What Are We Building?
By Debie Thomas
Note: This essay is a reflection on Psalm 127. For an essay on the Gospel for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, see: “Out of Her Poverty” For an essay on the Gospel for All Saints Day, see: “When Jesus Weeps.”
“God helps those who help themselves.” Has anyone ever said this to you? How about one of these zingers?
“The early bird catches the worm.”
“The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.”
“No matter how hard you work, someone else is working harder.”
“The more you sweat, the luckier you get.”
“Much effort, much prosperity.”
For many of us, Boxer’s famous line in the novel, Animal Farm, is the mantra we live by: “I must work harder.” We wake up too early, go to bed too late, labor too hard, and worry even harder. We do these things because we believe they’ll make us safer, smarter, stronger, and more successful. Some of us even believe that God desires our tireless toil, sweat, and tears. We mistake our culture’s workaholism for Christian virtue. We assume that everything depends on us.
What a startling departure this is from the way of life our lectionary offers us this week. Consider the ancient but wholly relevant opening of Psalm 127: “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, for he gives sleep to his beloved.”
I hope you’ll read these lines over and over again this week, and find comfort in each one. But I also hope that we’ll receive these words as prophetic. As cautionary. As corrective. Because what the Psalmist is doing here is provoking us with a kind of wisdom we’re not likely to hear in our boardrooms or classrooms. He’s not simply offering consolation; he’s pressing hard against the norms of our “pick yourselves up by your own bootstraps” culture. He’s asking us to reimagine our relationship to work, productivity, accomplishment, and success.
Psalm 127 takes us back to a foundational truth we ignore at our peril: the work is God’s. The work is always God’s; it is not ours. This is true regardless of our vocational particulars. God is the builder, the watchman, the healer, the artist, the teacher, the nurturer, the explorer, the cleaner. By this I mean, God is just as invested, involved, and sovereign in our work lives as God is at the altar or in the pews.
This means that our “anxious toil” is neither necessary nor virtuous; it’s harmful and idolatrous. As shocking as this might sound, God doesn’t “help those who help themselves.” God helps the helpless. God helps those who cannot build, guard, rise, rest, prosper, produce, multiply, or thrive without God’s merciful and generous assistance.
You might be thinking, “Okay, sure. God is in charge; that’s nice. But what does it mean? What does it mean in real life? I still have deadlines to meet and a boss to impress. I still have exams to take and a future to plan. I still have sermons to write and stewardship campaigns to run. I still have a family to feed and a retirement to secure. Of course I ‘rise up early and go late to rest!’ What else can I do?”
Perhaps what we can “do” is reimagine our relationship to our work through worship that is formational and transformative. Psalm 127 is one of the “Psalms of Ascent” that were sung by the Israelites as they journeyed to Jerusalem for their annual festivals of sacrifice, worship, and thanksgiving. As the Jewish pilgrims made their way into the holy city and prepared to enter the temple, they immersed themselves in the story of their covenantal relationship with God. They allowed their liturgies to reshape and remake them.
They sang of God’s salvation: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me” (Psalm 120:1). They sang of divine protection: “The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand” (Psalm 121: 5). They sang of God’s provision: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (Psalm 126:1). They sang of God’s protection: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 125:2). And (as we’ve noted already) they sang of God’s sovereignty over every detail of life: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
In other words, in and through their acts of worship, these ancient pilgrims reminded themselves of who they really are: the children of God, sustained, nourished, protected, blessed, loved, guided, and held in God’s world, God’s story, God’s work, God’s salvation. Whatever disordered and competing stories or identities they might have latched onto in the grind of daily life, they shed on the road to Jerusalem. Through their worship, they reoriented themselves. They remembered that their homes, their cities, their families, and their vocations belong to God. They re-assumed their proper place in the sacred story, recalling that God is in charge. God is the one who builds and watches. Their role is simply to participate in the work God graciously chooses to share with them.
In contrast, I wonder if we routinely “eat the bread of anxious toil” because we neglect to immerse ourselves in the fullness of God’s story as our spiritual ancestors did. I wonder if we compartmentalize our lives to our spiritual and physical detriment, separating our work from our worship, our weekdays from our Sundays, our offices from our sanctuaries. I wonder if we forget to begin our work with the humble recognition that God is already present and active in the vocations we mistakenly assume are our own.
What would it be like to “build” and “watch” under the guidance and sovereignty of God? In the particulars of your work life, with all of its unique stresses and responsibilities, what would it be like to acknowledge God as the master builder, and yield your skills, your time, and your labor to God’s care? What would it be like to see your work as an extension of your worship, and your workplace as a place of divine encounter? When the day is done but your work is not, what would it be like to surrender to the one who longs to give you rest?
Most of us know what it’s like to experience work as drudgery. We know the malaise and frustration that can overtake us when we lose a sense of purpose in our daily and weekly responsibilities. Our work becomes “vain” and futile — a grim and joyless duty that has nothing to do with our deepest dreams, hopes, and desires.
I think what Psalm 127 offers us is the possibility of divine pleasure, purpose, and joy in our labor. This is not to say that our work is always glamorous, easy, or immediately “rewarding.” But it is to say that when we work, God is present, and God’s joy is available. We are not alone. We don’t work alone. We are accompanied by the one whose investment in the work is far, far greater than our own.
“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.” In addition to being pure poetry, this is a truth that runs counter to just about everything our culture tells us about our work. What a radical idea, that our worth as human beings doesn’t rest in our frenzied productivity, but in God’s deep longing to grant us rest.
Psalm 127 asks us a question to ponder for a lifetime. What are we building, and why are we building it? Whose work are we engaged in, and to what end? May our answers to these questions be steeped in the sacred story of the God who alone can give our work true value and meaning. In everything we do, in our work and in our rest, may we find our way to the one whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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