I imagine that every politician has, at least once, said something they wish they could take back. Maybe it was something inappropriate that they shouldn’t have said, or maybe it was something that just didn’t come out quite right. For Barack Obama, one of those occurred on July 13, 2012, when he got himself into trouble with just four words. He was talking about the role of the government in our lives, and how the government contributes to the success of businesses. He also was speaking about our interdependence, that we need one another, and no single person can claim all the credit for what any of us achieve. He said, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges.” Half a minute later he said, ‘The point is … that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.’” But in-between those two sentences he said those four words that got him into trouble: Does anybody remember what they were? “You didn’t build that.” The actual quote was: “Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” His representatives later claimed that when Obama said “You didn’t build that,” he meant the roads, the highway system. But that’s not how people heard it. In response, Mitt Romney’s campaign put out an ad that quoted this line five times in fifteen seconds. Five times in fifteen seconds we heard Barack Obama say, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” Of course people responded negatively to that statement. People who had worked hard to build their small businesses, to manage family farms, to provide for their families, said, “Yes, I did build that!” And they were right.
And they missed the point obscured by the sound bite. The meme generators got really busy and created images of our top inventors, with Obama telling them “You didn’t build that.” One opponent posted on social media a photo of himself by his small business sign that said, “I built this!” Then another meme generator wrote all over the photo, circling the government-supplied electricity, government-provided roads, government-backed banks and loans, etc. It was an argument for weeks and months. “You didn’t build that” versus “I built this!”
Our passage from Deuteronomy today is Moses’s “You didn’t build that” speech. And although memes had not yet been invented, he wouldn’t have cared if they had. At this point in time, God’s people have been wandering through the wilderness for forty years. All that time, God has provided for them—giving them manna from heaven to eat and water from a rock. God is now leading them into the promised land, a land of plenty, a land with flowing streams and healthy grains and olives and honey, a land where they will not be hungry, a land where they will be blessed. As they are about to enter into this prosperity, Moses wants to be clear: You didn’t build this. He spends many verses telling them how wonderful it’s going to be, but then he spends even more time reminding them how awful it was in Egypt and how faithful God was in the wilderness.
Then he says, “When all these wonderful things happen—when your flocks multiply and your wealth multiplies and your children multiply and your strength gets mightier and your gold gets goldier, don’t go saying ‘My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me!’ You didn’t build this!”
I find it interesting that this is the lesson the lectionary devisers gave us for Thanksgiving day. It’s not a bad lesson for us to keep in mind this week. Many of us are pretty self-sufficient. Many of us can look back at our successes through life, look at our hard work and all we have accomplished, and feel pretty proud of ourselves. And we should, especially if we came from underprivileged beginnings or came through particularly difficult circumstances. It is OK to feel pride in our accomplishments, and it’s good to be proud if all you did was survive!
But we forget. We forget how we got here. We sometimes forget the teachers who inspired us, the parents who encouraged us, the boss who gave us a chance when nobody else would, the GI bill that provided our education, the government-backed loans, even the Social Security and Medicare programs that our ancestors lacked . . .we did not get where we are on our own smarts alone. That is a good reminder for Thanksgiving week—to remember to be grateful for everything along the way, to know that we are connected and are dependent upon one another.
But the lesson goes much further, because Moses’ speech was not about government assistance or even interdependence. It was about the faithfulness of God—then and now. It was God who brought you out of slavery—the bondage you experienced with that addiction of yours. It was God who led you through the wilderness—that wilderness of depression you thought you’d never get through. It was God who fed you manna from heaven—that nourishment of your soul when grief robbed you of all joy. It was God who brought forth water from solid rock—the water of peace that flowed over your weary spirit. Never forget…it was God. So when things go well, when your flocks multiply and your investments multiply, never forget it was God who was with you when you experienced no multiplication, only subtraction. When your strength is mighty and your abilities are ever on display, never forget that God chose you when you were weak and insignificant.
That’s what God does—time and time again God chooses the weak. God chooses the underdog. God chooses the unlikely hero. “Who would have given Abraham two cents for his promise of being the father of a great nation when he was 99 years old and his wife could no longer have children?…What odds would we have given Joseph that his dream of leadership would come to pass as he was sold into slavery in Egypt?…Who would have foreseen that a group of slaves in Egypt could be led from bondage to freedom by a man so ungifted in leadership, speaking ability, diplomacy, and plain common sense, as Moses? And who would have given that scraggling bunch of slaves much of a chance of even making it to the Red Sea, let alone getting across?” God chooses the underdog, the unlikely, the ones voted least likely to succeed.
“Childless women. Old men. The youngest sons. Cowards. Stutterers. Daydreamers. Shepherds. Murderers. Slaves.” That’s why it always amazes me when clergy get arrogant about their call from God. Have you noticed who else God called?!
“But remember…” our story says.
Remember where you were.
Remember who got you here.
Remember. And be grateful.
I have to pause here to say that one of the challenges in sermon preparation is figuring out what to fit in and what to leave out. In our time of research and study, ministers learn so much about the context and the history and the original language and the translation that it is very easy to present an oral report on the scripture rather than a sermon. We always have to figure out what point we’re trying to make, and if the details don’t serve the communicating of that point, then we save them for Leisurely Lectionary. But I learned something in studying this week that has little to do with what I’ve just said, and yet I think it’s a really important thing for us to note. So consider this the bonus sermon.
The scripture says, in the New Revised Standard Version, “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God” or in the Common English Bible, “You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God.” That sounds rather generic to us, but to our Jewish ancestors, as well as to our current Jewish brothers and sisters, this formula of “You will eat and then you will bless the Lord” is referring specifically to prayer after the meal. There is a specific prayer to be prayed after a full meal that includes bread, and a different prayer to be prayed after a full meal that didn’t include bread, and a different prayer to be prayed when it wasn’t a full meal, and a different prayer to be prayed after the Sabbath meal, but they all are prayers after the meal. They eat and are satisfied and then they bless the Lord, they thank the Lord.
I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving dinner prayer—how it’s often a bit rushed because the mashed potatoes are already getting cold and we don’t want the gravy to congeal, and those who are cooking and serving are still trying to remember if they put everything on the table. Go ahead and say a prayer then, as you always do. But please pray again, after the meal, when there is more time, when you can speak of God’s faithfulness in the past. I’m not suggesting you look at the cook and say “You didn’t build this!” If you do, you will be unlikely to receive dessert! But look around you, at all that you have—all the blessings, all the joys, even the empty chair because of the person who used to fill it—look around you and say “I have been filled and I thank the Lord.”