Psa. 127:0 A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.
1 Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD guards the city,
the guard keeps watch in vain.
2 It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.
Psa. 127:3 Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the sons of one’s youth.
5 Happy is the man who has
his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
I love this Psalm. It has been a spiritual companion to me since the late 1990s when I first encountered it. In fact, this is a psalm I read and prayed over every day for a year. That was a discipline I once kept — to let a psalm choose me and to then make it my daily companion for a year, waiting for God to speak to me day-by-day. This psalm spoke to me at a time when I was working very hard — completing my doctoral degree, raising two small boys with Sarah my wife, and serving as pastor to a strong and vibrant congregation in eastern North Carolina. In fact, I was probably working a little bit too hard and on top of that taking a little too much credit for the progress being made.
Even though things, on one level, were going well. In truth, I was rapidly approaching burn-out professionally, and clinical depression emotionally. After nearly six years working on my Doctor of Ministry degree the dean of advanced studies had finally lost patience with me and had written the year before to say, “If you are not finished by next May, you cannot complete the degree.” So I began arising at 4 AM every day to work on my doctoral project from 4-8 AM and then I went into work. I was finally making good headway in my school work . . . but at a cost. And then, in God’s providence, I heard my friend Ben Johnson mention that he sometimes spent a whole year with a psalm and I went in search of a psalm to be my daily companion. When I read Psalm 127 verses 1 & 2 I felt as if God was speaking them directly into my heart. “Why do you rise up early, and go late to your rest, eating the bread of anxious toil? Do you not know that God gives blessings to those who sleep?” [my translation-PHL]
A year’s worth of pondering this psalm cannot be contained in this little blog-post. But I will say this. In a world which measures a person’s worth by two things: 1) how much they produce, and 2) how much they consume — and which promotes the necessity of the arms-race between those on the “inside” versus those on the “outside,” it seems to me that Psalm 127:1-2 offers a startling critique and alternative possibility to the status quo.
I see this now more than ever as the pastor of a downtown, urban congregation. The clients who come to our door at church are people who neither produce much, nor do they consume much — which in a consumer/capitalist system relegates them to the status of the invisible. The culture at large does not value them because they do not produce and they have no purchasing power to exercise.
I come from a long line of Lang-men who might be briefly described as “hyper-achieving and desperately unhappy.” I don’t want to be too critical here — I only want to observe that as the family’s historian, I can tell you multiple generations of stories about Lang-men who both produced much and consumed much and most of them found happiness to be elusive. I suppose that is why, in the midst of a hyper-productive time in my life, this Psalm hit me so hard. It seemed to be screaming at me, “Why do you do this!? Why are you participating in the rat-race? Don’t you realize that even if you win . . . you’ll still be a rat!?”
And let us not over look verse one with its startling critique of wealth-accumulation/protection! That is the lie of affluence — it tells you that if you have enough (building a house), and you protect it well enough (keeping watch on the wall) which separates people who are “in” from those who are “out,” you will find the good life. But Psalm 127 posits the contrarian idea that only when the LORD is building is it worth building and only when the LORD is watching is it worth watching. The good-life; the life worth having is a life which yokes our building and our watching with the LORD. Matt. 11:28
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Indeed, the Lord gives blessings to those who rest.
We make our way into the depths of the Passion-narrative this week. It is worth considering one of the bit-characters in the story. Pontious Pilate was not so much evil as he was expedient in his bending to the needs of his economic and social overlords. Jesus is brought before him and he knows there is no real charge to bring against Jesus, and he tries (at least a little bit) to have him released, but as soon as Jesus' fate begins to reflect on Pilate's ability to rule and enjoy the affluence his position provides him, he acquiesces to the violence and injustice of a frenzied crowd. He is a "type" - a metaphor for each one of us who hold our allegiance to justice and neighborliness only until it become personally dangerous and who then rejoin the boisterous throngs who are simply going through life trying to "get ahead."
Daily Collect: Lord of the Sabbath — you have created all things with rest factored into the fabric of creation. You have given us the imperative to rest one day in seven. Help us, who like those who came before, are anxious about getting out share of this life's "stuff" to know that unless you are building with us we build in vain. In the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.