The End of the Building

Passage: Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19
Date: November 17, 2007
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

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There is an organization in Des Moines, Iowa called "Orchard Place" that helps troubled youth rebuild their lives. The work they do happens on several sites throughout the city, and one is a building between Grand Avenue and Porter Street. The building is located next to two other buildings, the tallest skyscraper in Des Moines, the heart of the insurance industry; and an old Episcopal church that looks like, well, an old Episcopal church. This residential home for youth is a low flat brick structure that looks like any hardware store or 7-11 build in the 1970s. It is actually sort of "L" shaped because of a parking lot. So three buildings: a square-ish one story brick building L shaped, a stone cathedral, and a skyscraper.

The flat square-ish and otherwise non-descript building is distinguished by one unique feature. A huge mural on its outside wall. The mural faces the parking lot from which you could, standing, turn 360 degrees and see all three buildings. The mural covers two walls, that make a 90 degree angle and partially enclose this parking lot. A huge painting bears witness to the lives of the youth with whom "Orchard Place" works.

In the mural, people carry puzzle pieces from left to right. Large puzzle pieces as big as themselves. On the left in the painting is a storm. There's darkness. Clouds fill the sky. People sit pondering. The scene is broken by lines shaped like the pieces of a puzzle. As you look to the sky a piece is missing here or there. Some people, carrying puzzle pieces walk toward the line of that corner and to the other side of the painting. On the right side of the mural the sun shines. The pieces having been put in place, there are no lines through your field of vision. It is just a unified picture. A hill. Blue sky. A large tree. Someone swings high and free into the air.

The mural on this outside wall, bears witness to what goes on inside the building. The building, conveys the purpose, of the organization it houses. The purpose of the building is evident, as one looks at it. Inside the building, people assemble the pieces of their lives. They move from stormy lives, to living more freely. Where they begin is not where they end. Where they end up, is the purpose, that the building serves.

If you have your order of worship, would you take it out, and find the sermon title? And while you are at it, maybe you can also find a pencil or pen. What I'd like you to do is cross out the word "end", and write in "telos" (t-e-l-o-s) which means "purpose". Or you can write in "purpose". The Greek word "telos", like the English word "end" has two meanings. End can mean finish, OR it can mean purpose. For example ‘a means to an end', is a way to accomplish a purpose or goal. On the other hand, the end of a story is it's finishing point.

In the Bible, in Greek, most of the time the word "telos" means "finish". But not always. In the book of James, for example, it means ‘purpose'. In chapter 5 it says, : "Be patient...until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, you also be patient. The coming of the Lord is at hand....You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the TELOS of the Lord, how the Lord was compassionate and merciful". The TELOS of the Lord. The END of the Lord. The PURPOSE of the Lord.

As I read the biblical texts for this morning, there's a lot of talk that leads me to think about the end. And I find myself wondering about our purpose, and the purpose of these readings.

Luke's gospel describes a beautiful building. The Temple. Adorned with beautiful stones. And Luke says that it will be torn down. The days are coming when this building will be at its END. Then Luke describes a time when nations will be at war, and people will be divided by hatred, and adversarial. Luke describes divisions and conflict, and things coming to an end.

Luke's glimmer of hope for us, is that by endurance, we will gain our lives.

Isaiah in the Old Testament, ALSO describes divisions and conflict. But the prophet, paints a picture of a time when these things will be resolved. "The wolf and the lamb will feed together" in this time, says Isaiah. People will not labor in vain, nor bear children into calamity, says Isaiah. The former things will not be remembered, and ‘a new heaven and a new earth will be built'.

These words from Isaiah call to mind the book of Revelation, at the very end of the New Testament. In Revelation there is a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Just like in Isaiah. A new city comes out of the clouds. A city in which there are no more tears, no more death, no more mourning, no more pain. These things are healed. And a voice is heard to say, "I am the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega".

These words from Scripture make me think about more than just the end of the world, as in last days. They also make me wonder about the purpose of this life. In the midst of these stormy Scripture readings, are these images of healing and renewal. In the midst of this painful, adversarial stuff, the TELOS glimmers. The end, as in purpose, glimmers.

And so in that context, I find myself wondering about Westminster. I find myself thinking about these beautiful sanctuary walls. I ponder the purpose, or ‘telos', or end, of this congregation.

