“A Theology of Buildings”

~ Mark 13:1-2 ~

As a result of my many years of ministry I have come to realize that there is a connection, a spiritual connection, between the people of the church and the building of the church. So much so that I’ve developed what I call “a theology of buildings.”

Despite the idea that spirituality is a matter of heart, that “pure religion” needs no physical inducements, buildings have always played a role in the history of religion. Indeed, even though we know that God cannot be contained in any one place, we often are tempted to believe that the building is where God is.

That certainly was how the folk of 1st century Jerusalem thought about their building – Herod’s Temple. As thousands of the faithful gathered from all over the Mediterranean world for Passover they would be truly awestruck at the sight of this massive edifice. Herod the Great, a Roman usurper of the throne of Jerusalem, had rebuilt the previously destroyed temple of 520 B.C. in order to shore up Jewish support for his reign. It was truly a grand temple, dominating Jerusalem physically and religiously. Despite the fact that it was built by one in cahoots with the hated Romans it was the center of Jewish religious life. These temple walls embodied all the power of the religious system. It literally was where God lived.

Certainly, the disciples were impressed.

“Wow, look…what large stones and what large buildings!”

“Jesus, isn’t this place incredible?”

They knew power when they saw. So, imagine their incredulous faces when Jesus tells them what he thinks.  “Look around you,” he says, “all these buildings that you think are so impressive—they’re all coming down. Not one stone will be left standing. It’s all going to be destroyed.”

Now, beside the fact that Jesus’ prediction was true (the Romans would destroy the temple some thirty years later), what did Jesus have against this beautiful temple, the very house of God? Did Jesus have a thing against buildings? Given what we see in other places in the New Testament we might be inclined to believe so. The Apostle Paul taught that people are the building. The building is a metaphor for the community that is the church. So where do physical buildings fit in? As the community of Jesus in this place, how should we regard this building in which we gather each Sunday?

When it comes to buildings and church I have a personal take on the subject. Lots of different building experiences in my pastoral career. My first call was a congregation that owned a large house. We loved that house. It really fit our inner-city vibe. Years later that congregation would move into a large old church building that just never quite felt like home. Eventually they would sell the building to a Spanish-speaking congregation for one dollar!

Then there were the years we did church out of our home. We’d move the living room furniture to make a “sanctuary.” Our kids really loved turning their bedrooms into Sunday School rooms every Sunday – Not! We decided it was really hard to do church out of your home.

Then, there were our “big” church experiences. The big Presbyterian church in Denver that built a 1500-seat Gothic-type sanctuary in 1960, when everyone else was doing big-box utilitarian arenas. Here is San Francisco, Linda and I got involved with the big civic church up in Pacific Heights. This is the church that in 1902 made a deal with the developers of the St. Francis Hotel to move the entire church building from Union Square to Pacific Heights, brick by brick. And, as the story goes, when the big one hit in 1906 the St. Francis Hotel burned to the ground and Calvary Presbyterian stood firm.

In all of this I would take notice of how the people of the congregation related to their church building; indeed, even as a spiritual relationship. How people felt about their building seemed to influence their spiritual health, for good or bad.

This was especially obvious in my first call here in San Francisco. Two months after my installation a vicious storm ripped the roof off the sanctuary and for several hours it rained inside the entire width and length of the sanctuary. When I opened the doors the next morning there was a stream of water pouring down onto the grand piano. Two years later we moved back into a newly renovated sanctuary but the experience had taken its toll. Because, you see, this was just the latest in a decades-long string of building debacles. As the matriarch of the church told me one day, “this church is an albatross around our necks. We are cursed.” Even today that congregation is faced with the decision to literally demolish their sanctuary. And in my eight years as their pastor I felt the building loom over the spiritual wellbeing of that congregation.

Given all that, what about us – Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church? One of the key decisions you all made in the planning of this space was that the “Ministry” is not just the building. You deliberately decided that it was important to embrace the fact that we, the people, are the “Ministry,” we are the church. I believe Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church has intertwined a healthy relationship between people and building. Noe Valley Ministry has, I believe, developed a good, healthy balance between being the people of the church and utilizing this building as part and parcel of being the church.

In conclusion, I urge us to embrace both the church as a community of people and the church as a building. They go together so let’s make the most of it. We are going to sing a hymn that speaks to God’s work of building a community that includes all the diversity of gifts we each bring. Then we will revisit a litany that we read four years ago. It is a celebration of this space, this building, for the work of ministry in this place. Let us continue in worship. Amen.

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