Gracious God, who makes all good things grow, may your love continue to grow in our lives and bear the fruit your world needs. In this time of worship, may we rest in your presence, listen for your guidance, and open our hearts and minds to your Spirit’s call. Amen.
Today, as we continue our sermon series, Don’t Just Go Through It, Grow Through It, we are considering the idea of harvest. What good produce has God brought forth from seed, to sprout, to fruit? What is the bounty that God’s beloved creation needs to be nourished and fed? And who will help God with the harvest by getting to work to gather it up and get this good food to all in need?
Jesus had been traveling all around the region of Galilee, going from town to town. He was teaching in the synagogues, healing people, and proclaiming the Good News that the Kingdom of God was at hand to all who would listen. His band of disciples and followers was growing.
And one day, Jesus stops and looks out over the crowd of people – everyday folks – who were mostly poor, some who were sick, some who were struggling to survive, some who were looking for a day’s work and wages, some who were getting by alright but may have been longing for direction, purpose, and joy… and he is filled with compassion for them.
They were “harassed and helpless,” Matthew says, “like sheep without a shepherd.” And we know how well sheep do without a shepherd… not very well at all. They don’t always stay together or know where to go. They are vulnerable to wolves and other predators, especially when they get separated from the flock.
“Like sheep without a shepherd.” It’s one of those phrases that pops up many times throughout the biblical text to describe how God’s people sometimes get scattered – lacking commitment, lacking organization, lacking direction and purpose.
But Jesus doesn’t make this observation with a tone of judgment. Matthew explicitly tells us that Jesus had compassion for the people.
And so he turns to his disciples and says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” In other words: disciples, it’s time to get to work.
Jesus is preparing his disciples to become shepherds themselves. Eventually, they will need to do that because Jesus will not always be there in person to shepherd them.
And Jesus is calling them to be laborers in the work of the harvest. Look at this “plentiful harvest,” Jesus says. Sure, at first glance they may seem to be “helpless and harassed,” unorganized and uncommitted, but what potential! These are God’s people – potential disciples of the Way, potential builders of the Kingdom of God who are ripe for the picking, ready to be called.
Perhaps they just need some compassion and encouragement; some presence, care, and help. Perhaps they just need to be reminded of their own potential; their own gifts, and strengths, and abilities. Perhaps they just need some guidance and direction. Perhaps they just need a sense of belonging and purpose.
You see, I think in this moment Jesus is calling his disciples to become community organizers.
Just as his band of disciples needed Jesus to shepherd and lead them, so too would the early church need their shepherding and leadership. He was teaching them by example how to do this. And he began with compassion.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” God needs you. God needs us.
The harvest, of course, brings to mind the fulfillment of the Reign of God. Harvest is often lifted up as a symbol of the eschaton – not simply the end of the world – but the end of the world as we know it – and the fulfillment of the world as it could be; as it should be – the end of suffering and injustice – the end of war and violence – the end of hopelessness and despair.
Can we imagine such a world? Can we imagine such a harvest?
“The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says. God’s deep and abiding love is plentiful. God’s good visions for this beloved world of God’s creation are plentiful. God’s hopes and dreams for our lives and our communities are plentiful.
But God needs our help to gather in the harvest. God needs our labor. God need our help to bring these visions, hopes, and dreams into reality. And the time is now.
After all, we don’t want to let God’s good fruit rot on the vine, do we? We don’t want it to go to waste. We don’t want the fruit of peace, the fruit of justice, the fruit grown by God’s compassionate love and patient tender care, to wither and spoil – to go unconsumed, undigested.
We want God’s good fruit to nourish, and fill, and fuel God’s people for the good of God’s world. And so, all of us have a job to do in the harvest. And our labor, our contributions to the harvest, might just bring us all closer to the vision of God’s Reign.
You know, I can’t say I have a lot of literal harvesting experience. As a kid, I was pretty good at picking strawberries in my mom’s garden – but many of them ended up in my mouth and never even made it to the house.
In college I went on a weekend service trip to La Puente home in Alamosa, Colorado. La Puente (which means the bridge) offers shelter and food to anyone in need. And many of their clients are migrant farmworkers who move throughout the region doing day labor, especially during peak planting and harvesting seasons.
One of the projects we helped La Puente with that weekend was to glean a nearby potato field. The farm owner regularly allowed La Puente to glean and keep for their meal program whatever produce was left after the initial harvest. And perhaps you know that there is an astonishing number of potatoes left behind in the field after the harvesting machinery has rolled through – many small or oddly shaped, but plenty good for eating. I was amazed by how much we collected that day.
It was hard work in the hot sun – a lot of bending over and carrying buckets. And it gave me new appreciation for the migrant farmworkers who do this kind of work regularly, sometimes for too little pay and without much job security.
