A funny thing happened on the way to this sermon…
I had intended to preach on the soul at work -- integrating our spiritual selves and religious ideals more with the work we do outside of church (whether professional or otherwise). However, you can see from your Order of Service that the title of this homily is not "soul at work" but "Building." I got the idea late Tuesday night while driving home and listening to President-Elect Barack Obama give his acceptance speech. He said,
For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.
Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us.
There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after the children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage or pay their doctors' bills or save enough for their child's college education.
There's new energy to harness, new jobs to be created, new schools to build, and threats to meet, alliances to repair.
The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.
I promise you, we as a people will get there.
Listening to this speech, for some reason the word "build" jumped out at me. And it occurred to me that since Deane would be talking about Habitat for Humanity today, and Jim and his musicians would be here singing "Let This Be A House Of Peace" and "If I Had a Hammer," I had an opportunity to talk about building in the context of this historic victory, both the noun and the verb.
On September 11, 2001 we all watched as three of the most symbolic buildings of our country were torn into by hijacked aircraft, and in two cases completely obliterated from our landscape. I lived in the Washington, DC area at the time and had occasion to drive by the Pentagon very soon after the attack. The gaping hole in the side of this majestic and intimidating structure -- this building that functions as a very symbol of American military strength -- wasn't just a damaged wall, it was a smoldering wound. The sight was physically sickening.
Later, in October of 2001, I went to New York City and stood where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center had been -- those two buildings symbolizing America's financial supremacy. Again, a smoldering, haunting wound on the landscape, circled by grieving people and still-rising dust and smoke.
The terrorists had achieved their goal: we were terrified.
We went to war to route out the terrorists in Afghanistan. Then we went to war with Iraq for reasons that history will have to decide. We were encouraged to get on with life, to get back to work, to go out shopping to help the economy.
The image of ruined buildings invaded our consciousness again in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, and we watched in horrified amazement the spectacle of fellow Americans sitting on the top of submerged houses waiting for a helicopter to lift them out of hell. Those big winds had ripped the ceiling off our fantasy doll house image of our country and shown us what was really inside : desperate poverty for many and a monstrous division between haves and have-nots. Years after the crisis people still lived in FEMA trailers toxic with formaldehyde fumes. Whole families lived, and still live, crowded into one motel room. When I visited Baton Rouge, Louisiana a month after the hurricanes, I saw with my own eyes thousands of refugees in their own country living on cots in a convention center -- some having been turned back at gunpoint from crossing a bridge into another, wealthier and more white county. What they are rebuilding in the Gulf Coast is not just dwelling places, but culture, hope, a tale of survival with villains and heroes.
Three years later, more of our cherished buildings took a hit -- this time in a much more personal way: tens of thousands of Americans realized that they could not make their mortgage payments and lost their houses, or are on the verge of losing them. The two biggest lending entities, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (such down-home names! They sounded like real people? How could you not trust them?), imploded and went bankrupt. The resulting panic sent shockwaves through the entire economy and the stock market crashed.
And so the question remains, in what buildings should we put our faith? In what kind of building shall we find our security?
The man known as Saint Paul wrote to an early Christian congregation in Corinth that "we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” For a group of people whose lives were so precarious, this must have been a beautiful and comforting image. But what about here, what about on Earth?
It seems to me that we are learning, or perhaps have learned, a hard lesson about putting our faith too much in buildings that floods can wreck, that economic crisis can take from us, that termites and rust can eat away, and that bombs can destroy.
The buildings we live in and work in and worship in are important to us; they represent things we care deeply about. Every human being has the right to have shelter, and to help put a roof over a family’s head, as Deane is doing through Habitat for Humanity, is work of love and justice.
Some of us are good at building with hammer and nails, and all of us are welcome to join that work. But there is a building up to which we are all called now, whether or not we can hold a hammer or pound a nail. It is the building up of what President-Elect Obama called,
“a new spirit of service and a new spirit of sacrifice.
… a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.”
It is the work of building up a land, as one people. And I will close with the words of the prophet Isaiah, writing thousands of years ago during a time of extreme economic and political turbulence of Jerusalem and speaking to us today, calling on us --
to preach good news to the poor.
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners
to comfort all who mourn,
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
to rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
to renew the ruined cities
and to rejoice!
Church, let us all be, individually and together, about the work to which we are called the work of building UP.
[At this very moment, the church bell began to ring. We closed, of course, with the hymn “We’ll Build A Land.” VW]