September 8, 2019

Counting the Cost

Passage: Psalm 139: 1-6; Luke 14: 25-33

Synopsis: As we move closer to retirement, my wife Ruth and I are planning our energy efficient, aging-in-place retirement house. We’re in the midst of counting the costs as we work with an architect to design our house and a builder who is helping us crunch the numbers. Jesus tells his would be followers to count the cost as he begins his journey to Jerusalem. This is much more than a parade and it will cost everything. That’s true for anything that you and I selflessly give our hearts, souls, and minds to. I must give it everything I have and it in turn redefines who I am.


As many of you know, my wife Ruth and I plan to retire next May and will be moving to Harrisonburg, Virginia. Several years ago we bought a building lot where we hoped to build an energy efficient, aging-in-place house. We have since discovered that this is a huge endeavor of dreaming, planning, and counting costs.


The lot we chose includes a large back yard where I can garden. I have already planted a dozen fruit trees and there is still ample space for other edible plants and a vegetable garden. And Ruth will to be able to see the sun set over the mountains from our living room and front porch. That has been her dream. We first worked with one architect to design our home and then switched to another when we couldn’t get on the same page. We had multiple meetings with the second architect over the past year as he helped us design a house that fits what we want.


We hope to have a net-zero house; meaning that the electric solar panels on the roof will generate as much energy as we consume. All our appliances, our HVAC system, and our water heater will be selected to meet strict energy efficiency standards. We designed the house without any steps and with a handicap accessible kitchen and master bathroom. There will be a cistern to collect rainwater off our roof to irrigate our fruit trees and vegetables as needed during dry seasons. We want to keep our environmental footprint as low as possible.


One way to do that is to right-size our house. American houses keep getting bigger and bigger. Even so, we still don’t have a small house. It has three spacious bedrooms and it’s all on one floor. The neighborhood covenants mandate that the house cannot be smaller than 2,000 square feet. That’s how big our house will be. It’s bigger than two people need so we will want to be generous in welcoming people to stay with us. All of you are always welcome to come visit and stay overnight if you want to spend a weekend away.


The biggest planning and cost counting challenge involved finding a building contractor to build our house for us. The first builder we were working with backed out when their company got a contract to build a 20,000 square foot house and became overwhelmed with work. Two other contractors gave us initial price estimates that were way beyond our budget. Earlier this summer, it appeared that we might not be able to build the house we had planned for at price we can afford. Then we started working with a builder who specializes in energy efficient houses. His price was still higher than we had hoped, so he sat down with us to go over things item by item (literally counting the cost) to get to a price that we’re comfortable with.


This raises tough questions. Is building a new, single family house (even an energy efficient one) good stewardship in our world facing an environmental crisis. I honestly don’t know. Perhaps people will need to consider completely different kinds of living arrangements in our growing climate change crisis with rapidly melting polar icecaps and people being driven from their homes by drought, floods, and other severe weather events.


We took the plunge last week and signed a contract to have our house built. It feels like only one small step toward energy efficiency. Taking this step will hopefully help us to better discern what other steps can be taken. This is something I’ve been passionate about for many years. Thirty five years ago, Ruth and I built a passive solar house with a double wall, super insulated construction that we were able to heat with one cord of wood a year. The green technology in our new house will be way beyond what was available to us at that time.  Even so, it’s a risk. No matter how carefully one calculates, one can never anticipate all the unforeseen challenges and, hopefully, also some unforeseen benefits. That challenge to count the cost is Jesus’ bucket of cold water thrown on the enthusiastic crowd eager to follow him as he began his journey to Jerusalem. Listen to what biblical scholar Fred Craddock says about that:

