“A Theology of Buildings”

~ Luke 6:43-49 ~

Building metaphors abound in scripture. They are all intended to teach spiritual lessons. Paul often used building metaphors in his letters to describe the community of the church. Ephesians speaks of “the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” Our opening hymn, Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation, is based on this passage.

Jesus particularly like to teach spiritual lessons based on buildings. Matthew’s gospel has Jesus contrasting building on a rock and building on the sand. Slightly different is Luke’s version of Jesus’ teaching which is our second scripture reading this morning. Reading from Luke 6:46-49.

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

The Word of God according to the Gospel of Luke

Thanks be to God.

In the wake of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral during Holy Week, the religious blogosphere has been abuzz with lots of opinions about the spiritual implications of buildings, of the cathedral itself, but also church buildings, in general. Should we put so much into having buildings for the purpose of worship? Shouldn’t the church focus on being a spiritual community apart from whatever building it may inhabit. Indeed, don’t buildings just get in the way of truly being a follower of Jesus? I mean, buildings require attending to such mundane, earthly matters like maintenance and finances and improvements and on and on. Besides, isn’t the temptation to substitute worship of God with an undue worship of the building all too real? Indeed, believing that God lives in the church goes way, way back. Think “Holy of Holies” in the ancient temples of Israel. So, even today, many people think that you go to the church to meet God. I remember as a child being chided for running in the church. “Don’t run in the church, child, this is God’s house.” So, yes, maybe having a building hinders a truly spiritual relationship with God.

These sentiments are not just, well, sentimental. Our Reformed Tradition heritage, going back to the Reformation, has always had a love/hate relationship with buildings. Due to what was perceived as an excessive gaudiness of Catholic churches, with all the icons and statues and candles, the Reformers eschewed the opulent for simple, unadorned worship spaces with a theology of a “we, the people,” are the house of God, a spiritual building; not the physical space in which we worship. Now, that doesn’t mean they met in the woods or in the park for worship. But churches in the Calvinist, and subsequently Presbyterian, traditions tried to downplay the role of the physical building in which they worshiped.

Going back to the Notre Dame Cathedral disaster, I’ve read a number of blogs that advocate for churches to divest themselves of their buildings. They would say we need to be nimbler in responding to the Spirit’s movement in the world. Buildings just tie us down. I have a Presbyterian colleague friend who gives seminars on how to do that. Indeed, there was a time in my life when I thought that myself.

As I’ve mentioned before, in the 80’s Linda and I started a church in Denver. Jubilee Fellowship met in our home to begin with. Every Sunday we rearranged our living room to make our own little “sanctuary.” Our kids loved having their bedroom turned into a Sunday school space every week – NOT! In time, we rented an upstairs room at a Catholic-workers building in the neighborhood. Not having any financial backing from the mission agency, we were completely on our own. Three years into the enterprise we concluded it just wasn’t working. Too hard. Not having a building was not conducive to sustainability and we abandoned the project.

Many start-up churches try that approach. I’m aware of several start-ups here in San Francisco. A young couple is sent to San Francisco by a big mega-church from elsewhere, because, of course, the city is a vast, godless enclave and needs the gospel, desperately. Often several other couples will join with them, so they have a group to begin with. They’ll meet in a home for a while as they search for a suitable place to rent. Some end up renting space from James Lick Middle School here in Noe Valley. But, more often than not, those start-ups don’t make it, unless they have substantial financial backing from whatever church sent them. In my time here at Noe Valley Ministry there have been three different churches meeting at James Lick. Two of them don’t exist anymore. The current one is a mission outreach from a 32,000-member church in Fort Worth, Texas. We’ll see how goes. With enough money subsidizing them, they might be just fine.

Ah, but buildings can be an issue. There was my first call to a Presbyterian church in San Francisco. Three months after I started the roof blew off – literally. It was two weeks before Christmas. A heavy rainstorm with 40 – 50 mile an hour winds hit in the middle of the night, a Sunday night. The wind got under one corner of the roofing material and it lifted the entire width and length of the flat sanctuary roof up into the air and dumped it in the courtyard next to it. With only plywood underlay left, it rained for several hours inside the sanctuary – the entire width and length.

I was the first one to the church on Monday morning. I drove up and saw pieces of roof lying about. “Something is terribly wrong!” I said to myself. I walk through the doors and my heart sank as I saw a steady stream of water pouring from one of the light fixtures right on top of our grand piano. This was my baptism, if you will, into all things “building” which dominated my eight years at the church.

Eventually we were able to move back into a newly renovated sanctuary. I great day of celebration. But in all this I was not prepared for how the physical building of the church had affected the spiritual health of the congregation through the years. I came to learn that how a congregation thinks and feels about its church building contributes a lot to how it thinks and feels about itself.

