Text: Psalm 126
This is the season for giving thanks. Most of us don’t labor in the fields or depend upon farming for our livelihood, but nevertheless we can celebrate that we have made it through the long growing season and the hard work of the harvest. We can celebrate in earth’s bounty and we can rejoice in all of God’s blessings.
There are no better expressions of thanksgiving than those found in the Psalms. The Psalm we read this morning, Psalm 126, seems at first glance to be perfect for Thanksgiving. What better holiday than the feast of turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie to read about shouts of joy and mouths full of laughter? What a great time of year to say, “The Lord has done great things for us!” For many, it is easy to give praise to God for all of the blessings of life.
For the writer of this psalm, however, this was definitely not the case. This psalm was written not in a time of joy, but at a time when the only thing the people had going for them was the memory of joy. It was written in a time of sowing seeds in sorrow, of weeping for all that has been lost. If you read this Psalm closely, you will find that none of the joy is in the present tense.
The last two Sundays, we have been in the northern kingdom of Israel, first with the prophet Elijah and then last week the prophet Hosea. This Psalm is set in Judah, the southern kingdom. Israel was taken into captivity in Assyria. After that, Judah was defeated by the Babylonians and much of the population, including the leading citizens and skilled workers, was taken into captivity in Babylon. After an exile of 50 or 60 years, King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland. There was great joy and celebration. It was a wonderful, long-awaited homecoming. It was like a dream.
But they were soon confronted with the hard reality of the situation. They returned to a desolate landscape, to a temple that had been destroyed, to a place that was but a shell of its former self. They worked hard to rebuild but still faced the specter of enemies. Crops and prosperity and blessings and even hope seemed to dry up like now-dusty riverbeds.
In other words, although there had been past glories, from the Exodus out of Egypt to the Golden Age of King David to their recent return from exile in Babylon, the Israelites now faced what seemed like a very difficult and precarious moment. Which is to say that the times in which they lived were not completely unlike our time.
Judah would have understood an age of terror. A time of war and violence. A time of economic uncertainty and political upheaval and a time of fear.
Despite all of this – despite the circumstances in which Judah found itself – we read this psalm of hope in what is likely only the beginning of a long, hard season – the beginning of winter, if you will.
Where does the hope come from? In Psalm 126, hope comes first of all from memory. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Our mouth was filled with laughter, our tongue with shouts of joy.”
Where do we find hope? Hope comes from recalling the stories of those who have gone before us, whose faith brought them through trials and tribulations only to experience blessing and renewal once again.
It comes from the belief that trouble does not last forever, and “while weeping may endure for the night, joy comes in the morning.”
It come from taking the long view, from believing, like Martin Luther King Jr. who so often quoted Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
It comes from the foolish but somehow trustworthy faith that, with God, you can sow seeds in the tears of winter, and reap a joyful harvest in the spring.
Just like the psalmists, we learn this faith from our own experiences of God, our own experiences of joy, and from those that have been handed down to us.
What is it that gives you joy? As you look back at your life, what is a joyful moment that stands out for you?
You may think of those special times of celebration in life – births, graduations, weddings, baptisms. You may think of family gatherings – maybe even around the table at Thanksgiving. You may think of good times shared with friends, maybe working together with others to accomplish something meaningful and important.
Maybe it is feeling of the breeze as you ride a bike on a beautiful day, or the swish of a perfect jump shot, or finishing a beautiful quilt you had been working on forever, or preparing a wonderful meal for others. Maybe what comes to mind is the memory of a special place you have visited. I can think of hiking with Zoe in the Swiss Alps, or a trip Susan and I took to Maine. Maybe music gives you joy and calling to mind that special song can bring hope.
Sometimes, life can look bleak, and the only joy we can muster is the memory of joy. Yesterday I got up and put gasoline in the snow blower. This was followed by gasoline raining from under my snow blower onto the garage floor. I apparently have a significant leak in the gas tank. We have six inches of snow on the ground, and all I can do is remember that it was 65 just a week and a half ago. I can remember the good old days of last winter, when I put gas in the gas tank and it stayed there.
The Jewish people faced a dire situation. There was no joy in the present; hope came from the memory of joy.
The Psalm prays that God would “restore our fortunes like the watercourses in the Negeb.” In the Negeb desert, there are to this day dry streambeds that can suddenly become a raging torrent during a thunderstorm. These streambeds may be dry, the land all around may look parched, but someone familiar with the area knows that rain water will come. Though the present looked bleak for the people of Judah, there is a promise that blessings will come and that present circumstances would not last forever.
We move from tears to joy by recalling God’s presence and blessings in past times. But then, the Psalm moves to the future tense. “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
When I was a kid, I remember singing the hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves.” It is an old gospel song. (Raise your hand if you are familiar with it.) The hymn is “Bringing in the Sheaves,” but my sister didn’t get the words right. She would sing “Bringing in the Sheets.” We thought that was pretty funny.
