Posted by: owizblog | September 22, 2012

Time and Space to Think Sermon UCB 22 July 2012


2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56


I don’t know if you found yourselves thinking, as you heard today’s Old Testament reading “What’s this about…?  There’s no story to it….” And then along comes the Gospel reading, and you think “And what was all that about? Jesus is rushed off his feet, tries to get away from it all, slips into a boat – and the crowd sees what’s happening, and they are there to meet him by the time he gets to the other side of the loch, where he’s rushed off his feet again…”

Readings without stories. Things happening, but nothing to tell. And what have they got to do with me, with my life? You’d be more than entitled to think that. Indeed, you should. We should always be thinking during the service – and you all have a right to think, during the sermon – “What does this have to do with my life, in the real world, out there, 24/7

Well, have you never had the experience, at the end of a busy, chaotic day, of picking up the phone, and a familiar voice says “How are you? What kind of a day have you had? What have you been doing…?”

And you can’t think what you’ve been doing. It’s just been – life… Hectic. Routine. No time to think. And so, when the familiar voice asks, at the end of the day – no story to tell. “What kind of a day have you had? What have you been doing?” I can’t remember. I couldn’t tell you. Not because I’ve been doing nothing, but because it just hasn’t stopped… In fact, this, now, me sitting down to talk to you, is the first time I HAVE stopped…

Well, that, in a sense, is where the Old Testament reading comes from. It’s the first time in the story of Israel that they have been able to stop. Draw breath. But it’s also what the Gospel reading is about. Stopping, drawing breath – and the complete inability to do that. And both stories are about where God is in all of this…


David’s great victories and skilful policy have established him at the head of a substantial wee empire. Israel and Judah are moving into peace and stability. It’s a moment, in the history of Israel. A pause.  And the king has been thinking.

“See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” He’s musing out loud, in front of Nathan the prophet Nathan, the court prophet, the man who has special privilege to tell it as it is, to the King, in the name of God.

The implication is clear. David has just built himself a great big palace, but God’s ark, the symbol and focus of God’s presence with Israel, the box containing the Tablets of the Law brought down from Sinai by Moses, the Ark of the Covenant, is still in the tented structure in which it rested in the desert when the Israelites stopped for a moment.

But now the moving-round isn’t just over. It’s becoming ancient history. Yet God’s Ark is still in a tent. It’s a curiosity that the Hebrew word for “palace” is the same as the Hebrew word for “temple.” If you’re interested, it’s “hechal”, and it comes from the Sumerian words e gal – “big house.”  David has his big house. God doesn’t.

The prophet sees where this is going. Nathan says “Great idea!” and goes away.

The following day, he’s back, with an insight.And something to say in God’s name.  I’m God. You don’t build me a house. I’m God. I build you up.  When the people were wandering around in the wilderness, when they were marginal tribes in the hills, pushed around by the Canaanites, then the Philistines, the tent of the presence was good enough for me, because it symbolized just that: my presence with my people.  I brought them from there, through all that, to here.  And I’m not quite finished doing all that yet.  You are on the throne. But I will build you into a house, a house of David, a promise and a hope for the future.

Then your son can build me a hechal. An e gal. A big house.

But I shall still be the God who goes with you, not the God contained in the big building. The God of real life, with its trials and tergiversations, its cross-currents and flux. God there in the reality that never stops, God there where and when real life is lived – which means here, now and 24/7.

The king wants to build a temple to God. And God says: No. Not now. Not you. Your son. Solomon. Not now, not you, because I’m the God of the whole of life. You need to grasp that – the people need to grasp that – before you start building me a place apart from real life. Not you. Not now.

Turning that thought over, I found myself scrabbling after a fugitive memory. The internet is our friend, and that’s where I went.


Who here has been to Coventry Cathedral?

