“Resilience: The Joy Harvest”
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
November 19, 2017
It’s hard to go back to places you loved. Tasha and I spent a couple of days in Austin last weekend on our way home from our clergy retreat, and I have to admit I find visiting Austin to be somewhat bittersweet. Austin is a special place for me. I attended seminary there, and it holds a lot of good memories for me. It is, after all, the place where my faith matured, where I met some people who are lifelong friends, and where, of course, I met a girl named Tasha Hoffman. However, it is quite different now than it used to be, and I was reminded of this when I passed the Broken Spoke.
The Spoke is a pretty famous Texas honky-tonk and we spent many a weekend there in seminary. By “we”, of course, I mean my friends, because Tasha hates to dance, but that’s beside the point. Every couple of months a big group of us would head for the Spoke for a night of two-stepping to Don Walser or Gary P. Nunn. One night I was there and they said, “We have a special guest who would like to sing,” and up to the stage stepped a very drunk Earl Campbell, and I two-stepped with a friend while he barreled through a song I have long since forgotten. Now, back in those days, the Spoke was surrounded by used tire places, dive bars, and taco joints. That is not the case today. Now, glossy apartment buildings and new mini-malls surround the Spoke, and it is not hard to see a day in the near future when it too has succumbed to progress and is gone.
This is what I mean when I say it’s hard to go back. You all know this to be true and I am sure some of you will be quick to say “just wait, it gets worse” to me after worship. And that’s ok, but today, as we consider resilience, I want us to think a bit about the role nostalgia plays. Nostalgia, for most of us I think, only compounds whatever sadness or hardship we have in our lives today. We look back on bygone times and eras and we think to ourselves “see how much better it used to be!” When I passed the Spoke last weekend, I thought of those fun times with my friends, how they are gone now, and it made me sad.
And so it is ironic, I believe, that a Psalm which seeks to pull us from our sadness points us backward but it does. Psalm 126 starts by reorienting us to the past. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream,” the Psalmist wrote. Those are bittersweet words, are they not? They carry a lot with them. They hearken back to the days at the end of exile, when those who had been away from Israel for two generations returned home. And, of course, they also imply that the “we” in question are no longer like those who dream. We ‘were’ being the operative tense here. The Psalmist wants us to shout with joy, but he draws us back to a day long past, to stir this within us.
This doesn’t seem to be the best way to go about things. Nostalgia is a dangerous thing, as we all know, as it relates to how we feel. Is it the best idea for the Psalmist to take this path? I am not so sure. But that old Psalmist, he is a pretty bright guy. I think he was on to something here. This Psalm is not just any Psalm. It is a song of ascent. You know what that means. It means that this was one of the 15 or so Psalms that pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem each year. They sang it as they climbed toward the holy mountain where God’s temple was located, where they would go to offer penance, to purify themselves, and to draw themselves back into God’s good graces. They make this climb, and immediately the Psalmist puts them into a different mindset. The Psalmist makes them feel as if they are not pilgrims at all, but rather that they are returning exiles.
In this way they are not being nostalgic about the past, they are actively participating in it by their walk. And, once there, they find their lives reoriented. The Psalmist is not naïve; he knows things are hard in this world. Those who sow in tears…those who go out weeping, these are hard but real images. All of us have known those days, haven’t we?; where we have sown in tears, where we have gone out weeping, where we have wondered where God is. We know that feeling. So did they. We can imagine some of the worries and fears those pilgrims carried with them on their way to Jerusalem. But they were not just pilgrims, thanks to this Psalmist, they were returning exiles, and that changes everything.
Imagine this place for a moment, will you? This church. This building is not new, and some of you have been here for a long time. You can remember your friends who used to sit here, preachers who used to proclaim the Gospel from this spot. You miss them. That is nostalgia, and it’s ok to miss them. But think back beyond that. Think back specifically to July 8, 1900. That was a special day. That was the day the sanctuary was dedicated. It was the day that they opened with the anthem “great and marvelous.” H.C. Read accepted the keys to the building that day. Now, consider for a moment all that went into building that sanctuary: the saving, the scrimping, the vision. Think of the worries over design, the concerns over money, the debates about whether or not it would all be worth it. Then, think of the joy when they worshipped in that sanctuary for the very first time, when they stepped inside and looked around at the wood and the windows and the pulpit. Think of how they felt. Ok, we know that since it is church somebody didn’t like the carpet, but put that aside. Was there not great joy on that day? Was there not an overwhelming sense of the goodness of God? Were they not like those who dream?
Each Sunday when we gather, we participate in those moments of great joy from our shared past, a past which stretches back to the dawn of time when God gazed upon creation and called it “good.” It is a past which saw the restoration of the exiles, a past which the pilgrims were called to when they sang this song. And so today we talk about joy. How do we find joy when we are in the pit, when we are sowing in tears? The first thing we do is remember that those who sow in tears will reap in joy! And how do we know this? We know this because it has always been so! Every time we gather here we are reminded of it, the ghost of joy dances in this place, and it dances to the music of Scripture and family and Christ and Scripture. It is here in our midst, reminding us that there will be days in our lives when we too will be like those who dream.
Surviving the hard times is about remembering that we worship a God who keeps promises, and those promises have been kept generation upon generation, in ways large and small. The exiles mourned in ways we cannot imagine during their forced march to the rivers of Babylon, where they were forced to play their music for the entertainment of their tormentors. But one day they returned, and that return continues to shape a people. One day they reaped in joy! And so shall we.
I checked to see what was happening at the Broken Spoke before I went to Austin, and I saw that in March they had another special guest. One night, in the middle of a regular set, Garth Brooks sauntered up on the stage and sang a song or two. And it made me happy to know that things like that still go on there; that some 22 year old was there and would have a memory for life. It made me glad to know that the Spoke wasn’t just something from the past, that it was still bringing real joy to people now. The past is most meaningful, not when it serves as an escape, but when it shapes our experiences of the present. For us, as followers of Jesus, the past teaches us that God is faithful and that generation after generation has been shaped by that fidelity. And more than anything, it teaches us that even those of us who sow in tears will always, inevitably, reap in joy. Amen.