may be. But at the heart of our identity is the Incarnation of God, that singular and unique event, which culminated in the death and resurrection of God in Jesus Christ and which brings about salvation, justice, and peace for the entire cosmos.

And yet, 200 years after Daniel Sandford consecrated St John’s and as we bless yet another new building project, we can at the same time rejoice and be thankful for the splendour of this place and for the stability and healing it provides. If I had been successful in burning down our family house, not only would my family and I have been left homeless and depleted. We would have lost a sense of belonging, of identity, of secure habitation from which to interact with the world. How much laughter and how many tears had we shared and, thankfully, did we continue to share within those walls?

Yes, church buildings can be sacred places. Once we set them apart in the name of God, they are like signposts to God’s love, like anchors of God’s hope in the world. There is a continuous stream of people who come here daily to rest their bodies and minds and to pray for restoration and wholeness. This is a spiritual oasis in our busy and hectic world. And it is hallowed by everybody who comes – and that alone should create in us a deep sense of gratitude. Yes, God is here. God is here in every fibre of this building, whispering the still, small, but all-powerful voice of divine love for each and every one of us. And God can be encountered here through worship, through prayer, through music, as much as through silence and meditation.

And if it wasn’t for the particular splendour of this holy place would we have had the courage to do the wonderful and at times crazy work of God? Would we have created the Rock Trust, the Bookshop, or Souper Saturday? Would we have confronted injustice through our murals, our environmental group, or the Just-Festival? Would we have challenged complacency and entitlement by sponsoring two of the first women to be ordained priests in our church, by conducting the first same-sex marriage in an UK Anglican church, by keeping our doors open during the Beast from the East, or by grounding everything we do and everything we are in the worship of our triune God? And if it wasn’t for the beauty here in this place, would we have been able to find the vision to renew our hall for mission?

Yes, we are here to celebrate today.

And celebrate we must. And we must be grateful for God’s providence, God’s protection, and God’s blessings in the past 200 years and during the building of the Cornerstone Centre.

But our story isn’t done. This sacred bicentenary building and the Cornerstone Centre must continue to aspire to Haggai’s prophetic words so that the latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former. Our buildings are resources for ministry and outreach to all those around us. And I might add, they are unique and awesome resources indeed!

So, as we look forward, let us seek to use this sacred building in the service of all of God’s children and to the greater glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.