Can you remember a season in your life when you felt like giving up because the stresses and the challenges just were too much? Sometimes in life the temptation to give up hope or to give in to cynicism or despair are great.
The Rev. Dr. Alyce McKenzie, Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, writes: “After her mother's death, [a little 9 year old African-American girl named] Zora was ultimately passed from relative to relative. Zora had to make her own way in the world, in a lifelong battle against what has been called the "triple oppression" of black women: economic, racial, and gender.
“[Despite the odds against her, Zora Neale Hurston, grew up to become] an esteemed novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist…[I read her prize winning novel: “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in graduate school at Claremont. A story of a strong black woman finding her way in the world in the 1930’s.] [Zora was] one of the most prominent black women writers of the Harlem literary Renaissance between the World Wars. [Despite her success, her adult life was no bed of roses.] [Her] work [was] devalued by her male literary colleagues and patronized by white publishers…her life and career went into free fall. She moved back to Florida where she eked out a living…as a maid and other pursuits.
“Poor, discouraged, and weary of rejection letters, she wrote to her agent, saying: ‘Just inching along like a stepped-on worm from day to day. Borrowing a little here and there…’ Said Zora: ‘The humiliation is getting too much for my self-respect, speaking from inside my soul. I have tried to keep it to myself and just wait’”
Yet, suddenly Zora’s demeanor changes as she ends her letter to her literary agent saying: “‘[I] look and look at the magnificent sweep of the Everglade[s], birds included, and keep a smile on my face....’"
Friends, Zora Neale Hurston didn’t give up or give in after her mother died—you could say, to put it in biblical terms: She kept her hand on the plow”…she held on.
My friend, retired pastor, Charles Orr, in his new book, has shared poignant words from Victor Frankl about his struggle to hold onto faith, to keep his hand on the plow, amid great darkness. Charles writes: “Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl wrote in [his book] “A Man’s Search For Meaning” of the horror of Nazi concentration camps… “There in the cramped…[quarters of the concentration camp], these men are separated from loved ones and their futures and were aware that they would likely soon be dead.
“[Frankl] writes of trying to help [his fellow captives hold on]—to gain perspective by showing how, even then, their situation was not the most terrible they could imagine. [To this end, Frankl] spoke of the future and their awareness of the small chance for survival. He spoke also of the past and its joys.
“[Said Frankl] ‘then I spoke of the many opportunities of giving life meaning…I told my comrades…that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have meaning.’
“[I reminded them] ‘The infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death. I [urged] the poor [men] (who listened to me attentively in the darkness…to not lose hope. [To] keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and meaning.”
Friends, Victor Frankl would survive his time of captivity, enjoy a marriage of over 50 years, become a prominent neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna, and die at the ripe old age of 92.
Now, none of us have faced the triple oppression that Zora Neale Hurston did, or come close to the horrific circumstance of trying to hold onto hope in a concentration camp as Victor Frankl and his comrades did, or the experience of people, young and old, held in captivity at our nation’s borders, struggle to hold onto hope today.
But that does not mean that your challenges and struggles are trivial or of no account. Many of you, or a loved one, have in the past, or are currently facing now, a great challenge, disappointment or loss which has tempted you too to give up hope or to give in to cynicism or despair.
Some of you, due to challenges related to your gender, your age, your sexual orientation, your economic situation, your health or a debilitating addition, or other life circumstance, in or outside of your control, have felt it took everything you had to keep a smile on your face and hope in your heart.
Yes, it’s important to keep our challenges in perspective—but we should never minimize them.
As a child I heard a recording of a song inspired by our Second lesson this morning from Luke. The song, “Keep Your Hand On the Plow.” The song, helped me at times during my childhood and teen years to navigate the sorrows and losses my family or community experienced.
One of the worst days of my middle class childhood was April 4, 1968, when a man my parents and I looked up to was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. I was only a month shy of my 9th birthday—but I will never forget my mom’s reaction when I ran outside and told her I had just seen on TV that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed.
Mom was standing in our driveway in Lake Oswego, Oregon, having just got home from work and she, upon hear the tragic news, cried out so loud the whole neighborhood must have heard her. In a futile prayer, my mom cried out: “Oh God! No!” For the first time in my life I saw my mom, Alice, in tears. That’s something you never forget. I had to help my mom into the house.
