We’ve got a great crop of new babies in the house… Michael, Madison, and, making his debut at the ripe old age of one week: Devon Hill-Kalasky. A couple of you have brand new grandbabies–those silly grins are giving you away, Karen, Neil, and Jeanette.
Something happens when babies enter the picture, doesn’t it? It’s like everything fades into the background except this beautiful, brand new human being. Your whole perspective of the world shifts when you look at it through the lens of your relationship with this tiny miracle.
I confess that as your pastor, I get nervous when we go a year or two without any new babies. A key part of keeping a faith community alive and vital is living in the present with an eye to the future. Without new human beings, a community has to work much harder at envisioning the future. With new human beings around? That kind of thinking comes naturally. Making the world a better place for children, in general, isn’t nearly so compelling as making the world a better place for Michael and Madison and Devon and Logan and Audre and Evelyn…
I realize, of course, that I’ve now lost half the congregation. The new parents and grandparents will be able to think of nothing but baby for the next few…hours.
For those still with me, I invite you to join me in looking at Psalm 127. Psalm 127 is part of a collection of 15 psalms called “Songs of Ascents.” It’s not clear exactly what “ascends” in Psalms 120-134. The consensus is that the psalms were sung either as pilgrims as they made their way “up” to Jerusalem for high holy days, or as they ascended the 15 steps to the altar in the Temple. Fifteen psalms for 15 steps. Makes sense.
So, let’s imagine we’re pilgrims. After a couple days’ journey, we’ve made it to the Temple in Jerusalem. We pass through some outer courts and reach the stairs that lead up to the altar where we’ll make our offering. We begin our ascent, chanting a psalm per step.
Step 1, Psalm 120—a song of complaint. “I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” Sometimes you just have to get that kind of thing off your chest before you’re ready to worship, don’t you? Step 2, Psalm 121—the pilgrim remembers what they’re there for: “I lift up my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come? My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.” The next song begins, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” An appropriate song for step #3.
In Psalms 123-125, the psalmist again lifts eyes to God, remembers the times God “has been on their side,” and reflects on what it means to trust God. In Psalm 126, the pilgrim rejoices in all God has done for them: “When God restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy!”
If we go with this one-psalm-per-step interpretation, Psalm 127 would have been sung on step 8, just over halfway to the altar. We’ve complained, lifted our eyes to the altar, reminded ourselves of all God has done for us in the past and of what it means to be faithful. Now, on step 8 we sing: “Unless God builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
To what “house” does the psalmist refer? Is it a reference to God’s house, the Temple? Could be. After climbing 7 steps heading up to the altar, I’m sure the grandeur of the Temple would have begun to sink in. Early Israelites understood the Temple to be the literal dwelling place of God. It was a holy place. House as Temple? Makes sense.
But then you read about the vanity of overwork and sleeplessness…which leads to a discussion of children and the happiness of those who have many.
Reading those last bits make you wonder if, instead of the Temple, the psalmist is talking about actual houses. Early rising and going to bed late happens in homes… that’s also where one eats the “bread of anxious toil” and thinks about the gift of children.
So, if all these psalms were to be sung as prelude to making an offering to God in the high holy days, why this psalm about home, and sleep patterns, and children?
Here’s a theory—and it’s just a theory. But what if children weren’t allowed on the steps to the altar, which is likely. That being the case, maybe step 8 of the parents’ ascent was the point at which pilgrims started missing their kiddos. Maybe as they stood there singing Psalm 127, they pulled out their smartphones, scrolled through pictures of their little ones, and sighed. Maybe step 8 is where it all came together for them: Now I get it! Our faith doesn’t mean much if we aren’t sharing it with, teaching it to, and living it with our children.
That’s why I get nervous when we go a couple years without babies in the church. I get nervous when we go a year or two without Confirmation for the same reason…because unless we’re sharing our faith with the next generations, it becomes stale and loses its future focus. Let me put it bluntly: faith communities without children and youth die.
…which is why I have so much confidence in the viability and longevity of the ministries here at Pilgrimage. This community loves children—nurturing them, inviting them to participate in all areas of the church’s life, asking them what they think about important issues… We love and value children and teenagers here.
Which is all well and good, but what does any of this have to do with our building? When I began writing this sermon, I thought it had everything to do with our building. Children need space to learn! Teenagers need space to learn! Adults need space to learn! When I selected Psalm 127 for today’s sermon, I wasn’t thinking past the first verse—“Unless God builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
But as I studied the whole Psalm, I realized it has a lot more to do with building the faith of our children, of raising them to know God, and to know they are loved by God, than it has to do with actual bricks and mortar. We are, of course, thinking a lot about bricks and mortar right now. The Growth Task Force has been working hard, looking at options for meeting our space needs. With the Next Generation House nearing the end of its life, we need to be thinking about bricks and mortar.
Psalm 127, though, reminds us why we’re thinking about bricks and mortar. We’re doing it, in part, to ensure that the children who are part of our community have space to learn about our Christian faith, about God, and about just how much God loves them… because our investment in them is an investment in the future of this community and in the Christian faith. I suspect that if we stay focused on that part of our mission—nurturing faith in our children and teenagers—the decision about what to do about bricks and mortar will take care of itself.
After graduating college, I taught school in Lawton, Oklahoma. The sanctuary at First Baptist Church, where I attended, was big, beautiful, and new. It resembled a grand, old New England Congregational church. White interior, large clear windows letting in tons of light. Soaring columns in a Greek revival style. Outside, a large steeple topped off with a cross.
When I asked the Children’s minister what led to building the new sanctuary, Doris told me this story. For decades, the congregation had worshiped in a sanctuary across the street from its present location. We still used the old education building for children’s Sunday School.
Doris told me the staff got a call one night that the sanctuary was in flames. The arsonist, who was soon caught, told police voices in his head had told him to burn the church down.
As you can imagine, the experience was deeply traumatizing for the congregation. After a time of healing, they began planning for a new sanctuary and additional educational space on the adjacent lot.
During construction, Doris served as Director of First Baptist’s large, thriving Preschool. We talked a little about how construction had affected work at the preschool. Then she told me about the arrival of the new steeple.
When Doris saw the steeple resting in the church’s parking lot, she got an idea. The next day, she took some children from the preschool to the steeple and let them touch it. The day after that, a crane lifted the steeple to its final location atop the new church building.
Hearing that story changed my understanding of First Baptist, and of church, in general. That one gesture spoke volumes. It reminded the children that they were a vital part of the church. It reminded the adults present of the same thing.
Hearing the story also helped me get clear in my own mind about how vital children are to any faith community’s life. Seeing that steeple? Imagining all those tiny handprints and the glee those children must have felt when they saw—and continued to see—that steeple, high up in the air, reaching to God? Every time I saw that steeple, I remembered those children…and the point of everything we do as a church — to nurture children into faith.
Are you ready for this week’s homework assignment? It’s another two-parter. First, I invite you to reflect on our community’s ministry with children. How are we nurturing, how are we building up the faith of the children in our midst? Second—and only second—observe how our facility facilitates (or gets in the way of) our work in helping children learn Christian faith. The most sound research on that front likely will involve a tour of the Next Generation House. Oh! I know! Invite a child you know to show you the Next Generation House! Listen to what they say. Let them teach you about what best helps them to learn about God.
Then pray about it. Because “unless God builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2016