This scripture lesson comes from the First Book of Chronicles, chapter 29. What’s going on here is that David is nearing the end of a 40 year reign on the thrown of Israel and he decides he wants to build God a new temple. But God says no.
King David said to the whole assembly, “My son Solomon, whom alone God has chosen, is young and inexperienced, and the work is great, for the temple will not be for mortals but for the Lord God. So I have provided for the house of my God, so far as I was able, the gold for the things of gold, the silver for the things of silver, and the bronze for the things of bronze, the iron for the things of iron, and wood for the things of wood.
Thus David son of Jesse reigned over all Israel. The period that he reigned over Israel was forty years. He died in a good old age, full of days, riches, and honor, and his son Solomon succeeded him.
Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord succeeding his father David as king where he prospered, and all Israel obeyed him. The Lord highly exalted Solomon in the sight of all Israel and bestowed upon him such royal majesty as has not been seen in Israel before.
This fall I have been preaching this sermon series called Stewardship Cubed, or Stewardship to the Third Power, and my point is that God call each member of Kenilworth Union Church to take good care of three good things: Faith Family, Neighbor, and Home.
We take care of our Faith Family through the Operating Budget, and we take care of our Neighbor through the Outreach Budget, and we take care of our Home—our campus—through the Capital Budget. If we are faithful to all three, our impact will increase not arithmetically, but exponentially.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Theology to notice that those three aspects of stewardship are in descending order. If you can only choose one of the three, choose the Operating Budget, the care of our Faith Family, because if too many parishioners shrink their Annual pledge to make a Capital pledge, all three good things disappear, quite literally. We are hoping for 600 pledges to our Annual Campaign; the number of pledges to our Capital Campaign will be, and should be, fewer.
There are at least two good reasons NOT to give to a Capital Campaign. First, many faithful parishioners realize that a parish’s priority should be people, not piles.
A wealthy parishioner at a Manhattan parish in a challenged neighborhood wanted to donate a giant carillon. The minister said, “No, we don’t want it; we have to feed to hungry.” She was right. Nevertheless, the prosperous parishioner won; that church’s carillon now soars above the food pantry and soup kitchen.
I love it when a thoughtful philanthropist tells me he always gives to programs, never piles. Pope Gregory the Great said, “The real altar of God is the mind and the heart of the just.” Yes? HERE is the real altar of God; not THERE.
There’s another reason. Why would a congregation spend money on a building right now, when its ministry is increasingly virtual? One wise church consultant says that some of the troops are never coming back. For the foreseeable future, he says, a church’s virtual attendance will outnumber its physical attendance. That is to say, more members will stream than show up.
This guy says that before the pandemic, a church was a building that happened to have an online presence. Now he says, for the foreseeable future, a church will be a website that happens to have a building. Good point.
The ambivalence of churches and synagogues toward bricks and mortar goes way back to the beginning. That story I just read about King David, for instance, from a thousand years before Jesus.
David is 70 years old. He’s reigned over Israel for 40 years and he’s been spectacularly successful. He’s taken care of Israel’s enemies and turned a tiny little speck of real estate the size and shape of Vermont, thrust like a dagger into the heart of the Middle East, into the world’s reigning superpower. He’s married hundreds of women, fathered entire nursery schools full of children, and built himself a cedar-paneled palace which makes Winnetka’s mansions look like subsidized housing. Then he looks around and notices that God is living in a tent. In a TENT!—the Tabernacle—so he announces his intention to build God a real house even bigger than his own palace.
But here’s the interesting thing about this story: God says no. God says, “No thanks, David. No offence. It’s the thought that counts. But my little tent is just fine with me, thank you very much.”
Well you know the rest of the story. David dies old and full of years, and David’s son Solomon goes on to build the Jerusalem Temple, which became the envy of the ancient world and still—two thousand years after it was destroyed—still lives in the longing of every faithful Jew. She aches for its restoration.