Close your eyes and imagine this building and it's rooms. Think of all that has happened within these walls. Think of the counseling, and the youth meetings, and the music rehearsals that happen just under this sanctuary. The basement or foundation of this sanctuary is all that happens under it. All that supports it.

Reflecting on the Gospel reading for today, Father William McConville from the Catholic community of St. Francis of Assisi calls to mind the great St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He sets the image of St. Peters next to the Gospel reading and the prediction of the coming destruction of the temple. "Surely", he writes, "St. Peter's will never be razed to the ground. Earlier churches might have been, but certainly not this one." He describes looking around that great cathedral. My attention, he says, was not drawn to cataclysms of nature, but to the fate of the disciples. They are the ones put on trial. They are the ones who are buried in the basement of St. Peters. He and some friends had an opportunity to go down to the basement of the basilica. The foundations of that building are situated among the graves of the martyrs. Among them, according to tradition, is the apostle St. Peter. It is one thing to know that they are buried there. It is quite another to walk there, and to be close to the remains of the faithful dead who gave their lives for the Christ they loved.

As a read these words, I thought again about Westminster. Our foundations rise from lives of those who have gone before us. And our foundations rise from ministry that we carry on now, and into the future.

The texts for today call us to connect, our building with its purpose, and or present activity with our end, and our purpose.

And maybe we can even go a step further. Maybe we can really try to let everything we do in the present, be somehow connected to the end and purpose we serve. Ellen Charry, a theology professor at Princeton, in a recent article in the Christian Century, wrote about a concert she attended and how music brought people together. Then she wrote: "Then I was struck by another thought: my own field, theology, tends to drive people apart. What is wrong with this picture?! What is wrong is that in the apparently innocent effort to arrive at truth, theology inculcates pride, the very vice that Christians claim is the consummate sin." She goes on to say, "Theology is a Christian practice. It should be spiritually helpful. The basic task of theology is to help people know, love and enjoy God better. Polemical theology focuses on the first of these three - knowing. But before Christianity was a set of ideas, it was a way of life. "...if salvation is described in such a way that people take themselves to be members of an elite club that will play polo in heaven, the effort may not be spiritually helpful. If Christians believe that God loves well, they should be able to explain God and the things of God to one another so that they become better at loving God and one another"

It seems to me that what she is writing about is the purpose of theology. She is not just doing what she always does, she is stopping to ponder the purpose of what she does, as a theology professor.

I read in the Oregonian a few weeks ago that New Hope Community Church is going to tear down its sanctuary and build a kind of community. This huge mega-church on I205 is tearing down the walls of its great 2800 seat building! The reason they give is that the trends of the culture are changing. Mega-churches may become a thing of the past, they say. And New Hope is trying to be at the forefront of what they think comes next: multi-venue approaches, with more intimate spaces, and a broader range of meeting formats. Café style discussions, rather than thousands lined up in an auditorium. Whatever you think of their decision, it is a pretty remarkable decision. It certainly gets you thinking about the purpose of a building, and the purpose of the community that makes its home in that building.

So what about Westminster? What is our purpose? What is our end?

I was recently on a healing prayer retreat in Mt. Angel. Last week while you gathered here, I was finishing up 5 days with a man named Frances Geddes. All of the pastoral staff, and more than a dozen others from Westminster have received this training. The Healing and Wholeness service on Saturday evening here is staffed by a prayer team who have had this training.

It was an amazing experience.

It is difficult to describe what it is like to come down off a mountain top. What I can say is that God is real. And that the connections between one another are a conduit for God's amazing healing reality. We live up here so often (show fingers on a hand) as if we were distinct individuals. But at the retreat we spent some time living here (point to the palm). Our connection to one another, in God, is the source of remarkable healing. I felt it last weekend. More than once. It is real.
What if healing is what people thought of and felt when they saw our building?
Deep connection to others.
Powerful connection to God. And genuine healing.
What would it mean for our walls to convey our purpose to the world - like that mural in Des Moines conveyed the purpose of "Orchard Place"? Or maybe HOW could we convey our purpose so clearly?
What would it mean for our theology to convey our purpose to the world?
What would it look like if all we do grew out of our TELOS or purpose?
What would it be like if were not worried about everything coming to an end some day, but rather lived in the present as if the end was now?