Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 8, 2019

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Living this life is like building a tower.

I’d like to start with a quick survey: how many of you here have done a renovation project? (I’m defining the term renovation fairly broadly here – so as big as adding or altering a bathroom and as small as, I don’t know what, insulating your attic or putting drywall up in your basement or adding gutters. A project, in other words, that involves a drill gun and maybe a contractor and encountering the interior parts of your home, parts that you don’t normally see.)

So, a good number of us.

What you will know as a veteran of renovation is, with a handful of exceptions, renovations take longer than you planned, they are more complicated than you planned, they are more expensive than you planned. To open a wall in an old house is almost always to find problems or hurdles that you didn’t see coming.

I’m thinking about this, I guess, because I spent a good part of the last week working on running a new electrical receptacle to the narthex, to the wee lobby area just inside the front doors. It was more complicated than I had planned. That thing that looks like an arch around the door to the narthex, that appears to be holding up the ceiling? That’s actually hollow, at least down at floor level. The thing that looks like a plain-old wall beside it, that you would reckon would be lath and plaster with a hollow interior? That’s solid concrete, most likely the pillar that bears the load of the building.

That reversal of my expectations made running wire more challenging and differently challenging than I had expected.

I may have said some words that you are not supposed to say in church.

If the tradition is correct and Jesus followed his Dad into the carpentry business, if Jesus worked in construction, maybe building roads or houses in the city of Sepphoris, just a few miles north of Nazareth, then it is curious that in his parables and his other teachings Jesus reaches for imagery from construction so infrequently. He talks about agriculture a lot, about domestic service a lot, about money a lot. But not often does he talk about building things.

And so it is intriguing that, today, he talks about building a tower:

Who among you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and estimate the cost? Because if you don’t, if you pour a foundation and then run out of money when you’ve built a third of the tower, everybody is going to mock you.

And you will forever be known around the neighbourhood as The Tower Loser.

On its face, this is pretty fine advice, the sort of thing that your uncle or your grandma might say to you as you are heading off to college: be careful about taking out credit cards; learn to cook your own meals, you’ll save a fortune; make sure you estimate the cost before building a tower.

And while that is highly sensible advice, advice that I am inclined to heed both here at Grace and in my own family’s life, I am not convinced that it is Jesus’ advice. Because while Jesus is a lot of things, he is just about never sensible. Jesus is not the guy who is going to tell you how to judiciously navigate the stock market or how to advance your career or how to dress for success. The things that Jesus has to say are way more beautiful and way more dangerous than that.

And so any time we hear Jesus say something and we respond, “Well, isn’t that nice,” that’s a clue that we may be missing where Jesus is going.

A few things in particular make me suspect a more wonderful, frustrating, confusing, complicated, holy message behind Jesus’ words. The first is the question itself: Who among you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down and calculate the cost first?

This question is almost a trick or a trap. There is a temptation to answer it reflexively and fast and say No one or at least Not me Jesus! But the actual answer, as the fully human Jesus well knows, is, well, a lot of people. Who among you does not finish your taxes well before April 15th? Who among you does not finish your essay a week before it is due so that you have ample time to proof read and get feedback? Who among you has not laid in your Halloween candy, pre-ordered a turkey for Thanksgiving, and finished your Christmas shopping?

Sometimes we are pretty good at planning ahead. But a lot of the time, because life happens, because we get overwhelmed, because we just forget, stuff sneaks up on us. It is the day when we are supposed to break ground on the tower, all of our friends are there with their shovels, and our plans amount to three lines written on a napkin.

The second thing I notice about Jesus’ saying has to do with the history of towers themselves in scripture. If you have access to that old-school tool called the concordance, an enormous book that lets you find where and when and how many times any word shows up in scripture, or if you have access to that new-school tool called the computer, you will know that, a whole lot of the time, towers in the Bible correlate with hard news.

What is the most famous tower in scripture? Babel. A symbol of human arrogance and Divine anger and totally not up to code engineering. And while towers elsewhere sometime stand for good news – 2 Samuel 22:50 and Psalm 61 describe God as a “tower,” and the erotic poem that we call Song of Solomon speaks of breasts like towers – that is by no means the rule. In Judges, the tower of Shechem is burned in war with great and horrifying loss of life. In Isaiah and Ezekiel, destruction looks like hyenas crying in a city’s towers and towers being pulled down. Ecclesiasticus speaks of a tower of death. Jesus himself mentions a tower in just one other context. Does anyone know what that is? It is also the Gospel of Luke, the previous chapter, 13. And there Jesus tells of the tower of Siloam, which falls and kills 18 people.

In scripture the tower is, at best, an ambiguous symbol – and maybe a symbol of things going spectacularly, disastrously wrong.

Last – and here I would like to return to where I started, to renovations – a tower is, by necessity, a product of building stuff. And as everyone here who has done a renovation knows, and as everyone in Jesus’ audience knows (generally speaking, your grandparents and our ancestors still further back were more handy than us, they knew how to do things), building stuff is hard. And so the crowd before Jesus, like us, knows in their bones about the joys and the wild frustrations and the confounded expectations of digging out a hammer and a saw.

And this is what, Jesus says, following him is like. Discipleship, saying yes to Jesus, saying yes to the Kingdom: it’s like being caught off guard by the first day of construction; it’s like a tower falling over in war; it’s like starting to dig and opening the walls and finding out that your project is going to cost more and take more time and work than you had imagined.

How is this good news?

Well, it’s good news because it is the truth. Faith, hanging out in community with other people, doing this beautiful messy thing that we call church, having friends and family, being alive, building our real and our metaphorical towers: these things are all so much harder than we planned for them to be.

Or maybe that is not 100% accurate. Sometimes these things are exactly as hard as we planned for them to be. But we discover that it is one thing to plan for an experience and quite another to live that experience.

How often does someone say, I knew my spouse’s death was coming. And so I got ready. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.

Or

I knew that the job loss was coming. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.

Or

I knew that growing up or going away to school or moving to another city or retiring or getting old was coming. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.

We knew that building this tower, that standing in the hot sun and, then later, in the cold rain would be hard. We planned. And somehow it turned out that we hadn’t planned at all.

So Jesus’ words are good news because they are true. And they are good news as well because, while the tower of Babel did not get anyone to heaven, the hard work of building these towers does get us closer to God.

My old boss, Bill, would often ask folks at a funeral a question. The question went something like this:

Imagine.

Imagine that I have the lamp with the genie inside. When I rub it, the genie comes out and he says,

I can take all of your grief away.

There’s only one catch. You have to agree to change your past so that you never met the one who died.

How many of you,

Bill would ask,

Would take that deal?

No one ever, ever put their hand up.

Living this life is like building a tower. Sometimes we are ready for construction to begin, a lot of times we could not be less prepared. Sometimes the tower falls over partway through construction. Always, always, there are tests: things that we didn’t see coming and things that we did see coming but that push us to and beyond our limits anyway.

But who would wish it different? Who would wish our towers away? Even when they fall, even when they lean like Pisa, even when they take more than we could have imagined, they remain glorious and holy, evidence that we have lived our lives, that we have said yes to love, to possibility, to God. Our towers are proof that we are here.