We all know the story: Coventry, the English cultural equivalent of the Clydebank raid; a city devastated, to the extent that Herman Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, minted the German word “Koventrieren” to encapsulate the intention, the threat and the reality of a city destroyed.

And Coventry Cathedral was destroyed.

And the war came to an end, and there was a pause. The competition for a design to design the new cathedral was held in 1950, and famously won by Sir Basil Spence. The foundation stone of the new cathedral was laid by the Queen on 23 March 1956, and it was consecrated on May the twenty-fifth, 1962. Seventeen years after the end of the war, twenty-five  years – a traditional generation –  after the Coventry Blitz of 14 November 1940. Time to think things through, to reflect. The new cathedral wasn’t just a replacement for a burnt-out predecessor. Certainly not, because it incorporated the old building’s shell – and, you might say, all the pain of the journey of the people of Coventry, Europe, much of the world – through the war to here. A fraught, ghastly pilgrimage through the very worst that people can do., but through it, nonetheless. To here. To 1962, to a world rebuilt, yet living under the new threat of nuclear annihilation.

I long wondered what exactly Spence meant his Cathedral to say about God. It was hugely controversial. One critic, Reyner Banham, in a New Society article, dismissed Coventry Cathedral as “a ring-a-ding God-box” and referred to its architect as “Banal Sir-Spence”.

The “ring-a-ding God Box” tag stuck. Some of you will have heard it.

[BREAK: Hymn 10 Christ is made the sure foundation]

Coventry Cathedral


The full quote from that New Statesman article is that Coventry Cathedral is “A ring-a-ding God-box that will go over big with the flat-bottomed latitudinarians.”

But I also found this, on the internet, from the text of a book on the art and architecture critic Sir Nikolaus Pevsner:

Spence had meant the plans for the judges’ eyes, but they were published in their original, highly romantic form, and provoked a storm of public discussion and personal abuse. Pevsner commented later “The architect found himself, to his pained surprise, attacked on two fronts: for being too modern and for not being modern enough. The lay press shouted jazz and cinema, the experienced critics with a faith in the 20th century called it Gothic, and a compromise.”

Well, if you are being criticised simultaneously for being too extreme and too cautious, you’re probably doing something right, I suppose! But Pevsner went on to raise a really important question, in fact, two questions, turning on the idea of a modernist cathedral.

“Can modernism be conducive to worship? And if not, does the fault lie with modernism or with religion? Is modernism too mundane, associated too exclusively with office, factory, and council estate? Or on the contrary, is it too vital for an institution which is losing its vitality?”

In other words – is religion something that shouldn’t be connected with everyday life? If we live in, work in, if our children go to work in, modern buildings – should we leave all that behind when we go on a Sunday to worship God? And is that because religion can’t face real life?

But isn’t that what the God whose ark was in a tent was warning David about? You’re the king. You live, if you want to, in a palace, a hechal, an e gal, a Big House. I’m bigger than that, and bigger than you. So for now, my presence will dwell in a tent. I am the God of all of life. You can build me a house when you’ve learned that.

Is it perhaps the case that by 1962, just as the world was changing out of all recognition, the Church was finally learning that God is in the midst of life – and building her cathedrals accordingly?

Or could it be the case that the Church was actually remembering something that she had forgotten over the centuries – the same thing, that God is the God of real life, and all of it? Here we sit, in a beautiful, venerable building on an ancient site, next to the choir of the ancient church of St Mary – our own cathedral, once the Cathedral of the Bishops of Sodor. Do we really think that generations of Bute folk didn’t bring their real lives here, the hurly-burly of their quotidian existence, the stuff that pushed and propelled them round so that some days they would only have time to think at the end of the day – and ask God to be with them in all of it?

Have we forgotten that? Is religion, for us, something we need to keep separate from daily life? Remember Pevsner’s second question – a stinging, astringent, challenging question, addressed, now, to us: is Modernism as an architectural style “too vital for an institution which is losing its vitality?” And the question behind it, but clearly visible. Is contemporary life too much for an institution that’s losing its vitality? For religion? For the Church?


