Psalm 127 (NIV)
1 Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.
2 In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
for he grants sleep to[a] those he loves.
3 Children are a heritage from the Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
5 Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
when they contend with their opponents in court.
Again, good morning, or good day, or good evening friends. It is good to be together. Psalm 127 upon which I was asked to reflect this morning contains wisdom and beauty. And the Psalmist, let’s call him David, for it is to David that many of the psalms have been traditionally attributed, and, besides I kind of like the name, the psalmist David, seemed to know something about the cadences of preaching.
Can’t you just hear the opening verse of the psalm? Unless the Lord builds the house… Unless the Lord builds the house… Unless the Lord builds the house - - - the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city… Unless the Lord watches over the city… Unless the Lord watches over the city - - - the guards stand watch in vain. Yes, David knew something of the cadences of preaching.
Psalm 127, wise and beautiful, also has its challenges. Verse 3 is often translated “sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord.” As the father of one son and two daughters, all strong adults, my two strong daughters would not resonate with the privileging of sons. And even the sense that children are a reward comes across as painful and callous to couples who though deeply desiring children are not able to conceive. One of my strong adult daughters is a physician who specializes in women’s medicine and she hears such pain in her work. If we must not ignore the pain of the childless, neither should we ignore our concern for a “more is better” theology related to children when, in our world, we struggle to feed people, and the impact of human related climate change is enormous. Every child is a gift, and more is not necessarily better.
That brings us to the doorstep of what may be the deepest challenge in this psalm, a theological and spiritual challenge. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves.” The latter part can also be translated, “he provides for those he loves while they sleep.”
The theological and spiritual challenge is this, distinguishing between fatalism and providential grace. How do we traverse the razor’s edge , walk the fine line here?
In the course of my pastoral ministry I met a young woman who was wondering if perhaps God was calling her into ordained ministry. She explored schooling options, discussed possibilities frequently, but was so afraid that she might make a misstep, so concerned that this might not be God’s will, that she was essentially paralyzed. No applications were ever completed. No campus visits made. No letters of inquiry sent. Years later, I ran into her and she had gone into education. That may have been the best place for her, and I hope she felt that she was living out a calling of God in her life, but there remained a certain sad regret. Had she missed something?
We are also aware of friends for whom the Wesleyan encouragement to do all the good you can means to jump from action to action to action with barely time to breathe. There is always another Bible study to organize, another food drive to lead, another consciousness-raising event to attend, another march for justice in which to participate.
Unless the Lord builds the house. So do we wait until we have blueprints signed by the architect God, and duly notarized, before we ever act? I don’t think so. Nor should we be so busy with all the good that can be done, that we never stop to ask if this is the good I can best be involved with right now. There is always more good to do than any of us can do.
In posing a theological and spiritual challenge to us, the psalmist, let’s continue to call him David, challenges us to grapple with the need to balance deep prayer and thinking with action. Unless the Lord builds the house, yes, but sometimes we are not sure just what the floor plan is, and it makes sense to start to build. Unless the Lord watches over the city, but we don’t necessarily have the watchlist from Sinai, and we still need to post the guards. Thought, prayer, discernment, action, tentative steps and further reflection – this is the dance of following Jesus.
And if something fails, do we simply say, “God must not have built it”? I don’t think so. Perhaps we missed a step in our building process, or perhaps the time has come to build something new. If in the coming years the streams of Wesleyan Christianity that came together in 1968 to form The United Methodist Church diverge in some way, do we say, “God must not have built it?” No! We praise God for the good we have done, the lives transformed, the justice done, the hungry fed, the lost redeemed, the lonely welcomed, and we ask about what God might be doing next. And we ask how we can join God in God’s creative building work. You see, even when we may misstep, God is a God who is always beginning again. We are encouraged to live with a deep humility knowing that sometimes we had the blueprint upside down. We are encouraged to live with a deep trust that what we do matters.
The theologian Nicholas Wolterstroff once wrote these marvelous lines: “in the eschatological image of the city we have the assurance that our efforts to make these present cities of ours humane places in which to live… will, by the way of the mysterious patterns of history, eventually provide tiles and timbers for a city of delight” (Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 140). We have work to do, tiles to lay, timbers to cut and stack, and when we place the tiles in the wrong place, we trust that God might still use them in some way we cannot yet imagine in God’s creative building work.
That brings me to the heart of this psalm. The heart of this psalm is not setting before us the quandary of the relationship between the action of God in providential grace and our human action, though it is part of the psalm, the heart of this psalm is grace. “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for God grants sleep to those God loves.” It is a tricky business, this dance with God praying, thinking, discerning, acting, reflecting. Don’t be anxious. It seems to me Jesus says that more than once. Don’t be anxious, don’t be afraid, don’t let your hearts be troubled. This doesn’t mean we don’t let ourselves get uncomfortable, as our anti-racism work demands, and in sermons I preached at my annual conferences this past year I said, “God’s grace is found in increasing our capacity for discomfort.” The discomfort of grace is always surrounded by the grace that says “you can do this hard thing” and “there is always the room for refreshment.”
Stephen Mitchell is a poet who often works to translate or render poems into English that were not originally written in English. He has worked with the psalms, and in his introduction to his work A Book of Psalms, Mitchell writes that the dominant theme of the greatest psalms is “a rapturous praise, a deep, exuberant gratitude for being here.” Grace and gratitude. Turn Psalm 127 just a bit. Unless the Lord builds a house the builders labor in vain - - - Why should I then work? Turn: Unless the Lord builds a house the builders labor in vain - - - I have meaningful work to do, but it is not all up to me. We have meaningful work to do, but the fate of God’s work in the world is not all up to us. We can be less anxious. Mitchell renders Psalm 127:2b this way: “he gives joy to those who love him and blesses them with peace.” Grace.
Friends, this is an anxious time, in our church, in our world, in our lives, in our work. In this time may we know that God’s grace in Jesus Christ surrounds our action, and that we, in grace, continue to be invited into this dance of prayer, thought, action, reflection, next steps, missteps, recalibrations, and that God uses our efforts to provide tiles and timbers for a city of delight. May such grace surround us, overflow us, flow through us, and give us a measure of joy and peace. Let us pray.