Sermon: “The Tower of Your Salvation” (September 4, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Tower of Your Salvation” (Luke 14:27-30)
September 4, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Have you ever started a home improvement project but not finished it?  Maybe at your house there is an unfinished home improvement project or two, or twelve.  A 2014 survey by the manufacturing giant Black and Decker revealed that 52% of homeowners have an unfinished improvement project, and 41% have two or more unfinished projects.  And of course, more often than not, shortly after actually finishing a home improvement project or two, you end up moving anyway!

This can happen on a larger scale too.  In 2007 construction began in Chicago on the Chicago Spire, designed to be two thousand feet tall, only to stop the next year.  In 2008 construction began in Moscow on the Russia Tower, also designed to be over two thousand feet tall, but construction stopped the same year.  In 2008 construction began in Dubai on the Nakheel Tower, designed to be over thirty-two hundred feet tall—and again, construction stopped the very next year.

And there are other projects or tasks that may be started with the best of intentions only to be left unfinished.  For some people it may be a graduate degree.  For others is may be learning a musical instrument or mastering a foreign language or improving one’s golf game.  Or it may be the next Great American Novel begun on the old laptop that is in its dusty carrying case in the attic.

And when people do finish that something—perhaps something that took years and years to finish—they may see it destroyed or dissolved.

A couple illustrations from two great Southern writers…Shelby Foote is best known for his mammoth Civil War trilogy, but he also wrote several other great books, including Jordan County (1954), a short story collection in which he chronicles several generations of a southern family living in fictional Jordan County, Mississippi.  Late in the book he recounts what happened in the Civil War when some Union soldiers razed to the ground sixteen cabins that Isaac Jameson had built as a young man, cabins once part of a lavish plantation:

Next morning when Isaac came out of the house he found the pasture empty, the soldiers gone…He walked down to where the quarters had been, and there were only the foundation stones and the toppled chimneys, the bricks still hot among the cooling ashes.  The cabins had been built during the ten-year bachelor period between his arrival and his marriage…sixteen cabins, two rows of eight, put up during the ten-year span by a five-man building team who snaked the big cypress out of a slough, split them with axes and crosscut saws for timbers and planks and shingles and even pegs to save the cost of nails.  They had been good cabins, snug in winter, cool in summer, built to last; they had seen forty years of living and dying, laughing and weeping, arrival and departure.  Now they were gone, burned overnight, casualties of the war (267).

In pastoral ministry I have met quite a few people who spent decades building their career, only to have it end in a way they never expected—an entrepreneur who began a company is voted out by the board, a long term rector of a church falls out of favor and is forced by the vestry to resign, a distinguished professor at loggerheads with a new administration suddenly retires under a dark cloud.

In Cormac McCarthy’s haunting 2005 novel, No County for Old Men Sherriff Bell, a tough weathered World War II veteran is serving a rural Texas county on the border of Mexico in the early 1980’s.  As his distinguished career is winding down he finds himself unsuccessful in combatting the burgeoning violent drug trade.  He realizes that things have changed too much, too fast, and that it is bigger than him—so near the end of the novel he does something no one would have expected Sheriff Bell to do, he resigns.  McCarthy describes how Sherriff Bell felt that day:

It was a cold blustery day when he walked out of the courthouse for the last time.  Some men could put their arms around a crying woman but it never felt natural to him.  He walked down the steps and out the back door and got in his truck and sat there.  He couldn’t name the feeling.  It was sadness but it was something else besides.  And the something else besides was what had him sitting there instead of starting the truck.  He’d felt like this before but not in a long time and when he said that, then he knew what it was.  It was defeat.  It was being beaten.  More bitter to him than death.  You need to get over that, he said.  Then he started the truck (306).

