Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
November 23, 2014; Non-Lectionary Sermon
Leviticus 19:1-10; Matthew 9:35-38
“Then he said to his disciples,
‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…’”
“O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.” For many of us, those lines sum up the promise of America. Here in urbanized New Jersey, we live far from our nation’s breadbasket: those great prairies of the Midwest, planted fencepost to fencepost with corn and soybeans and wheat. But we reap their benefits. Every time we go into a supermarket and reach for a loaf of bread on the shelf, we’re enjoying the product of the American farmer’s labor.
Until you’ve seen for yourself the size of those farm fields, you simply have no idea.
Our family lived in eastern Iowa for six years, as I worked for the theological seminary in Dubuque. I was the admissions director, which meant I traveled for work — visiting colleges and church meetings, recruiting students. Oftentimes I’d travel by car. Once I’d driven a few hours west, out of the rolling hills of eastern Iowa and into the great, flat farm fields of the plains, I’d see more corn than you could possibly imagine.
Elsewhere in the Midwest, it’s not corn, but wheat. I remember a trip through Kansas, which is a good deal dryer than Iowa. The climate there is suited to wheat farming. The experience was much the same: two lanes of highway, straight as an arrow, flanked on either side by waving wheat, far as the eye could see.
It’s hard to imagine what the harvest must be like, when the farm fields are so vast. Most wheat farmers, I’ve learned, don’t harvest their own fields. They rely on itinerant farm workers known as custom harvesters.
Now, if you’re picturing migrant workers such as we know here in the truck farms of South Jersey, you’re very much mistaken.These aren’t impoverished, hard-working people who bend low to the ground and pick vegetables by hand. No, the custom harvesters of the Midwest are a different breed altogether.
They own their own equipment: huge, modern combines with air-conditioned cabs, that cost upwards of half-a-million dollars. Those machines are so expensive, it’s not cost-effective for any individual farmer to own one. The way to recoup your money, after buying a combine like that, is to run it as much as 18 hours a day for nearly half a year. That means you get out of the farming business yourself and start harvesting the crops of other people.
These are often family businesses. The more prosperous among the custom harvesters own six or eight of these agricultural behemoths. They hire drivers to operate them — young men from farming communities who live on the road for a few years, as a grand adventure.
They’re away from home six or eight months of the year — traveling in huge caravans from job to job, the massive harvesters followed by campers and semi-trailer trucks loaded with equipment. The harvest starts in Texas or Oklahoma, moving slowly north until they end up in Minnesota or North Dakota.
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few — which is not a problem if your stock in trade is half-million-dollar combines.
That wasn’t so in the time of Jesus. When he says — as he does, here in Matthew, chapter 9 — “the laborers are few,” it’s a farm crisis he’s talking about. It does no good to have a bumper crop if there’s nobody to bring it in! The produce will only rot in the field. The farmers will face economic ruin.
In Jesus’ time — as it’s been for much of human history — the harvest was a community enterprise. When farm fields were small and plowed by hand, those who worked the land depended on their neighbors to bring the harvest in. They would help each other, moving from farm to farm in a local community, aided by as many hired hands as they could summon.
Jesus isn’t talking about agriculture, of course. It’s a metaphor. He looks out over the crowds of people who’ve been following him around, hanging on his every word. He perceives them to be “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” It’s an image that pops up several times, in various places in the Hebrew scriptures. The prophets portray the wayward people of Israel as sheep wandering aimlessly over the hills, with no shepherd in sight.
The shepherd of Israel par excellence is King David — but he’s long gone. Those glory days are but an ancient memory. David was the ideal king, both a man of God and a man for God’s people.
When Jesus sees this sorry lot gathered around him, he feels “compassion” for them. The Greek word for compassion — splagnizomai (I love to say that word) — is a colorful one. It’s related to the word for “bowels” or “gut.” When Jesus sees these poor people, desperate to connect with God, he feels for them in the deepest possible way. His compassion is literally a “gut feeling.”
A few verses on, he abruptly changes his metaphor. The people are sheep no longer, but waving ears of wheat, bending over from the weight of their kernels. If somebody doesn’t come and do something about this situation, and quickly, the results are going to be catastrophic.
Jesus needs laborers. No one in his day could possibly have conceived of a half-dozen John Deere harvesters, each one big as a house, rolling side-by-side across the prairie. No, what he’s talking about is a small army of laborers, sickels in hand, manually cutting down the wheat stalks and binding them into sheaves.
He’s talking, of course, about his twelve disciples. Their training is now complete. They’ll soon become his fellow-workers. Not long after this passage, Jesus commissions them. He gives them authority to teach and to heal, sending them out, he says, “as sheep in the midst of wolves.” There’s good work to be done, good news to be shared, and he can’t do it all himself.
There’s a place for you in this work — the greatest work that ever was, or ever will be. Now, you may think church is all about singing hymns, mumbling prayers, listening to the choir sing and the preacher preach, and maybe coming away feeling “inspired.” Yes, church is all these things, but that’s only the half of it. Just as Jesus’ disciples stopped studying the faith and started doing it, so you and I reach a similar place in our spiritual lives.
