a cardboard cathedral (imagine!)

Sermon from my Gospel and the Gazette series…


Have you ever built yourself a house out of cardboard boxes? I’m sure that many of us have – even if it was some years ago, now. If you have never built yourself a cardboard house, perhaps you have memories of your children or nieces or nephews doing it. In many ways this seems like such a fundamental part of childhood is North America – cutting out windows, colouring the walls, hanging out and maybe eating your snack in the little cardboard house.

I suspect that it was probably somewhere around the 1950’s that the cardboard playhouse became a staple of childhood. It was around the 40’s and 50’s that large home appliances became commonplace in North America. And by that time, cardboard boxes were also widely in use. What better than a great big fridge box or  a stove box to build a play fort with. Those boxes can be a source of hours and days worth of fun.

Now, it’s fair to say that cardboard has come a long way. Cardboard was first used in Great Britain back in the 1870’s – it was used in tall hats for Victorian gentlemen. Today, cardboard is everywhere –especially in cardboard boxes. The advantage of cardboard is that it is at the same time light and strong. And of course it is recyclable, which is also a huge plus.

This week a newspaper story in the Montreal Gazette made it apparent to me, at least, just how far cardboard has come. The story in the Gazette was just a few paragraphs long, and was on the back page. It was about the Anglican cathedral in Christ Church, New Zealand – Christ Church Cathedral. You’ll recall that Christ Church, New Zealand has been struck by a number of earthquakes in the recent years – and in February of this year, the city was struck by a devastating earthquake, an earthquake whose epicenter was almost directly below Christ Church. That earthquake killed 140 people and caused extensive damage.  That earthquake also did extensive damage to Christ Church cathedral – it’s spire was destroyed.

A part of the roof was also destroyed, and the pillars sustaining the building were severely damaged. And so the congregation of Christ Church Cathedral in New Zealand has been without a church building since February of this year. It is likely that the church is beyond repair.

Now I said cardboard has come a long way since it was first used in British Gentlemen’s hats in the 1870’s. I say that because the leadership of the Anglican Church in Christ Church, New Zealand has engaged a Japanese architect by the name of Shigeru Ban to design a temporary church building – in fact, Ban has been engaged to design a cardboard cathedral. If you read this story in the Gazette this week you will have been as surprised as I was. When we talk about a cardboard cathedral, we aren’t talking about a cardboard house that will hold 4 adults if they get down on hands and knees, crawl in, and scrunch down together. In fact, this is a cardboard cathedral that will seat 700 – as large as our traditional sanctuary over on the East side. Here is a model of what it would look like.

The design of this cardboard cathedral is based on 64 cardboard tubes that are almost three feet in diameter – the tubes range from 17 to 22 meters in length.  This cardboard cathedral would be waterproof – it would be covered with a polycarbonate (a plastic) cover for protection against the elements. It would also be fire proof. The cathedral will be almost completely recyclable. It will take only 3 months to build.

Now there has been some discussion and debate about the cost of this temporary cardboard cathedral. Let’s just say this isn’t your typical fridge box that will get a few days use and then be put out at the curbside. The expected cost of the cardboard cathedral is $4,000,000. Of course, all kinds of questions could be asked, and have been asked, about whether this is the best temporary solution for the congregation of Christ Church Cathedral – as they wait for the church and much of the city to be rebuilt.

The architect, Shiguru Ban is known for these cardboard constructions – he is often described of as an “emergency architect.” Following an earthquake in Kobe, Japan, in 1995, he designed a cardboard church for a Catholic congregation as a temporary home. In 2006 that church was taken apart and moved to Taiwan where it is now a tourist attraction. More recently Ban has done work in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there. The advantage of working with cardboard is that construction can be done quickly – and the building is, again, almost completely recyclable.

As I thought about this story in the Gazette, there were so many questions that ran through my mind. I was thinking about whether $4,000,000 couldn’t perhaps be more wisely spent. I wondered what the building would look like in reality – not just in a small model. I wondered what it would feel like to worship in such a structure. I was amazed at the technology that could produce such a large building made out of cardboard.

At some level, of course, the situation faced by that congregation in Christ Church, New Zealand is not that unusual – it is not, in fact, so unusual for a congregation of God’s people to find itself facing such a dramatic turn of events. While their dilemma is unique, and the solution to their dilemma may be unique, the reality of such a profound challenge is not unusual. In the grand scheme of things, it is not unusual for a congregation to find so much of what they took for granted suddenly taken away.

Of course we ourselves, here at KCKF, have had to face up to our own building issues. This building, with its multiple parts, with its large sanctuary, with its many halls – this building is in many ways suited to another time, another era. We have recognized that this building is beyond what we need. We have recognized it is beyond what we can afford. Something that was taken for granted for almost two generations – for some 60 years – can’t be taken for granted any more. We know that.