I came to believe that ministers need to have a theology of buildings. A theology of buildings is about understanding the spiritual dynamics of a congregation’s relationship with its building. Congregations don’t exist in a vacuum. They aren’t just spiritual entities. Congregations live in buildings. The congregation and the building it lives in are inexorably intertwined. A congregation’s history with its building has a profound effect on how a congregation thinks about itself. To ignore that dynamic (or believe that the building shouldn’t affect a church’s spiritual health) can be the cause of considerable headaches and baffling conundrums in the life of the congregation.

So, when I came to Noe Valley Ministry I paid attention to all this; of how you all related to this building. If you remember, I came in the middle of the renovation. You had already spent years and much energy to make that happen; many, many meetings, not all of them easy. But it happened. And I was most glad to participate in the grand reopening celebration in November, 2014. We will revisit that reopening celebration a bit later in the service.

This is an incredible worship space. Awe-inspiring in the truest sense of the word. Visitors, renters, concert goers, your friends and you enjoy this space. I’ve heard many wonderful compliments about what we have here. One, in particular, is that when one walks into this space they experience a sense of awe. Usually, that word “awe” is reserved for what people experience when they walk into a great gothic cathedral, like Notre Dame. Here, to maybe a more modest degree, people still feel “awe.” And, musicians love the acoustics. After many months of deliberation, we have great window shades, including this massive scrim that filters out the harsh sun but still lets the vibrant colors of the window shine through. I could go on and on. To all who participated in making this happen: you did good! So, here, with this building, we are living out an incredible legacy. An 1880’s vintage wooden structure that survived the ’06 earthquake has been reworked into a beautiful and very functional space for this congregation and Noe Valley at large.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s been all peaches and cream. There have been issues. There are issues. We are saddled with a couple of problems that have defied satisfactory solutions. I want to talk about them this morning, give a bit of an update, in light of my “theology of buildings” perspective. Sometimes we can let building stuff affect us spiritually and psychologically. And, I think it good to apprise you of what our Session and Building Committee are dealing with. Both the Building Committee and Session spend considerable time and energy on making sure our building works well. Dealing with building issues goes with the territory of having a building.

This is an old building. Despite a rather extensive renovation that makes it look new, it has old bones, or in this case, an old drainage/sewer system. Through a series of sewer line backups, the first of which was a few months ago in the closet off the front entry, and then recently in the women’s restroom the plumbers have discovered an extensive blockage in the pipes under the building. Due to the overflow in the restroom, water leaked down into my office, soaking the ceiling drywall. It has to be replaced. That happened on Easter Sunday, by the way. I’ve moved to the conference room. Now, insurance is in play and the plumbers have a plan, but it is not an easy fix. In the coming days, the plumbers will be in the crawl space below the first floor putting in new access traps and cleaning out the pipes. In the meantime, the women’s restroom back there can’t be used until the work is done.  Frustrating but a fix is coming.

Sometimes the problems come from outside us; from other entities. Take our elevator – please! As you well know it is not working. Hasn’t been working for many months now. From the very beginning we’ve had issues with the elevator and with the company that installed it. Breakdowns, seismic-sensors that tripped inexplicably requiring re-setting the controls, bad communication with the company, billing issues – all bad enough we hired a lawyer to help us negotiate solutions. And then, in August the device, called a phase convertor, that converts the electrical power from the pole to the correct voltage, broke. It was bad enough that it had to run 24/7 causing high utility bills and a constant loud noise. Now it is broken. In consultation with an electrical contractor and an independent elevator expert we devised two options. One, was to buy a new phase convertor but this time one that was on-demand, operating only when the elevator was in use. However, this is a complicated solution for which the electrician is still devising a plan. The other option was to see if PG&E could provide the correct power right from the pole eliminating the need for a phase convertor. So, back in March we made application with PG&E to pursue that option. Over the course of a month we were led to believe by our assigned service representative that this would be a simple solution and not too costly. Then just last week we got word that, no, it would not be simple and it would be very costly, tens of thousands of dollars costlier. We cancelled the application, wasting more than a month pursuing that option. Yes, very frustrating. And, yes, I have to admit that it’s been very discouraging. I guess this sermon is aimed at me as much as anybody.

Jesus said that if you hear his words and act on them you’ll be like a person who built their house on a strong foundation. If you don’t you’ll be like a person who built their house on the ground without a foundation. The floods come and wipes away the house. A good lesson to heed. My hope is that we do not let building issues affect our spiritual health. We are stewards of an incredible space and despite having to deal with “building stuff” we are in a good place. However, as they wrestle with “building stuff,” you might pray for the Session and Building Committee …and for me. Amen.

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