“Unfinished Cathedrals”

Scripture – Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday, August 7, 2022


Imagine giving your life to something you’d never see finished. A recent conversation called to mind one of Barcelona’s most famous landmarks — La Sagrada Família — the Basilica of the Holy Family. It is remarkable for many reasons — its experimental architecture and ambitious design, but also because it remains unfinished. The Spanish architect — Antoni Gaudí — took over this project in 1883, one year after construction began.[1] From that point on, Gaudí devoted himself to the cathedral — drafting blueprint after blueprint, building model after model, even setting up a bed in the basement so he‘d never be far from the construction site. Over the years, he watched his masterpiece take shape, as stone was set upon stone, and the forest-like design he’d imagined began —slowly — to creep up the walls. But, despite his dedication, Gaudí would not live to see the cathedral completed. He wouldn’t even live to see most of the walls go up. In 1926 — 43 years after he began his magnum opus — Antoni Gaudí was struck by a tram upon leaving the building site. He died three days later, just weeks before his 74th birthday. Even if Gaudí had survived that accident, it would have taken an act of God for him to see his dream fulfilled. At the time of his death, less than a quarter of the building was complete; there were still years of construction ahead. I expect Gaudí knew this project would outlive him. After all, that is the way of cathedrals; they take decades — even centuries — to finish. They are the work of lifetimes, not of a single lifetime.

To begin construction on a cathedral is an act of faith … in more ways than one. I know nothing of Gaudí’s motivations for designing La Sagrada Família … although, according to that great authority — Wikipedia, Gaudí was taking his daily walk to a nearby church to pray when he was struck by that tram.[2] So, I think we can assume faith in God undergirded his commitment to the project. But, constructing a cathedral is also an act of faith in the power of the vision. One does not begin to build a cathedral unless he believes someone else will take up the baton, unless he believes someone else will cross the finish line. One does not begin to build a cathedral without accepting he’ll play only a part in this greater work of witness. La Sagrada Família — the Basilica of the Holy Family — is still under construction. It was set to be finished in 2026 — one hundred years after Gaudí’s death — but the pandemic has slowed its progress.[3] Still, every year visitors stream into the cathedral to marvel at Gaudí’s masterpiece – at the spires and the sculptures and the stories the facades tell. I expect most come to cast their eyes upon the unorthodox architecture. But, maybe, some who gaze upon its intricate walls and fantastical forms also cast their thoughts upon the God these glorify. After all, that’s why this cathedral was built. Though still unfinished, La Sagrada Família is an enduring witness to the Triune God. It is a testament to faith.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. In this chapter, the writer of Hebrews gives us one of the most quotable verses in all of Scripture. This definition of faith may be familiar to you; I expect some of you have even committed it to memory. And yet — though many of us have heard these words once or twice or a dozen times before — they still invite some reflection. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen … What does that even mean? Well, the definition tells us two things about faith. So let’s start with the first phrase: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for. Faith, the letter writer tells us, is about assurance. It’s about confidence. It’s about trust … trust that the God in whom we place our hope will be faithful. This first phrase tells us that faith is not some half-hearted impulse or “Pollyanna optimism.” It’s substantive. It’s solid. It provides us a place on which to stand as we imagine the future.[4] We might think of it as a foundation … kind of like the foundation of a cathedral. Though strong it is not static. Faith may be the foundation on which we stand, but it is also the force that propels us forward.[5] Which brings me to the second phrase of this definition: the conviction of things not seen. This second part is a bit more complicated, especially since the original Greek requires some guesswork. The word translated “conviction” appears only here in the entire New Testament.[6] But the third verse of this chapter gives us a clue about the author’s intent. The writer goes on to explain: By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. What is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith, we understand the Creator made plants and pandas and people — which we can see with our own eyes — from something we cannot see — the Word of God. Faith, the writer tells us, has the same effect: It makes visible that which is invisible. Because faith engenders a response; it changes the way we live. Those who trust God’s promises become witnesses to God at work in their lives. As one scholar puts it: “God’s invisible work of new creation becomes visible in the life of the one who trusts God.”[7]

