Unless the Lord builds the house

Good morning, Friends!

Ever since the beginning of the New Year, I’ve been taking us through some of the Psalms. And as I said last week, there are Psalms for every occasion and for every mood that we find ourselves in.

Some of the Psalms focus on hope, some on grief, some on praise. But some of them remind us of how we need to think, how we need to act, how we need to understand.

Today, I want to start off with just two verses from one of the famous wisdom Psalms, Psalm 127. You’ll probably recognize these two verses the moment I start.

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.

Psalm 127:1-2

This past year has really been a challenging time for us. But I like to think that it’s been a time for learning and for trying new things as well. We’ve done things we never thought we’d do. We tried things we never thought we try.

The very first week, when things shut down, I recorded a message, using my smart phone for a movie camera. I uploaded it onto Facebook, and hoped somebody might be cheered up.

It turned out quite a lot of people watched it. And they’re still watching. On any given Sunday, two or three times as many people are watching online, as are here in this building at worship.

Some of them are concerned about their health. But a lot of them are people who are homebound, who haven’t been able to come regularly on Sunday morning for years.

There are people who live out of town, or who have to work on the weekend. They love Springfield and want to stay in touch.

Even when things get back to normal, we’re going to have to continue with our online worship, because now people depend on us to be there for them.

Back in July, we tried holding worship outdoors. We knew it would be safer that way. So we gave it a try. And it turned out to be a blessing for us.

We were blessed with some wonderful music. Paulo came, for week after week, and shared songs with us, and played his guitar.

I’ll always remember those quiet early mornings, with the sound of the guitar, floating through the trees, going out across the whole neighborhood, blessing us with those beautiful chords.

Then last fall, Suzanne came to help us out. Our outdoor Christmas Eve service got rained out. We all thought it was going to be disappointing.

But Suzanne just smiled, and she played us some new and beautiful music. Everyone said it was one of the best Christmas Eve services they could ever remember.

My point is that we couldn’t do a lot of our favorite, familiar things. And it hurt. It hurt a lot.

But we also tried some new things, and it felt like God was with us. We stayed in touch, we kept the meeting going, we shared God’s word, and we tried more new things in a year, than we’ve probably tried in the last ten.

You’ve heard me say, many times this past year, that we need to look forward, to the time this epidemic ends and when these hard times are over.

We still aren’t out of the woods yet. But we’re all feeling just a bit of hope these days. There is a vaccine. It’s safe and effective.

A few of our members who work on the front lines have already received the vaccine, and in the next few weeks some of our most vulnerable older members will be protected. Hopefully, within just a few months, everyone will be able to be vaccinated.

We are longing for normal again. We’re all looking forward to a time when we won’t need all these extraordinary precautions – all the things which were so strange to us, just a few months ago, and which are the new normal for us now.

I said to you a few weeks ago, that I know and believe that we will sing God’s praise again, here, together in this place.

I believe that we will sit down for meals again, together at the table, as we’ve been longing to do. We won’t think twice about whether or not it’s safe for us to come to church again.

But I hope that in the new normal, that we won’t just try to go back. I hope we will try to go forward. I hope we’ll keep on trying new things. Because some of these new things have been filled with life for us.

Let’s go back to today’s Scripture:

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.

Those words were written about the Temple in Jerusalem, back around the time of King David, almost three thousand years ago.

Actually, David didn’t build the Temple. He remembered the days when there was no Temple, when the Ark of the Covenant traveled from place to place. They were facing new things, every day. It was David’s son, King Solomon, who built the Temple. And our Psalm today is attributed to him.

And the whole nation had to work together to build the Temple. A whole generation gave work and talents and treasure to build it. But Solomon knew that it was really God who built the house. And without God, the laborers would have totally wasted their time.

In the same way, David and Solomon kept watchmen to guard the city every night. Posted on the walls. Guarding the gates. But, as they acknowledged, God was the one who really guarded the city.