I had some moments of frustration that day though because I had just sprained my left wrist the day before. And so, I felt like I was struggling along at half the speed of everyone else. I could carry my bucket by the handle in the crook of my left elbow for a little while, but only until it was about a third full when it became too heavy and painful and I had to put it down. I could carry my full bucket to the truck but had to have someone else dump it into the collection bin for me.
And, as I got worn out, I started to feel a bit useless. But later, as I looked back on the day, after I got some rest, I realized that the truth is that I wasn’t useless. I did what I could. And I adapted as I needed.
And then I felt ashamed because of the internalized ableism I was exhibiting as I was having this self-pity party. I was ashamed because the truth is that people with different abilities are incredibly adaptable and creative in the ways they live, work, and contribute to society. And people have demonstrated great ingenuity in creating assistive and adaptive technology to address issues of accessibility and to help people do their work and live their lives.
But we all have our moments, don’t we? Perhaps we all feel useless at times – or more mildly, like we aren’t doing enough, or living up to our potential. Those voices of self-criticism pop up sometimes. That’s normal. The question is how will we process them, move through them, and not let them stop us in our tracks?
It’s not unusual to feel a little useless, a little “harassed and helpless” to use Jesus’ words. And we’re facing some pretty big challenges right now as we are trying to navigate our way through this pandemic and as we face the reality once again of the big injustices of racism and poverty that continue to plague our society.
But that was also the world of Jesus. His world was plagued by disease and injustice. And yet, even in those circumstances, he said “the harvest is plentiful.” And he looked to his disciples to help bring in the bounty. And that call now extends to us.
It is a call to action. It is a call to mission. It is a call to justice-seeking and peacemaking. Now is the time. The seeds God has planted have sprouted and grown, and the fruits of God’s field are ripe and ready to be gathered up. Don’t wait until it is too late. Now is the time.
We, like Jesus’ first disciples are being called to help bring in the harvest – each of us of us beloved of God, each of us with abilities to offer.
And we are being equipped – each of us inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit, guided by the Way of Jesus, supported by a church community of care, and given the tools we need.
And we are being sent (we are always being sent, aren’t we?) – each of us sent into the places where we can serve, where we can do the work of love in action, where we can be a laborer in the harvest of God’s great love, of God’s great dream and vision for this world.
And one of the questions we all face from time to time is can I prioritize this call in my life? Can we put this call above our own desires and ambitions? Can we do without something we want so someone else can have enough? Can we listen, and learn, and follow another’s lead? How will we find the courage and willpower we need to follow this call?
I do think one place to start is with gratitude. So, today, let us pause for a little Thanksgiving in June. Let us give God our thanks and praise for the blessing of this life, for the beauty of this world, for the fellowship of friends, and family, and community who accompany us on this journey.
Let us not take for granted the abundance of God’s love in our lives. And let us recognize that though it is a challenging time, it is also an exciting time to be alive. Indeed, it always has been both. We have so much to be grateful for.
And then, inspired by gratitude and empowered by our faith and God’s love, let’s get out there in that field. And let’s start picking. Let’s start looking for the ripe fruits of justice, the ripe fruits of peace, the ripe fruits of God’s love in action… the food for which the people of our world, God’s world, hunger.
And let’s get out there and glean those potato fields. Don’t be fooled by a barren appearance at first glance. Sometimes what lies beneath the surface of the soil is exactly what is needed to nourish and feed. Don’t be afraid to dig a little deeper. Sometimes it takes a little digging to find hope. Sometimes it takes a little digging to find faith.
But we know that hope and faith are part of the spiritual nourishment we need to keep going. And we can trust they are there. Sometimes we just need to find them. So, keep digging.
And when it comes to finding, harvesting, and sharing those fruits of justice, all of us can do our part. We’ve been talking about how we might do our part in our conversations on race over the past couple of weeks. And we plan to keep the conversation going, so stay tuned.
We can all help address the systemic injustices of racism and poverty (among others) by getting educated, by listening to and learning from those who have offered their voices, and lived experiences, and expertise to teach others. And we can approach this education with an open mind and heart, and with a willingness to be challenged and changed.
And we can use our financial resources and volunteer our time, energy, and abilities to support the work of individuals and organizations that are doing good work in our communities and our society to bring about a positive change and a more just future.
And we can use our voices. You don’t have to be a social media influencer or a frontline protester. If you are, great. But all of us can use our voices in dialogue with our friends, families, communities, and elected officials. We can expand our communities by finding new conversation partners and getting to know folks in organizations that are new to us. And we can vote.
Maybe this isn’t new for you. Maybe it is. But it’s never too late to start. And all of us need a fresh start now and then.
And remember, wherever your path of discipleship may lead you in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead, there is always an abundant harvest of God’s love in our midst. So, let’s get out into that field and see what’s ripe for the picking.