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Sowing Seeds of Hope

March 14, 2016

“Sowing Seeds of Hope” Psalm 126 © 3.13.16 Lent 5C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.” When Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade spoke that line, he was talking about a figurine, the Maltese falcon. For someone else, the stuff of dreams is not found in hard-sought treasure, but in a job or a business he or she has always wanted, a home with all the amenities or perhaps simply a home, getting the education he or she was denied earlier in life or at least ensuring higher learning for the kids or grandkids. Another desires the perfect relationship with a partner who was previously merely a character in a ‘50s pop song fantasy or getting away to a quiet, secluded beach or mountain cabin without demands and deadlines. For yet someone else, the dream is to escape a nightmare of abuse or hunger or oppression. For the prophet or the artist, the vision is to have a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character or where the end of conflict arising from religion and boundary disputes and arguments over ownership isn’t just the wild imagining of a singer. Or maybe it’s to engage in an ultimate battle that proves one’s worth, to dream the impossible dream; to fight the unbeatable foe, even if the enemy is oneself; to stretch beyond one’s capability for the unreachable star.

The Jewish community in Babylon in the sixth century BC had its share of dreamers, too. While their neighbors had settled in and become satisfied to build a life in their place of exile, these folk were restless to get back to the land God had given to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. It wasn’t that life was bad in Babylon. In fact, there was a flowering of prophecy with the great Second Isaiah and an explosion of writing and collecting the stories of Israel by a group of priests. In the absence of a central temple, which had been destroyed, the worship life of the people now focused on the newly invented synagogue, which could be formed wherever there were ten adult males. The discontented exiles had homes and businesses and were rearing children. But Babylon was not where their ancestors had raised crops, tended sheep, and seen their children grow up; where a great kingdom dedicated to Yahweh’s righteousness had arisen under David; where Solomon had built a glorious house for the Lord. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city on a hill! Surely one day it would rise again, and the temple would be restored.

So when Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon, their hearts beat faster, their imaginations ran wild, their ears kept alert for any news of a change in policy. Second Isaiah called Cyrus “the Messiah” and “the Lord’s shepherd,” though he was a pagan ruler. It was he who would carry out the purpose of God, as the prophet said in a striking passage: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me…. I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward, says the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 45:1ff).

The dream came true, impossible as it seemed. Standing at the gates of Babylon, ready to make the trek back to Judah, the band of Jews who took Cyrus up on his offer of repatriation must have been pinching themselves. They were going home, after almost sixty years in exile. It was 539 BC, the first year of Cyrus’ reign.

I don’t know how long it took them to get from present day Iraq to Israel or what dangers they encountered on the way. Did they have a military escort or were they left on their own to be defended by sheer numbers or by whatever swordsmen and archers were among them? I’m not sure what supplies they carried with them to tide them over until they could harvest crops. Ezra 2 reports that over 40,000 returned and had horses, mules, camels, and donkeys, along with lots of gold and silver. They had high hopes, but the people and their children couldn’t live on dreams. They rejoiced, and their laughter got the endorphins flowing as they walked and rode along, but was their joy enough to sustain them for what lay ahead, for the task not only of surviving, but of rebuilding the temple?

And indeed the situation was tough when they got to Judah, to put it mildly. Hardly the new thing Second Isaiah envisioned. Jerusalem was a heap of ruins. The fields were of course overgrown, the soil not particularly fertile. So, anyone who sowed would for the time being do so with weeping, wondering if there would be a harvest, unsure of the future. The people who had remained in the land resented this group of newcomers who had come back expecting to claim their former homes. So the prayer went up for the new circumstances: restore our fortunes, like the streams in the Negev, the Southern Desert, where seasonal rains flooded the dry beds. Refresh us with new hope; let the seeds we have planted grow into a harvest of joy, so we may come home bringing life-giving sheaves of grain with us.

The psalm composed by those returned exiles has come down to us as number 126, part of a collection the ancient editors labeled the “psalms (or songs) of ascent.” There are fifteen such psalms, 120-134, which were memorized and used by pilgrims going up to the temple in Jerusalem, which did get rebuilt eventually. The ascent is literal and metaphorical. Since the city and its temple were on Mt. Zion, worshippers had to climb to get there. But the pilgrims also thought of themselves of going up to God, growing closer to him, arriving at better understanding and more faithful practice.

The particular song before us this morning reminds all God’s people that life is a mixture of joy and heartache, of success and failure, of laughter and longing. We may begin a project only to have it fall flat. We think we have a problem figured out only to be presented with a fresh dilemma. We believe a troubled relationship is now back on track, only to be derailed by a return to old habits and arguments. We take one step forward and two steps back in the church or at work or in our health, and our rejoicing like those who dream turns to a desperate prayer for the refreshing flood of God’s blessing. We sow in tears, not knowing if our efforts will pay off, if our dreams will be fulfilled, our longings will come to fruition.