It’s the place of calling, the place of Christian vocation. The word “vocation” comes from the same Latin root as the words “vocal” or “vocalize.” These, of course, mean “to speak.” The speaking in the word “vocation” is the answer to Christ’s call to serve. He says “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” He means us to respond by saying “Here am I, send me!”
Frederick Buechner has one of the best definitions of “vocation” ever. It’s quoted again and again, by all sorts of people — but it’s so good, it bears repeating. Buechner says our Christian vocation is “the place where [our] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
We’ve all of us got a Christian vocation — or, at least, we’re meant to, if we’re going to be at all serious about this discipleship business. Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 12:7 (as Eugene Peterson renders it, in The Message):
Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful:
healing the sick
distinguishing between spirits
interpretation of tongues.
All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. [The Spirit] decides who gets what, and when.
If God has called you to be a Christian, it’s a sure thing God has also given you spiritual gifts. These are the tools you use to help bring in the harvest. Some harvest jobs are churchy sorts of things: teaching children, singing in the choir, advising youth groups, cooking food. Yet, if it’s truly a bumper crop we’re talking about, then the greatest portion of that work takes place on the other side of the stained glass.
Now, it may be that the daily work you do is a way of carrying out your Christian vocation. There are all sorts of useful tasks out there, that meet the needs of others. There’s honor in every one of them. Some of these jobs deliver a paycheck. Others — like the all-important work of making a home and caring for a family — do not.
On the other hand, there’s some work that doesn’t seem to have a clear benefit to others (except, perhaps, for your employer). Yet, the very fact that you bring home a paycheck — or, if your income is from investments — that means you’ve got at your disposal something that’s of tremendous value to God: the money you contribute as an act of Christian stewardship.
Paul really means it when he says there are all sorts of spiritual gifts out there. In Galatians 5:2, he lists “generosity” among the fruits of the Spirit. Generosity is a spiritual gift, in itself!
Now, there are some who say it’s not right to do what I’m doing right now: talking about money in church. Money, as they see it, is somehow unholy — even dirty or unclean. When Jesus overturns the tables of the Temple moneychangers, they love to point out, he’s doing that because money doesn’t belong there.
But they’re wrong. That’s not why Jesus does it. Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers because they’re cheating God’s people — charging exorbitant commissions to exchange their Roman coins for Jewish ones that are acceptable for offerings.
Money is simply part of the material world. It’s morally neutral. When used to help others, it’s a positive good.
And so, if you have that gift of generosity, then part of your calling, as a Christian, is to offer up some of the money you’ve earned for God’s work. You may not be so good at teaching a Sunday School class, but if you can write a check to help buy the curriculum, or help pay the heating bill for the classroom, that’s a valuable contribution, and you should be commended for it. Today, of all days, we do commend you for it — and we say “Thank you.”
You have, in your bulletins, a special response card with the letters N-Y-I-N at the top. You already know that stands for “New Year’s in November.” New Year’s is in November this year — at least the church’s New Year — because the Christian New Year begins on the First Sunday of Advent. That’s next Sunday: November 30th.
Just as with the other New Year’s holiday — the one in January — the November New Year is a fine time for making resolutions. That’s what you have in your hand, with that piece of paper that says NYIN (N-Y-I-N). You’ll see it gives you the opportunity to make a godly New Year’s resolution in two ways: gifts of money and gifts of time. Your writing down an amount you plan to contribute, on a regular basis, throughout 2015 will be immensely helpful to the Session, as they formulate a church budget. Your writing down some areas in which you plan to give of your time for God’s work is just as helpful. It help us bring people together to do good work, holy work, that helps others.
You’ll also see there are places to write in some area of service that’s not so directly connected to the work of this congregation. These offerings of time and talent we also celebrate.
We’re not going to publicly announce what you write down on your Prayerful Resolution card — but we’ll add up all the different contributions of money and talent and celebrate the totals together, in a few weeks’ time. If you’re concerned about privacy, then by all means fold that piece of paper up and put it inside one of those generic “Pew Envelopes” in the racks in front of you — then, drop it in the offering plate.
If you’re a guest among us — or if you’re still too new to this community of faith to feel ready to make this kind of commitment — then let me say we’re very glad you’re here. We hope you’ll come back to join us in worship again and again. You should feel under no obligation to fill out a Prayerful Resolution card — these are meant for church members and other folks who come here regularly. Maybe you belong to another church, and we bless you for supporting that community of faith.
You’ve got some time between now and the time we receive the offering to think and pray about what you want to write down. In the meantime, we have a special song to sing, in keeping with our New Year’s theme. It’s on a bulletin insert. Please take that out now. The song is set to the tune of Auld Lang Syne — you know the melody. It’s got a refrain we’ll repeat after each verse, then a final refrain that follows the final verse.
Let’s make of that song our closing prayer: as, together, we celebrate the plentiful harvest the Lord Jesus has given, and begin that vital work of bringing it in, for his sake — and for the sake of a hungry world.