June 30, 2013

Prayer Book Parallels: Eyes On The Prize


Text: Luke 9:62: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Those of us who grew up watching public television in the late 1980s were significantly shaped by Henry Hampton’s epic history of the civil rights movement Eyes On The Prize. It was a landmark in serious television, telling in fourteen hours the story of the thirty-one years between the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 1983 election of Harold Washington as the mayor of Chicago.

Each episode opened with a rendition of a song from the Freedom Riders’ movement, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” sung by Robert Parris Moses, a leader of the movement. Most of us, when we heard that very distinctive opening, knew immediately what was on. And I suppose most of us thought that what we were hearing was a historic spiritual from the songbook of the African-American experience.

That turns out to be only partially true. The words were not old. They were a new take on an old idea, written in 1956 by a woman in the civil rights movement named Alice Wine.

But the song itself was quite old. It’s so old as to have been included in the Roud Index of Folk Song, in which it was included by the American folklorists Alan and John Lomax.

In its original form, the song was known as “Gospel Plow.” We know the chorus with those famous words: “Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.” But the original version of the song had a different chorus: “Keep your hand on the plow, Hold On.”

It was a spiritual based on exactly the gospel lesson we heard this morning, and particularly this verse: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

If you’ve never spent much time plowing fields, this phrase may be a little bit of a mystery. It seems a little, well, harsh. When you’re plowing a field, it might be sort of nice to see how much progress you’ve made as you go. Why this stringent discipline?

Again this week there’s a little clue about how we might read the gospel story hidden in the language of the collect, of the day, the prayer that begins the readings at the beginning of the service. At first it may seem a little bit like a mixed metaphor: The imagery of the collect is all about buildings. “Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you...”

Lots of brick and mortar in that sentence. What does that have to do with handling a plow?

•  •  •

One of the things I always admire about Jesus as a preacher is that he seems always able to know how to speak to the condition of the people around him. He spoke about fish and nets to those who made their living by the sea. And here, in a story set in Samaria—a farming region between Galilee and Jerusalem—he’s speaking in terms that any farmer of the day would have instantly have grasped.

Farmers always have lived lives of toil and hardship, but it is hard to imagine a job harder than that of tilling the soil in ancient Israel. For one thing, the soil is awful. Only about twenty percent of the land in Israel is able to sustain agriculture, and that’s mostly in the north, around Galilee, where Jesus’s home town was, and a little to the south in Samaria, where this story takes place.

The chief reason for this is that the north of Israel is the only part of the place that gets any rain worth speaking of. Nazareth gets about twenty seven and a half inches of rain in a year. Just for comparison, we get about forty-three inches of rain in a year. So making things grow is a hard enough proposition.

But doing it two thousand years ago would be unimaginably hard. If you were lucky enough to have a plow—you probably had to borrow one, or share one, and promise a part of your crop for the use of it—what you did was hook the plow up to an ox or two.

I’m going to guess that most of you don’t have a lot of exposure to working with oxen as colleagues. (Although you may well have colleagues who give you a sense of what they might be like.) I can’t claim that I do, either, but I grew up as the son of a father who was a farmer, and I can tell you that there was nothing he liked less than working with a team of oxen.

If you want to get a sense of why that might be the case, just go onto YouTube and search for Oxen drawing plough. You’ll find a very convincing video shot at Old Sturbridge Village in which some over-confident tourist gets to try plowing behind a team of two oxen for the first time.

You have to do three things at once when you’re plowing with oxen. You have to keep the plow in the ground, because you’re the only downward force keeping the plow in the ground. Then you have to control the animals and manage the direction in which they go.

On top of all that you have to keep the furrow in a straight line, from one end of the field to the other.

Putting those three things together takes absolute, rock-like stability. And there’s the connection to the collect. You have to have incredible steadiness of purpose, steadiness of effort, and steadiness of purpose to plow a field with a team—which is something everyone listening to Jesus would have known.

If you look back, even for a moment, to be satisfied at the work you’ve done, the animals will get off course; the plow will leave the ground; and you will quickly find yourself having to repeat your work. Rock-solid singleness of purpose—that is the hallmark of a successful farmer.

That is meant to communicate something of the seriousness of the first line in this gospel reading, one of the most understated but most powerful sentences in all of Luke: “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We are meant to get a sense of Jesus determining his course and moving relentlessly forward toward his goal. Rock-solid singleness of purpose; he will not look back to the days he was gaining notoriety and was followed by great crowds. He will keep his eyes fixed on his goal: Jerusalem. That is the hallmark of a successful farmer. And it is meant to be a lesson to us about what it takes to be a disciple, and to be a church.

We have a cornerstone here. I think you all know where it is. Indeed we have a picture of it up somewhere on our web site, I’m sure. And we are of course not alone in having a date carved into that stone—a sort of testament, with every passing day, of how long we have endured.

But Jesus is saying that is looking in the wrong direction. Looking back over our past, loving the furrow we’ve already plowed, will get us off course. It’s good to be informed by what happened before we got here, but loving our past too much will make us forget that we’re supposed to be headed toward the future. The important work is ahead of us, not behind us. Nothing will grow unless we plow the ground in front of us.

We are almost programmed to make reference to our past. Even the burger joint in Harvard Square proudly paints the year of its establishment on the door. We claim legitimacy by means of age—at least in our institutions.

But the church is not meant to be a museum. It is meant to be doing God’s work now, and tomorrow, whatever that is. If Jesus is the cornerstone, as the collect says, then we are drawn toward the future, whatever and wherever that might be. When we get it right, we worship God and give thanks for our history, not the other way around. And we do that best when we keep our eyes on the prize ahead of us, and move forward. Amen.