Under Construction (3): Foundations
by Louise Westfall
Geez, Louise, so far your sermon series has highlighted all the down sides to our capital construction project–the demolition, the upheaval, noise and dust, the changes ahead. Can’t you think of anything good about building?
Well. I began this series with the promise of wrestling a blessing out of the hot mess we’ve been immersed in all summer. Since we’re exploring the physical aspects of Central’s capital renovation project in order to seek spiritual insights, I certainly hope you’ve caught at least a whiff of hope, even amid the chaos of construction. Because it’s definitely there too, growing with every completed step: air conditioning has already been installed in New Genesis shelter; the old elevator is out, the hole for the new one extends from the basement to the third floor; the front patio is finished except for exterior bricklaying. You can see the progress!
Today we go undercover to consider the part of construction you can’t see, the foundations upon which the entire structure rests. Recent horrifying scenes of destruction from hurricane Ida, the Haitian earthquake, and the collapse of the Florida apartment building earlier this summer offer stark reminders of the importance of foundation construction and maintenance. Choosing the right materials, adhering to time-tested building codes, and attending to repairs all go into keeping foundations strong and secure.
The morning Scripture text is a story Jesus told to his disciples. It’s short and sweet and utterly practical: why a house can withstand life’s inevitable storms, or why it can’t. Come to find out, it’s all about a foundation. A reading from the good news according to Luke in the sixth chapter, verses 46 through 49. Listen for God’s Word. [Luke 6:46-49]
Central’s gorgeous red sandstone is native to Colorado, mined from a quarry near Colorado Springs. Prominent Denver architect Frank Edbrooke had experience using it in the newly-constructed Brown Palace Hotel which opened just a few months before the church in 1892. Sandstone was an expedient choice: it’s soft and porous, and easy to carve, creating design features including intricate finials at each corner of the central tower. That red sandstone is very much responsible for Central’s distinctive beauty.
But sandstone erodes. Every time it rains, puddles of fine orange-y dust pool on the sidewalk. Several of those decorative finials had worn away to the point of danger, and had to be removed. Continuous care must be taken to scrape off loose stone and replace stones where needed. I’ll bet no one gave a moment’s thought about using sandstone for the 1957 addition!
But underneath all that eroding stone?? This church was built on solid rock, of materials much stronger than the building itself. During the demolition phase, some of the hidden foundation was revealed, and you can see why it has supported this structure for 129 years…and counting. Firm, dense material to withstand earthquake (1967), tornados (yes), blizzards, ice storms, flooding, lightning, and more.
…which of course is just what a foundation is supposed to do. Build it right and it will last.
Which explains the amount of time and expense spent on constructing firm foundations for the new project. The floor slab behind the church that used to provide 6 parking spots was discovered to have significantly deteriorated—the space has been blocked off and unused for several years. Now a new slab will be constructed and upon that foundation steel decking will be set to support a whole new bank of restrooms. The size and placement of the new elevator means it will need a significantly stronger foundation than the old one. I’m not a contractor, but I attend a weekly update meeting with ours, and know firsthand how the unseen “bones” of our project have dominated discussions with architect, engineers, and builders. It’s that important, and there are many choices and strategies available.
We obsess over appearance and external trappings of success. We measure ourselves and our worth by outward evidence, and compare ourselves to the image of others’ lives. The Kingdom of God is always a work in progress...
…and so it is when it comes to building a life. Could anything be more important than building a secure foundation? Yet we humans frequently get preoccupied with the red sandstone rather than what’s inside and underneath supporting it. We obsess over appearance and external trappings of success. We measure ourselves and our worth by outward evidence, and compare ourselves to the image of others’ lives. What we can see—and what others see. What can be measured. What is defined as valuable by our culture and community.
These outward assumptions and the anxiety that goes along with meeting them actually create barriers to the work of foundation-building. Some research I came across recently provides an example: Since 1966, UCLA’s Higher Education Institute has conducted the nation’s largest study on the attitudes of American college students—to date, over 15 million have been surveyed. One question asks students to rate potential life goals, and they’re given a list of around a dozen choices to rate as “essential,” “very important,” “somewhat important” or “not important.”
When the survey was administered to freshmen in 1967, more than 85% named “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as essential or very important. Around 41% of that same group rated “be very well off financially” as essential or very important.
But look how it’s changed. Fully 82% of incoming freshmen in 2016 named “be very well off financially” as essential or very important, and “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” had slipped to 46%. As author and co-founder of Kickstarter Yancey Strickler put it “In the 1960s, four out of five college freshmen thought having a purpose in life was essential. In 2016, four out of five college freshmen already knew what their purpose in life was: to be rich.” [Strickler, This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World, pp 89-91]
My purpose isn’t to call anybody out–especially young people still navigating the challenging path toward full adulthood. It’s more to suggest that we elders have fallen down on the job by our own example (or maybe simply by default!), and to invite us all to take a deeper look at foundational principles.
Jesus framed the question in terms of matching values with action. Why do you call me your leader, and then don’t do what I tell you?
Jesus’ question to his disciples sounds extremely parental; a version of “Do what your mother tells you to do. She knows best.” But parents, have you found this to be an effective argument leading to obedience? Not in my family. I think Jesus got this because he moves quickly to a compelling example of the benefit of a strong foundation. Show your truth by acting on it. Take the time and energy to question and dig deep to find a purpose that can sustain you no matter what happens. And it will. In other words, it’s in your self-interest (and others’ as well!) to build on bedrock. It’ll take time and effort. Intention. Faith. And here’s the thing: It’s always a work in progress. There might be some temporary finish line–such as confirmation, which literally means to “set one’s heart.” For a few people, a dramatic conversion experience immediately establishes a new foundation. But for most of us, we will build over time. Little by little. We never graduate from the school for Jesus’ followers. We’ll keep listening and learning and setting down rock. In all likelihood, we’ll have those times when the floods inundate us; when our pretty façade isn’t strong enough to hold us. But Jesus never abandons us to our own devices; he offers a hand to help us clean up and rebuild.
In this text, Jesus wasn’t specific about the foundation material except to say it could be discerned from listening for God’s Word and then acting on it. The Bible story Molly told provides more than a clue…it’s a “concrete” response. Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
The smiling man shook my hand firmly, though his voice cracked a little as he spoke: This church saved my life. I had drifted off course, made some bad choices, got into trouble. I was beginning to think it just wasn’t worth it anymore. But then First Pres came along and changed everything…
Let me tell you about Jerry, a church member in a distant city. He was an automobile executive, had a lovely family, beautiful home, by almost every cultural measure a rousing success. But Jerry led a constricted life, bound by self-interest, driven by a desire for possessions, privilege, and power, and in constant fear of the competition. He was choking, and he knew it. One of his colleagues was always talking about the mentoring with at-risk middle school kids through his church, and invited Jerry to join him. That’s almost all it took–Jerry found the foundation for his life that he lacked. Over twenty years he has mentored many young people, trained other mentors, and provided significant financial support for the program and the congregation.
Friends, upon this rock you can build your life. Upon this rock God has built a church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.
Thanks be to God!