Hand Over the Tools
A sermon on Psalm 127 & Mark 12:38-44 by Nathan Nettleton, 9 November 1997
© LaughingBird.net


Message
The God who stopped at nothing to stand in solidarity with us, looks for those who will give everything to work in solidarity with God.

Sermon

The opening lines of today’s Psalm are somewhat sobering for a church that has recently finished a major building project.

If God does not build the house,
the builders work in vain.


Margie worries about me at times because this was the second major building renovation I’ve been involved in for a church and she worries that I may follow in my Dad’s footsteps and bite off more than I can chew with a building project that will never be finished due to lack of need, lack of resources or lack of something. And David asked me mid way through the project what it was all about because he thought that only gay ministers needed to build monuments to themselves to make up for their lack of children. Maybe that’s why the psalm went on to talk about having a quiver full of children!

Well, I’m not overly anxious about whether God was with us in the project we’ve finished; firstly because I’m fairly confident that we approached it as carefully and prayerfully as we reasonably could, and secondly because its finished anyway, so there’s not much point in losing any sleep over it.

But clearly these verses have a much wider application than just building projects.

If God does not build the house,
the builders work in vain.
If God does not watch over the city,
the guards watch in vain.

How foolish to rise early
and slave until night for bread.
Those who please God receive as much
even while they sleep.


I’ve become much more conscious of the importance of these words since I left House of Hope to come here, three and a half years ago, because I think my time at House of Hope is perhaps a good illustration of the dangers warned about in this psalm. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, House of Hope was a church based mission among the street people of St Kilda that I founded and ran for five years. In addition to many of the normal things churches do like worship services, prayer groups etc. it also ran a seven day a week participant-operated drop-in centre and meals program.

It was quite successful. It still is. But when I look back on my time there, with that wonderful advantage called hindsight, I can see that I poured out an enormous amount of energy without much reference at all to what God might have been saying at the time, or without ever giving myself the space to stop still, and listen for the whisperings of God’s spirit. I was too busy achieving, making a name for myself, carving out a reputation.

I built alright. And what I built was done in the name of Christ, and ostensibly for the work of Christ’s mission in the world. And what I built impressed a lot of people, and got in the newspaper and on the TV, and earned me a lot of brownie points with the people among whom I moved at the time. But will it count for much in the eyes of God? Not a great deal I suspect. Because when I’m really honest with myself and look into the deep dark recesses of my own heart, however much good it did along the way, I really did it for my glory much more than Christ’s, and I certainly had far more control over how it was done than I ever allowed Christ to have. Apart from a token prayer at the start of Board Meetings, I not sure that I ever sought Christ’s guidance in the operation of the place in the entire time I was there.

If God does not build the house,
the builders work in vain.

How foolish to rise early
and slave until night for bread.
Those who please God receive as much
even while they sleep.


At the end of five years of Nathan Nettleton foisting his messiah complex on the people of St Kilda, not only had the world not been saved but I was burnt out. There’s not much point in speculating now on how different it might have been if I had learned to listen for God’s voice first, but I rather suspect it would have been very different.

It is so easy for us to get carried away with our own grand ideas and schemes, especially if you’re like me and hardly ever suffer from a lack of confidence in your own ability or your own rightness. And it is particularly easy to believe our own publicity when we are doing things that other people affirm as good and godly things to do. This is a particular occupational hazard for ministers, and I think it is for churches as a whole too, because much of what we are expected to do it is possible to do without any real faith and without any significant relationship with Christ at all.

In fact, I’ll go even further than that - I think I actually found being a minister easier when I did it without worrying too much about what God might want, and I think that’s probably true for the church too. There are quite clear perceptions in the society around us as to what it is we are to do as the church. We are expected to uphold “traditional family values”, plug all the gaps in the welfare system, look after all the people that no one else wants to have anything to do with, and offer a baptisms, weddings and funerals for hire service. That is the church’s socially prescribed role.

Inside the church structures, there are a few additional expectations. We are also supposed to be attracting new people and thereby growing bigger, increasing our offerings, and channelling people through appropriate education programs so that they’ll conform to the party line on doctrine and practice.

Now the ugly fact is that with adequate financial and personnel resources, you can implement various wizz bang marketing and resource management techniques and do all of those things very successfully and at the end of the day you may have done absolutely nothing that is in any way consistent with the example or the spirit of Jesus Christ.

If God does not build the house,
the builders work in vain.


God is not particularly interested in how good our management techniques are or how much spiritual language we use to justify our actions. What God is looking for is people who will work in solidarity with Jesus Christ, and who are willing to risk their reputations for the sake of entrusting their futures to the Spirit of God rather than to some tried and proven techniques.