It didn’t mean the watchmen could all doze off. They had to keep awake, at all times. But if God wasn’t watching over them, their vigilance and care would all be wasted. Nothing would keep them safe, if God wasn’t keeping his unsleeping eye on the city.

Now, let’s bring it all back up to today. Bring it up to the present.

We have all been watching this year, doing the best we can to protect our loved ones, to keep safe, to guard in every way possible against the invisible enemy of the epidemic.

But you’ve all heard me say before that we can’t just focus on survival. We need to think and plan and work and dream about our future. What are we going to do on the other side of this strange and terrible year? What are we going to do whenever it’s over?

You already know some of the things we did. Eugene and I painted the kitchen, which hadn’t been done for many, many years.

That was an act of faith on our part. It was saying, “We will serve meals again here in this place. We will have happy times again. We will fill people’s plates, we will draw up our chairs, and we will all sit down and say grace, and eat again in fellowship one day.”

We also painted the community room this year. We had a dream, even before the epidemic, that we could have a room in our building that would be dedicated to outreach, to serving the community, for language classes and 12-step groups and all kinds of groups that needed space.

So, back when things were still looking dark, we seized the day and we worked for the future. There’s still a few things to be done, but we want to be ready for a day when we can throw open the doors and welcome people.

I spent a lot of time this year, when our future was uncertain, preparing for re-opening again. One of our big projects was repairing all the lights in places where they weren’t working very well.

Fixing up the lights was a lot of work, but it was a real no-brainer. Having a third of the lights in the building be burned out and buzzing just sent the wrong message to anyone who walked in here. That was an obvious thing to do.

But some of the things God helped us do this year were extraordinary. Last summer, we opened our doors to a Spanish-speaking church which was looking for a home.

That’s something we had never done before, in our almost 250 years of history in this place. And we did it, right in the middle of the worst year most of us have ever seen in our whole lives.

And they’re good neighbors. Every week they thank God, that we welcomed them. You can hear their praises, all the way out on the street, on Sunday afternoon after we’ve left here. They’re bringing new life, and it’s wonderful to see.

This wasn’t our doing. It was God’s doing. God helped us to be open. God helped us to try something new. God helped us to overcome our fears, and find new life together.

Now I want to ask you to think about what else we can do, what other things we can try, both now, and when the epidemic is over.

Don’t say, “Let’s just get back to normal.” I know that feeling, and I want to do that, too. But some things are going to have to change, and keep changing.

We’re going to have to continue with recording and posting videos online, every week. We don’t want to stop reaching out to those people. We want to build on that outreach.

I’d even like to think about having outdoor worship some times during the summer months. That was a special time, and I think we enjoyed it.

One of the problems we already had here at Springfield, even before the lock-down, is that most of our adult classes were not working any more.

The wonderful generation of teachers, who gathered classes and small groups, who nurtured them and cared for them, is almost gone. We knew that was a problem, even before the epidemic. But the epidemic made it even more obvious.

I hope that people come and enjoy the message on Sunday morning, and the music, and everything else. But I don’t kid myself that that’s all people come here for. People want a home, a group of friends they know and are known by. People want a small group they call home.

The content of a class is only about 50% of what people come for. You probably can’t remember most of what was taught in Sunday School. But you can remember the love, the friendship, the fellowship, and the work you did together. You can remember the laughter, and the tears you shared.

If you ask any devoted church member what they learned at a place like Springfield, they probably can’t tell you what the Bible verses were. But they can tell you, beyond question, that they were loved. They can tell that people cared about them. And that’s what we need to build again.

I know that many of you treasure the memories of classes you belonged to for many years. No one can take those memories away. But we need to bless the memory of those groups and classes, and agree that we need to start again.

If we could have two or three groups, meeting regularly, with friendly and devoted members, this church would grow again. We would! We really would. Because when people are warm and welcoming, when they’re excited about seeing each other, people want to join them.

We can’t go back to the way things were. But we can remember what was good, and use that good memory to start anew.

How do we start? Well, I can teach. I’m a good teacher. I’m willing to help. But I have lots of other things I have to do, and I can’t be the only teacher in the meeting.

