Sermon on SBC's 75th Anniversary


27th September 2009


“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue…”  (Luke 4:16)

Today we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Sutton Baptist Church on this site.  And it is a huge honour for me to be addressing you on this very special occasion.  It is also an honour to welcome friends from other Christian communities joining with us today: our ecumenical partners from St Nicholas and Trinity, and also ‘Forward in Faith’, the African church who shares our buildings here. 

It is gracious of you all to join with us here today, and it is much appreciated. What is a celebration, unless it is shared?

The sheer diversity of people here today is wonderful: Anglicans, Methodists, URC, Baptist, African, and probably half a dozen others. Old and young, black and white, new in the faith and faithful old hands.

And this is right: All are welcome in God’s family - Jew or Gentile, Slave or free, rich or poor, saint or sinner – all are welcome.

Thank God for that - that is Gospel for me!  Why?  Because I too am the prisoner needing release from my sins and sorrows.  I am the alien in a far country with no rightful claim on God’s mercy.  One day if not now I may be the man in the ditch on the Jericho Road.

And if the doors are open and all may come in, then – amazing grace - maybe even I may enter!

So today on this 75th Anniversary, we thank God that we are accepted – all of us - part of God’s family, his household, wayward but adopted children, citizens of heaven.

But of course it isn’t the bricks and mortar.  As Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians: ‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;  in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.’

Now, on an occasion such as this, you might expect me to major quite specifically on this building, this place of worship, this sanctuary.  You might expect me to retell some of the stories of how this building was conceived, and erected, and dedicated.  You might expect me to give thanks for those who planned it and built it and cared for it, then and over the last 75 years.

There will indeed be times for that – but not, I think, today.  My purpose is a little different.  It would be easy, too easy, to turn this into a celebration of 75 years of bricks and mortar, when what we SHOULD be celebrating, what we NEED to celebrate, is 75 years of community in this place; 75 years of preaching the gospel in this place; 75 years of loving, faithful service in this place. THAT is much, much more important than the bricks and cement and timber and glass.

Our gospel reading this morning is all about Jesus going into his local family place of worship: the Synagogue at Nazareth.    

But what do we know about this building?  The building Jesus first worshipped in? 

The simple answer is “not a lot”.  Nazareth was a tiny village off the main trade routes and never even mentioned in the Old Testament.  A hilltop site has been suggested for the synagogue, but that is by no means certain.  And as to who built it and when, we’ve no idea.

Nor are we given any clues as to what it looked like, the ‘bricks and mortar’ if you like.  We are not told if it had a wooden, or a tiled, or a thatched roof.  We are not told how large it was, how many doors it had, what colour the walls were.  Indeed, the gospel writer seems utterly indifferent to the building itself. 

What is important is that Jesus of Nazareth stood there and read from the Scriptures and proclaimed the Gospel:

Good news for the poor,
freedom for the captives,
sight to the blind,
release for the oppressed.

And that of course is the key issue for every Church and every Chapel - wherever and whenever they are built: Is it a place like the Nazareth synagogue on that day of old - a place where the scriptures are read, and in their reading the voice of Jesus is heard?  A place where people are confronted by the challenge and comforted by the promise of the Gospel?

And so we come to this special Church Anniversary day.  And we are mindful of those who first built a place of worship here on this site. 

But even more, we give thanks how from generation to generation, the Scriptures have indeed been read and the Gospel proclaimed in this place. 

We give thanks for the vision that caused this place to be built.  But much more we give thanks for 75 years people have worshipped here, met with Christ here, heard and proclaimed the Gospel here, and dreamed the dreams of the Kingdom here.  Here they have had their hopes and their dreams and their visions. Here the Risen Christ has stood among us and spoken to his people and proclaimed again the dream of God’s coming Kingdom.

Of course, the world is a very different place than it was 75 years ago.  I doubt that the Rev HV Larcombe and his congregation then could ever have conceived of a world of mobile phones, computers, space flight so routine it barely makes the news any more.  Between them and us, there is a huge gulf, not just in years, but in events:  A world war, and many minor ones; unimaginable technological and scientific achievements; changes too in theological understanding as we confront the challenges of a multi-cultural city in ways they did not have to.

Times change.  But in the best of times and perhaps especially in the worst of times people have lived out the Gospel dream of love and peace in this place.  It is no use having a building unless Christ is found there proclaiming the Gospel.

Of course we all know what happened when Jesus brought his Gospel to the Nazareth Synagogue Building - people listened - and then turned away - this was just Joseph’s son, a prophet without honour in his own country.

I pray that such may not be the case here.  We gather in this sacred place hallowed by generations to hear Jesus speak to us –

His words challenge us with dreams and hopes of a new world.  Unlike the men of Nazareth of old, I pray that we may hear the words, take hope, catch the vision and live the dream ... and, in that, we will be worthy of those who have gone before us.

I wonder if we would please them?  Only I suspect if our Church is more than bricks and mortar, only if it opens its doors to the needs of the world, only if it hears and lives the dreams of peace which is the Gospel.

And what of the future?

There is a play called “Days of Hope” - it is set in the closing days of the Spanish Civil war.  The key characters have been fighting for the republican cause - fighting to bring good news to the poor.  But the war is lost.   

As the play ends the father and the mother stand centre stage alone.  They know that the fascist army is on its way.  They know that almost certainly they will be denounced as republicans and like thousands of others summarily shot.

The dream of freedom and justice in Spain is over.

But then the couple look at each other.  And in that moment they realize they have something which even Mussolini’s planes and Franco’s army cannot defeat.

And they remember their youth when they danced and laughed and they realize what they still have together.

And for the first time in years and years - in spite of their terrible plight, the darkness and doom of the approaching enemy - they hug each other and begin to dance.

And the chorus joins them for the finale as they sing

We’ve nothing to lose

We’ve nothing to fear

We may not be saved

From all trouble here

But while there are songs of love

While there are dreams of peace

While there are nights like this

There will be days of hope,

There will be days of hope.

I don’t know what the future holds for Sutton, for the UK, for the world -

As we read our papers and think to the future we may sometimes wonder … I don’t know –

”We may not be saved from all trouble here”

But really that is not what matters - what matters is that as God’s people we still love and dance and dream -

There may be trouble ahead – But:

As long as we build with the Lord

As long as we listen to the man of Nazareth speaking to us

As long as we open the doors of our Church and our lives to the needs of others

As long as our young men see visions and our old men dream dreams of a better world

As long as we are filled with the spirit

As long as we dance the resurrection story

As long there are songs of love and dreams of peace in this place

Then whatever the world may throw at us, this place shall be a beacon of hope.


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