Sunday, September 4, 2011

Why Do You Labor? (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.

Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.

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.

In light of today’s Scripture reading on work and labor being done in vain, I wondered if there was a patron saint for workaholics – sure enough, there’s actually two. St. Joseph and St. Dymphna share this responsibility. St. Joseph was the earthly father of Jesus, and he worked hard as a carpenter, so he is the patron saint of workers. Joseph is a busy saint – not only was he a hard-working man on earth, he still has a lot of responsibilities and is working his little halo off in heaven, too.

But, since too much work will make you crazy, St. Dymphna, the patron saint of crazy people, teams up with St. Joseph as the patron saints of workaholics. In a society addicted to work for the sake of work, today’s Scripture reading is a much-needed word of relief. May we pray.

I’m not gonna lie. I like to work. I enjoy the satisfaction of a task completed, of a job well-done. I like the pats on the back, the “atta boys,” the looks of disbelief on people’s faces when they stand in amazement at all the places I go, the things I get done, and the pace I keep any given week. It feels good to work hard!

But if we’re not careful, hardworking people like ourselves can be fooled into an over-inflated sense of our own importance. “Nothing would get done around here if it weren’t for me.” “Nobody else works as hard as I do.” “Without me, this place would just fall apart.” We all have those thoughts from time to time, and when we think them, we just need to remember rule #62. Do you know rule #62? “Don’t take yourself so [bleep] seriously.”

That rule is reinforced in our scripture reading for today, as we are reminded that God—not you, not me, not we—God stands as the central actor in the story. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guards keep watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest” (Psalm 127:1-2a).

I like this – have we stumbled across a Biblical prescription against getting up too early? If you’re not a morning person, if you like to sleep late, if you need four cups of coffee before you can even say, “Good morning” to anyone, then Psalm 127:2 might just be your life verse! The next time someone harasses you about not getting up early, just look at them and say, “Psalm 127:2” – be sure to quote the end of the verse here, too: “for he gives sleep to his beloved.”

Now, while that’s a humorous appropriation of this text, I doubt it’s exactly what the Psalmist had in mind. Indeed, this Psalm deals with the one who cannot seem to stop working, who constantly burns the midnight oil, who is obsessed with trying to get ahead, who thinks that a few more hours at the office or turning out a few more widgets will somehow lead to happiness, security, or self-validation. Or, this Psalm deals with the one who has no innate sense of their own self worth, and somehow has to prove their worth and secure their identity in their productivity.

Martin Luther, the German church reformer, invited many people to help him in his work of the Reformation. He was known to retire to his garden in the afternoon, and invite all those working with him to join him in a pint of beer following the day’s work. One of his helpers, Phillip Melanchthon, was very zealous for the cause of reformation, and he thought this was an unwise use of time. He said, “Dr. Luther, how can we relax when there is still so much important work to do in Reforming the Church?” Luther set his drink down and said, “Phillip, surely God is still at work, even while we are drinking beer.”

The wisdom of this text lies in its admission that God is at work even when we’re not. Even when we’re drinking beer, when we’re relaxing, when we’re having some downtime, when we’re investing in the key relationships in our lives – even when we’re doing all those things, God is still at work. The God who neither slumbers nor sleeps is keeping us in our waking and in our sleeping, in our coming out and our going in, in our work and in our rest.

John Calvin wrote, “Work is good, but when we work all the time work becomes a curse, not a blessing.” Friends, when we labor all the time, work IS a curse because it places our priorities so far out of line. The curse manifests itself when we are so busy working that we don’t have time to rest and be renewed. Work is a curse when it robs time away from our most important and key relationships. Work is a curse when it gets in the way of your growing relationship with God. Work is a curse when it goes so high on your priority list that it crowds out all the things that really matter most. Work is a curse when it drives us crazy.

Even too much church work can be a curse. One pastor in our conference tells a story from early in his ministry when he was asked to help with the funeral for a prominent pastor. This man was influential, published, well-respected, and had pastored some of the largest United Methodist churches in Western North Carolina. This younger pastor met with the children of the deceased to start planning the funeral, and he said, “Your father was a great man and a tremendous pastor.” To this, his adult son said, “That’s what we hear. Truth is, we didn’t really know our father.”

You see, while he had been chasing the dream, climbing the ladder, achieving success by both worldly and churchly standards, his family grew up without him. This other pastor vowed on that day, “No one is ever going to call me a bad father. They may say I was a bad pastor, a bad preacher, a bad administrator, or a whole lot of other things, but no one is ever going to call me a bad father.”

