During my first year in Kansas City a world renowned theologian came to speak at Community Christian Church on the Plaza. You know the church I am talking about, the one that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. You know the church I am talking about, the one with the light on the roof that shoots an enormous beam of light straight up into the sky. You know the church I am talking about; when I drive by it at night I have prankster fantasies of breaking in, climbing up to their roof and affixing the Batman symbol to the light. (For the record, I would never do this.)
On the evening of the lecture, I arrived, entered their elegant sanctuary, and was greeted by Reverend Bob Hill, their senior minister. Shaking his hand enthusiastically I told him, “Bob, you’ve got a beautiful church.” Without a pause, Reverend Hill replied, “And the building isn’t bad either.”
“And the building isn’t bad either.” In saying this, Reverend Hill was reinforcing the important idea that a church is not a building. In the Christian tradition, a church is considered to be the body of Christ, or, in the terms we might use, a covenanted community that comes together to form one body. A church is also a movement of people that makes a difference in the wider community. A church is not a piece of property.
For Reverend Hill, as well as for other ministers serving churches that make their homes inside of elegant buildings, there is often a struggle to keep the community from falling prey to idolatry. Putting the focus on the building instead of on its mission and calling is a form of idolatry. When a religious community is too focused on its building and forgets why it is in the world, I call that the “Edifice Complex.”
That term, “the edifice complex,” is a play on the term for a central theory of Freudian psychology, “The Oedipus Complex,” which, in turn, refers back to that most famous Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex. In Sophocles’ tale of a hero who rises to the height of royalty only fall prey to the sins of arrogance and anger, we know what happens to Oedipus. He winds up killing his father, marrying his mother, wrecking his kingdom, and poking out his own eyes. Let’s not do that.
In Sophocles’ famous play, perhaps Oedipus’ greatest failing is in not listening to a blind and feeble prophet named Tiresias. Tiresias is a recurring figure in Greek tragedies. In Euripides’ The Bacchae, Tiresias warns King Pentheus not to resist Dionysus. King Pentheus doesn’t listen to the blind prophet and ends up getting torn to pieces by the Theban women. In Antigone, Tiresias challenges the cruelty of King Creon. In Oedipus Rex, Tiresias tells Oedipus a truth that he is unable to hear.
Tiresias (and trust me, this is going somewhere) is an unlikely choice as a wisdom bearer. He is a blind prophet; so who would believe that he could see things that others cannot? He comes across as feeble, filthy, and disheveled. Who is he to offer advice to powerful royalty? What I am getting at here is that in our discernment about our own building, as we look at the options and opportunities and choices that are before us, we should also make sure we listen to the advice of Tiresias, if Tiresias be in our midst. Who would that be? Before I tell you who I think the Tiresias types in our midst are, I want to say who they are not.
First, I am not Tiresias. The decisions before us about what to do with our buildings are not about building “Thom’s Temple.” This is not about building Thom’s Temple. Did you hear that? I said, “This is not about building Thom’s Temple.” When building decisions are made for the glory or the pride of the minister, the results are often disappointing. There is a story of a church in our movement that had a dynamic minister and relocated to a beautiful hilltop in a very picturesque part of the country. On top of that hill they built a church with almost no windows. It was a mighty fortress, impenetrable and opaque. The reason it was built without windows was that the minister wanted to be at the center of attention; he didn’t want to compete with the natural scenery for the attention of the congregation. This was not the best architectural decision ever made.
We are not building Thom’s Temple and we will not let our decisions be guided by pride, envy, or fear. Our decisions will be guided by faith and purpose and a vision.
I’d like to give you all a quick history of our buildings. Our church formed in 1967 and purchased this land in 1970. At that time, the only buildings on this property were the barn and the farm house. In 1994, the congregation began to plan for a building campaign to add a significant building addition that resulted in this room, Fellowship Hall, where we now sit, the downstairs classrooms, the elevator and the foyer. The upstairs was completed in 1997 and the downstairs was finished in 1998. The congregation collected $263,500 in Capital Campaign pledges. To that it added a $250,000 loan from the Unitarian Universalist Association and issued $216,000 in church bonds to our own members. Upon the completion of the building, an extra $125,000 was raised to finish and furnish both the upstairs and downstairs. The total price tag was: $854,000. Let that number sink in for a second. Just a few minutes ago, our Capital Campaign Committee announced that in the silent phase of the Capital Campaign, we have received pledges from just 12 families totaling $843,000.
The campaign in the 90s was to finish phase one of a multi-phase project. We never began the second phase. The reason we hold worship services in Fellowship Hall is because this room was built to be a Fellowship Hall. This room was supposed to be the room where we would hold coffee hour and fellowship events.