We live between the past and the future as pilgrims, between what God has done and what he will do. As someone has said, on this journey, “[t]he psalmist invites us to remember our dreams of joy, to cry tears for the brokenness around us, to trust God with those tears, and to respond with hope” (Shavon Starling-Louis http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/sdop/pdf/sdop_sunday2016web(last_version).pdf)

That writer reminds us that Christian life is not just about what God does for us, what scholars call the “indicative.” It’s also an “imperative,” a calling. We respond in gratitude and service to God’s grace on our journeys. Or in terms of the psalm, on the way, we are invited to sow seeds of hope, that we and our neighbors may reap with joy.

We might sow seeds by the love and care we give to children and youth or by our influence on and example to peers and colleagues and friends. We mentor someone of another generation in the arts or using today’s technology or a skill in the workplace. We engage in mission with someone whose beliefs and opinions differ from ours, but who cares the same as we about housing or hunger or the environment. We give encouragement to a neighbor struggling with grief or trouble, promising to be with them until the new day dawns.

Twenty-five years ago, in a former congregation, a young man named Jimmy told a story about a nursery worker in First Presbyterian in Talladega, AL who sowed seeds of hope. Jimmy was twenty at the time he shared his account, but he still remembered that worker’s influence on him. She must have been an extraordinary woman, full of faith, hope, and love, willing and able to communicate all of those qualities to the children in her care. She could not have known when she held little Jimmy in her arms or when he played at her feet that he would turn out to be a fine and committed young man, a pillar with his fiancée of the campus ministry at the University of Montevallo. But that faithful worker believed in a God who would go with Jimmy wherever the road took him, a Divine Gardener who would nurture the seed she had planted, watering it with rushing streams like those of the Southern Desert in monsoon season.

Dick and Mel Streety likewise could have not anticipated what the great need would be in our day and what a wonderful job the Food Pantry would do in meeting those needs, expanding its buildings and services in partnership with individuals, churches and good corporate citizens. But they planted a seed, trusting a harvest. The minutes of Session report how they came to the meeting of May 4, 1986: “Dick and Mel Streety were present at the meeting to discuss the possibility of using the old manse garage for the purpose of storage and distribution of food to the needy in the community. Temporary shelving will be installed and a deep freezer will be used. The pool table will be moved out to give more room. Use of this facility will keep the committee from spending $200 to $250 on rental. It will be open only one day a week for food distribution. Glenn Poe made the motion to allow its use. Motion was seconded and passed.”

As many of you know, the Pantry quickly outgrew the garage, and Arch Dalrymple provided a building on Main Street across from the park. And even that facility eventually proved too small. This church, through the volunteer efforts of so many of you both now and in the recent past, your creativity with programs like the collection of personal hygiene items and like Hunt for Hunger, and your gifts to the Two Cents a Meal program and the general budget continue to plant seeds of hope in this community as the Pantry approaches its 30th anniversary in May of this year.

Finally, your gifts on Easter to One Great Hour of Sharing literally plant seeds of sustainability. The Presbyterian Hunger Program, supported by the offering, is a partner in El Salvador with an effort called “Joining Hands.” In that nation, this is the second year of a severe drought. Farmer Silverio Morales says: “It’s getting hotter and drier every year. Many of my neighbors have lost crops due to drought, and some have decided it’s simply not worth the risk to even plant.” Silverio is an exception, however. With help from Joining Hands, he and others have been able to produce local, healthy, and sustainable food for their families, their communities, and the country. The program connects farmers and farming communities around the country to share their experiences, exchange ideas, and to learn from each other about ancestral techniques and appropriate technologies that can help to increase crop yields and deal with the drought.

Last year, thanks in part to advocacy efforts by Presbyterians, Salvadoran corn farmers were able to provide seeds which were distributed to 400,000 subsistence farmers as a part of the Salvadoran Government’s Family Agriculture Plan. According to a blog post I read last week, “This purchase of national seeds from local farming cooperatives meant significant investment in local economies, and enabled numerous rural families to make a dignified living as vocational farmers.” The national coordinator of Joining Hands says: “At the end of the day, it’s not just about bean and corn seeds…. We’re sowing the seeds of hope, of community, and of resilience” (http://www.pcusa.org/blogs/Daily_Offerings/2016/2/23/minute-mission-seeds-sustainability/).

Whenever, wherever, however, and with whomever we bring hope as we have been given it, we do a holy work. Our laughter, our lifting up the fallen and sorrowing, our love in the name of Christ are all seeds we sow, confident in a harvest in God’s time. Indeed, such ministry may renew us on our journey like streams in the desert. As my late sister once put it: “The way is hard, and the road is often long. That old cliché seems so true. But maybe somehow we can lighten up the load by showing his tenderness and love.”

Confident in God’s good purpose and knowing his grace that renews and refreshes, let’s all go forth in joy from this place and sow some seeds of hope.

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