Humans aren't the only animals which build. Birds make intricate nests and beavers fashion sturdy dams. Bees construct elaborate hives, while ants tunnel out entire underground cities.
What makes people distinctive from other animals and insects is the extent to which we go beyond basic need. We do more than to construct for shelter; we express something greater about the human personality through building.
Homes, for example, not only provide us with a safe environment, but they also meet other needs as well. We want our house to be distinctive and reflect the differences which set us apart from our neighbors. We want our living space to be a place of beauty which is aesthetically pleasing to us and inviting to our guests.
In this sense humans are more than just construction workers; we are also the architects of our buildings. We become inspired and then translate our visions to paper. We choose our materials carefully and put them together in exciting and innovative ways. Color, too, is integral to our plans and adds variety.
Churches, also, are some of our finest examples of human initiative. If you've been to Europe you can't forget the magnificent cathedrals that have been part of community life for centuries. They are architectural masterpieces of beauty and grandeur, majestic places that dominate their towns and cities. Their names are instantly recognized: Notre Dame in Paris, the Kolner Dom in Cologne, St. Paul's in London, St. Peter's at the Vatican.
In the truest sense cathedrals were thought of as a offering to God which reflected the best that people had to give back to the Lord. They were a gift, from rich and poor alike, to the Creator.
In their construction tons of stone were lugged over poor roads and then put into place one at a time. Dozens or even hundreds of craftsmen were employed to create the intricate carvings which adorned the interiors. Rich tapestries and wall hangings were woven to decorate the sanctuaries. Stained glass was fashioned to both tell the faith story in pictures and to allow light to play on the interior spaces. The end result was to prepare places where people could find a heightened awareness of God's presence.
Interestingly, the truly great churches are those which not only connect with people on the aesthetic level, but are busy community centers where ministry takes place on a daily basis. Space is ultimately made sacred more by how it's used than what it looks like; still, the sights and sounds and feel of our surroundings make a great difference. That's true for the first century or the twenty-first.
In the late 1920's, and even into the depression years, there was a flurry of construction of another kind in this country. This was the era of the elaborate movie houses, the time of the Ohio and Palace theaters here in Columbus. These entertainment centers were often designed after European opera houses or Egyptian temples or dozens of other magical places and themes.
It was said that a poor man or woman could enter the front door for a dime, and be transported from the shabbiness of tenement and factory to the grandeur of a king's palace. Here you were treated as if you were an honored guest. It was fantasy to be sure, but many must have found it easier to get through those hard times because they had such places of escape. That magic still works whenever you enter any of those wonderful theaters that were saved from the wrecking ball.
First Church was a product of that same era, started along in vision and planning before the Wall Street crash, then erected and finished in a time of great financial and social distress in our country. No matter how many times we have been in this building, we're still awed by the look and feel of this room.
God can surely bend down to even the most humble dwelling, but an appropriate worship space allows and encourages our rising up to meet God as well. We are affected either positively or negatively by where we live and work, and it's the same for where we worship. Something very special happens in this room.
To surround ourselves with majesty of place, filled with liturgical symbols, reflects our best attempt to respond to God's gift of beauty to us—the world of trees and flowers, blue skies and noble mountains. We care about this building, and for this building, because it is more than just four walls and a roof.
In Jesus' teachings we hear his call to us to repent, to have a whole new direction to our lives. We remember how important he said it is that a house be built on a sound foundation, and realize that those words apply to our lives as well.
We are cautioned by him not to assume that our decision to be a disciple comes without a price. Like the farmer who wished to build a watchtower and the king who intended to wage war, we are advised to consider the cost in advance to see if we have the personal resources to carry us through.
This morning the words of the apostle Paul make it clear that following Jesus doesn't come without work. "As you have received Christ… continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him…." If you've got a new orientation on life, you've put a strong foundation of faith as a base, you've counted the cost of being a follower, then it's time to build. And lives, like structures, are best when they are intentionally planned.
When John Ruskin wanted his art students to get a genuine feel for color, he had them take an opal and stare at it intently from one angle and then another. He instructed them to do this for an hour each day until they came to know the stone by heart.
It was his contention that real understanding in art doesn't come without this kind of application. Without such focused concentration and effort there can be no advancement. A person does not become a painter, or a pianist or a physicist for that matter, without intensive examination of the subject matter, disciplined concentration, and trial and error.
No one would expect a medical student to have all the skills of a physician the first day he or she enters school. Nor would it be reasonable to assume that the knowledge needed will come without study and sacrifice. Nor would you expect this for a lawyer or a mechanic or an accountant.
It's strange, though, how we tend to ignore the obvious when it comes to matters of faith. How often we deceive ourselves that our Christian life is fully formed when we enter the membership of a church. Membership is not the end point, but usually the place of departure.
Like the carpenter we must choose our materials carefully to build our house of faith. This is a structure that takes a lifetime and must last for the same. Each day we ought to set out to add a little more substance to it. As the Chinese remind us, the longest journey always begins with a single step.
We build this life of faith through education and experience and reflection. We read the Bible and listen for God's particular word for us to come out of the text. We use commentaries and attend classes so that we can better understand the Old and New Testaments. We listen to how others interpret passages that we might have new insight on what we read.
We also act on what we believe. We try to carry out in our lives what God would intend for all of life. We resolve to do for others as we would want them to do for us. We put aside "me first and me only" to give our time and energy and money to help others. We realize that Christians move as well as sit.
Then we take time to reflect and to grow from our first-hand experience. Study and action, held together by prayer, is the way we mature in our faith.
Little by little we add to our building of life. Our inner space enlarges and becomes more beautiful. A life so dedicated not only brings us a sense of purpose and completion, but it is an offering back to God as well. As Paul said, "Do your best to present yourself as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed...."
When I was a youngster I was fascinated by how some people in my town chose to realize the dream of having a home of their own. First they built a basement and lived there for a while; then, when they had the money, they erected the rest of the house and moved upstairs. One family in our neighborhood never seemed to get their resources together. They must have lived underground for ten years, until one day they moved out and abandoned their effort. The empty basement was a sad commentary on such hopeful intentions.
As each of us is different, so will be the structure we build on our foundation of faith. We have to count the cost. We have to determine how motivated we are and what commitment we are willing to make. We have to apply ourselves to study, prayer, and service.
It takes time to build this house of life. It isn't easy. But with each room we add, each level we build, each space we beautify, we come a little closer to personal completeness. With each addition, we find ourselves coming closer to God.
"Under construction" is an apt depiction of us. It's a realistic description of where we are today. Even more so, it's a positive statement about where we hope to be tomorrow.