So there is this ambivalence about bricks and mortar in every synagogue and church. However—you saw that coming, didn’t you?—However, think of all they mean to us, these sanctuaries which are in every city around the world the most beautiful and beloved structures imagined by the human mind and hammered together by human hands.
Churches, said one architecture scholar, churches “stand out in total opposition to the narrowing and flattening of human experience, the deviation into the trivial.” Do you see what she means, that when we gather in a place steeped in the beauty of holiness we leave behind the narrow, flattened world of pedestrian experience, we forsake this deviation into the trivial for a world which reaches up into the vertical, toward God?
Doesn’t it happen to you when you enter our sanctuary? Your spirit unfurls, your eyes reach up, sometimes even God comes near. I don’t think it is too much to say that without their churches, our cities would be too flat, boring, and two-dimensional to endure. Someone said that a church is not a building to worship IN but a building to worship WITH. Yes?
A church is not a building to worship IN but a building to worship WITH. I love our twin spires, because one arrow pointing at God’s dwelling in the heavens is not enough. This is the most meaningful, the most numinous, the most resplendent place I ever get to spend time in. I love my house, but it doesn’t look like this, and that’s as it should be.
Joseph Sears donated the real estate for a multi-denominational church in his village and then our ancestors built this place in 1892 for $6,100 and then furnished it for another $900 including the organ, but that was real money back then and they sacrificed to make it happen and today we can’t rest back into complacency and let their lavish legacy go flat and dormant.
The shrewd Business Manager who served my Grand Rapids church for something like 30 years believed that every congregation ought to tackle a Capital Campaign every ten years. Every decade you raise a modest amount, and you refurbish the Christian Education wing one decade and then the sanctuary the next and the decade after that the Fellowship Hall, and so on and so forth, so that deferred maintenance doesn’t pile up on you.
We have not been attentive to our building like that in the last 30 years, and that’s okay because you have been very generous in caring for our Faith Family through the Operating Budget and our Neighbor through the Outreach budget, but now it’s time to catch up. If your house were as neglected as the Manse, you would never invite me over. No exaggeration. If not us, who? If not now, when?
I turned 65 in August. I love being your Senior Minister and hope to be doing that for the foreseeable future, if God is willing, the creek don’t rise, and you all agree. But you can do the math. I won’t be doing this when I’m 70. My successor will take over.
Can I tell you a secret? Well, it’s not so secret. Ministers hate Capital Campaigns. They don’t want to raise extra money. They want to preach the Gospel, baptize the babies, marry the lovers, visit the sick, and bury the saints.
Capital Campaigns are knotty, fraught, difficult, and controversial. With every Capital Campaign, some members will get mad and leave because they don’t agree with the congregation’s spending priorities. This is true in every place at every time with every congregation.
Please let me do this for you and with so that my successor won’t have to. Then you can go out and find yourself a rock star preacher who’s way better than I am, and she’ll come because she’ll see how much how much love you lavish on your spiritual home and all she’ll have to do is preach the Gospel.
Have you ever noticed that a beloved church edifice is a sermon in stone? An inspired church building preaches the Gospel 24/7/365, even when there is no one inside. It is always there, looming over the streetscape, silently but resolutely proclaiming the Good News of our Glad God. Even people who don’t believe in God cannot miss its indisputable manifesto about the sovereignty of God, the regency of Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
“Preach the Gospel always and everywhere,” said St. Francis of Assisi. “Preach the Gospel always and everywhere. If necessary use words.” Thank you for helping us preach our sermon in stone.
Donna Schaper, “The Spirituality of Spires and Stones,” Presbyterians Today, April, 2015, pp. 32–35.
Quoted by Margaret Visser, The Geometry of Love (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000), p. 126.
Carey Nieuwhof, everywhere.
Margaret Visser, op. cit., p. 13.
Edwin Lutyens, quoted by Colin Cunningham, Stones of Witness (Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1999), p. 17.
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