As you heard in the meeting a few minutes ago, over the last few years our Facilities Task Force has worked diligently to discern what we need in terms of a building to fulfill our mission. Recently, a Capital Campaign committee has begun work as well. These leaders understand that a building is just a tool. It is a thing that helps us to fulfill our mission, to support our reason for being in the world. When you fall prey to the “Edifice Complex,” a building does something different. It doesn’t serve our vision; it becomes an impediment, preventing us from achieving our mission. Any building can become a stumbling block. I’m not just talking about buildings that are too small or inaccessible. Big, spacious, ornate buildings can be just as a much of a stumbling block, sucking a community’s energy away from its vision. The “Edifice Complex” can lead us to become focused on the wrong things.
There is a second meaning to the term the “Edifice Complex.” The second meaning is this: our own feelings about and relationships with our buildings are nothing if not complex.
Speaking for myself, there are many things I really like about these facilities. I like the black walnut trees, the butterfly gardens, the goldfinches that visit in the summer, and the red-bellied woodpeckers and flickers that visit the birdfeeder outside my office. I love the porch built the Endowment Trust and how lovely it is to gather there in the spring and fall. I love the red-tailed hawk that perches on the handrail of the ramp leading up to Saeger House. Maybe the hawk is a little intimidating.
And I also recognize that many in our congregation have strong emotional reactions to this building. Some watched their children take their first steps in the Barn Chapel. Others had the memorial service for a loved one here. Others have spread the ashes of a husband or a son in the garden just to the west of Saeger House.
For me, the deficiencies are easier to name. There is a downside to working in a drafty old farmhouse that is hot in the summer and cold in the winter and where the staff offices are split between two floors. Our office space is 100% maxed out. Having my office (and bathrooms) on the second floor of Saeger House means that I cannot meet with someone in the privacy of my office unless that person is able to climb stairs. Significant portions of both of our buildings are not accessible to those with impaired mobility. Some older members of our church stay away because they find it intimidating to try to navigate the foyer or the barn chapel. Older members stay away in the winter because our gravel drive ices over.
I could continue: lousy kitchen facilities; a Barn Chapel that is dark, needs new carpeting, isn’t air-conditioned, and is congested during coffee hour; a hallway where I feel claustrophobic and where visitors feel intimidated; conducting worship in a room built to be a social hall, with the acoustics of a social hall, and too often having to preach over the roar of our HVAC system.
Most of all, the moment that made it clear to me that our buildings were not serving our needs was when Bob N. died last July and his widow worried about whether we could even have the service here, whether our facilities could accommodate his memorial service. In the end, we decided to act on faith, brought in forty extra seats (look around you and try to figure out how we did that) and the service was at near capacity. Choosing not to have your wedding here because we don’t have a center aisle is one thing; being in a situation where I might have to tell the family of a founding member of this church that we can’t accommodate a memorial service is another thing. I’ve had to turn down invitations to host world class speakers on religion and social issues because we don’t have 400 or 500 or 1,000 seats.
Who is Tiresias today? Who is the voice, not of royalty, not of insider stature, who can speak the truth and steer us clear of foolish ways? Tiresias, in the Greek tragedies, was blind, and weak. Tiresias couldn’t meet with me in my office and would probably stay home during the winter so as not to fall in our parking lot. Tiresias, in the Greek tragedies, was also a stranger from afar. The person of Tiresias in our midst today is the brand new visitor trying to get information at the membership table while being jostled by people trying to squeeze by to get into the bathroom. Our Tiresias is the stranger, the visitor who presses, body to body, in our foyer attempting to make it down to coffee hour. (Experts would tell us this is not the way to create intimacy in our community.)
I don’t have to turn a phrase like Reverend Hill. When someone tells me, “This is a great church,” I know what this person is talking about and this person is not. This person is talking about the people, not the inspiring architecture; about the feeling of energy, not unique aesthetics; about feeling inspired and feeling at home, often in spite of the buildings in which we make our home.
You deserve, and it is my hope that one day you will have, a building worthy of this church community. A building that reflects our mission and is a worthy vessel for our vision. At the beginning of this sermon I shared an image of pulling a prank at the Frank Lloyd Wright Church by putting the Batman symbol over their light. Truthfully, another prank comes to mind, and this is a prank that I would also never act on. The prank I imagined was putting the flaming chalice symbol over that great beam of light.
Such a silly prank actually contains the seeds of vision. What would it be like for us to stand out as a beacon, to send up a signal of our presence in this community, in this city? What building would be worthy of the values we would dare proclaim with our loudest and clearest voices?