Wilderness Retro: What’s a Sheave?

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, March 13, 2016
Taken from John 12:1-8; Psalm 126

Psalm126

As I looked through the lectionary suggestions for this Sunday, there was Psalm 126.   I read those verses 5 and 6:

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!/ He that goes forth weeping bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

As soon as I read that, I knew what hymn we just had to sing this morning:   Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we shall go rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves!”

So, I asked Alba, “Alba, may we please sing ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’, because it comes straight out of Psalm 126.  Especially the third stanza of the hymn: “going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, Tho’ the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

One of the beauties of this great old hymn is how it respects this odd thing we find in the final verses of Psalm 126.   Which odd thing is this:   What’s up with all this talk of tears and weeping and grieving?   Whatever that sheaving business once was, I sure am glad we don’t do it anymore!   It all sounds pretty painful, with all that crying and wailing going on.   But, the hymn writer respects that and just works with it.

We’ll get back to this sheaving business in a bit.  But, for most of us, wasn’t it fun singing it.   How many of us grew up singing, “Bringing In The Sheaves”?

When I asked Alba if we could sing it today, I knew we’d have to reprint it in the bulletin, because you’re not going to find it in our present, 1991, edition of The Baptist Hymnal.   In fact, “Bringing in the Sheaves” has not appeared in any edition of the Baptist Hymnal since 1956, and there have been three editions since then, in 1975 and 1991 and in 2008!2

By 1975, I suppose the hymnal editors were asking themselves, “sheaves?   Nobody’s gonna know what a sheave is anymore!   That belongs to a whole different era!”  So, out it went never to appear again.

Well, this morning, I thought, let’s go retro!   Because it’s Psalm 126, and Psalm 126 is all about the weeping and the crying and the laboring and the bringing in those sheaves!  And, by golly, I like singing “Bringing In The Sheaves”, and I’m guessing a fair majority of folks at UBC are gonna like singing it, too!   So, there!  My call…we’re gonna do it.”

So, here’s this hymn that has not appeared in any Baptist Hymnal since 1956, and yet it means so much to so many of us who grew up in church, even those of us who were born after the 1975 hymn book got published.   Because, of course, we didn’t just go out and replace our old ’56 hymnals right away, did we?

Even when Baptist churches bought the new 1975 Baptist Hymnal, do you think we just sent the old raggedy 1956 hymnals out the backdoor?   No, of course not!   We moved them out into the Sunday School rooms.   We kept right on singing out of the ‘56 Hymnal for years and years during  Sunday School assembly time.

You remember department wide opening assembly, don’t you?   All the individual classes in particular age-department met first in a big open room.   The Department supervisor would lead in a hymn, followed by a prayer, and the announcements and then a little five-minute warm-up devotional.   Then, all the classes would dismiss, each to go into their little 10×10 cinderblock cubicles for that morning’s lesson.  Basically, these opening assemblies were a mini-worship service, before big worship.

There, we could still sing all the good hymns out of the real, 1956 edition of The Baptist Hymnal…Praise Jesus, Amen!  So, “Bringing In The Sheaves” stayed alive and well among Baptists despite the good intentions of those editors in the music department down in Nashville.

Now, as you may suspect, I am engaging us in a little Baptist Retro Work.   Psalm 126 gives me the license to do that retro work because that’s exactly what Psalm 126 was doing there in the Hebrew Bible…there was just a bit of what we might call “Wilderness Retro Work” going on in worship for these folks when they sang Psalm 126.   They were singing their version of “Bringing In The Sheaves”.

Everybody does it, this retro thinking and even retro living.   What in the world possessed me to throw away my polyester silk shirts and my three-piece camel-brown suit with the extra-wide bell-bottom trousers?   My goodness, I looked so cool in that outfit.  That would one sweet retro fit for me.

Whether you’re an ancient Hebrew or a contemporary Christian or post-modern secular whatever…we human beings have always loved us some retro.   When times get uncertain, when the future hovers before us like a thick fog, when today does not compare favorably with yesterday, well, where are you going to turn?   You’re gonna go retro; you’re gonna look back because you lived through that back there:   you survived, you thrived, it’s a known-quantity, you remember the good folks who were part of your group.

