One hundred years ago today, almost to the minute—at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918—the fighting in World War I ended. Our passage for today seems particularly appropriate as we reflect on what has happened in the century that has passed and as we think about our hopes for the future.
Our passage from Psalm 127 is a word of warning, or at least a word of caution. We humans have a great capacity to dream big and build big. We put a lot of trust in our own capabilities. We can and we have created some pretty impressive things. When I’ve had the opportunity to visit ancient sites in different parts of the world, I’ve marveled at what human beings can accomplish. The library at Ephesus, Herod’s palaces and ports in Israel and Palestine, the Acropolis in Greece, the Forum in Rome. And when you think about what has been created in the last 100 years—the Space Station, computers and the internet, pacemakers and artificial knees, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai—a skyscraper 160 stories high climbing more than half a mile into the sky, not to mention sliced bread, television, and post-it notes! The things human beings can create are amazing.
But we seem unable to create some things that are more important than buildings and technological marvels. We’ve been unable to create a world where all children go to sleep at night without the sound of gunfire. A world where no one is hungry, or thirsty for clean, safe water. A world where no one is hated because of where they come from or what they believe in or what they look like. We’ve been unable to create a world where the image of God in each person is honored, and creation is cared for as God’s own possession simply on loan to us. We’ve been unable to create a world that looks more like God’s kingdom and less like our own little fiefdom.
“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. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil…”
This psalm is one of group of psalms called “Songs of Ascents.” (That’s “ascent” as in “going up” or “climbing.”) Psalms 120 through 134 may have been used as pilgrimage songs—songs that the Jewish people sang as they climbed the hills towards Jerusalem and then up the rocky steps to the temple, following the decree that all the tribes “go up” to Jerusalem. The psalms are all short and easy to memorize and sing as marching songs for traveling the dusty roads on the way to Jerusalem and the temple.
The Songs of Ascents alternate between personal matters and matters of national concern. Ordinary people sang these songs. They’re about home and day-to-day activities, about spouses and children, extended family and friends. But the pilgrims came from all over, and they had a shared history and loyalties that transcended personal interests. Their shared concerns also find their way into these psalms.
There are fifteen Songs of Ascents, and ours falls right in the middle. In Scripture, things in the middle usually are important. They often mark a turning point of some kind, and Psalm 127 does seem to be that kind of turning point. The first seven Songs of Ascent focus on the needs of the people in the face of hostility from opposing tribes and nations. But our psalm introduces the possibility of happiness. We find that possibility in a verse that comes after our passage, when the psalm speaks of the blessing of many children—specifically sons in that day and time. From then on, the remaining psalms take on a more optimistic, hopeful, even joyful tone.
Psalm 127 is the only psalm said to be a psalm about Solomon. It makes sense that the pilgrims would sing a song inspired by the king who built the temple as they made their way there. But there is also something of a warning in there, too. Solomon may have had some mixed priorities when he built a house for God. After all, he took thirteen years to build his own house but wrapped up the temple construction in only seven. So, the psalmist may be cautioning the singers that anything human builders achieve, even something as magnificent as Solomon’s temple, is temporary and, in the long run, worthless without God’s involvement. It seems like a foreshadowing of Jesus’ words—that the time would come when not one stone of those great temple buildings would be left upon another.
We need the words of this psalm today as much as the Jewish pilgrims did. We, too, need these words as we consider our future, whether it’s the future of our country, the future of our church, or the future of our own families, whatever your definition of family is.
In fact, you might take from the psalm that building a strong family is where we need to start. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain,” the psalmist says. In the Old Testament, the word “house” often refers to a family, like the “house”—the dynasty, the family—of David. What we build our houses—our families—around matters. Some houses are built around wealth and power. Some are built around love and commitment. Some are built around convenience, or even by accident.
All of these houses may be successful to some degree. They may look attractive on the outside. But anxiously working on our own to maintain those houses will get us nothing but sleepless nights as we worry about whether we can keep up. All our toys, all our connections, even the emotional energy we put into our houses are in vain if God doesn’t have a hand in the building of the them.
