Fear Not The Fallow

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Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33


Jesus meets us today dressed in summer attire.

Water, wind, boats, mountains, crowds, quiet, waves, sea—these are the forms of raiment he wears coming toward us this morning, out of the unforeseen, out of the future.

We has sent the crowds away.  He has ordered the twelve into a boat, with a destination given ‘on the other side’.  He has gone up, gone out, gone away, onto the mountain to pray.  Day came and then evening, morning and then night, and he was there on the mountain alone.

Soon there will be much and more work to do.  The wind will come up, the team will be afraid, the waves and wind will rise, and he will be called out at the fourth watch of the night, late at night, the wee hours, ‘dark thirty’.  And all of this will arise, we are taught in the Scripture, as an invitation to faith. ‘O Man of Little Faith…’

Just for now, though, just for a minute, there is a clean summer wind blowing across the top of the mountain, whence Jesus bids us come.

One year, some miles west of here, within a time and space of joyful ministry, we passed a year in which snow fell on every major holiday and Sunday.  Snow fell on Halloween.  Snow fell on Thanksgiving.  Snow fell on Christmas Sunday, on Christmas, on New Year’s, on Ground Hog Day, on Palm Sunday, on Easter.  To top it all off, snow also fell on Mothers’ Day.   In our region, when summer comes, we recognize a different, necessarily different, season.  A fallow time.

Howard Thurman, by the report from Oregon in email this last year, once gave a sermon with this title.  We find no record of it, nor need we one.  The title tells it all.  There are full times, with much snow, and there are fallow times, wherein we are restored, free from snow.  These fallow times, mountain times, lake times, breeze times, quiet times, and faith times, we need not fear.

In the summer, in the north, we often gather for family reunions.  Here we are connected vertically, by generation and time, rather than horizontally, by work and space.  You may have some reason for caution and for anxiety, heading for such a party.   Our families of origin bear within them difficult memories, hard words spoken, past hurts, settled, negatively settled, relationships.  Yet, in the fallow time, we go to the place where ‘when you have to go there, they have to take you’.  Fear not the fallow.  You may discover someone, something, a story, a memory, an uncle, a gift, which could only come your way in a quieter mode, up a mountain, apart from the economics of work  and the rest of life.

In the summer, in the north, we may have more time for friendship.  If you are forever fiddling with the latest blackberry or other quasi communication, as is part now of our technological turf,  you may be uncertain, even anxious, with the quieter rhythms of friendship:  listening, more listening, speaking, quiet.  Fear not.  Our friends give us back our real selves, our own best selves.  They both require and deserve our undivided attention, come summer.

In the summer, up here in the north, we too may take to the high mountain.  It is the attention, the mind, once freed, which illumines the natural world.  The monarch butterfly is always there.  In the quiet, with enough warmth to get around and to watch and look, we of a sudden may be able to appreciate the miraculous wonder of the created order.  Fear not the fallow.  It is the forecourt of prayer.

In the summer, in the north, we may find the idler rhythms, the fallow mode, if we can shake off the natural fear of a different way, a different habit: in travel, in exercise, in reading, in devotion, in silence.    Our being, our human being, is not fully exhausted, though we may be, by our fretful and grasping construction and expenditure, the getting and spending by which we lay waste our powers.   An hour a day, a day a week, a week a quarter, a quarter a year, a year every seven:  these are not times meant only for a few.  We are human beings not human doings.

From this pulpit, in this summer, we have prayerfully paused to listen for the gospel under the theme of ‘Evangelism in the Liberal Tradition:  South, North, Youth.’   From Kentucky, Rev. Wade brought us deeply to consider faith, in the binding of Isaac and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  From New England, Rev. Garner and Rev. Thomas announced with us the goodness of God and the presence of God.  Next week, and the week following, Rev. Olson will bring us her wisdom regarding the gospel and young adults.  Voices from South, North and Youth ask us to consider the grace of invitation.