I’m not asking for anyone to speak up now, but I want you to listen, and pray, and ask yourself, whether you could help, or whether there’s someone you’d like to ask to help gather one of these new small groups in our meeting.

It may not meet every week. It may not even meet on Sunday morning. It might meet only once a month, or every other week. But we need to find a handful of people who are dedicated, who love people, and who love Jesus, and we need to help them and invite other people to join them.

Every group needs more than one person to lead it. People today are very busy, and we need to have some overlap for when people are away or can’t be here.

Every group may not have a highly-trained teacher. But every group needs someone who will ask questions, and then sit back and encourage people to lift up some answers.

Every group also needs someone to be a shepherd – somebody who will notice who’s there, and notice who’s missing, and follow up and reach out to them.

They can read the Bible, or discuss a book, or work on a project, or do lots of different things. But we desperately need a bunch of new small groups, or new classes, because people need a place to feel safe, and loved, and challenged, and connected.

If you want to help, or if you at least recognize that need, I want to hear from you!

Allen Jay had a favorite phrase from the Bible. He used it many times in his autobiography, and I think he probably used it often when he was alive. He said he was looking for people “who understood the times, and knew what Israel ought to do.” (I Chronicles 12:32)

That’s what we need. People who understand the times, and who have the knowledge, the love and the faith for what we need to be doing.

We don’t need plans, or programs, or consultants. We don’t need somebody else’s idea. We need people who know what Israel ought to do.

I want us to get back to normal. But I want our new normal to be better and more fun and have more life than before.

I want us to go back to having the Barbecue and the Fish Fry and the tea again. Those are wonderful things! But maybe we could add a Mexican dinner, and do it together with our new Spanish-speaking friends?

Wouldn’t that be fun? Wouldn’t that be a delicious form of outreach? Wouldn’t that be a symbol that Jesus loves all of us, no matter what language we speak, no matter where we come from?

I want to finish up with a ridiculous idea. And I know that somebody’s going to hit me for saying this.

Last week, the kids in children’s church had some kind of a little project they were working on. I couldn’t see what it was, but it involved a lot of glitter.

I think it was all supposed to be glued down, but there was a lot of loose glitter when the kids came back into the room. And being kids, and being excited, and not paying attention, some of that glitter got spilled in here.

That’s OK. I don’t mind. I love kids, and I’m sure it was fun. But all week, even after Gene spent hours running the carpet sweeper around, I kept seeing tiny bits of glitter, in almost every part of the building.

I walked around on Friday, and I counted dozens of tiny bits of glitter, everywhere, reflecting the sunlight. It was kind of fun. I finally stopped counting after I reached 50.

I found bits of glitter all down the hallway, and into the offices, and the chapel, and the lobby, and even in the rest rooms. I’m sure it got tracked out the doors, and into your cars, and maybe even into your homes.

And then I thought, “What if that’s not glitter? What if that’s angel dust? What if something really special got rubbed off on us last Sunday, and we took it with us, when we left this place?”

I really like that idea. And you know – and this is where somebody’s going to kill me – if it would really work, I’d be willing to stand by the door, every week, and dump 2 or 3 pounds of glitter, all over the floor.

I would do that, every week, if it were angel dust, and if people would track it all over, and go on home, and spread it around, and track it into your work places and schools and everywhere.

Because that is one of the best ideas, one of the best comparisons, for what we need to do. We need to spread angel dust, everywhere we go.

We need to be careful for a few more months, but the end is in sight. We need to dream and plan now. We need to build, and not just survive. We need the Lord to build the house, but we need to work and give and pray and do our part to help.

We need to dream and pray and plan for our new fellowship, and not grieve and sigh over the old one. We need to learn new skills, and try new ideas, and ask God to help us to build.

Please be praying. Please be dreaming. Please be thinking, “What can I do? Who can I ask? What piece can I contribute?”

I believe that if we do this, if we build, that God will be building by our side.

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