Dedication Sunday: 7th August, 2016
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
1 Kings 8; 1 Peter 2:4-10; Matt. 21:12-16
Today is our Dedication Festival, the day we commemorate the anniversary of the official founding of the Parish of St Peter's Eastern Hill 168 years ago. Although we mark this as the day when our church was formally dedicated, St Peter's had been in use for some time beforehand. Two years earlier, on Thursday 18th June 1846 Charles La Trobe, then superintendent of the Port Philip District, laid the foundation stone of St Peter's church on the Eastern Hill of this new colonial settlement. Anglican worship in East Melbourne at that time was being held in a workshop owned by George Beaver, a builder who helped construct St James' Church, but who then fell out with the congregtion and seems to have set up a rival operation at this end of town.
Ironically some of the first acts of worship in the nearly completed St Peter's church were held in the summer of 1847 by the Vicar and congregation of St James, while work was being undertaken on their church. I doubt that George Beaver was in attendance! On 22nd March 1847 the Rt Rev'd William Broughton, Bishop of Australia, gave permission for the 'temporary' use of St Peter's by the congregation and regular worship was able to commence.
By the time the first Bishop of Melbourne arrived, ten months later, St Peter's was looking well established, and Mrs Frances Perry famously noted in her journal: "The very pretty new church, sweetly situated on the brow of the hill overlooking Melbourne, the sea, the dry plains and on two sides an immense extent of undulating, well wooded country, with blue ranges of hill in the horizon." Four days after their arrival, Bp Charles Perry was installed at St James' Church, but his papers had gone missing on the ship, so when they were found a second much quieter service was held at St Peter's on 13th February 1848. As well as giving Perry the authority to be bishop, these letters patent from Queen Victoria declared the city status of Melbourne.
Finally, on Sunday 6th August 1848, Bishop Charles Perry formally dedicated this church building to St Peter. The topic of his sermon was, of course, the diocesan church building fund.
Our Old Testament reading today tells of another dedication. Around 950 BC the great Jerusalem Temple, built by King Solomon, was completed. The nomadic people of Israel finally had a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant. The whole people of Israel are gathered, the priests emerge from the holy place, the whole temple is filled with clouds of incense, and we read in chapter 8 of first Kings, verse 12 the words of Solomon: "I have built you an exalted house [O Lord] a place for you to dwell in forever." He then prays: "Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way. You have kept your promise to your servant David my father; with your mouth you have promised and with your hand you have fulfilled it—as it is today."
The dedication of the Temple is a profound statement of faith in the real presence of God; in the clouds of incense, in the tabernacle, the priests, the holy of holies, in the majesty of this great building, God is here, God is with us.
But Solomon's prayer does not end there. There is a paradox, a mystery to God's presence. He continues (vv 27-30): "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! Yet give attention to your servant's prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, 'My Name shall be there,' so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive."
The presence of God is tangible, it is real, but it cannot be pinned down, it is not a material thing. The danger with a holy place is that it can take the place of the divine if we are not careful. The temple, the church, is a place that points to the divine, even houses the divine, but it can never equate to the divine. It is a sacred space only so much as it points beyond itself to the divine.
In the gospel reading today, our Lord is forcefully making this point. You have got it all wrong. This place of worship is not about money, trade, material things. "It is written: 'My house will be called a house of prayer', but you are making it a den of robbers" (Mtt 21:13). Things can go very wrong in the kingdom of God. Our places of worship can be heavenly, but they can also be hellish.
The Royal Commission proceedings in Newcastle this week have been a stark reminder of how far we can stray from the gospel we proclaim. Coming to church, belonging to a Christian community, is not enough. We need to keep our hearts clean, to practice what we preach, and not be deceived into thinking that anything goes because we are Christian. Listening to the horrors that Anglican priests committed in God's name, and hearing detail of the cover-up that the church structures committed, I must say I have been feeling ashamed to be Anglican. Just last week a colleague was in his car waiting at the traffic lights, wearing his collar, and he was abused by a passer by. We all share in these corporate sins in some way.
Now is a good time to take a long hard look at ourselves. What sort of a culture have we built here at St Peter's. How would the Christ react if he were visiting us? Are there tables that need upturning at St Peter's? What are our failings. The Parish Council Planning Day yesterday did some grappling with this. How welcoming and inclusive are we as a church? How well do we really care for the needs of the community around us? How can we do this better?
"Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5)
There have been good foundations, good living stones laid here over the last 170 years. But the building is not complete. There is still work for us to do in the building up of God's kingdom here on Eastern Hill. Pray for your Parish Council, for your clergy and lay staff, for the many volunteers who serve Christ in this place. And may we indeed, by God's grace, and through the real presence of God in the Holy Spirit, be built into a spiritual house, be a holy priesthood, and offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.