Ancient marine creatures, living in our planet’s oldest oceans, used calcium carbonate from the seawater to create intricate and beautiful shells – homes for themselves. thousands of years later, we humans find some of them preserved as fossils. Think of the spiral of an ammonite, found on a seashore.
But most of the millions of corals and shells, that once were living and inhabited don’t find their way to preservation in fossil form. Most fall to the ocean floor, sediment, residue; and over time and under pressure, create sedimentary rock. Limestone for example : predominantly composed of what were once the tiny architectures of millions of miraculously creative, living creatures in the seas.
Jesus’ description of the fate of the Temple, in our gospel reading today, may sound like doom and gloom: “These great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another”. But in the long view of history, he is describing the way of all architecture, human, coral, mollusc. Nothing is here to stay.
Jesus tells us this story over and over. People come to him caught up in the now, or in the appearance of things, or with human concerns of status, or who’s in and who’s out.
Jesus consistently opens for them a different story: the story of the Kingdom of God. Of peace, of love, of resurrection.
He points them away from the now, away from the ‘wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings’. Lift up your eyes! He says. Nothing is here to stay.
What matters instead, is what we do with what is allotted to us. With the resources, the space, the architecture we have care of. To quote JRR Tolkien’s Gandalf: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”.
What do we have, as a community, here in St Mary’s? We have so much. We have each other, we have community. We have our life together. We have our faith; the grace of God, the love of God, the life of God. We have this wonderful building, its shelter, its beauty. And we have our churchyard. A precious glint of green space in a crowded city. A glorious view over the river, a view that inspired Joseph Mallord William Turner from the upper vestry window back there – from that very chair in fact. ! Turner’s chair.
People pass through our churchyard in their thousands. Local people, commuting, taking their children to school or nursery, runners, cyclists, mums with prams. People come for weddings and funerals, celebrating or grieving. People pass through on river walks, ambling a stretch of the Thames. Most never make it as far as the the church doors.
What do we give those people? The people for whom, by rights, we exist. William Temple described the Church as “the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members”. These communities of Battersea, within which we sit – how do we go about blessing them, reaching out to them and offering something of the gift, the great grace and wonder, that God has given us?
Well green space is already a gift. The trees in this churchyard, some of them hundreds of years old, are increasingly rare and precious – sadly- in this burgeoning city of concrete and tarmac. Our churchyard is a haven, a pause, a place where many find a glimmer of peace.
But it was once so much more than that. In this window, to your left, is commemorated a man called th
William Curtis. He was a botanist, in the 18 century, and a presenter of plants at the Chelsea Physic Garden across the river; and he wrote a breakthrough work on wild plants in London. It was called Flora Londinensis, remarkable for how it was written to be accessible to ordinary people, not just the elite and his fellow scientists, and also because no one had ever documented what grew in urban environments before. And the thing is, he collected many of his samples of these plants – here, in St Mary’s churchyard. It was at that time a place of verdure and diversity such that it was where he chose to gather his examples for his ground breaking work. Think of the life that must have teemed, the bees, the birds.
So it is a place with great history, with great potential; with great promise. It is a space loved by many, – by more people than we could hope to know about. It is a place that blesses, and could bless so much more. So many more. What could we, as a church, do to make more of this gift of a space, of a heritage, and a future?
Many of you will have heard of the idea for a Quiet Garden in the heart of the churchyard, where currently people pass through in droves, often without pause.
Come with me, in your mind’s eye. Out in front of the church portico, down the steps that a newly married William Blake would have walked down with his bride, you will have passed as you came here today, the tear-drop shaped circle of grass between the church and the river.
You might well not have given it a second glance. But it is the sunniest, and the most passed through, part of our churchyard, and so it is there that we are hoping to create a Quiet Garden, as a gift and an invitation to the people of Battersea.
What could a Quiet Garden be? It will offer a moment of peace in life’s business; out of Battersea’s traffic and bustle, a place to sit for a moment, or a while; to breathe in the calming scents on the air – inspired by William Curtis’ botanicals – and hear the rustle of grasses and leaves; to let water soothe your eyes, as you look outwards to the river and perhaps in a small raised pool. To be shaded by the trees and blessed by blossom in spring.
Even if you can’t pause and go in, if you’re just on your way somewhere, it will be a moment of beauty in your day, a moment of nature, a slowing down and breathing in.
And more than that, our brief to our wonderful designer Beverley McAlpine includes all that the churchyard is already used for and hopefully will be more used for in the future with this garden: events and celebrations, the church fair, children playing and learning, story telling, mindfulness; merriment and joy; remembering, commemoration; coming together to reflect, to pray, to be still and meditate; to listen to God.
So many people currently don’t make it as far as coming through our doors. Let us go out to them, and meet them where they are. Let us open our hands to them, and offer them what we have. We have this beautiful space. Let’s make the most of it, for the communities of Battersea.
As part of the fundraising for this project, we have committed to giving parallel funding to a couple of counterpart garden projects, one in Battersea and one perhaps further afield, so that written through this project is a commitment to be outward-looking into our community – not just improving our own site, albeit as a gift to the communities of Battersea, but really reaching out and partnering with other community works.
I sometimes struggle with some Paul’s writings in the New Testament, when he goes into the vein of the reading we heard today – the roots of the Protestant work ethic.
But Paul was in a time of the one-off, tremendous newness of the Church. It was a brand new, spirited new community of believers, and he constantly had to fight to preserve and protect it so that it would grow strong roots and survive. Rather like a young plant. I rather think we live, nearly two millenia later, in the opposite times – our faith has perhaps been too well preserved and conserved in these days.
Sometimes our faith communities’ energies and focus are tied up with their own traditions, instead of being freed to focus on what Jesus came for – the people of this world, the world itself; love, peace, resurrection.
But Paul also talks about this, the heart of Christianity: reaching out in love, as Jesus did. As Jesus does even now, to each of us. Paul says in 2 Corinthians that “we have this treasure in jars of clay, …so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh”.
God was in the Temple, but the Temple was not the thing. God is in our history, but our history is not the only thing.
God is in our churchyard; and our hopes and plans for a beautiful garden there. But the garden is not the thing. It is just a vessel.
The thing is the gift. The richness and grace of God that we have been so privileged to receive. That x is receiving here today in baptism – the love of God.
The thing is the gift, the gifts God reaches out with to everyone, all the time. The true fabric of the universe, that is love; that is the substance of God. The love God has for each of the people who pass through here. The peace and hope he reaches out with.
“We have this treasure”, you see: “in jars of clay”. The temple, our church, our very mortal flesh; all these are just seeds, which God sowed. He sows and he sows and he sows. And what springs forth is love.
God reaches out to every one of us, in the whisper of our hearts, – in the beauty of the sky and the river and the trees. God is speaking to all of us, whether we hear him yet or not – speaking peace, and love, and hope to our souls.
Let us take hold of what we have, this wonderful privilege of space and location and green in a teeming city, and make the best of it – the absolute best of it – as a gift to God and to Battersea.
If you’d like to get more involved with the Quiet Garden please do sign up to find out more – just put your name and contact on a postcard or speak to me or Aaron after the service. If you’re inspired, we’d love to hear from you. There are plenty of ways you can help to make it happen. Do sign up.