So, faith is the foundation upon which we stand. But it is also a response of trust that others can observe, that others can see … almost like the towering spires of La Sagrada Família. Like a cathedral that draws eyes and minds and hearts toward heaven, those who trust God’s promises become a witness to God’s creative work. Faith, it seems, does take visible form. So it’s only right that the letter offers an illustration. Several illustrations, in fact. The author of Hebrews recalls the Greats of the Hebrews, beginning with Abel and Enoch and Noah (whom the lectionary skips over), before dwelling on Abraham and Sarah. By faith, the text tells us, 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. “Think back to the beginning,” the writer beckons. “Remember the first forebears of the faith? How God called Abraham and Sarah? Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you, God commanded. And, then, God made a promise: I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you … And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. “Consider Abraham and Sarah,” the writer encourages. “How they trusted God, even though the evidence suggested they were fools to believe. After all, a great nation required descendants. And Abraham and Sarah had none; they were childless and well-beyond child-bearing years. But, still, they placed their hope in God. And their faith engendered a response: they set out, not knowing where they were going. “This is what faith looks like,” the writer suggests. “It looks like a well-established couple who leaves behind everything they know to follow God into an uncertain future. It looks like two septuagenarians who believe they can bear God’s blessing to the world. You see? Faith is visible in the lives of the faithful!

The writer of Hebrews does not stop there, but goes on to list other examples: When Moses’ mother defied the empire and hid her babe in a basket, she bore witness to her faith. And the faith of Rahab was on display in her decision to shelter the Hebrew spies. Other forebears administered justice and shut the mouths of lions and put foreign armies to flight … All by faith — faith that is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. If the letter to the Hebrews was penned today, we might expect it to read like this: By faith, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the fight for freedom. By faith, he marched for civil rights, and advocated for the poor, and stirred hearts and minds to envision a more just world. By faith, Archbishop Óscar Romero spoke out against injustice and violence, which ultimately led to his death. By faith, Mother Teresa dedicated her life to the poor of Calcutta, tending to the sick, the hungry, the dying. And these three would certainly make the list, for they were extraordinary witnesses to the power of faith. But it would not stop there … Sometimes we forget that the forebears of the faith — like those the letter to the Hebrews cites — were actually ordinary people. They were shepherds and parents and elders, who happened to be called to extraordinary faith. So, an updated list would need to include ordinary saints, as well: the Deacon who showed up with a home-made casserole every time a new baby was born. The Sunday School teacher who mentored teenagers until the day of his death. The grandmother whose generous grace adopted all those kids who had no grandparents nearby. It would include everyone whose faith is evident in their faithfulness — everyone whose life becomes a visible witness to the invisible promises of God …

Whether or not they see those promises come to fruition … This may be the most extraordinary thing about faith — faith that is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Sometimes the things hoped for are never seen. Not in a single lifetime, at least. The writer of Hebrews reminds us of this: All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. Abraham and Sarah lived to welcome a son. But they never saw the great nation God promised. Descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven would come later, long after Abraham and Sarah were dead and buried. And, yet, they still stood on the promises of God. And their faith propelled them forward. It compelled them to set out, to follow God, to offer their lives as a blessing to others. Such is the life of faith. We place our hope in Christ. And this hope, this trust, engenders a response. It propels us forward. It inspires us to plant seeds, even though we may not see the fruit they bear. Faith compels us to participate in God’s work, even though we may not see that great day when all is just and all is right … at least on this side of Jordan. It’s like setting out to build a cathedral we’ll never finish. But one that will still stand as an enduring witness to the Triune God. One that will draw eyes and minds and hearts toward heaven, that will draw others toward God.

In her memoir, No Cure for Being Human, professor Kate Bowler, tells the story of her visit to an unfinished cathedral.[8] Not La Sagrada Família — a different one. This one in Portugal. And this one, just as ornately embellished as Gaudí’s masterpiece. Kate Bowler describes looking up at the intricate archways — testaments to the time and talent and, perhaps, flamboyant imaginations of the cathedral builders. The archways were adorned with stone faces and stone flowers and stone lattices … even stone pineapples: Thousands upon thousands of tiny sculptures crowded every inch of stone. After pondering the pineapples, Kate moved onto another room — a massive octagonal chapel, each side vaulted and spectacularly ornamented. She cast her eyes upward and noticed something surprising:

“Is this …” she began.