The Hebrew word for “build” that the psalmist uses also means “to fashion.” I like that word. When I read the passage as it’s translated, I get an image of God in a hard hat, clearing the lot, pouring foundations, raising the frame, and laying the bricks of a house while the intended occupants passively look on. But thinking of God as “fashioning” a house gives me a different picture. I picture God taking a look at the materials at hand and then beginning to shape and mold them. From whatever materials are available, God adds to and shaves off, anchors and braces, sands and polishes until it’s clear who the builder is.
We are the material God can shape into houses, and you have to admit, we are pretty raw materials. But when we offer ourselves to God, God builds into us the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Through our faith in Jesus, God takes us and fashions us so that our foundations are secure and our houses will endure.
That doesn’t mean our houses won’t face difficult and challenging times. It doesn’t even mean that parts of our houses might not fall apart or be torn away in a storm. But, when we allow God to fashion us and, through us our houses, our labor won’t be in vain.
From houses and families, the psalmist moves to cities and their efforts to guard what they have. I think we can extend that to nations as well. Right now, the idea of guarding what we have is certainly front and center. We have troops on our southern borders. We have tariffs that are supposed to protect our business interests. The current focus on “America First” is all about guarding what we have. But all the walls and tariffs and guns in the world can’t keep us safe from the real threat, which is an erosion of who we are. When our concern over our stuff—whether it’s personal or national—becomes greater than our concern for God and neighbor, no place can be safe enough.
Just take a quick tour of the Old Testament, and you’ll find story after story of the downfalls and defeats of kings who stopped looking to God and started relying on their own wealth and alliances to maintain their kingdoms. The minute they did that, their kingdoms began to rot from within, and it was only a matter of time before catastrophe struck.
When we trust in our own watchfulness and strength, the psalmist tells us, our watching will be in vain. The only true guard against this kind of disaster is God. And what we need to ask God to guard for us is not a border or a treasury or a nuclear arsenal. We need to ask God to guard the hearts of our cities and our nation, beginning with our own hearts.
When God guards our hearts, God isn’t just a sentry keeping an eye on things. In Hebrew, the word for guard means not just to watch, but to keep and preserve. It can even mean to preserve life itself. It’s the kind of keeping that we speak of in our marriage vows, when we promise to love and keep our spouse. It’s the same kind of keeping that Adam and Eve were charged with—to keep the earth, to care for it and encourage its fruitfulness. That’s how God guards each of us, and by guarding us, God guards our cities and our nation. This kind of guarding protects all that is best about us.
As hard as it may be to believe sometimes, I think most people on both sides of the political divide believe that they have the best interests of the country at heart. In even the most conflicted families, most of the time its members want the family to be healthy and happy. We just have such very different views of how best to go about it. Everyone involved may think they are allowing God to do the building and the guarding. How do we know if we are? This is a question I’ve been struggling with all week.
One theologian has said that “human labor . . . becomes toil when God’s blessing is absent.” If what we are focusing on is feeding us the bread of anxious toil—if it’s keeping us running in endless circles—then maybe we need to let God do more of the fashioning of our houses. If our focus as a nation is feeding us the bread of anxious toil, maybe we need to be more willing to give our hearts into God’s safekeeping. God loves us and wants us to have the gift of rest and peace, and God is willing to take on the tasks of building and guarding that help us experience it.
Paul wrote a letter to the Philippians when they were struggling with things like competing beliefs, self-interest, and disagreements among them. And he had some good advice, for the Philippians and for us. He said, “Rejoice in the Lord always, let your gentleness be known to everyone, do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…”
Then he continues, saying “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
After our prayer, we’re going to sing “America the Beautiful.” It is a song that celebrates self-giving over self-interest. It’s a prayer that our nation’s success will be defined in terms of nobility rather than power and wealth, that all our gains will be those of divine things rather than earthly things. It offers a vision of a nation that can see through this present darkness to the time when all tears and sadness, confusion and anxiety will pass away. It humbly confesses that we are flawed and invites God’s correction. Like Psalm 127, it’s a kind of Song of Ascent—one that we can sing together out of our shared hopes and dreams as we journey toward a better tomorrow in this world and eternal tomorrows in the next. It’s a song we can sing together that reminds us to allow God to build our houses and guard our cities, that we may enjoy the peace God offers to his beloved. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young