Jesus, by the record of St. Matthew, ‘went up on the mountain by himself to pray’.  By his example he invites us to join him, as Frost wrote, I am going out to clean the pasture spring.  I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away, and watch the water clear, I may.  I shan’t be gone long.  You  come too.

We pause by the table of grace, with bread and cup prepared.   A natural, urgent objection, opposition, response, may arise as we see Jesus in summer attire.

What of our sisters and brothers, near and far, for whom the fallow is the fullest time there is?  What of those who are waiting, without idols but without fruit, for a harvest time, a morning time, a full time, a work time?

Here is a man, whose day, every day, is fallow.  He watches from the hospital bed, blank eyed.
Here is a woman who has known the power and happiness of real work.  She again scans the screen, the paper, the mail, the news, looking for a place to invest her real gifts.

Here is a couple who have much in memory to share, much in life earned wisdom to share, and no visitors.  My grandmother had a sign on her kitchen door:  Do you know who I would like to cook a big chicken and dumpling dinner for?  Anybody.

Those who can remember, can help those who are learning to remember.  Frost:  When to the heart of man was it ever less than a treason, to go with the drift of things, to yield with a grace to reason, to bow and accept the  end of a love or a season?

Look about you.  14 million Americans who are looking for work are not finding work.  The income of the top 1% of the population exceeds that of the bottom 50%.   Average household wealth for Caucasian families is 20 times that of families of color.  We may lack to some degree the pastoral or personal imagination such a time requires.   We may need films, novels, sermons, books, which quicken the heart, in an appreciation for what such a fearsome fallow time can mean. Do we remember what it feels like to be left out?  We need an Uncle Tom’s Cabin of unemployment, and a Harriet Beecher Stowe of loss of work.  We need a Grapes of Wrath of unemployment, and a John Steinbeck of loss of work.  We need an Ironweed of our current unemployment, and a William Kennedy of loss of work.    We need a Cesar Chavez of unemployment, and a workers movement for loss of work.   For those who have not been vocationally excluded, who have jobs, and who have good minds and hearts, we need a rhetoric which will touch the heart, open the heart, warm the heart, change the heart and move the heart.

Can you remember what it feels like, what it is like, to lack what others have, and to want it badly?  In meditating on today’s Gospel, the figure of sinking Peter brought a memory.  You know, Peter means ‘rock’.  Usually we think of this as a reference to his found
ational strength in the building of the church.  In this passage, as he goes under water, his name perhaps has more direct reference to his sinking qualities, ‘sink…like a rock’.  For some years, I taught swimming and ran a waterfront at a church camp, along the shores of a most beautiful lake.  Those years, and the men and women I met there, caused me go to seminary.  It was not what they knew, or what they professed, or what they did, even, that drew me.  It was the way they lived, in freedom and love.  I pray that here, year by year, somehow, others will see in you, and me, such freedom and such love.    I looked this week at a now very worn BOOK OF WORSHIP, a gift from one such soul who inscribed: To Bob the lifeguard, firs you saved lives, now you’ll save souls.  God bless you. Some gifts do last a lifetime.  In those summer years, we had a firm rule:  no drowning. Yet with the right preparation, you really should not have any, drownings that is, anyway, which thankfully we did not.  But occasionally, we had to dive in after somebody.  One of the most poignant, frightening, and repeated instances occurred, you will think this odd, during the swimming tests.  Young teenagers had to show that they could swim 50 yards, and tread water, in order pass the swim test and swim in the deep water.   Most did fine.  But every now and then, a fourteen year old who did not know how to swim, and who did not want to admit it, but who did not want to be left out, and who did not want to be seen as different, would get in line, stay in line, and then, I guess hoping for who knows what, would jump in, and begin to sink.  They just did not want to be left out.  In the eyeglass of memory I look at those young people. Can you remember what it feels like to be left out?  Can you remember what if feels like, to lack what others have, and to want it so badly?  Can we remember, come autumn, what it feels like to be in our teens?   Today, can we gain a little measure of empathy for 9.1% of the population looking for work?

