Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 18, 2012

2012.11.18 “A Psalm of Reaping and Sowing” – Psalm 126 – Thanksgiving and Commitment Sunday

Central United Methodist Church

A Psalm of Reaping and Sowing

Psalm 126

Thanksgiving and Commitment Sunday

November 18th, 2012

 

When the LORD delivered Zion from bondage, it seemed like a dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter, on our lips there were songs.

The heathens themselves said: “What marvels the LORD worked for them!”

“What marvels the LORD worked for us!” Indeed we were glad.

Deliver us, O LORD, from our bondage as streams in dry land.

Those who are sowing in tears will sing when they reap.

They go out, they go out, full of tears, carrying seed for the sowing;

they come back, they come back, full of song, carrying their sheaves.

– Psalm 126 (Grail Version)

        One of the prices you who are young have to pay for hanging around us who are old, has to be that you get tired of hearing us say: “I can’t believe it’s Thanksgiving already.” But it is, and all of us – young and old – are glad, because Thanksgiving is a welcome holiday.

For starters, there is no gift-giving associated with Thanksgiving, unlike that other holiday which will soon follow. We get a day off to eat, sleep, and to watch football, how can you beat that? But most of all, it is a time to pause, reflect upon the blessings God has given us, and give thanks.

Through the years, without a doubt, there is much about Thanksgiving that has changed. Have you ever heard that “spin off” from “Over the river and through the woods”?

“Over the river and pay the toll

And don’t spill the high-fiber casserole;

Gram’s new condominium gets a rave

while the turkey cooks in her microwave.”

Yet, while HOW we celebrate Thanksgiving may have changed, WHAT we do at Thanksgiving has remained the same: give thanks for the blessings we have received. While Thanksgiving undoubtedly has its roots in ancient harvest festivals, for those of us who are Jewish and Christian, there are no better expressions of thanksgiving than those found in the Psalms of the Old Testament.  The Psalms were the hymnbooks of both temple and church, and even now, have remained the book of prayer for God’s people.

No one has demonstrated this more for me than the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey, in Collegeville, MN.  I wish I could take you all there, to experience their daily prayer, three times a day, using the words of the ancient Psalms. For them the Psalms are not ancient words, written in a book, they are living prayers, prayed every day. Through their influence, I have made them my daily prayers, using the Benedictine Daily Prayers.

Our Psalm for today, for this Thanksgiving, Psalm 126, is a perfect example: “When the LORD restored our fortunes, it seemed like a dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, on our lips there were songs.” While it’s not clear if it is referring to liberation from bondage in Egypt, or return from the exile of captivity, the emotion described is clear: delirious happiness and relief.

Who hasn’t had such an experience? That test you thought you failed, you found out you passed. That traffic ticket you got, that the judge dismissed. That debt you paid for so long, is finally paid off.  That car crash you survived without a scratch, in which you could have been killed. That diagnosis of cancer, now in remission. Woo hoo, thank God, Alleluia! It doesn’t happen every time, which is why, when it does, “our mouths are filled with laughter and songs are on our lips.”  As Gene Kelly once sang, “Gotta dance!”

Of course we should acknowledge, what most of us go through is trivial, compared to what some people go through. I wish all of you could have been at the UMW program last week, where Holocaust survivor Magda Brown was the speaker. Magda was 17 when the Nazis took everything she had, and forced Magda and her family out of their home and out of her native Hungary, to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. For three days she rode on a cattle car with 80 other people, without food or water. Immediately upon arrival she was parted from her father, whom she never saw again. She was stripped naked, her head was shaved, she was given nothing but a slip to wear. She was separated from her mother, who was sent to the gas chambers. Magda was forced into for factory work, making missiles and bombs, which she did until the Allied invasion approached, and then was sent on a death march. One night, while lying in a ditch, she and her friends noticed a barn in the distance, and ran for it, hiding there in the hay. After a day and a half, they saw soldiers approaching, in strange uniforms. It turned out to be soldiers from the U.S. 6th Armored Division. Finally, she was saved, she was free. Magda could have quoted Psalm 126: “When the LORD restored our fortunes, it seemed like a dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our lips with songs.” No wonder the words and emotion of Psalm 126 have resonated the experience of people like Magda and like us, time and again through history.

But the Psalm doesn’t end there. As so often in life, we don’t live happily ever after, something happens, and hard times come again, hard times which eclipse the memory of the wonderful things God has done before. Now that is now only a memory, and the Psalm turns into a prayer for a comparable transformation of a barren and cheerless scene. “Deliver us, O Lord, from our bondage.” You know what I’m talking about: the marriage was saved after a near divorce, but now the husband has stormed out.  The son or daughter finally with a drinking problem finally went into treatment, but then they relapsed. Just after you find that long-sought job, the company decides to downsize, and you’re laid off. The cancer went into remission, but now it is back.

