145 years ago our ancestors laid the foundation stone of this edifice. The fourth building we’ve occupied, and one designed and located to tell the world that we’re a true church with a permanent presence. There can be a tendency on a Church Anniversary to think quite specifically about our building, and to give thanks for those who planned and built it and have cared for it.
Our ancestors, though, would have never have dreamt of referring to their building used for worship as a “church” – heaven forbid, the very idea! They were always very careful to refer to such things as either chapels or meeting houses, never churches, because church is always people, and nothing to do with a building.
This evening we read about Jesus going into his local family place of worship, the Synagogue at Nazareth. Nazareth was a tiny agricultural village off the main trade routes, unnoticed by earlier history. Nazareth supported the rebellion against Rome in the years AD 67 to 70, so it’s highly likely that the synagogue Jesus knew would have been destroyed at that time and rebuilt later. The only thing we know for sure about the Nazareth Synagogue 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’s what matters most for this church and all churches today:
Is it a place where the scriptures are read, and in their reading the voice of Jesus is heard?
Is it a place where we are confronted by the challenge and promise of the Gospel?
So, on our Church Anniversary, we give thanks for those who built this edifice, but more so that the Scriptures have indeed been read and the Gospel proclaimed, that the Risen Christ has indeed stood among us and spoken to his people, and God’s coming Kingdom has been enlarged.
This, of course, not the first chapel we’ve occupied. A puritan Minister, Samuel Stileman, was instituted in the parish church in 1656, during the commonwealth and protectorate. He was ejected from the living in 1660, and the Presbyterians built their first meeting house in West Street soon after. In 1792, evangelical protestants were ejected from the parish church, and built an Independent chapel in East Street, to which the Presbyterians later joined. In 1872, when the middle class tradesman were prospering, and respectable nonconformity was at its Victorian height finally free of social exclusion, this edifice was built, on the then new road to the then new railway station to show the world that we were a true church with a permanent presence. So, here we are in our fourth building.
Buildings come and go. Many changes have been seen in this place and in those that went before it. Today we give thanks for the generations who have worshipped here, met with Christ here, and heard and proclaimed the Gospel, and dreamed the dreams of the Kingdom here. That Gospel has of course been proclaimed not only in word but in deed. The Good News to the poor has been lived as well as spoken. 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.
Times changes, but some things don’t change. In 1908 the church debts had reached £300, at least £25,000 at today’s prices, and so a grand bazaar was held in the Town hall and Corn Exchange on 6 – 7 October 1908, organised by a committee of 40 ladies, with 29 gentlemen to build the stalls. They raised a magnificent £362 and kept the church afloat for a bit longer.
What I’m saying is that it’s no good having a building unless Christ is found there proclaiming the Gospel; and it’s no good hearing the Word of the Gospel, unless we respond and live it in the world beyond these walls.
Of course we all know what happened when Jesus brought his Gospel to the Nazareth Synagogue: people listened, and then turned away – after all, this was just Joseph’s son, a prophet without honour in his own country. May this 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, may we hear the words, catch the vision, and live the dream.
If history teaches us anything it is that over the years we need to refurbish and redevelop, to cope with the crises of the past and rise to the challenges of the future. As in every generation, we’re challenged to be worthy of those who have gone before us. I like to think that as we think and pray about our work here, the puritans, the Caroline Presbyterians, the evangelical Independents, the Victorian Congregationalists, are looking down on us.
And I wonder if we will please them? Only, I’m sure, 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 and justice which are the Gospel.
I don’t know what the future holds for Farnham, for the UK, for the world – but 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 the poor and marginalized and lost,
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 in a dark world. Then we shall we build with the Lord, and as the Psalmist knew of old, those who build with the Lord shall not build in vain.