It is a frightening thing to do though. Jesus of Nazareth was not universally perceived as a success story in his own day. He was executed because the gathered crowds were willing to dismiss him as just another loser who caused a bit too much trouble to be put up with. He didn’t travel very widely, he was never on TV, his only reported conversations with the great political leaders was when they were trying to decide whether to crucify him or just flog the hide off him. When he died most of his friends abandoned him and some even denied ever having known him in the first place.

What God wants is people who will stand along side this man and allow their reputations, in fact their every action, to be bound up with his actions and his leading. People who would rather be perceived as abject failures by all around them, in much the same way as Jesus was perceived as an abject failure as he hung on the cross, rather that than start building on their own strength without being in union with the spirit of Christ who leads and urges them on.

If Jesus Christ was willing to go all the way to the cross to stand in solidarity with us, in our fragilities and fears, then it doesn’t seem too much to ask that we might be willing to link our reputations to his. But it’s not easy is it?

I know I don’t find it easy. When we closed the Wednesday night Kidz Club a year ago, I had quite a confidence crisis. Having come from House of Hope where I was known for my work among the disadvantaged I was now pastoring a church which had just closed its only significant outreach among the local public housing estate residents. I could hear the voices of some of my former mentors like Tim Costello saying, “O yes, Nathan, well he’s pastoring a church on the edge of a huge housing commission estate, but they don’t do anything you know.” I could feel my reputation crumbling around me and trying to trust God didn’t make it any easier. And I knew very well that I could have saved that club, that I could have manipulated people here into putting in the work to keep it running. I can guilt trip people with the best of them.

But I also knew that that wasn’t the way to go. I knew that I’d done far too much manipulating of people to sure up my own ego needs and that if I was fair dinkum about changing my ways then I couldn’t keep doing it now. This was a fairly new realisation about myself at the time, and the trouble was that I didn’t know much about the alternative. Sitting and waiting for God was not one of my strong points. I’ve always been an action person, making things happen. I felt very insecure about doing nothing. I felt especially vulnerable when I caught up with any of my peers in the wider church who would ask awkward questions like how’s things going down at South Yarra?, what programs are you running?, what sort of outreach is happening? It made me squirm to have to say “Nothing”.

I’m finding it painful learning to wait, to listen for God, to entrust my reputation to one whose values are so different from mine. But when it is all boiled down, if we don’t learn to pray together, if we don’t grow into a communal relationship with Jesus Christ together, if we don’t learn to listen together for the whisperings of the Spirit, then we could run all the latest well proven programs and outreaches we could think off and it wouldn’t be worth a cracker. If God does not build the house, the builders work in vain.

This new way of living, of being, that God calls us to takes the sort of courage shown by the widow in the gospel story. She doesn’t have enough to live on so what does she do, she gives what little she has to God. She just gives it all away. What I do when I don’t have enough is I try to get some more - she gives it all away. When you think about it it’s a control thing. I want to keep a firm hand on my finances, my professional reputation, my building projects. The widow is willing to hand over all control into the hands of God.

I tend to think that if I can organise my money properly, if I can organise my time efficiently, if I can maintain the right circle of contacts and cultivate a certain public image, then I’ll have a great deal to offer God, and I’ll be able to achieve a great deal for the Kingdom. But God turns to me and not only says, “If God does not build the house, the builders work in vain,” but more than that points to the widow and says, “You have only contributed out of your abundance, but she out of her poverty has given everything she had.”

But before we beat ourselves up too much, let me add this. The courage to live like that comes from our experience of the over abundant grace of God. And it can be a bit chicken and egg like. You need to entrust yourself to God, at least a bit, to begin to experience that grace, and each experience of grace will empower you to trust a little more. But the easiest place to begin is with just slowing down a little and carving out some time for silence.

If I can put the challenge to those of you who don’t do this: if you create fifteen minutes a day to be alone and silent and just wait expectantly for God to make connection, and if you can do that consistently for say six weeks, I’ll guarantee your life will change. You’ll begin to see yourself, God and the world differently. I don’t guarantee it will be a lovely pleasant experience. When I started the first thing I began to see was how most of my building was being done in vain and most of my giving was being done only out of my abundance. But if you’ve got the guts to take the challenge, you won’t regret it and you will begin to sense the whisperings of the Spirit and you will grow into the experience of the overwhelming love and generosity of God that will inspire in you the most reckless gratitude and as you join in the dance of God’s Spirit your working will not be in vain and as the psalm said you will receive more blessings even while you sleep than all those who slave until night for their pay.