At times like this, what the words and images of Psalm 126 help us do, is to move from memories of the past to hope for the future. To do this, it gives us two images of renewal. The first is streams in the desert, which come like a gift from heaven. Picture the Negev Desert, where a burst of rainfall transforms a dry riverbed into a place of grass and flowers overnight.

The second image is what makes Psalm 126 a harvest Psalm: the image of slow and arduous, heart, soul, and back-breaking farming, where the joy of harvest, if there is a harvest, is always hard won.

Those who are sowing in tears

will sing when they reap.

They go out, they go out, full of tears,

carrying seed for the sowing;

they come back, they come back,

full of song, carrying their sheaves.

When I was a child in our little Methodist Church in west Kentucky, we used to sing from an old Cokesbury hymnal, a song only some of you will even know, Bringing in the Sheaves, a song written in 1874 by Knowles Shaw, inspired by this Psalm:

“Sowing in the morning, sowing in the evening,

sowing in the noontime, and the dewy eve.

Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,

we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

As a child, I had no idea what sheaves were, for all I knew they were singing “bringing in the sheets,” so I visualized laundry hanging on clotheslines.

It was only many years later, when I learned Psalm 126, that I began to understand what this Psalm is about, that it is really about almost everything in life that is of value. Though the root image is of farming, of sowing and harvest, a life most of us are far removed from, nevertheless we understand what it’s saying.

To live a life of value and honor, is a form of sowing and reaping, and takes hard work. Sometimes it means staying up late, and getting up early. It can mean long years of school and homework and study. It means that when you give your word, you stick to it, whatever it costs you. Sometimes it means 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 form of sowing and reaping.  There’s the pain of childbirth, but then there’s the joy of a new baby girl or boy.  Remember how exhilarating that was? But then follows the sleepless nights, the trips to the emergency room, the terrible twos, not to mention the terrible teens, and then crying like a fool when you take them off to college, or stand at an altar to marry them off. If we are fortunate, and it is never guaranteed, eventually we get a mature independent human being who no longer lives at home. We may sow in tears, but one day we will reap in joy.

Building a church community is a form of sowing and reaping. You take a couple hundred people, who don’t look alike or think alike or act alike, and try to build a harmonious community of faith. Look, most of us who are parents are lucky to get two kids to behave in the car; why do we think we can get all the people in a church congregation to work together? And yet when we work with each other and respect each other and share our gifts, something bigger and greater than any one of us comes into being, and lives are changed and people are served. We may sow in tears, but we will reap in joy.

What Psalm 126 tells us, not only at Thanksgiving but for every day in the year, is that whatever God has done in the past, are measures of hope for the future. That what now are dry places in our lives, can once again be overflowing streams. That good seed sown and good deeds done are the prelude to a joyful harvest.

Whenever I’m tempted to think that life is hard and overlook my blessings, whenever I feel like I’m doing a lot of sowing and precious little reaping, whenever it seems like there are more reasons for tears than songs of joy, each Thanksgiving I am brought back to the lessons of Psalm 126 by Pastor Martin Rinkart.

I recall the day I first heard Pastor Rinkart’s story.  It was November 25, 1987. I was sitting in a community Thanksgiving Eve Service in St. Matthias’ Church in Chicago, when it was announced that Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, had collapsed and died of a heart attack in his office. As we sat there, stunned, receptive to any words of comfort and hope, Pastor David Miller of Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Chicago told this story.

Martin Rinkart was a German Lutheran clergyman who lived from 1587 to 1649.  Rinkart served in his hometown of Eilenburg, a small town near Leipzig, during the horrors of the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, one of the longest and most destructive wars in European history.

During the course of the war, often surrounded by armies, Eilenburg became an overcrowded refuge for the surrounding area, spawning epidemic and famine. At the beginning of 1637, the year of the Great Pestilence, there were four ministers in Eilenburg, but one abandoned his post for a healthier place, and Pastor Rinkart conducted the funerals of the other two. As the only pastor left, he often conducted services for as many as 40 to 50 people a day, some 4,480 in all. In May of that year, his own wife died. Amazingly, at some time during all this misery, Rinkart wrote – likely as a table grace for his children – Now Thank We All Our God. It would be sung at the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years War, and still we sing it today:

Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices;

Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices.

Who, from our mother’s arms, hath led us on our way,

With countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

Those who go forth, sowing tears, shall come back, reaping with songs of joy. Amen.

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