In some parts of the Christian church, there is a tradition of welcoming a person into their church on the night before their funeral is held. It is a short and meditative and very lovely service, and it is a time for them to be with the people who knew and loved them best before all the clamour and intensity of the next day. And afterwards, they remain in the sanctuary, safe and sleeping in the company of God and all His angels.
At the end of one such service, the person’s granddaughter told us how much the church had meant to her grandparent and how pleased she was that they would be able to spend this time in this place that they had loved. I thought that that sentiment expressed a great deal of what we might hope a church can be.
There are occasions in the life of the Church when we are told to remember that we stand on holy ground.
Last night at Evensong, I sat down in an old and well beloved building. I listened to the old stories of Michael and of Moses. I heard the familiar song of Mary. I let the cadence of the words wash over me. As the sun set on a weekend of which the best that might be said of it is that my grumpiness was not without just cause, I became aware of the angels carrying away my troubles.
I wonder what we mean when we remind ourselves that we stand on holy ground.
I think that very (too) often it is meant as a way to tell us that this is a place of “don’t”: don’t touch that, don’t run, don’t bring that person here, don’t ask awkward questions, don’t let children talk too loud, don’t laugh, don’t argue, don’t make a spectacle of yourself.
Nick Page writes an evocative passage about a visitor to Jerusalem emerging from the Lower City into the light and noise of the Temple Mount. About the livestock market and the business deals and the purification places and the chanting and singing and the lively discussions about the finer points of law. A place where all life is to be found.
In that is an idea that I recognise more in the church than the idea of “don’t”.
It is a place where all life is to be found.
Yesterday, as a song was sung about a dragon that once was slain, I found myself thinking about the life that is to be found in this church.
It is a place where I have ceilidhed the night away.
And spirited away six glasses and a bottle of fizz to the sacristy.
And dripped ice cream on the tile.
And cooked sausages on the dying embers of holy fires.
It is a place where I’ve thuribled backwards amid a shower of rose petals.
Where I’ve smiled.
To this holy ground we have welcomed a man who was arrested in Canterbury Cathedral and a bishop who was shunned by the Lambeth Conference.
And a rooster.
And a cat who I had to retrieve from beneath the feet of an organist.
Right in the middle of the sanctuary, we have held AGMs.
And debates and votes and elections and a Parliamentary hustings.
I’ve sat cross-legged on the floor at the high altar wearing rainbow-striped socks and no shoes, and getting silver polish all over everything.
I’ve washed feet and spilled Radox on the floor.
And spilled wax on the floor.
Once, I nearly set the sacristy carpet on fire in the middle of a service.
(It’s a wonder they ever let me back.)
We are the home of musicians and knitters and Tai-Chi and Alcoholics Anonymous.
And, originally, of the LGBT Switchboard.
I’ve had arguments there.
And had my feelings hurt and I’m sure hurt the feelings of others in return.
And loved and I know been loved in return.
I’ve been there in ecstasy and in anger and in joy and in grief, and even when I’ve thought that I’m maybe not quite feeling it.
I’ve been there in the darkness before dawn.
And in the darkness after midnight.
And in the light of day.
It has seen births.
And a resurrection.
A church is not polite society. It isn’t Granny’s front room, where you can’t eat anything sticky or talk about politics or get your shoes on the furniture. For me, it is a place that is loved and lived in and worked in, a little bit battered around the corners, and maybe best described by the Maori idea of turangawaewae: an old word that means our places of being and our places of belonging, the places where we feel empowered and the places that we are connected to, a place of home.
It is the place where we meet Jesus – a Jesus who was fully human and who himself experienced all the wonderful terrible mixed-up spectrum that comes with just being a person. It is where he demands nothing of us other than that we be wholly ourselves, with no masks and no pretences and no need to be someone or feel something that we’re not. It is where we bring the best of us and the worst of us and all the ordinary stuff in the middle too.
Perhaps it isn’t really a wonder that I’m allowed back.
So when you stand on holy ground, remember that. It isn’t an exhortation to mind your company manners, or to keep your shoes off the furniture, or to tie yourself in knots being diplomatic. It isn’t a place where you can do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing or be thought not good enough. It is a place where in the safety of God and all His angels and in the company of the one who knows us best, we can find all of life and call it home.