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

Old Testament scholar Carol Bechtal writes, “House is often used as a metaphor for family, and the Old Testament authors are almost playful in their use of it.” Friends, God is building a house, a family, a home.

This psalm has echoes of another house that needs building in 2 Samuel Chapter 7. King David wants to build God a house, a temple. David is comfortably settled in his own palace, and he realizes that he’s got a nicer pad than the ark of the covenant, which is still under a tent out back. David says, “God, I will build you a house – a grand house, a majestic house, a beautiful house befitting your greatness!” And God says, “But that’s not what I want. I don’t need a house made with hands.” God tells David he does not want David to build him a house, because God is already making a house, a family, in and through David.

We can be like David, too, telling God what we’re going to do for God. But here’s the thing – God’s already got a project for us to be laboring on, a mission about which God is very passionate. Ever since the first humans turned away from God, God has been working on a plan and carrying out a project to redeem all of God’s creation to God’s self and to reconcile all of God’s children to each other. This is what God’s working on – this is the house, the family, the relationships, the community God is creating. And unless we’re laboring on that plan of reconciliation and redemption, whatever we’re building, no matter how nice it looks and how much we ourselves like it, we labor in vain.

The good news is that it’s not our job to design God’s house or figure out what it’s supposed to look like, because God has already designed it. The blueprint is copyrighted by God, so that’s already done. Not only that, but Jesus has already carried out the plan in full in his life, death, and resurrection. The house of God is already designed, the foundation is set, and the frame is already in place. God knows what God wants in this house, this family – God wants a reconciled community of authentic relationships, and so our labor is to invite people to the home God is building, to welcome everyone as our brothers and sisters, to build one another up in the love of God.

St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” So we place our hearts – our affections and desires – we place our hearts in God’s heart and we find ourselves caught up laboring for God’s building project by giving others the opportunity to experience God’s love through us. When we labor for the house God is building – God’s reconciled community – then our labor is never in vain.

God uses us to make the house, the family, the home, the community God desires. You know what that makes us? That makes us bricks. Think about that – we are God’s bricks! We are the bricks God is using to build something spectacular! So the next time someone insults you by saying, “You’re thick as a brick,” you just smile and say, “Yes I am, thank you very much!”

Your life is one of God’s bricks. We are the bricks in the house God is building. Now, if we are just a solitary brick standing by itself – well, that’s not very exciting. But, we take the brick that is our life, and we offer it to God. Fully, completely, whole-heartedly. “Here is my life, God! Use it however you will, do with it what you will. God, build something out of me that helps to create, build up, and sustain the new family you’re making.” When we do this, God makes something out of us that helps God redeem this world.

God mixes up a mortar of relationships to bind us all together, and God generously pours the ingredients of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control into that mortar mix – these things which are the fruit of the Spirit and against which there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23).

God is the master builder, the master brick mason, if you will, and God takes the brick that is your life, and the brick that is your life, and God places them next to each other and joins them together with some of that special relationship mortar he mixed up. Then God adds your life next to that, and your life, and on it goes, until God has placed all our lives and joined them together to shape the wonderful house that God is building – a house of redemption, a family of reconciliation, a community of love.

Our lives are the bricks God is using, and our relationships are the mortar that joins the whole thing together. Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.

So, two questions for you this morning. First, how’s your brick? That is, how is it, really, with your life? Is it a brick God can use? Is your brick in its place in the wall, or has it fallen out? Is your brick still sitting off by itself because you haven’t given it to God and surrendered your control over it?

Second, how’s your mortar? That is, how is it, really, with your relationships? Are they crumbling or brittle or just not holding together? Have you spent so much time laboring in vain, working for things that really don’t matter, that you’ve neglected some of the most important relationships in your life? Have you given your relationships over to God, as well, and asked God to mix in a little more love, forgiveness, support, or hope?

God is building a house, a community, a family. God seeks to welcome the whole creation in the house once it’s completed, and our lives are the bricks that give the house its shape, and our relationships are the mortar that joins the whole thing together. God is love – and we’re simply called to be a chip off the old block.

God, unless you build the house, those who build it labor in vain. We thank you that you are not content to simply leave us alone, to our own wills and our own desires. We thank you that you are using us to build your house, and that you join us all together in meaningful relationships. God, take the life of each one here and use it, do with it what you will. Let it be consecrated to you and for your purpose. We don’t belong to ourselves, Lord – you have bought us with a price and we belong to you. So put our lives to labor in the service of your love, for we know such work is never in vain. We pray all these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

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