A few weeks ago my good friend the Rev. Laura Everett, who is also the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, wrote an essay about the grapevine in her backyard. She described how much she and her wife looked forward to the harvest this fall, how grateful they were for the heartiness of the Concord grapes, the way 2020 had been bitter and how the produce of that vine would bring solace.
A sermon based on Psalm 126.
She writes, “In our small Boston yard, that grapevine was a lifeline to future sweetness. But,” she continues, “come fall and the time to harvest, there was none.” This year, out of all possible years, they wouldn’t be eating the fruit of the vine. This lack of grapes had her pondering the reality that we can’t just keep at it no matter what our culture says. She writes: “No living thing can constantly be productive: not you, not me, not even a grapevine.” What she hits upon is the concept of letting a field lay fallow. A season when there’s no expectation for growth. When the soil finds restoration and renewal.
My clergy colleagues and I were discussing the idea of letting a field rest for a season since it often appears in scripture. Our Suffragan Bishop Gayle Harris replied that while the soil may not be producing a crop, that doesn’t mean nothing is happening below the surface. Seeds are germinating, worms are feeding, nutrients finding their way in. The waiting for the next growing season isn’t just a dormant waiting, but an active one albeit in a much different way that normal. It is a time, she said, for dreaming.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream” begins Psalm 126 as the poet evokes imagery of joy and delight. Biblical scholars agree that this Psalm was not written by David the author of many psalms, but many many years later. The posit that this Psalmist had been a part of the exile to Babylon, and had returned to Jerusalem for what is known as the post-exilic period. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion” the Psalmist begins. “When God led us home to Jerusalem, then could we begin to dream again.” The writer—and the people to whom she wrote—has experienced God’s deliverance before and hopes to experience it again.
Imagine being a part of that group of Israelites that had been taken by force from their homeland in and around Jerusalem. They had seen many of their loved ones die in the fighting with the Babylonians, and then were forced to march for weeks across the desert to a foreign city and nation. While there they were persecuted and shunned—clearly perceived to be in the minority because they wore strange clothing, spoke a different language, ate odd foods. For the captives, they just miss the normalcy of home. They long for the time when they could worship with their loved ones in the temple. They miss the way the sun would set behind their homes, or hearing the town gossip at the local market.
And now here they are decades later returning to that place they’ve dreamed about. The place that had become for them the pinnacle of their hopes. That journey back through the desert would have been so much lighter, so much easier than the one they—or their parents—took. Can you imagine the conversations? “Do you remember the way the figs tasted fresh from the tree?” Or “I cannot wait to go fishing at my favorite spot again.” Or perhaps, “I just want to visit the place where we buried my mom, and I’ll know that all will be well.” “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dreamed.”
But it’s not just all good. You did catch that, right? In verse five, the Psalmist sneaks in a line that shows not all the dreams have been realized just yet. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev. Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering the sheaves.” There’s a shift. The picture isn’t all rosy.
Because 60 years or so is a long time to be away from home. A lot has changed. They have changed. Old fishing holes may have dried up, or fig trees fallen over. Places once cherished—like the temple—lay in ruins. Things in real life do not match the dreams they had. So the writer turns from praising God for restoring their fortunes, to asking God to do it again. Just like the watercourses of the Negev.
I suspect that most of us have no idea where the Negev is. I’ve recited this Psalm hundreds of times and I’ve never bothered to pause and look it up on the map until this week. I liked the way the word rolled off my tongue, but I never fully understood the metaphor. The Negev is the desert area to the south of modern day Israel, running like an upside down triangle to the Gulf of Aqaba. It’s arid there, as you might suspect. And there are a number of wadis, dried out channels or ravines that run through the entire land. During the brief rainy season, the wadis overflow their banks with rushing torrents of water coursing through them. And life along these wadis instantaneously springs up. Where only scarce shrubs had been for most of the year, desert flowers emerge. Where there had once been cracked and hard soil, new life now thrives.
It’s hard enough living in a time of despair that’s measured by months, so the thought of one lasting decades is unfathomable. There are days when my dreams dry up, and I wonder if the grapevines in my life will ever grow fruit again. Some days I believe the lie that even in the midst of a global pandemic I must continue to produce more and more.
But then I encounter Psalm 126 and I’m reminded that the focus is entirely on God’s work, which often moves much at a pace and cadence that I do not expect. When I take time to pause, I wonder about the soil laying fallow in my life and what might be going on under the surface. What things might the Spirit be adding now for future years? I think about the ways God has restored my fortunes in days past, those times when God redeemed me from soul crushing experiences, and I became like those who dream.
And I wonder about the visions that are slowly starting to emerge for me now. Both for the times past this pandemic, but also for the new ways I’ll experience the incarnation this year. As we light one more candle and continue to count the days, I dream about a simple grace and love of God that feels much more real and tender, much more sustaining. I trust that those who sow with tears will one day reap. That the Lord will indeed restore our fortunes just as the waters flow in the Negev. And that some day we will carry in a harvest more bountiful than we could ever imagine.