Littlewell
Christ Centered Church Resource Site

Unless

Psalms 127
Sun, November 12, 2000
Rev. Ed Searcy
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.