Thinking back to a year or so ago, it took some imagination, for all of us, to think about relocating worship to this hall. It took some imagination and courage to think about moving out of a beautiful, traditional sanctuary. It took some imagination to think about sitting on chairs instead of cushioned pews – it took some imagination to think about having to hold hymnbooks, rather than having a rack in which to place them. It took some imagination to think about installing and using a new audio/visual system.

The situation faced by the congregation of Christ Church cathedral is no doubt more dramatic than our own – and apparently they have more substantial financial resources than we do, to put it mildly. How else could they think about putting up a temporary church building for $4,000,000.00. And even in terms of our own building we have to acknowledge we can’t complain. There are plenty of Christian communities around the world that would love to have a place for worship that is a beautiful and comfortable and secure as this hall is.

But the key variable in all of this that we are focusing on this morning is the variable of imagination. And that’s really what struck me first about that article in the Montreal Gazette – it’s what struck me when I read about the possibility of a cardboard cathedral. Imagination. An architect, who understands the science behind construction materials, and who understands aesthetics, has imagined a temporary cathedral made of cardboard. The church finds itself in a difficult situation, and it puts its imagination to work – how will we continue to worship; how can we maintain a presence in the city; how can we send a hopeful message that we will rebuild, that we will continue to serve. The imagination is put to work, and the result is this conception – a cardboard cathedral.

Now all of what we’ve talked about, so far, relates to buildings. And of course buildings matter to us, to some extent, as followers of the risen Jesus. We need places in which to gather – a place where we can eat together, a place to pray together, a place to worship together. We need spaces that are appropriate to our identity as a worshipping, serving community. There is, of course, a big question whether we need the kinds of buildings we have had over the past few hundred years – whether they have been appropriate to our identity as Christians. But we have buildings, and it is important that we use our imaginations to think carefully and creatively about how we relate to and can use our buildings. This is so important, as we ourselves have discovered and are discovering.

But thinking just a little more broadly this morning, what I’d like to say is that the use of our imaginations must define the church today.

In fact, I think we can and should define the church, understand the church, essentially in terms of its imagination. The church just is a community of those who use their imaginations in service to Christ and his kingdom. Perhaps this applies to buildings in the first place. But beyond that, and more importantly, it applies to our mission as a community of God’s people.

The gospel is defined by mission, and the church is defined by mission. It’s not that God decided to form the church, and then decided to give the church a mission. Mission isn’t secondary to the existence of the church. Rather, because God is on a mission of love and mercy to our world, he creates a people to join him in that mission. We only exist as the church because of mission – the mission of God. We exist for mission. Another way to put it is to say that when we are called, we are not called merely to go to heaven some day, to be saved, or to have a fulfilled life. When we are called by God in Christ, we are called to mission.

In a way, the opening words of John’s gospel that we read this morning are a description of the imaginative, creative, gracious act of God in coming among us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” The gospel is a glad description of what happens when God pitches his tent among us – when God comes to his people, broken bodies are healed, sins are forgiven, wrongdoing is judged, hope is restored, peace becomes possible. This is the mission of God.

And here’s where imagination comes back into the mix. You see, not only do we need to re-imagine our buildings – though that is certainly something that many congregations are doing in this new era. But we need to re-imagine our mission.

If the church really is a community of those who use their imaginations in service to Christ and his kingdom, then the first area in which we need to deploy or exercise our imaginations is in relation to our participation in the mission of God.

The truth is that most mainline congregations have become rather complacent in this regard. We have lived off of the legacy of earlier generations. We have followed patterns of worship and fellowship and outreach that sprung from the imaginations of those who lived two or three generations ago.

But if we can speak somewhat metaphorically, we can say that that earlier era was the time of large stone churches, of cathedrals that seemed to be permanent, eternal pointers to God. That was a time when the church was an established presence in society. That was a time when it was still eminently respectable and normal to be a member of the church; a time when the church could pronounce on various subjects and could expect at least a few people to listen. But, in more ways than one, we live in the time of cardboard cathedrals. We live in another world. In our time, not only can architects imagined new possibilities for the construction of churches (including cardboard, of all things) – but our new circumstances invites, from us, a new and imaginative response to the world around us – as we reach out in the love of God. Our world has changed dramatically, and we must imagine new ways of sharing in God’s mission.

What does this all mean for our mission as a congregation? Well, if I could stand up here and tell us what it means for our mission, then this whole sermon would have been a lie. Because if I could stand up here and tell you want it all means for our mission, then it wouldn’t really be a matter of imagination.

But it is a matter of imagination – of imagining whole new ways of being the church in the world. This is a joyful and imaginative venture in which we all have a part to play – in which the imaginations of every one of us must be engaged. The question is a simple one. What are the ways in which we can give expression to the love, the justice, the compassion, the truth, of the risen Jesus in our time and our community? It is a question of how we become full sharers in his kingdom? We are invited to think about it. – and to let our imaginations run wild.


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