Have you ever played the game Jenga?  It consists of assembling a tower made of fifty-four wooden blocks, each of which is the exact same dimension (1.5 cm x 2.5 cm x 7.5 cm)—three blocks side by side stacked alternately one “storey” upon another for eighteen levels.   One at a time players take turns removing a block and stacking it on top, making the tower higher and higher until the foundation becomes too weak and the tower comes crashing down—and everyone yells, “Jenga!”  That is what can happen to the towers we build.  Compromises are made in order to make the tower grow taller and taller, but eventually, well, you know.

In the compelling 2015 film The Big Short, which chronicles the deceit that resulted in the housing collapse of 2008, Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, who observes this:

We live in an era of fraud in America.  Not just in banking but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball…What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice, or that fraud is mean.  For fifteen thousand years fraud and short-sighted thinking have never, ever worked.  Not once.  Eventually you get caught, things go south.  When did we forget all that?  I thought we were better than this, I really did.

I imagine each one of you has had a Jenga experience in your life, that each one of you knows an Isaac Jameson or a Sheriff Bell.  You may even live with one or look at one in the mirror every morning.  Maybe like Mark Baum you thought you were better than this, you really did.

In today’s gospel lesson Jesus talks about the importance of counting the cost and finishing what you start building:

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.  For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish” (Luke 14:27-30).

This concept of building a tower and not finishing it is nothing new; it hearkens all the way back to the Tower of Babel.  The writer of Genesis tells us, “the whole earth had one language” and “they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves’” (Genesis 11:1, 4).  As you know, this tower was never completed.  After the Lord confused their languages, “the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city” (Genesis 11:8).

The motivation of those building the Tower of Babel was making a name for themselves, not God, and that is often true for us as well.  The problem is that ultimately when the motivation of doing something “great” is self-centered rather than God-centered, about making a name for ourselves, rather than lifting up the Name of God, one way or another, it will come crashing down: “Jenga!”

And when Jesus was talking about counting the cost before building a tower he was actually talking about something else—did you catch that?  In the preceding verse Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  In other words, when it comes to building towers, not only do we often have trouble finishing it, we are often building the wrong tower in the first place.

Building a God-centered tower rather than a self-centered tower, lifting up the Name of God rather than trying to make a name for ourselves begins not with carrying a hammer but carrying a cross.  Not only that, we are not even the builders.  God is the builder, not us.

The Psalmist puts it this way, “Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it” (Psalm 127:1-3, BCP 782).  Abraham knew this, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews put it:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going…he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:8, 10, emphasis added).

At Caesarea Philippi when Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven,” and then continued, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, emphasis added).

“I will build my church,” Jesus said.  (Incidentally, that means that whenever you hear discussions about what people “need to be doing to build the church,” you are hearing a discussion with a starting point that is entirely wrong.  Jesus is the builder of the church, not us).

Late in his earthly ministry when Jesus and his disciples were in the temple at Jerusalem and Luke tells us “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” that Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (Luke 21:5-6).

Jesus did not come to make a name for himself.  Instead, Jesus came to give his life for you.  And as Jesus was lifted up on the cross, he was the one who ridiculed for not being able to finish what he started—“You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!” people yelled, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40).

But fortunately for you, Jesus did not come down from the cross, but died to atone for all of your sins, all of them.  In fact, as he neared his final breath Jesus cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30).  In spite of all the things in your life that you have left unfinished, the atonement for your sins was not left unfinished.  In spite of all the things in your life that you have left unfinished, your salvation will be finished, because Jesus is the builder, not you—and as the Apostle Paul put it, “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6).

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus did not come to build a tower to himself; rather, Jesus came to be what scripture calls the Tower of your Salvation (2 Samuel 22:51)—so that as scripture also tells us, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10).

Jesus counted the cost to save you, and he knew it would cost him everything, and he still paid it, all of it—and Jesus will finish the work of your salvation.

Jesus is the builder, not you.  This means you can put the hammer down, and instead, pick up your cross and follow Jesus, the Tower of your Salvation.

Amen.