Keep Your Hand On the Plow

We didn’t have fields where I grew up.  Whereas here in the Midwest we have immense tracts of land to farm and plow, in Alaska where I was raised, we had the vast Pacific Ocean.  And, instead of farming, we had fishing.  My father owned a commercial fishing boat, a large 40-foot wooden troller converted out of the hull of an old sailboat.  As a child of 9 and 10 it was my job to accompany dad on weekend fishing trips for salmon.  Sometimes it was my duty to stay in the cockpit on the aft deck and clean fish, and sometimes, when the weather was particularly calm and the fish were bighting, it was my privilege to drive the boat.  Sitting in the big captain’s chair, my hands on the oversized wheel, feeling the thrum of the diesel beneath my feet, I felt simultaneously grown up and not grown up enough.  My father would reassure me – “pick a point on the horizon – say, for instance, that peninsula over there – and take a bearing on it and head straight for it.”  Just drive straight – that was my job, to keep the bow of the boat pointed at a spot on the horizon.  Seems like a simple enough task.  Yet, even farmers on their tractors will tell you, even one distracted look back, and you can veer significantly off course.  As my youthful curiosity kept me craning my neck to see the fish my father was catching and to see the action unfolding behind me, often the wake of our boat looked like it was under the command of that proverbial “drunken sailor”.

In today’s gospel Jesus has just, as Luke tells us, set his face toward Jerusalem and he is inviting those whom he passes to join him on the way.  And, each time he asks, he is told there is but one task remaining to be done before the invited can follow.  One would-be disciple wants to come.  “Let me first say farewell to those at my home.”  Let me go back and say goodbye to those I love and who love me.  And Jesus replies “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

You can’t look back.  The mission, the journey is forward facing, and future oriented – he must press on.  This is why in the centuries long struggle for freedom African Americans were drawn to this phrase and co-opted it into their cause.  A familiar Negro spiritual turned gospel song “Keep Your Hands on the Plow” morphed in the 1960’s to become “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”, an anthem for the labor and civil rights movements that defined a generation.  Sung at rallies and demonstrations, the words of endurance and hard labor, of staying the course, gave strength to those entangled in what seemed an impossible fight for freedom.  The song concludes with the exhortation – “Hold on.  Hold on.”

Keep your hands on the plow and hold on.  An old proverb, which would have been the a good word for pastor Martin Luther King, Jr. as he sat at his kitchen table late at night on a January night in 1957.  The bus boycott appeared to be a failure, a crumbling effort in a difficult time.  King’s own life had been threatened several times including earlier that same evening, when a caller had warned him to vacate Montgomery in three days or die.  King’s words from that night reflect his desperation and need for encouragement.

He wrote:

I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”

The truth is that like King and so many in the civil rights movement like those caught in any movement for significant social change, like Jesus in this morning’s gospel, who has set his face towards Jerusalem, the struggle is to keep one’s eyes straining toward the horizon, toward the goal, toward what certainly must have seemed like an impossible end.  And, it is true that the struggle is one which we, as modern, seemingly enlightened, seemingly well-adjusted, affluent Americans are not well-suited to face.

Ethicist Sharon Welch writes:

The despair of the affluent, the middle class, has a particular tone: it is a despair cushioned by privilege and grounded in privilege. It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort to merely enjoying it for oneself and one’s family… Becoming so easily discouraged is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs…

Perhaps this is why in their dual rulings on civil rights this week the Supreme Court seemed, to some of us, in one instance, to take a step forward toward the prize, and in another instance, away from the prize.  Perhaps their decisions reflect the reality that the affluent middle class understands and resonates more with the struggle of gay Americans, many of whom are like us, than we do with the plight of people of color, many of whom are not like us.

Don’t get me wrong, affirming love in all its many forms, and extending the right to marry to all, is something I wholeheartedly support.  It is also my hope that the church so long at the forefront of the struggle for justice for all God’s children, will not drift away or give up on praying for peace, of providing relief to the poor, of seeking freedom for the oppressed, and equality for all.

As long as there are Syrian children who fear for their lives, and men are profiled in the south for the color of their skin, as long as the mentally ill are regarded as second class citizens (and immigrants are lower than that), and as long as we have neighborhoods in this city or any city where it is a challenge to feel safe at night, then we must keep our hand to the plow, we must hold on.

The road is difficult, and we may have to leave much behind to travel it, but our companion along every step of the way is God with us, Jesus the Christ.  Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel offers this closing prayer that seems aptly suited for our journey forward.

Jesus said,
“You ought always to pray and not to faint.”
So we do not pray for easy lives;
we pray to be stronger women and men.
And we do not pray for tasks equal to our powers,
but for power equal to our tasks.
Then, the doing of our work will be no miracle
– we will be the miracle.
Every day may we wonder at ourselves
and the richness of life
which has come to us by the grace of God.

To that I can only add, Amen, and Amen!

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