Psalm 126 is all about that retro.  Verse one, paraphrasing:   Oh, you remember what it was like when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, oh my, back then we were living the dream, weren’t we?   Verse two, you remember that happy time, there was so much laughter, everyone just seemed to have so much more joy back then.

The second half of verse 2, paraphrased:  why, complete strangers, people on the outside, would watch us and nod their heads and say to themselves, Well, God sure must like them, look how good they’ve got it!

But, that is not how it is for them now, as they sing this psalm in worship.  That’s why they’ve turned to this kind of retro prayer…Lord, the way it was back then, won’t you please do it for us again, and soon, Lord, because we’re in trouble here! Restore our fortunes, O Lord.

The word restore is what we might call a “time-intensive” word.  It’s got past-tense and present-tense and future-tense all rolled up together.   First, “restore” looks back, to the way things once were in a good, remembered past…that’s what we want restored; the word “restore” also implies a present moment, where things are not at all as good as they once had been; and, finally, the word “restore” looks to a hoped-for future, where one prays God may soon turn circumstances to become once again as good as they used to be.

Verse 3 in this Psalm is a critical turning point.  It’s where these worshippers start their turn from looking back, to affirm their faith in God here, now, in their present worship.  Verse 3:  The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.   Hear that little turn they’ve made to the present…we are glad.

Can we here, today, stop for a moment and make that same affirmation?   Really, right now, all together, look in our bulletin where Psalm 126 is printed   If you can affirm this sentiment that verse three expresses, then read it aloud with me.  If you can’t really say it like you mean it, you know, it feels a little forced, that’s o.k.; honesty in worship is the only way to go.   You can just sort move your lips so you don’t feel out of place.   Let’s read verse 3 together, now:   The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.

That is a critical transition point, for a person of faith, as well as for a congregation.  The transition is this:   To tell you truth, I don’t like where we are today.  But, there sure have been some great moments in the past with God, and for that, at least, I am glad today.   The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.

This is true for us, University Baptist Church, isn’t it?   For those of us with extra-long memories, I’m sure you might describe some of those great experiences of God working in the life of this church.

So, O Lord, won’t you please do it again?  See, in verse 4, how they’ve turned now to look to the future?   What are they asking God to do?  They’re asking God to do, what they have learned through hard experience, that only God can do.   “O Lord, what once you did for us because only you could do it, well, please do that again.”

If they themselves could have restored their fortunes they would have done it by now.  But, suffice it to say, they’d already tried to fit together all the pieces, especially to make Jerusalem great again, and it just wasn’t going the way they thought it would go.  They’re disappointed to say the least.  Well, that’s one sort of progress, isn’t it, when God’s people realize only God can actually do God’s work?

Perhaps their wilderness retro trip reminded them of these basic lessons from their history:   1) God makes promises that only God can keep, 2) they themselves were often the biggest impediments to God keeping those promise, 3) God’s promises turned out to be different and ever so much better than God’s people dared imagine, and 4) though they indeed benefitted, when God fulfilled those promises it was always to God’s glory and not their own.

Nothing has changed, sisters and brothers of the faith…from the Hebrew Scriptures right on over into our New Testament canon, those four fundamentals continued:  1) only God could accomplish what God has promised; 2) Jesus’ followers often turned out to be the only impediments to God working out those promises; 3) God’s promises turned out in ways far different and far greater than Jesus’ people could imagine; and 4) while God’s people certainly received a blessing, the real goal was God’s glory and praise.

Enjoying a few minutes together this morning recalling the ‘56 Baptist Hymnal and Sunday School department assemblies and singing a great old hymn like “Bringing In The Sheaves”, if all this Baptist retro work reminds us of these four foundational lessons of faith, well, then that been some good work for us this morning.

Is this not where we are together as a congregation?   Are we not, as this ancient congregation before us once was, seeking God to do what only God can do, in and through University Baptist Church?   Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like water, springing up and flowing through a desert wilderness!  That’s our prayer.  But, what might be the impediments we present to God?

