Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. Christi O. Brown delivered this sermon Nov. 7, 2010 , at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham, N.C.
One of my greatest achievements ever was building houses in Kenya with Habitat for Humanity. I was 23, had received my master’s in engineering three weeks prior, and climbed on a plane alone to fly overseas to join an international team of strangers in Nairobi. From there we drove three and a half hours in a very crowded van to a small village without electricity or running water. This village was called Kimuri, and it was to be our home for the next 10 days.
The first full day we were there, we split into teams and started building three houses. The first day was by far the hardest for me. I didn’t know how to swing a hammer very well, and there was a lot of nailing to be done. Being a perfectionist, I was in tears over bent nails, many do-overs and bruised fingers. It was hard, tiring and frustrating work.
But as the week went on -- and as our team, the homeowners and locals helping out became a community -- things became much easier. By the last day, we were all swinging hammers like Bob Vila from “This Old House.” We still shed tears, but for much happier reasons. We had built three houses together, and three Kenyan families would be able to live in healthier homes.
In the Scripture passage for today, the Lord, via the prophet Haggai, calls on the Israelites to build. Their temple had been destroyed when they were exiled to Babylonia. They had been able to return to Jerusalem 18 years before with the intention of rebuilding the temple. It was vital to their lives, symbolizing the dwelling place of God. It was their designated place of worship -- a central gathering place for their community of faith.
They had prepared the foundation of the temple their very first year back from exile, and then they did not touch it for 17 years. They were too distracted by getting their own lives back in order to worry about it. They wanted to build their own homes first so that they could have a nice place to live. Then they started earning wages and didn’t have extra time to work on the house of the Lord.
But then the Lord called them to task and helped them re-establish their priorities. Haggai laid it on the line, calling them to account for the way they were living by essentially saying, “You live in nice, comfortable homes. You spend your time on things that reward you -- eating and drinking, buying nice clothes and blowing your money on frivolous things -- all to the neglect of the house of the Lord. The moment has come for you to refocus your time, resources and energy on building for God instead of yourselves. The Lord calls you to build.”
Miraculously -- and unlike practically every other group who was reproached by a prophet in the Old Testament -- these people both listened and acted upon the word of the Lord. They started building! Even the governor and the high priest pitched in.
But they had not gotten far along building the temple before the people began to get discouraged. The older Israelites remembered the grand, previous temple, and this one looked nothing like that one. They adopted a defeatist attitude and said, “If this temple is going to pale in comparison to the last one, then why are we even bothering to rebuild it? Why waste our time if we can’t make it as glorious as it used to be?”
The Lord acknowledged that it was hard for those who remembered the temple in its former glory to move on. However, God prodded them to go forward nonetheless. Three times the Lord said, “Take courage!” And then the Lord issues an imperative: “Work!” This is an unusual command for the Lord. Most of the time the Lord is declaring, “Fear not,” or something more comforting than “Work!”
Notice in this instance that God does not stipulate passive actions, such as “think” or “talk” or “contemplate.” God says, “Work!” Go, do. Get up off your floor cushions, get off your donkeys, turn away from yourself, toward me, and work! I know it’s hard to build, particularly when it doesn’t look anything like you’ve envisioned in your mind. I know it takes blood, sweat, tears, sacrifices. Do it anyway.
Not a breath goes by, however, before God continues, “For I am with you.” I am the same God that marched your ancestors out of Egypt. I was with your people then, and I will be with you now and forevermore to come. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. You are called to build, and I will be with you through it all.
Today, this very same ever-present God calls us to build, too. God calls us to re-prioritize our lives and focus on acting upon our faith. It is true that we may be called to build physical structures like houses, but we are more likely called to build up our relationships, our community, our families, our church, our spiritual lives, our character and one another.
And though these words were addressed to a people more than 2,500 years ago, they sound like they could have been written for us today. Like the Israelites, many of us realize that we need to re-prioritize our lives for the Lord.
The recent stewardship season has provided an opportune occasion for us to examine how we’re spending our time, talent and money. We’ve filled out pledge cards and checked boxes for skills we can bequeath. We are eager to contribute to the life of the church and community, and then, in a matter of minutes -- in the time it takes to walk to our cars -- the secular world woos us away from God.
We are bombarded with advertisements telling us what we just can’t live without. People or organizations telling us what activities we must sign up to do. The secular world models that we should turn away from God and turn toward our own interests. Take the political election as an example. Politicians seem to care only for their own houses -- whether red or blue -- at the expense of the nation.
They tear others down instead of building up. They focus inward on self-desires and self-preservation. We all get caught up in some form of self-interested behavior as well.
It is not that the Lord rebukes the people for taking care of themselves by seeking the necessities of shelter, food, clothing and wages. God admonishes them for not doing anything with what they have except satisfying themselves.
The temple, the place where they meet God, was once the center of their lives as a community. Now they barely missed it as they went through their daily routines. They had not even attempted to rebuild it in over 17 years.
Many of us know what this feels like. We spin our wheels, day in and day out. And what do we have to show at the end of most days except exhaustion? We push away or neglect our time with God because life is just too busy and too difficult.
What is it that has made us blind to God as we are caught up in the busyness and cycle of our desires? Scripture says the Israelites lived in paneled houses, and therefore they obviously knew how to build, yet what kept them from building up the house of the Lord? What keeps us from building for God?
At Duke Divinity’s Convocation & Pastors’ School, well-known pastor Rob Bell talked about eucharistic calling. He said the sacrifice of Jesus symbolized by the bread and wine are God’s good gift to us. When we receive this gift, we are to go into this world and share this gift.
How are we going to be broken and poured out? What is it that we see in this world and ask, “Who’s going to do something about that?” – to which the answer is most likely, “No one but you”? What is your eucharistic calling? What is God calling you to build?
There is a bridge in China nicknamed Suicide Bridge. Upwards of 1,000 people have died by jumping off the bridge. One man decided to do something about it. Chen Si gets up early every weekend and travels by bus to the bridge.
He keeps watch for those who seem suicidal or depressed. He carries a billboard, which features a red heart at its center. His message is simple: “You only have one life, please give yourself a chance. The sun is bound to shine brighter tomorrow.” There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of suicides at the bridge because of this one man’s actions. An ordinary man answered his call and made an extraordinary contribution.
Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller, in his book “The Theology of the Hammer,” stated: “Our Christian faith … mandates that we do more than just talk about faith and sing about love. We must put faith and love into action to make them real, to make them come alive for people. Faith must be incarnated; … it must become more than a verbal proclamation or an intellectual assent.”
In Haggai’s time, the rebuilding of the temple was a visible sign of the Israelites’ determination to put God first in their lives. And just like the hot and frustrating days for me in Kenya, the building doesn’t always come easy, but it is always worth it, and the Lord of Hosts is always there.
Friends, what is God calling you to build?