“It was never finished, dear,” came a voice from across the room — an elderly man with binoculars flapping around his neck, who was studying the chapel with great enthusiasm. “Isn’t it wonderful?” he continued. He gestured up, and where the ceiling should have been, there was only open sky. Seven kings had overseen the rise of this monument and had buried their dynasty in its walls. Yet none lived to finish it, Bowler explains.

“The story goes that the plans for the building became so drawn out that eventually the idea of finishing it was simply abandoned. But it’s much better this way,” concluded the man.

“What do you mean?” Kate asked.

“Don’t you see? It’s us! I can’t imagine a more perfect expression of this life,” he beamed.

I can’t imagine a more perfect expression of this life … That elderly man may be right. At least when it comes to the life of faith. We spend our days standing upon the firm foundation of God’s promises, but also moving forward. Perhaps with hearts oriented toward heaven, like the towering spires of a great cathedral. And, if we live by faith — if we are faith-filled and faithful — our lives will make visible the things we cannot see: our hope, our trust, our confidence in our covenant-keeping God. Even if our work remains unfinished. Even if we never see the fruits of our labor. If we live by faith, our lives will be an enduring witness to the Triune God — something others can look at as a testament to faith. Just like a cathedral, even one that remains unfinished. Because, even if the building stands open to the sky or the walls appear a little less than plumb … even if the design is imperfect — beautiful in places, a bit ridiculous in others — those unfinished cathedrals glorify God. They draw eyes and minds and hearts heavenward, toward the glory of God. In the end, that’s what we hope for from this life. That we might draw others toward God, too.


Great Thanksgiving

Sudie Niesen Thompson


Eternal God —
God of Abraham and Sarah,
of Isaac and Rebekah,
of Jacob and Leah and Rachel —

In every age you are faithful to us! Your mercy extends from generation to generation; your steadfast love never ends. So, like Abraham, we press onward in faith …

faith that you prepare a way for us and sustain us on our journeys;
faith that you move within, among and around us — beckoning your people to bear your blessing to the world;
faith that you still work through the chaos to renew, redeem, and restore creation, so that — one day — all will share in the joy of your promised peace.

As heirs of the promise, we long for this day, O Lord. We long for the day when the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, and your weary creation finally knows rest. We long for the day when justice will roll down like waters, and people of every land and race will have what’s needed to flourish. We long for the day when you will wipe away every tear — when mourning and crying and pain will be no more. We long for the day when we all will inhabit a better country — a heavenly one — not in death, but in life.

So we press onward in hope …
hope that comforts;
hope that sustains;
hope that energizes;
hope that demands better.

Faithful God, ground us in hope and commission us again to your work. As we gather around this table, pour out your Spirit upon us and strengthen us for our common calling, so that our lives might make visible the things we cannot see. As we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” align our wills with your will and empower us to build your kingdom in our midst so that all creation may experience your wholeness. By your Spirit, make us people of expectant hope, who — like Abraham and Sarah — set out in faith to bear your blessing to the world. As we press onward, guide us, empower us, and grant us the wisdom and courage to stay the course, so that our lives might glorify you.

This way pray in the name of your Son, our Lord, who gave us words to pray:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.



[1] Information regarding Antoni Gaudí and La Sagrada Família from: Josep Maria Carandell, The Temple of the Sagrada Família (San Louis, Spain: Triangle Postals, S. L., 2004); and Wikipedia.

[2] “Antoni Gaudí,” Wikipedia.org, accessed August 3, 2022.

[3] “Sagrada Família,” Wikipedia.org, accessed August 3, 2022.

[4] Amy L.B. Peeler, “Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16,” workingpreacher.org.

[5]  Bryan J. Whitfield, “Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16,” workingpreacher.org.

[6] Amy L.B. Peeler, “Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16,” workingpreacher.org.

[7] Erik Heen, “Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16,” workingpreacher.org.

[8] This illustration combines paraphrases and direct quotes from: Kate Bowler, No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) (New York: Random House, 2021.