That question brings us back around to this odd business in verses five and six, about sowing in tears, going forth weeping to the work of planting so they could get on to sheaving.   What a strange practice this sheaving must have been!

What exactly is a “sheave” anyway?   If you watch a lot of “Law & Order” or “NCIS” when you hear, “sheave”, you might think of the word “shiv”.   They certainly sound alike…sheave…shiv.   Maybe “sheave” is plural for a bunch of “shivs”?   “Hey, what’s in the box?  Oh, it’s a sheave of shivs.”  Nope, that’s not it.

Properly speaking, the word “sheaves” is the plural form of the word, “sheaf”.   A “sheaf” is a bunch of grain stalks, such as wheat, that’s been cut and tied up together into a big bundle.   As illustrated on our bulletin cover this morning.

You’ll notice in the painting of these workers, sheaving harkens back to olden times of another age; you’re not likely to see any sheaves out, standing in anybody’s field, unless maybe it’s at the Frontier Museum over near Staunton.   Which is why the editors in the music department down in Nashville in 1975 thought it was time to dispense with hymns like “Bringing In The Sheaves”.   Sheaving was not much a part of people’s lives anymore.

But, way back when, when this good old hymn we call Psalm 126 got written, people knew a thing or two about sheaving.  Yet, again, why all the sadness?

In the ancient Canaanite cultures, to quote one scholar, “the time of sowing was…considered as a time of mourning”. Those ancient agrarian folks lived very close to the natural cycles of things dying and decaying, thus providing the fertility out of which new life would sprout and grow.  There had to be dying involved with bringing forth new crops.

These ancient cultures surrounded their practices of spring planting with rituals of dying and death and funerals.   The sowing in tears and going forth weeping speak to a funereal grieving that something must be surrendered over to death and finally buried.   Only in that way, would they find those longed-for days of harvest with shouts of joy.

Up to this point, Psalm 126, verses one to four, have said nothing about farming.  It has only talked of reminiscing, of recalling they are indeed God’s people for whom God has done great good and through whom God has brought the other nations around them to acknowledge and praise God.   But, they turn to end on this metaphor drawn from their own experience of sowing and reaping.   Why?

Because they are drawing on this wisdom, that if there is to be such new life reborn among them, then they must be ready to endure grieving as they release and bury whatever they must for that new life to come.

We know it is true in our personal spiritual journeys.   The Spirit of God touches upon our lives, saying, “here…this…and this…these things precious to you, you now must let go of if you want to receive what God now offers you.   What God offers you of God’s own Self, of joy and splendor which God alone can accomplish in you, well, here is what you must relinquish as though it were a thing now dead to you.”  We should not fool ourselves; that is no easy task to do.  It can be a time of grieving.

The same is true for a congregation.   This Psalm 126 is first a word for a congregation, before it is a word for the individual believer.  What must we lay aside as a church, what must we bury… burying not to avoid nor to hide nor to pretend something does not exist…but genuinely to understand it–if the Spirit of God leads us–what congregational practice or attitude or misunderstanding, is the Spirit saying, now is time to see it, let it go and bury it.

Grieve if we must, but, that hard work we must do, if we are to make a place for new life to find fertile ground among us.  That is worthy labor and productive labor that yields a bountiful harvest.

Whether in our personal lives or in our life together, remember God’s call to surrender whatever hinders us always comes out of God’s profound love for us.   That surrender gives birth to new expressions of God’s love which we will find to be no burden.  Rather, each new step with God restores a balance, between God doing what only God can do, and our faithful service working with God in that work.

To the glory of the One who saves us, now and forevermore, even Jesus who himself did no differently, as he showed us this way of dying that we may know resurrection.   Amen.

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1 Exegetical notes from Artur Weiser, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library, Peter Ackroyd, et al, eds. (Philadelphia:  The Westminster Press, 1962) pp. 759-763.

Dr. Terry C. Terry, et al, A Comparison of Musical Content in Baptist Hymnal (1956), Baptist Hymnal (1975), Baptist Hymnal (1991) and Baptist Hymnal (2008) (Nashville:  Lifeway Publishers, September 29, 2008).

3 Weiser, op.cit., p. 762.