You Didn’t Build That

Here a text of the sermon I preached today–more or less. 


I am a fan of political speeches. Well…at least I was, back when some of them were worth listening to and involved more than one politician slamming another’s record, ideals and personal life.

You know how when you were growing up, your family would gather every year to watch the Super Bowl on television; or maybe at your house it was the Oscars or the broadcast of the Boston Pops on the Fourth of July. At our house, the one night of the year that we always gathered around the television was election night. My father is a bit of a political junkie, so I’ve heard my share of political speeches, commentaries and debates.

Most of you will remember the gaff that Obama made back in 2012 in Ronake, Virginia. I actually agreed with the essence of what he said, but I’m sure a speech writer lost his or her job for that one. In an effort to communicate that we’re all in this together, that none of us is in this alone, that all of us—in some way or another—have received assistance from the government, he managed to offend an entire segment of the population with his “You didn’t build that” line.

I’m not interested in talking politics from the pulpit (except to say that if you haven’t already voted, be sure and exercise your right to vote), but the phrase used by Obama back in 2012 lines up really well with our scripture for today. “You didn’t build this” could have been the phrase Moses used to prep the people for their entrance into the Promised Land, for he already knew what statistics tell us today. That when times are hard, church attendance increases, the number of people who say they pray daily increases and when things are going great, well…

Deuteronomy 8:7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills,
8:8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey,

8:9 a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.

8:10 You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.

8:11 Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.

Moses was reminding his people that their lives are not simply their own. The Israelites were part of something bigger than themselves. They were part of God’s salvation story, God’s attempt to redeem creation from the bondage of sin.

Last year, our church made its way through The Story, a narrative version of the Bible. It was about this time last year that we were beginning to see the repeated cycle in the OT. The people were rescued by God, everything was hunky dory, the people turned away from God and everything went to hell in a hand basket. Then the people repented and were rescued by God…

Moses could see that story arc coming. He knew the Israelites would forget what God had done in their lives. His successor, Joshua, has to remind them about all of this all over again once they get there, but Moses is planting the seed that once they reach the Promised Land, they just might forget they that didn’t get there by themselves.

And we like to do things ourselves, don’t we. It starts when we are toddlers and can barely speak—I can do it myself! We are self-motivated, self-aware, self-assured, and all too often self-involved. We tend to look at achievements solely as the result of our own intellect and elbow grease. The real truth is that there is no such thing as a self-made man…or woman.

All of us got some help from somewhere. Our parents’ genes and inherited aptitudes. Public education, sewer and highway systems. People we are related to, and people we’ve never met who have helped us along the way. Nobody gets out of this life alive, and no one makes it through completely on his or her own.

Our very lives are not are own. God has done great things for us, and our response is a life of service to God and to our sisters and brothers. Like the Israelites, we are part of God’s continuing salvation story, and we are called on to model and show what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It’s a life that we must make the choice to lead, but it’s a life that we don’t build on our own.

Perhaps after Obama retires from being President, he can take that much maligned speech on the road and preach it from pulpits across America. Maybe that might turn what seems to be the steady decline of the institutional church around. See, I think the number one reason that churches fail is not because we live in a post-modern era or that neighborhoods are changing or that God is dead or that church is no longer relevant. It’s because we—the good church people—think we built this.

We think of the church as OUR church and not the church of Jesus Christ.

We settle in to OUR way of doing things instead of constantly looking for new ways to spread the good news.

We start to think that WE are the ones who know how to “do” church right.

And that will sink a church every time.

And nobody here gets to sit in the pew or stand in the pulpit feeling smug. We all like to this that OUR church is different, and WE wouldn’t be that way.

Make no mistake:

Our lives are not our own

This church is not our own

We are part of the continuing story of God and God’s love for God’s people and of the salvation that is ours through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We didn’t build that. We belong to God. God has done great things for us. Don’t forget it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

–Rev. Anne Russ

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