This is the fourth of fourteen services in which we will look at this scripture from Ecclesiastes. It tells us that for everything there is a season. For everything there is a time. It is not telling us to passively wait for everything to happen. Maybe we need to discern which time it is. Maybe our actions determine which time it is. Maybe we have been put here to influence the turning from one time to another. Maybe we have been put here for such a time as this.
We have already considered a time to live and time die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up what was planted, a time to kill and a time to heal. Today, we turn our attention to “A time to build up and a time to tear down.”
What needs to be built up and what needs to be torn down? Of course, we could think metaphorically about these words.
We need to tear down the walls of hate.
We need to build up the fortresses of peace.
We need to tear down the castles of mistrust and build up the towers of acceptance.
We need to tear down the prisons of judgmentalism and build up the palaces of understanding and solidarity.
Jeremiah was told by God at the time of his call, “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10)
But maybe this is meant to be taken literally. Maybe it is talking about buildings. The Hebrew people identify where they are in history by the condition of the Temple. At the time that Ecclesiastes was written, the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people sent to 50 years of Babylonian exile. After the exile the Temple was rebuilt and the Jewish heritage took on new meaning. There’s an ownership that you feel when you actually put your hand to the building of something. It becomes a part of you. One time it was torn down, another time it was built up. It wasn’t good that it was torn down. But the process of building it up helped the Hebrew people reestablish their identity.
In 1904 Ebenezer Lutheran Church built a church building on the corner 15th and Dolores Streets in San Francisco. In 1906, an earthquake devastated the city. To stop the ensuing fire, buildings were torn down to cut off the fuel source. Members of the church gathered to save the building and it remained in tact on the edge of the fire. In the 1950’s they sold the church to a small Southern Baptist congregation who renamed it Dolores Street Baptist Church. They remained there until an arsonist burned it down in 1993. When I arrived as their pastor in 1995, tearing down and building up occupied our collective consciousness. The church building was torn down and a garden was built up in its place. We surveyed the neighborhood and decided that a little Baptist church was not needed. What was needed was an interfaith center that would offer radical hospitality to a city in need. Funding and city politics prevented the church from building that new building, but the process of imaging what could be built was a creative and life-giving endeavor.
When I think about a time to break down and a time to build up, my mind goes to the changes we have seen over the past several years. Imagine me who came here 13 years ago with two small children who had never seen a church with three balconies to explore. My first sermon was March 18th, 2001. When I came here, there was no elevator. There were no storm windows. You could see and feel cold air through a lot of the windows. We didn’t have ceiling fans. The hallway had a tattered rug, no carpeting. We had Second Foundation School downstairs, North Country Community Development Corporation and the nursery on the 3rd floor. There was no sacred Harp Singing. The Loring Pasta Bar had not opened yet, nor had Kafe 421. The Varsity Theater was a private photography studio and there was a Pizza Hut across the street from the church.
We have weathered many storms over those years. We have seen the neighborhood change. We have seen our building improve. And we have seen residents, business owners and developers argue about who has the area’s best interest in mind. Good people believe there is a time to break down and a time to build up. And then there are those good people who wish to preserve.
The film “The Preacher’s Wife” features an overworked pastor who is contending with debilitating poverty, an old building in need of repair and a boiler that keeps breaking down. Enter a developer who wants to build a high-end set of buildings in his neighborhood. He wines and dines the church board. He tells them about how this is going to help out the neighborhood. So what if some people are displaced. And here’s the kicker, says the spider to the fly, all the church needs to do is sell their property and give their blessings to the City Council and the developer would build a brand new church as the centerpiece of the development. The preacher is burned out and would welcome someone else to deal with the problems of his neighborhood. A little divine intervention reminds the preacher of his call and he finds his voice once again, with a little help from Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. He realizes he was set there for such a time as this.
