Psalm 127 - Unless the Lord builds
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.
Psalm 127 (NRSV)
Proper 27, Year B, Sunday between November 6 and November 12
"Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain." This is one of the staples of faith. God-followers follow God. If God is against something, it will not stand. If God is in favor, a way will be made. (Readers of the New Testament may recall Rabbi Gamaliel's counsel to "Leave [the Jesus-people] alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them; you will only find yourselves fighting against God"(Acts 6:38-39)
There is a tendency to think highly of our own ability to control our destiny and make things happen. Or, viewed from the other side, blame our lack of ability when things do not work out. The psalm counsels that, as a matter of faith, we should start in a different place. Without either disregarding or hyper-inflating our own talents, the proper question is to consider, to ask, to pray, to look for signs of God's will. The psalm locates the success or failure of human enterprises not in our hands, but in God's.
This is not to say that every good idea which goes bust, or every criminal enterprise which prospers is God's will. Only that, in the grand sweep of things, God's will will come to pass. It should be our concern to be on God's side, for those things we do according to the will of God will, eventually, come to good. Even in the absence of direct, personal guidance, we have the received voice of God speaking through scripture. I don't know that God is invested in whether we build a pink house or a yellow one. But God certainly cares whether our house is a place of welcome to neighbors and strangers alike. Or whether our house is built in conformance with segregationist red-lining. Or whether our house shelters and supports us for the works of love seen inside and outside its walls, love and nurture of family, generous participation in community wellbeing, and yes, love of God.
It is good to ask God for guidance. We receive that guidance in all kinds of ways. But we know that God's guidance is in conformance with the Good revealed to us in holy scripture.
Whatever kind of house we are building, or city we are keeping watch over, we know that God wishes it to be a place of justice and healing and peace.
When we are standing in that kind of place we are likely standing exactly where God wants us.
John Sell Cotman, Ruined House, 1807-1810, Yale Center for British Art. Public domain.