So What's New?

SJF • Lent 5c • Tobias Haller BSG

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
Some of you may have seen comedian Jeff Foxworthy on television. He comes from the poor white southern population of the US known disparagingly as rednecks — because the back of the neck is where white folks get a sunburn working out in the fields. Foxworthy has been using humor to take the edge off of this insulting epithet, and if you’ve ever seen his comedy act you will know how he has a whole catalog of things by which, if you do them, you would know that “You just might be a redneck” — besides having sunburn on your neck.

One of his lines is, “If you’ve got a new TV that works sitting on top of an old TV that doesn’t work, you just might be a redneck.”

Now, what struck me about this, is that I don’t think it applies only to rednecks. I have a feeling it may be more generational than regional, and more about attitude than income. And I say this because I’ve known many people over the years who have just these kinds of appliances in their homes — and I will confess to you that even as I speak, over at rectory there is a TV set that does not work very well, but is of an appropriate size and shape, that is being used more as an end table than as a television. In addition, there are at least two broken computers in the basement. But although I come from a family that is undeniably white, by most definitions poor, and from just south of the Mason Dixon line, the closest any of us ever came to agricultural work was mowing the lawn.

I know for a fact that I’m not the only person here at Saint James today who finds it hard to throw things away. I do not believe I am the only person here who has ever said, “Well, you’d never know when we might need it.” And if you don’t believe me, I invite you to take a tour of the church basement!

I said a moment ago that this may be a generational issue: those of us whose parents lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War were brought up — even in the relatively prosperous days following that War — with a kind of hyper-awareness about wastefulness, a memory of rationing and short supplies, of making do, of scrimping and saving. We were brought up to save things, to recycle things, and not to throw things away — in case we might need them some day.

So I think that perhaps many of us here can relate to those people in the Psalm this morning: those who sowed with tears; who went out weeping, carrying the seed. Why were they weeping? Well, these agricultural workers, these ancient Israelite rednecks, were living in a desert land, in the middle of a drought. They had a few grains of wheat — which they could grind into flour, and bake, and eat, and have nothing left; and then starve. Or they could plant those grains of wheat, even as they watered them with their tears, risking and hoping that the rains would come and the crop would grow. They would have to let go of the old — to give it up, literally to bury it in the ground as if dead — in order for the new crop, the new life, to come.

Our other scriptures today similarly talk about getting rid of what is old, but frankly in a much more dismissive way. Isaiah tells us, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” And he refers contemptuously to what has gone before as being “extinguished, quenched like a wick.” I want to refer you to a more recent quotation that I came across last week, from a wonderful speech by Abraham Lincoln, referring to those who through the 18th and 19th centuries worked so hard to preserve and protect the institution of slavery, even as more and more people were coming to realize it was time for it to end.

It is fitting to recall this today — the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade. It took decades of work by people like William Wilberforce to achieve that goal, finally, in 1807. Fifty years later, Lincoln noted how Wilberforce’s was a name that lived in honored memory, while those who supported slavery were forgotten for the embarrassment they were. It may be that Lincoln was thinking of exactly this passage from Isaiah when he compared Wilberforce’s legacy with that of those who favored slavery: “Though they blazed, like tallow-candles for a century, at last they flickered in the socket, died out, stank in the dark for a brief season, and were remembered no more, even by thesmell.” Now that is dismissive of what has gone before, remembering it no more — even by the smell!

Then in his letter to the Philippians, Paul uses similarly dismissive language when he says that since he came to know Jesus Christ, he has come to regard everything from the past as so much rubbish — and I will say that “rubbish” is a rather polite translation; I invite you to check that verse in the King James Version! Paul presses forward to what lies ahead and forgets everything, and I mean everything, that lies behind.

But then, just as we are beginning to think that rejecting things is what we’re supposed to be doing, Jesus brings us up short with that challenging text, quoting from a different Psalm, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” That begins to sound more like the lessons my mother taught me; or my grandmother — who saved every last bit of string that came into the house, and would even go so far as to iron aluminum foil in order to get more use out of it: “You never know when you might need it. Waste not, want not. Don’t throw that away; it’s perfectly good.” And, since my grandmother was a seamstress, “We can roll that cuff and the jacket will be as good as new.” I will confess that through most of my young years, the sleeves of my jackets revealed several inches of shirt-cuff!

So what is the difference, my friends, the difference between the builders who reject that cornerstone, and Isaiah who throws out the old candle stub when it’s too short to reach above the socket, or the sowers who go out weeping to plant their seed?

The difference — and what a difference it makes — is that practical virtue of hope; knowing when there is reason to hope and taking that risk, and distinguishing it from false hope that is only a form of folly, or folly that doesn’t have the wisdom to see the real present use for a cornerstone that fits precisely where needed. A candle stub that is shorter than the socket it sits in really is of no use — it is not going to get any longer, and will only burn down into the socket and, as Abraham Lincoln said, stink! I can keep that broken computer in the basement for as long as I like — but it is not going to start working, and I’d be crazy to think it will.

But the seed that the sowers bear in hope, is not like these other things — these candle stubs and rubbish — because seeds have a possible future. If you grind them into flour to make bread their future will be short. But if you plant them in the ground in the hope that the rains will come they may bring forth 60 and a hundredfold. The harvest can indeed be plentiful, so that even those laborers who go out weeping, carrying the seed, can come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves. This is the proper way to lose hold of what is past, to give it up, sanctified by the hope that in giving it up you will receive an even greater blessing in return.

Those who cling to the past or to the present, who can only value what they have obtained, or what they see before their eyes, are like the foolish tenants in the parable: they imagine that by wiping out the future — killing the one who has the right of inheritance — they will be able to take permanent control and possession of something for which they were only employed as temporary custodians. This is madness, surely — as mad in its own way but at a greater scale — as storing up rubbish or accumulating candle stubs or hoarding your seed and never planting it — even as you starve.

We are called, beloved, to fix our hope on better things — to fix our hope in Christ Jesus our Lord. In comparison to him all other things are worthless. As the hymn says so well, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” He is the stone that the builders rejected — and woe to us if we reject him too! Rather, we are called to open our eyes to see how perfectly he fits, how completely he can satisfy our deepest longings, our deepest needs, our deepest hunger. Let us not err like the builders who rejected that perfect cornerstone, but let us embrace him as the cornerstone of our lives, forgetting all the rest of the stuff the world clamors for us to substitute in his place. Let us set aside what is old and worthless, set it out on the street to be collected for the rubbish that it is. Let us plant our seeds in hope, knowing in hope that a rich harvest awaits; let us cling to the rock of salvation, who though rejected by others shall be the foundation for our lives, and for our lives to come.

He is a solid rock, a cornerstone secure, a sure and certain hope upon which our souls can take their stand.

“On Christ the solid rock I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.”