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, but what is the nature of the journey? Is in a funeral procession? Apparently only Jesus has seriously faced the issue of his death; the Twelve [disciples] certainly have not yet grasped it. Is it a march? Very likely some think so; investing a good deal of emotion in imagining the projected clash: Galilee versus Jerusalem, peasants versus power, laity versus clergy. Jews versus Romans. Jesus versus the establishment. Is it a parade? Obviously this crowd thinks so, oblivious to any conflict, any price to pay, any cross to bear. The crowds swell; everyone loves a parade. What does Jesus have to say to hasty volunteers? In sum, his word is, “Think about what you are doing and decide if you are willing to stay with me all the way.”[1]


To be human is to have a network of loyalties and aspirations. For example, I love Ruth, our children and our grandchildren. Our dreams and aspirations for our grandchildren led Ruth and me to establish college educational funds for each of them. I love our church and the network of church related friends I have here in Fairfax. I also have dreams and aspirations for our church. I love America but this is more nuanced because, while there’s so much that’s good, I’m also troubled by the great harm we do in the world. I might add that the same is true of Christianity.


Jesus is saying that the gospel not only takes precedence over our other loyalties, it redefines them.  And as Martin Luther King Jr. has said, “There’s no great disappointment where there’s no great love.” Following Jesus, loving God with all my heart, soul, and mind, and my neighbor as myself redefines everything. This will necessarily involve some detaching, some turning away from my other loves and loyalties. In some situations it may mean being misunderstood and even persecuted.[2]


Last week I unexpectedly ran across another instance of counting the cost as I was organizing and cleaning out some church files. There I found a facility procurement plan that was put in place in 1985 and led to the purchase of this property two years later. Whoever wrote the plan was very systematic and detail oriented. I wish I knew who it was. All I know is that there was a building committee and that a man named Ed Parks was the treasurer. Here’s the detailed procurement schedule they devised:


  • 10/1/85 to 11/30/85              Phase I of the fund raising is conducted.
  • Approx. 11/1/85                    Engage a commercial real estate agent to begin seeking an appropriate parcel of property.
  • By 1/1/86                              Complete the financial planning and arrangements to purchase a property.
  • By 6/1/86                              Obtain congregational approval to purchase a specific piece of property and complete the purchase. Because of the fund-raising approach planned, this may require some short-term financing arrangements.
  • By 8/1/86                             Complete the design, plans, and cost estimate for the new building and have them approved by the cong.
  • 9/1/86 to 11/30/86                Phase II of the fundraising is conducted
  • By 1/15/87                           Obtain any necessary construction financing commitment and                                              congregational approval to proceed.
  • By 4/1/87                             Commence building construction.
  • By 10/1/87                           Achieve initial building occupancy for Sunday services.


We have very sketchy knowledge about what happened next. The plan said that the maximum cost ceiling for a facility was $350,000 and that they hoped for contributions of $275,000, leaving a long-term debt of between $25,000 to $75,000. I know that the details didn’t follow the plan but our congregation did move into this building sometime in 1987. John Kliewer, our former congregational chair, once told me that we had actually put in an offer for a piece of land where we hoped to build a church but that Fairfax County didn’t give the necessary approval. We then bought this property, which had formerly served as a denominational headquarters for the Assemblies of God. I’m also assuming that we were not able to raise even close to the amount of funds hoped for because the mortgage on our property was around $300,000 when I became our pastor.


How do we think about this more than thirty years later? Things certainly didn’t work out exactly as that building committee had planned. Yet, if they had not put a plan into action we wouldn’t own this property today. Sometimes our facility feels a bit tired and cranky but our renovation of it has done wonders in making it more useful. It enables lots of good ministry in our community that would not otherwise be possible.


Jesus tells his would be followers that following him will cost them everything. That’s the case for anything that’s good, true, and beautiful. Consider anything that you and I selflessly give our hearts, souls, and minds to. I must give it everything I have and it in turn redefines who I am. According to Psalm 139, it’s being searched by God and held in God’s embrace.  As the psalmist proclaims, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It’s so high that I cannot fathom it” (v. 6). It’s to truly live and truly be alive.


[1] Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 181.

[2] Ibid., 182.

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