Members of the household of God

Sermon preached by
The Reverend Mark Pryce,
Bishop’s Adviser for Clergy Continuing Ministerial Education,
at the Temple Balsall Heritage Weekend 13th September 2009.

First Evensong of Holy Cross: Psalm 66; Isaiah 52:13-end 53; Ephesians 2:11-end.

‘ are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the corner stone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.’ Ephesians. 2: 19-22

[I should declare a record: I have been in Temple Balsall for more than two hours without eating any of Jenny’s cake! I could say that another record is that I have been with Professor Houlden and for the first time in history was not offered sherry – but that would be unfair because he invited me for tea!]
No doubt hundreds of people have been delighted by this place over Heritage Weekend – not only by the marvellous ancient buildings – but by the community which lives and gathers here – by your welcome and the way in which you cherish the place and one another. You have done so much that is good with the fabric here: new lighting, new sound system, new heating system, cleaning the walls, new religious art and liturgical vestments, re-ordering the layout – the list goes on and on, hundreds of thousands of pounds spent in a way which speaks of a believing community which is alive, and wanting to welcome others in.
It’s amazing that one small place such as this contains so much from the past and so much that is alive in the present: the vitality of children’s education in the school; a pattern for fulfilling and dynamic old age in The Court; living, growing, questioning faith in the Church; delectable hospitality in The Old Hall – and tonight wonderful music, good company, the beauty of holiness – Temple Balsall is all this, and Cake too!

What a gem of a place!

As we value all that’s good here in the present, we might take a moment to give thanks – not only for one another, but alsofor those who have built up this place through the years – Roger de Mowbray who first gave the land for the service of the Church; the Templars and the Hospitallers who prayed and worked here to support pilgrims in the Holy Land; and Lady Ann Holbourne and her sister Lady Katherine Leveson, whose generosity and foresight did so much to revive the work of care and worship. What a wonderful investment in human hearts, minds, bodies and spirits the bequests of those two sisters has been across the generations. (Oh that the investors of our pension funds might have such good judgement!)

Long may the good work continue, as I’m sure it shall as Kathy joins you in her new role as Master, to work with you in continuing to build on all that has gone before, responding to new challenges and new opportunities in fresh ways!

The inspiring quality of TB is that you are more than mere conservationists. In the spirit of gratitude and generosity which set this place ticking in the first place, you carry on giving of yourselves and expecting good things of others. Surely this is what Katherine Leveson expected when she set her fortune to work in educating poor boys and in caring for isolated and dependent women: that in a Christian community of learning, care and spirituality, human beings will flourish. And part of that flourishing is to value that which is good, to be appreciative, and to give thanks for one another, and for blessings across the years.

Some of you may have read the document which is Lady Katherine’s Last Will and Testament. In that document she leaves money and land to found the school and for The Almshouses, for a Minister and Bailiff here; but many other charitable bequests for good causes in other places with which she was associated – she was a generous woman - and what fascinates me is that it is a document also full of gifts for individuals – gifts of money, jewellery, clothes, personal items – for friends, neighbours, relatives, god-children, and not forgetting her servants – her carers – she was a woman who knew how to value relationships.

Near the beginning of this Will, is the most mysterious gift of all: a gift of one thousand pounds in gold to a very elevated gentleman - His Highness The Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles 1st and cousin of Charles 2nd  “to buy a ring or whatever he please as a widows mite to express my humble thankfulnesse for former honour he did me.”

Intriguing…Quite what was that honour done to Lady Katherine we do not know; clearly in Lady Katherine’s mind it was very significant. Prince Rupert is reputed to have been a very charming and talented man, something of a romancer and an adventurer, but also ruthless: the phrase “Rupert’s burning love” is used to describe a night during the Civil War (1643) when some 1500 Royalist troops under his command wrecked Birmingham [see Gill’s History of Birmingham 1952, Vol. 1, pp. 52-53].

A happier, curious link for us is that when Lady Katherine made her bequest in 1670, Prince Rupert was Constable of Windsor Castle! (1668-82.) So we learn that Temple Balsall has sent more than one little treasure to that illustrious place!

As she contemplated her death, Lady Katherine knew how to express affection and gratitude to those who had helped her and loved her. But saying ‘thank you’ is not always easy. Sometimes someone shows concern and care for us in a way which is so beautiful, so unexpected, so gratuitously kind, so attentive to our need (perhaps an intimate need) that it is hard to know quite how to thank them. It may take us a long time to find the right words or the appropriate gesture; sometimes we have to accept that we cannot repay another person’s kindness, but simply appreciate who they are, what they have done for us, and offer a simple token of profound appreciation. Maybe this is how it was for Lady Katherine and Prince Rupert – all she could do is offer him “a widow’s mite” from her grateful heart – generosity flowing out of thankfulness.

What a wonderful dynamic to find at the heart of a community: generosity flowing out of thankfulness and appreciation. It’s a theme I hear echoing in our second lesson tonight as St Paul writes to the Ephesians: Remember, he says, that once you were outsiders, but now you are included – not on your own terms, not because your goodness or expertise qualifies you for a place, but because God in Christ has drawn you in, at great cost, to be part of a community – a spiritual building which is both ancient and new. Live out your life together in the power and grace of that act of God for you in Christ, he writes (Ephesians 2: 11-end).

Recognising that generosity of God towards us in Christ crucified lies at the heart of the feast of The Holy Cross which we celebrate tonight and tomorrow: a celebration of The Cross as (what the Collect calls) a ‘means of life and peace’ for us. Holy Cross Day has its origins in the early Church as a celebration of the finding of the True Cross in Jerusalem by the Empress Helena. As such it connects with your Templar and Hospitaller origins. It’s significance for us is not so much to be found in the relics of wood preserved from the past, but in a living appreciation of what God has done for us in Christ crucified and risen, the power of the Spirit of love seen in the Cross, now at work among us, in ordinary lives.

The startling, beautifully worked sculpture of the crucified figure of Jesus above this pulpit is a reminder of the generous act of sacrifice and love which calls us into community. It reminds us of the repugnant horror of the cross as a means of torture – no mere theological gesture, but a real act which has its repercussions through the generations.

It reminds us also that the power of the Cross lies not in Jesus still hanging there as a skeletal corpse to terrify or accuse us, but in his risen life among us, and between us, people with our own wounds and sorrows who find unity and peace in God’s eternal place of forgiveness and new beginnings - in a place of stone and glass and wood, such as this; in a place of loving and appreciative relationships, such as this.

Thanks be to God.  

The Reverend Mark Pryce

Arms of Lady Katherine Leveson

The Foundation of Lady Katherine Leveson
Registered Charity no. 213618
Temple Balsall, Knowle, Solihull, West Midlands B93 0AN

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