I found another piece about Coventry Cathedral on the internet, and it quotes a review from The Spectator from 1962, of someone who clearly went to the Cathedral with the intention of weighing and measuring what he found – and of finding it wanting, in at least some respect. But The Spectator reviewer says:

“As I stood just inside the glazed ‘west’ wall of Coventry Cathedral, beneath John Hutton’s gaily engraved angels — running, jumping and standing still — I was stunned by the richness of John Piper’s baptistery window, the absolute rightness of the Sutherland tapestry which fills the whole wall behind the altar and the simplicity and serenity of the ‘great barn’ itself — Sir Basil Spence’s own words — in which, from the main entrance, they are the only immediately visible works of art.

“Just by chance, as I approached the cathedral it had been completed — by being filled with music. I cannot remember a more moving experience. With my hand still on one of the tiny bronze door knobs, sculpted as a child’s head by Epstein, I was hit simultaneously by shapes, colours and sounds — the fourteen slender pillars of reinforced concrete which suspend the timber- and-concrete vaulted canopy beneath the roof; the perpetual sunshine that bursts from the centre of deeper colours in the eighty-four-foot-high Piper window…

“I half hoped that…I would suppress the urge to go away without having the impertinence to write a single word of adverse criticism about the cathedral… I tried very hard to see the cathedral as an elegant box of functional tricks. But I had to give in. This is a great and humbling building — a building in which trivial criticisms merely make the critic himself feel trivial. Of course it is a box of functional tricks; but every trick is inspired and designed to help the real user of the building. This is a machine for Worshipping in — a cathedral built round the Communion service.”

And the blogger whose site quotes the article continues:

“I like that phrase, “a machine for worshipping in”. I find that it describes very well the utility and efficiency of the building and its contents, as well as the streamlined, modern beauty of the furnishings and commissioned artworks… Given the era in which it was commissioned, designed and built, the new cathedral could so easily have been a drab grey brutalist building one of many that were being enthusiastically erected up and down the country.”

But it’s not. And that’s an important point. This “machine for worshipping in” isn’t the sort of boring, soul-destroying gym-hall for the soul that so many places of worship are that people have thrown up since the sixties.  It’s a place of holiness, and beauty, and the presence of God. But it’s continuous with the real life of the world, which is where we have to make sense of our faith, and find – or more importantly, be found – by God. A place of beauty, which proclaims that the God who is here is the God who is with his people everywhere they are.


David was warned not to build a temple, because he and his people weren’t in a position to think about it properly, not when they’d  just built a Royal Palace. Palaces are to keep kings apart, the Temple is to allow God, God in all his difference, all his holiness, to be approached, still as God, but as God in the midst of, at the centre of, real life. The life of the community, the life of society, the life of the world.

And the Gospel reading? Not much of a story. Just “Jesus’ busy day.” No temple. No building at all, actually.  Just Jesus, there, where people need him. Jesus rushed off his feet. Jesus unable to be alone with his disciples for a few minutes.  Jesus’ ministry the sign of God’s presence with us in all of life. Immanu-el. God with us. In or out of this building, indeed wherever we are. Wouldn’t it be great if the life of the twenty-first century church – our life – were like that? What are those words again? “A ‘7 days-a-week church’, spreading Christ’s message through a highly motivated congregation, together serving and supporting our members and the wider community, through a variety of worship, the development of fellowship and the Christian care of those in need…”

And here’s a thought. This evening at 5.30 is the St. Blane’s service. [1] A couple of questions, and an answer, for you.

Will we be worshipping in God’s big house?

Will be worshipping in the open air, out there in the real world?


[1] The annual St Blane’s Midsummer Service, an ecumenical service which has been held for years at the ruined Chapel of St Blane, in Kingarth, in the south of the Isle of Bute, pictured at the top of this post.

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