Under Construction (2): Old and New
by Louise Westfall
Determined to “wrestle a blessing” from the chaos, distraction, and dust of construction which has dominated our building this summer, I am preaching for the next few weeks about the physical aspects of Central’s capital construction project to seek spiritual insights that may guide our lives individually and as a congregation. Last time we considered how demolition can make way for the new thing God is doing.
Today we’re zero-ing in on a dimension of construction that involves change. Our renovated 1957 building will be transformed with new secure entrances, elevator access to all floors, many more restrooms and enhanced nursery space, and a coffee shop operated as a social enterprise by a local nonprofit to address the needs of homeless and at-risk young adults. Already completed is an improved HVAC system for New Genesis Transitional Housing ministry downstairs, including air conditioning. Despite the disruption, it’s exciting and represents the sustained vision and generous financial support of this congregation and our community partners. And frankly, that’s what’s helped me smile cheerfully (for the most part) above the pounding jackhammers and general hot mess.
The biblical text this morning is presented as a series of metaphorical images Jesus told to his followers about the Kingdom of heaven. A couple of them illustrate its importance above anything else. One describes a “sorting” that takes place, separating evil from righteous. And then a final– particularly intriguing one–that suggests God’s Kingdom is built with treasures both old and new. A reading from the good news according to Matthew, in the 13th chapter, reading verses 44 through 53. Listen for God’s Word to the church in a time of change. [Matthew 13:44-53]
So here’s a treasure Anthony found while packing up the youth room: [show it] a cool but weird holographic picture that if you look at it one way, you see Jesus and the disciples at the last supper; look from a different angle and it’s Jesus reading from a scroll with the upraised hand of preaching. Keep? Or toss? (the fact that I actually have it reveals staff’s decision–it now graces a shelf in Kathleen’s office!)
Now, nobody’s going to get upset about this decision either way (at least I don’t think so!). But all of them aren’t so easy. Take, for example, the room in the 1957 building variously called “the Sturgeon Room/Lounge/Parlor.” Created with financial support from the prominent Denver family of electrical fame, a large portrait of David Sturgeon has hung there for decades. Impressive, even imposing, but probably not the preferred décor for a coffee shop likely known as “Purple Door.” Keep? Or toss?
I enjoyed the entire first season of the Netflix show called “The Chair” –and its comedic struggle between tradition and change. Sandra Oh plays the chair of the English department at a small liberal arts college. She’s the first woman and woman of color to hold the position and is immediately thrown into a clash between aging, tenured professors whose devotion to the classics and traditional lecture formats have caused their class size to diminish, and a new young Black faculty member who incorporates drama, rap, and student interaction to engage the centuries-old texts. Her classes have waiting lists. While at times the show plays to stereotypes unhelpfully, we also come to see the humanity of the aging professors, their sense of vulnerability, and more important their commitment to teaching, and the value of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the poetry of Tennyson, and Melville’s whale of a novel Moby Dick. No spoilers, but safe to say by the end of season one, both oldster and newbie have come to regard each other with more understanding and appreciation. Timeless classics of English literature presented through contemporary forms, interpreted through the lenses of diverse people. And on the other hand, respect for seasoned wisdom honed through years of experience and dedication.
The one trained for the kingdom of heaven brings out of her treasure what is new and what is old.
…because that’s how the kingdom itself is built. God’s kingdom. Eternal, yet realized in this very moment. Everywhere, yet don’t miss it right in front of you.
The Kingdom of God is always a work in progress...
What is old anchors us to a tradition, offering a trail of breadcrumbs from the past that help us navigate our way in the present and beyond. We don’t have to re-invent religion in every generation. We are inheritors of a rich legacy from which we can grow. We take the best of the past as a touchpoint from which to engage new ideas and realities. Parents understand this dynamic, because no matter how excellent your parenting skills, your children will chart their own path (in fact that’s how you know you’ve done your job well!). They’ll have the confidence to do that by drawing on the “old”–the truths they can count on such as your unconditional love. But they’re growing up in a world different even than the one in which you were raised, and will of necessity adopt new insights and practices to grow into capable adults.
The old Sturgeon room is a reminder of the value Central places on fellowship, gathering people together to eat and drink and connect deeply. That’s still our value, but we’re re-defining the space to convey that value to people who aren’t already inside. It’s an invitation to come on in. The large planter underneath the windows of that room will become a patio for the coffee shop. A planter and a patio–similar forms but different functions. From “attractive” to “attracting.”
I’m grateful to Chris Wineman for sharing a number of examples of how Central has used old and new to keep our building (and our messaging) relevant. The last time the church went under major renovation was in the 1990s, and if you weren’t part of that change, you might not even realize the integrated style Andy Kenney used to build the sound booth and open up the narthex, using wood oak trim and flooring and finishing that echoes original details. We did the same when the chancel was dramatically rebuilt in 2016. Pam Bartczak designed the tile pattern in the second floor accessible restrooms to mirror the Jerusalem cross, its arms stretching in all directions that is the centerpiece of our sanctuary. The chapel had been redesigned in the 1950s as a mini-sanctuary with fixed pews. The 1990s renovation restored it to its original design, exposing hidden stained glass windows and original wood and featuring flexible seating. It’s been a sacred, intimate space for memorial services and weddings, dedication services, and the Bible story room for children, a source of untold blessings.
I’m struck by the fact that Jesus called both old and new “treasures.” They’re inherently good because they’re part of the good creation, part of the covenant relationship God made with us. Though Jesus wasn’t very specific about identifying the important values of each, maybe he hoped the disciples wouldn’t get too hung up on the details. After all, he’d already said that nothing is of greater value than the Kingdom itself, the glorious reality of God’s rule on earth as it is in heaven. All that we build, all that we design, all that we envision, all in which we invest is finally evaluated by a single standard: will it declare that God is at work, right here and right now? Will it say in words and ways accessible to the postmodern mind that God is love and Central exists to show that love widely, broadly, deeply?
When the construction is finished (hallelujah!)… but really, is the construction ever finished? The Kingdom of God is always a work in progress, and we will continue to demolish, rebuild, fundraise, create, renovate until. . . well, until kingdom come! And God invites every one of us–men and women, families and couples and singles, of all varieties and descriptions, from innocent babies and grizzled curmudgeons, new and old–everyone a treasure, to join in this life-changing enterprise.
Do you understand all this?, Jesus asked the disciples, and I have to think their answer was exaggerated, if not an outright lie: Yes.
Before we jump to our response to that question, let’s come to the Table. A Table as old as life and as new as this morning. We eat bread and drink the cup to remember the love of God broken and poured out through Jesus’ dying and rising. We probably don’t understand it all. But here we find what we need to offer our particular treasure to God, and dare to imagine what God will build with it.