Well, what is a sheave? (Actually, if you have just one, it’s a sheaf.) Sheaves are bundles of cut stalks of grain. If you are 5 years old, sheets make a lot more sense. This was a laundry hymn. You do the wash, you hang the sheets on the clothesline, and then you bring in the sheets. There might even be rejoicing, because it’s nice to have fresh, clean sheets.
Even as a kid, this hymn had an “old-time religion” feel to it. We don’t sing it much anymore. As far as I can tell, it is not included in any of the currently published hymnals. We’ve got a pretty good collection of 12 or 14 hymnals here, and it’s not in any of them. I finally found it in an old, old hymnal, Tabernacle Hymns, published in 1947.
Maybe we don’t sing it because we don’t use the language of carrying sheaves. It’s not only the language that is archaic; we don’t farm that way anymore, and if we were to sing about a 16-row combine, it wouldn’t have quite the same poetry.
“Sheaves” may not be a part of our everyday vocabulary, but we know about sowing and reaping. We know about planting and harvest. The Psalm speaks of sowing tears and reaping joy.
We may all be very different people, but one thing we have in common is that we have experienced pain. The pain of loss. Losses of all sorts. The pain of sickness, the pain of loneliness, the pain of heartache, of betrayal. The pain of trying to find where you fit in in this world. We know the pain of worrying over children, over friends, over loved ones. The pain of worrying over this world.
We know tears. The Psalm says that those who go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy.
This is a Psalm about sowing seeds in hard times. Now, we are not in a season of planting; this is the season of harvest. You don’t plant your crop in November, and the notion of sowing tears does not sound like something that will bring the harvest you really want.
Yet this psalm tells us to go ahead and plant seeds in unlikely times and places. It’s a psalm that tells us to journey on, and the harvest will be great. Joy will come. Laughter will burst forth. We will reap a joyful harvest somehow, some way. We believe this because it has happened before, and we walk in the faith that God will lead us there again.
Psalm 126 is really about all those things that give meaning to life. It is about what makes life worth living. We sow, and we reap.
To live a life of honor and integrity is in a sense sowing and reaping, and it is hard work. It can mean staying up late and getting up early. It can mean long years of preparation, years of schooling and study. It means that when you give your word, you stand by it. It can mean self-denial – putting others before yourself. It means that to love somebody, anybody, means that someday your heart will be broken. And yet it is always worth it: you may sometimes sow in tears, but one day you will reap in joy.
To raise children is a way of sowing and reaping. There’s the pain of childbirth, but then there’s the joy of a new baby. The thrill of that new baby, as we remembered last week, is followed by sleepless nights, trips to the emergency room, temper tantrums, parenting teenagers, and then shedding tears as they go off to college or as you stand at the front of the church to marry them off. Nothing is guaranteed, but if we are fortunate we eventually get a reasonably mature, grown-up human being. We may sow in tears, but one day we will reap in joy.
Many of you are teachers. Teaching is all about sowing and reaping. You work hard, you put up with all of the bureaucracy that can surround the job, you endure students who seem to not have the least interest in what they are learning, but then one day you run into a former student who is successful and making a real difference, and after all of that sowing, there is a harvest.
Building a church family involves sowing and reaping. You take a hundred or so people who don’t look alike or think alike or act alike, and try to build a more or less harmonious community of faith.
Most parents consider themselves lucky to get two kids to behave in the car; why should we think that we could get a diverse group of people, a motley bunch like us, to work together as a family of faith? Yet we all invest the gifts we have; we give of our time and talent and resources while we honor what others contribute. And lo and behold, something that is greater than ourselves, bigger and better than any of us individually, comes into being. Lives are changed, needs are met, people are served, good news is proclaimed. We may sow in tears, but we will reap in joy.
God has blessed us before. God will bless us again. The joy we have experienced in the past and the prospect of joy in the future become a part of our present, and we can be people of Thanksgiving even in hard times.
Now here’s the deal: Thanksgiving can be tricky. For some, this is a season filled not with the anticipation of reunions and wonderful food and football and card-playing and shopping trips for those so inclined, but rather the dread of family dysfunction, or the reminder of a loved one who is gone. Thanksgiving can be hard because we are not able to provide that Martha Stewart-type beautiful meal that is held up by media and tradition. This is a time to give all of those worries to God as a seed and pray for a harvest of peace.
For others, this may be a season to reflect on the gifts we have, and to practice the difficult discipline of believing that what we have is actually enough. It is a small seed of gratitude that can perhaps bring a harvest of enough sanity to navigate the craziness of Black Friday without bankrupting ourselves in either checkbook or soul.
Or maybe Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a season that is so hectic for you that just thinking about it makes you tired. Perhaps you have to make trips to connect with family members at Thanksgiving, and when you get home you know it will only get busier during the Christmas season. Maybe you need to take a deep breath, remember what really matters, and plant a small seed of hope.
Psalm 126 tells us, not only at Thanksgiving but in every time of the year, that what God has done in the past is the measure of our hope for the future. The dry places in our lives can again be overflowing streams. The seeds that we sow, the work that we do, the love we share, the gifts we offer, these are all prelude to a joyful harvest.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Thanks to Rev. David Haley for his sermon that helped inspire this message.