Now back to the song I spoke of a few minutes ago which gave me hope. The great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, sings lyrics which encourage us to hold on to our faith and hope amid dark times. The faith that even on the darkest night the light of Christ is present to comfort and sustain us.
It is a song that reminds us that if the church of Jesus Christ is to make a difference in the world men and women of faith and courage must heed the call of God and hold on.
We must, with single-minded determination, fearless devotion and boundless love, “Keep our hands on the plow and hold on” until the kingdom comes.
Sharing one of Dr. King’s favorite songs, Mahalia Jackson sings:
“Heard the voice of Jesus say Come unto me, I am the way Keep your hand on the plow, hold on
“When my way gets dark as night I know the lord will be my light Keep your hand on the plow, hold on
“When I get to heaven, gonna sing and shout Be nobody there to put me out Keep your hand on the plow, hold on…
“Hold on, hold on,
Keep your hand on the plow,
Friends, during our second lesson this morning we heard a person vow that he would follow Jesus as his disciple—but first he must say goodbye to his family. That seems fair. Surely Jesus wouldn’t have a problem with that. Who knows when that person might see his family again--if ever?
But Jesus does not respond: “OK, you go say goodbye and we’ll wait here till you get back. Take your your time. Give your parents my love.” No, Jesus, according to Luke, says to the person: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
Friends, just a few verses earlier, Jesus had said to a person who wanted to bury his father before following him: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
I believe the point Luke is trying to make here with Jesus’ responses to those who vow to follow him is that being a follower of Christ asks of us complete loyalty to that call before all other demands on our time and all other desires in our hearts.
It means that if our faith or devotion to God is half-hearted or we’re distracted or our discipleship is based on convenience we likely won’t keep our hand on the plow—we will look back—we will turn back.
Jesus knows the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem—and he knows the persecution and suffering his disciples are going to face and be challenged to endure. He needs followers, male and female, who will be able to withstand the struggles and keep the faith even amid the greatest darkness.
Pastor and Activist, Ayanna Watkins, of Memphis, Tennessee, commenting on the passage in Luke writes: “[Jesus] is walking toward the end of [his] life on earth. [He] has come to the end of the road—and while many look at [him] with adoration and respect, [Jesus] knows what his life has cost him. As [he sets] his face toward the end, [his] words [to the man who, first, wants to bury his father and the other person who, first, wants to say goodbye to his family] warn us that the call of God [cannot be delayed…
“[The call of God] will not allow us to hide away at home or to let our daily obligations excuse us from the hard work of doing great things for God. The call of God exposes us, leaves us vulnerable, takes us far from the familiar. Yet [by the grace of God] we go anyway. [Empowered by God’s grace] We keep showing up, catching up to Jesus on the road, closing chapters of our old life and moving forward in the direction of Christ.”
Ayanna concludes: “We know the cross is up there waiting. And still we go. “[Yet, truth be told] We also stumble, look back longingly, stay too long in an old familiar place, turn our backs on the way, refuse to go another step, fail. But then we encounter [Jesus] again, unexpectedly, on the road, and we are encouraged…to follow him once again.”
Friends, the journey of faith will, to one degree or another, expose us to great hardship, sorrow, and we will be challenged to hold on. Yet, as the old saying goes: “There is strength in numbers—and so we look to the church as a place of rest and renewal.
May Mahalia Jackson’s prayerful song, become our song, as we strive to be loyal to the call of God to follow—to hold on. May the grace of God, deep inside of us, help us rise up, and enable us to sing:
“Heard the voice of Jesus say come unto me, I am the way Keep your hand on the plow, hold on When my way gets dark as night I know the lord will be my light Keep your hand on the plow, hold on…
O Lord, help us keep working until your Kingdom comes…
Help us hold on until young black people can leave their homes without worrying about being profiled;
Help us keep the faith, hold on, until LGBTQ plus Americans enjoy equal protection under the law; hold on until the lives of all children, no matter their country of origin, are celebrated as “precious in His sight”;
Lord, help us hold on until this nation is again governed by men and women whose words and deeds reflect the love and justice of Jesus Christ. Hold on, hold on, church, hold on!
Keep your hand on the plow, hold on.”