Kim and I like watching HGTV. It can be dangerous because you see people tearing things down and building up something else and it gives one of us ideas. We landed the other night on the rehab addict. This series of episodes is actually based in South Minneapolis where the show buys an old house for $1 and then proceeds to rehab it. The house was scheduled to be demolished, but under layers of tile were hardwood floors and a charm that was worth preserving. The rehab addict said it was not time to tear down, but time to preserve.
When a building becomes dangerous, then of course it is time to tear it down. We saw this during the foreclosure crisis several years ago. Houses across the north end were leveled, making room for open space and gardens and maybe one day a new building. Now, during the housing boom, houses are being torn down in South Minneapolis, and the Highland area of St. Paul, and bigger, out-of-place homes are going up with little or no neighborhood input. Not all tearing down and building up is good.
I told you about the old farm property our family had outside of Cleveland, Ohio. My Great-Great Grandparents bought the land because their son had tuberculosis and had to get away from the coal-heated homes in Cleveland. They camped at first at the farm property, before building up little cottages. When the family construction business had a lull in projects, my family kept the builders on payroll to create the other cottages on the property. Years later, my grandfather converted an old tool shed into the cottage for his family. I spent many a summer there, keeping the old places repaired. As family members died or moved away, their houses were never torn down. Instead, they were left to rot on the farm, for even though people wanted to repair them, they were not officially theirs to repair. Family politics. Once the farm was sold, the old buildings were finally torn down and new larger houses have cropped up in their place. It was time. And I pray that the new owners will have the same wonder as the generations who have walked that land. Maybe their children will make up stories in their imaginations at the old fireplace and chimney in an overgrown clearing once home of another’s hopes and dreams.
Our church neighborhood has gone through many changes over the years. And even though the Dinkytown hotel project wasn’t approved last month, doesn’t mean that the neighborhood won’t change. It has and it will. Developers decided, with the blessing of the City Council, it was time to tear down the old Marshall High School Building, the House of Hanson, the Podium, the Book House, to rip out much needed parking and to build up more housing and some new retail options just a block away from our church. The construction on those buildings ought to be done by the end of the summer, just in time for the Vikings to play eight home games a year on Sundays at the TCF stadium. Need we talk about what is being torn down to make way for the Vikings monstrosity and hotel project?
I had lunch this week with a friend who went to the U in the early 80’s. She’s an architecture buff. Here’s what she said, “After leaving you I drove around Dinkytown....omg. I can't believe the destruction. Crazy. And that big building on 12th/13th and 4th Street. Marshall site. It's all sad. And you are right, these buildings all look alike.”
We can mourn all we want about what we have lost. At some point, however, we need to shift to think about what we have gained because of what will be built up.
We will gain new neighbors.
We will gain excitement and perhaps a more public face.
We will have gained an opportunity to connect with these new people and show them our unique take on the times of our lives.
We will have gained opportunities to share beauty, wonder, hopes and dreams with a whole new generation of students and young professionals.
There was a time to tear down and a time to build up.
This is our time to build up.
This is our time to better utilize our presence in this neighborhood.
This is our time to build up our courage to advocate for the needy, to live into our calling to fill the hungry with good things, to proclaim release to the captives and good news to the poor and proclaim the acceptable year of God’s favor. For who knows, maybe we were set here for just such a time as this.
Our forbearers built this building in order to do campus ministry in a more effective way. I don’t think the builders envisioned us housing five congregations and a school. But we have used the old building well. It’s one of our great assets. And as many problems we have with the old boiler and the leaky roof, it’s in pretty good shaped for a ninety-two year old building.
Some of our best things have happened because we have chosen to build on what we have. We were strike headquarters years ago because we were perfectly situated to offer hospitality to striking workers and their supporters.
It is here in this building that we gain insight, courage, support, and a clear direction from God about what is to be torn down and what is to be built up.
Sisters and brothers, there is a time to live, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to pluck up what was planted, a time to kill, a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build up.
May we tear down that which keeps us blind, deaf, indifferent, numb and selfish. May we build up that which will bring welcome, affirmation, joy, beauty, courage, peace, blessing and hope.
Who knows, maybe we were set here in this place for such a time as this.