Christ Centered Resources


Rev. Ed Searcy

Psalms 127:1-5
University Hill United Church : Sun, November 12, 2000
The 127th Psalm is a song of warning. “Unless” it says. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain”. All householders take note. All newlyweds listen up. All homemakers remember this. The construction of households is Yahweh’s work. Do not take it upon yourself to build a household because “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain”. Then there is a second warning.“Unless” it says.“Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain”. All city counsellors take note. All police officers listen up. All block watch households remember this. The oversight of cities is Yahweh’s responsibility. Do not take it upon yourself to shape the city according to your desires. “Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain”. Now a third and final warning. “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he provides sleep to his beloved”. So much for ‘God helps those who help themselves’. So much for the ‘Protestant work ethic’. So much for time management seminars and ‘Palm Pilots’ and improved efficiency. All of the long hours of anxious toil trying to construct a productive life independent of God are in vain. The 127th Psalm is blunt. “Unless” it says. Unless the LORD builds ... Unless the LORD guards ... Unless the LORD works ... even our most herculean efforts to shape a household, to craft a city, to make a success of our life are doomed to failure. This is odd, don’t you think? We were expecting to hear something like: “Unless you build your household according to God’s plans”. But the text is clear. The fashioning of extended families, the administration of society, the work of running the world is in the LORD’s hands, not ours. Does this sound as strange in your ears as it does in mine? Perhaps we have been reading these texts for so long that we have become numb to their peculiarity. We live in a world which simply takes it for granted that it is all up to us ... that everything is up to us. The health of our families is our responsibility. The shaping of our society is our civic duty. “The bread of anxious toil” is the stuff of our life from school days through working years and even into retirement. What would happen to us, I wonder, if we allowed ourselves to imagine that the common sense wisdom that we have inhaled since infancy is not all that wise after all. What shape might our households and cities and days take if they were left to be built and overseen by the LORD? Now when we read this Psalm at weddings - as we often do - I suspect that many already have in mind what a ‘godly household’ looks like. And when Jesus tells the parable of the man who builds his house on sand we realize that somehow our lives are to be grounded on the bedrock of God. But what does such a life actually look like these days? What kind of households and cities and lives does God build in our midst if we lay aside our own hammers and saws long enough to pay attention to God’s construction plans? To be honest, this question cuts pretty close to home these days. For, while the text alludes to home life and city life, we cannot avoid its inferences about our life together here. This is, after all, the household of God. The church and the synagogue are public houses of the LORD to which all are welcome. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, the church in North America is just now in the early stages of serious, even radical, renovations ... perhaps even of total demolition and of re-formation from the ground up. It is an exciting - and frightening - time to be called to speak for the LORD. That is, after all, what is expected of the one who stands here to interpret scripture in worship on the sabbath day. You do not gather here to listen to the word of Ed. You would be foolish to do that ... believe me, I know. You gather here, hoping to hear a Word from the LORD ... a Word from the One who is intending to build something here, out of these disparate lives and out of this gifted and wounded congregation of disciples. Now the obvious temptation in such a time is for preachers like ‘yours truly’ to get rather grandiose - even romanticized - visions of the kind of household that God intends us to become. Fixing the church’s problems becomes as easy as seeking out the right self-help book in the local bookstore (Do we need more members? Look in the church-growth section. More dollars? Look in the stewardship section) . I suppose that the temptation to take control and fix what is broken is the same in households and in cities as it is in churches. And that is never more so than in a culture like ours that places such high value on fixing what is broken with the newest technique and innovative technology. Our great temptation is to rush off after the first one who comes along with an answer to the perplexing questions that bedevil us. So I take Psalm 127 as a providential warning. It comes along just as we are moving into a critical season of decision making as a community. In the year ahead we are faced with significant challenges as we discern the shape that our community will take in the future. In renegotiating our lease with VST we know that we will have to make choices about the way in which we steward our resources. It will be tempting to seek a simple resolution, to go with ‘what works’, to come up with our own creative plan. But it will all be for nought if we forget the 127th Psalm: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain”. Of course, the question remains - just what kind of households and cities and lives is Yahweh building these days? This is emerging as a central question in our five ‘Making Room’ study groups. For, as Christians recognize that they are obliged by Christ to welcome the stranger, the obvious question that emerges is ‘What kind of community do we welcome the stranger into?’. The Bible is not short of answers. In fact, one could argue that the Bible is a response to this very question. It portrays first Israel and then the church as the creative handiwork of God. Both are covenanted communities. That is, both are created by promises. Israel is obliged to keep the commandments. The church dies to itself in baptism, turning its life over to Christ its Lord. In other words, the household that Yahweh is building in the Bible is a household of obedience. It is a household where no other gods but Yahweh will be worshipped and where sabbath rest will be kept. We are to be a people who honour elders, who do not violate one another, who love neighbour, stranger, outcast, widow and orphan. As the church we are being built into the Body of Christ in the world, we are becoming a people whose life is a sign of God’s Kingdom come, God’s will done on earth. Simply put, we are to live in obedience to Christ and to align our life together according to the coming reign of God. Obedience is an odd way to speak of the households and cities and lives that the LORD is building and overseeing in the world. Obedience, after all, is something we do. It is our response to God. It is the human side of the equation. Right? Well, yes ... and yet, even our stumbling attempts at faithfulness ... even our surprising obedience to God is the handiwork of God. After all, in a world that persists in teaching us that we are freed from a life of obedience to God what can explain our continued gathering here, at the foot of the cross? This congregating itself is a sign that God is building a household in our life together. Yet always we are faced with hard questions: what shape does obedience to the LORD take for us now? How is our life together a living invitation to enter the kingdom of God? The answer to such questions, of course, can finally only be discerned by a community that is persistent in prayer and determined to wait upon the LORD. But, to be honest, prayer and waiting are unpopular and unlikely responses in a world that expects quick answers and easy solutions. Nonetheless, if it is to be the LORD, and not us, who builds this household then we have no choice but to wait in prayer upon the very One whose home this is. Perhaps you have noticed that the 127th Psalm includes five verses and that we have only considered the first two of them. And perhaps you also noticed that, while the first two verses provide a warning, the final three verses offer a promise: “Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward”. What a troublesome promise. This is, after all, the language of a patriarchal culture in which sons are the pre-eminent gift of God. Yet, still, the promise of offspring holds power. For it is the future that is at stake in households and cities and in our lives. Will our way of life be productive? Will all of our work create a future that brings life? Or is our way of life barren and infertile? In a world shadowed by immense poverty, huge injustice and grave ecological danger one begins to wonder if the modern world’s desire to eat “the bread of anxious toil” is all in vain. In such a world the 127th Psalm holds out an ancient warning: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.” Thank heavens that the LORD is, even now, building households and cities and lives ... and that these lives of obedience to the ways of God hold the promise of God’s good future for the earth and its people. Pray that we would yet be in that number.