I took the sermon title from an old gospel song written by the nineteenth-century Disciples’ “singing evangelist” Knowles Shaw. While the song isn’t in our hymnals, it pops up regularly in popular culture. You might have heard versions of it in episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, Batman, and especially the Simpsons. It’s even been featured in films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For some reason it appeals to the popular mind, even if Mainline Protestants rarely sing it. That goes for Disciples, because even though Shaw was a Disciple, the last Disciple hymnal that includes it was published in 1953!
This song is based on the sixth verse of Psalm 126, though the version of the Psalm we shared this morning lacks the words “bringing in the sheaves.” But, if you go to the King James Version you’ll find the words that inspired Knowles Shaw to write this song. “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.” And so we sing:
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
You might recognize the words “bringing in the sheaves,” but you might be wondering—What is a sheave? Well, a sheave is a bundle of grain, and Knowles Shaw, who was the son of a farmer from Ohio, knew what a sheave was. Since Shaw often preached to people who understood and relished agricultural images, it’s not surprising that he picked this image to convey his message of God’s welcoming grace.
The people of Israel and Judah were an agricultural people, whose festivals often centered on harvests. They prayed that God would bless them with rain to water their crops. After they brought in the harvest, they might go to the Temple in Jerusalem, which also is known as Zion. When they made this journey to Jerusalem, they might sing “Songs of Ascent,” like the one we find in Psalm 126, as they carried their sheaves with them, so they could give their thanksgiving offerings and sacrifices of praise. And, if you listen closely, you might even hear the stirrings of a stewardship sermon, but don’t worry, this isn’t a stewardship sermon. Nevertheless, the Psalm does say something about planting seeds, so maybe a stewardship seed will get planted by the Spirit of God as you sing praises to God.
As we make our way to Zion, we come near to the close of the season of Lent. Palm Sunday is on the near horizon, so it’s fitting that we move toward the close of Lent by bringing in the sheaves in the company of Jesus, as he makes his way toward Jerusalem. We’re not there yet, but we can see the gates ahead of us. Excitement is building. Maybe this Jesus will be the one who restores the fortunes of Zion. So, we begin singing songs of praise and thanksgiving. Yes, “we shall go rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”
When it comes to the origins of this psalm, it’s difficult to pinpoint. Scholars have their interpretations, but nothing is certain. It’s possible that this psalm was written after the return of the Jewish people from the exile in Babylon. If this is true, then perhaps they’re remembering the moment of return to Zion, even as they struggle with their current situation. It was good to return home to Jerusalem from exile, but things weren’t going quite as expected. So, we look forward to a new day, when God will fully restore the fortunes of Zion. That may be the setting, but we don’t know for sure.
If we use our imaginations and read between the lines, then maybe we will hear an invitation to dream God’s dreams, so that we can laugh and shout with joy, because the nations say: “the LORD has done great things for them.”
The prophet Isaiah told the exiles to remember when God delivered the people of Israel from Egypt, but Isaiah also told them to forget their recent past. Instead, drawing on the stories of God’s faithfulness, they were invited to move into the future (Is. 43:16-21). We too can take confidence in God’s acts of grace and deliverance in the past, even as we enter a future that is yet to be determined or revealed. We may not know all the particulars, but we can take confidence in the knowledge that God is with us, even as God has been with us on the journey. We might find ourselves sowing precious seed while at the same time weeping. But then we will also go to the Temple with shouts of Joy echoing off the hillsides that surround us. All this noise might be a bit unsettling for people who are used to the quieter forms of worship found in most Mainline Protestant churches—like ours! But, this is the path set before us.
While the psalm ends with a word about bringing in the sheaves, it begins with that word about dreams. Because there are different kinds of dreams, what kind of dream does the psalmist have in mind? When I was a child, it was suggested, that I was a day dreamer. I often got lost in my thoughts and apparently ignored the teacher. I think I’m still something of a day dreamer, but I’ve learned to focus my attention better than when I was a child. I don’t think this is what the psalmist has in mind!
The Scriptures offer us clues, because dreams are prominent in the biblical story. Consider the stories of Joseph and Daniel, and the prophet Joel spoke of the day when God would “pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (Joel 2:28). Peter picked up on this word from Joel on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-21) to root the Pentecost experience in the ongoing work of God. Yes, God gives to us dreams and visions, so we might join God in the work of God’s realm. The dreams the psalmist speaks of are signs of God’s faithfulness, which is why the people can laugh and lift up shouts of joy. These dreams are reminders of God’s presence in our world, bringing about goodness and mercy. It’s the kind of dream Martin Luther King dreamed that day in Washington, D.C. So, what are your dreams? What are your visions? How do they reflect God’s acts of restoration and renewal? How do they lead to shouts of joy? Remember, this path toward joyful celebration might start as you weep while “bearing the seed for sowing.”
If we go back to Knowles Shaw’s gospel song, we’ll hear a word that might bear some fruit in our lives. We’ve heard the chorus of the song, but the first verse opens with the words: “Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness.” “Sowing seeds of kindness,” might sound a bit underwhelming in a day when people are feeling unsettled and even lost. And yet, this might be a good starting point. A word of kindness, aptly spoken, at just the right time, might transform a moment and bring blessing, grace, and hope to a person or group that needs that word. You never know how a word or act of kindness might lead to further blessings for yourself and for others down the road.
There are times and places where big actions are needed if change is going to happen. But often it’s that small spark of kindness that gets the fire going. I’m not sure how it works or whether it works, but some people swear by “the butterfly effect.” This is an expression of “chaos theory,” which I don’t particularly understand, but the idea here is that a small change at one point in time, like the flap of a butterfly wing, can lead to a much larger event down the road. The theory itself is over my head, but perhaps sowing seeds of kindness, while a small thing at first, could have a big effect down the road. At least, it’s a good place to start!
Such seeds are desperately needed right now. People are struggling. We’re feeling this sense of division and polarization. We might be feeling as if there’s nothing we can do. We might be feeling powerless in the face of the challenges of the day. We might be feeling uncertain about the future. We know that many in our world are feeling oppressed and know that structural and systemic change is needed to truly address these challenges. That knowledge can be overwhelming. We might be left wondering what we can do. While, it might seem as if “sowing seeds of kindness” is too little, too late, it might be the start of something. Even though a smile or a gracious word might not change everything overnight, maybe it can plant a seed that leads to healing of a weary heart. Once that seed is planted, only God knows where it will lead. So, starting with that seed of kindness, perhaps we can get on the road, believing the promise that “our journey in a broken world gives way to abundant joy” (Billabong). As we do, “We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves!”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 7, 2019