Our gospel commends faith, the antidote for fear.   Humans do not easily walk on water, as Peter, the Rock, reminds us.  My own experience with gravity, is not unlike your own.  Rocks rolling down the hill go all the way.  Consistently.  Cars on ice slide down hill. Consistently. Boat hoist wheels once loosed and holding the boat spin uncontrollably.  Consistently.   Swimmers who do not know the prone float sink.  Consistently.  Matthew 14 was not written to erase the need for a swim test.  Granted that we are not ever in a position to say what God can and cannot do, our experience with gravity holds.  So too does our need for faith.  So too does our need to face the fallow.  Fear not the fallow.

Why do we fear to face the fallow?  We are uncomfortable with silence, with solitude, with quiet, with lack, with anything that interrupts the 24/7/365 din of information falling like a not so gentle rain upon us.   The fallow is meant as a season, not as a permanent condition.  It is meant as Sabbath, preparation, restoration, reinvigoration, as the balance that provides a living critique of our idolatry of work.  The fallow is meant not to last but to lean upon us, to shift our body weight, to raise a question.

In the summer I pass by daily a farm still operated, forty years later, by an elementary school friend.  We were caused one year to perform a stage version of Tom Sawyer’s playful entrapment of Huck Finn along the fence.  Do you remember this typically Twain send up of work?

Tom is told to paint the fence.  He begins, when up comes Huck, who is curious.  Tom couldn’t possibly give up the joy of the job.  The more he smiles, the more intrigued Huck becomes.  Finally Tom relents, and says he will graciously allow Huck to paint the fence for him, which delights Huck.  Only, Tom finishes, Huck will have to pay for the privilege of work.   He has only an apple to his name, which Tom seizes and departs.

How deeply have we thought about just how much we adore work?  Has Twain’s story caught us at all?  It should.  Work is crucial, especially for those who lack it.  Work is perilous, especially for those who cannot see its limits.

Man does not live by bread alone.  Bread alone will never begin to bring us to terms with life or death, with loss or betrayal, with choice or failure, with sin or death or the threat of meaninglessness.   More, bread alone will not ever help us set the theological balances by which we live and die:  how much creation, how much fall; how much  grace, how much sin;  how much freedom, how much constraint; how much divine, how much human;  how much mind, how much heart;  and, in today’s encounter with Jesus, how much full time and how much  fallow, how much work and how much prayer.

We need not fear the fallow, if we face the fallow, and fix the limits of the fallow, with a measure of personal empathy, of sympathy for those for whom the fallow is all they have.

A measure of faith may help.   To move from fear to faith means learning how to float.  You know, sometimes, after failing the swim test, and through the rest of the week, a young person would come for lessons, to learn to swim.  The difference between sinking and swimming is floating.  To float is to learn to trust that the same water in life that can sorely threaten you will also hold you up.  No analogy is perfect.  But the trust that allows one to float, to learn the prone float, is like the trust that keeps one afloat in life, and moves one from fear to faith.  Lessons in the strokes come later.  First there comes a moment when you stretch your arms and lie face down in the water, and a wait for your feet to rise.  You see?  You can float.  You have faith.  The water will hold you up.  We are in good hands, and so it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens, as Huston Smith once said.

We may thereto find a way to mark out a new way of living, perhaps not quite walking on water, but one that carries us forward by faith in one who stills the waters and calms the sea.   Then our fullness will be fallow, and our fallow full.  So Frost, Yield who will to their separation, my object in living is to unite my vocation with my avocation, as my two eyes make one in sight.  Only where love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes, is the deed ever really done, for heaven and the future’s sakes.

A long time ago, in a borrowed upper room, a gathering of very human beings was fed by One they came  to know as Son of God.  What they were fed gave them the courage to face the full and the empty, and especially the faith to ‘fear not the fallow’.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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