Summit Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2015
Matthew 9: 35-38
A High and Human Calling
When I was in seminary I spent a summer in Berea, Kentucky in a program to help students learn more about Appalachia and the joys and challenges of rural ministry. I lived on a dairy farm for a while and also visited a number of small family tobacco farms. I learned something about the growing of tobacco. I learned that most farmers are caught in a moral dilemma. They know that tobacco is poison. They know it hurts their families and those who harvest it; but quitting or switching is no easy matter. Tobacco farming is labor-intensive but can be done on small plots; most farms in that area were too small to cultivate other crops commercially. (On one farm a young man who stayed in the family business was primarily farming organic vegetables; but he kept a small plot of tobacco to subsidize the vegetables). It was also hard to let go of a way of a way of life, a culture, that had sustained their families for decades; folks were grieving. I also learned something about the way you grow and process tobacco. I learned there’s a narrow window of time in which to harvest it. It has to be harvested after the leaves are large enough to be worthwhile, but before an early frost, a storm, or some other problem hurts the crop. There are decisions to be made about exactly when to plant and harvest, decisions which involve judgment, experience and luck – for the weather is not predictable. When it’s time to harvest, it’s urgent. Folks drop everything to get it in the crop and there’s a job for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest – farmers showed us pictures of themselves standing on stools to work with tobacco leaves, when they were as young as five. By 1997, when I was there, most young people had left the countryside. They knew there was no future in farming. Extended family and neighbors simply weren’t there to help. Workers from Mexico came for the harvest – folks struggling even harder than the small tobacco farmers -- but everyone worried that there wouldn’t be enough people to get the crop in.
After this short time in Appalachia, I had a deeper appreciation for the harvest parables in the Bible. The disciples would have gotten it: when the harvest is plentiful, there’s no time to waste. All hands on deck! Everyone has a part to play. Work hard and fast or the crop may waste on the vine or be ruined in a hailstorm and then everyone’s in trouble. Pray that you have enough workers.
In scripture, harvest parables have an eschatological dimension. (Eschatological is the theological word for the end of times and final judgment). Christ will be coming to separate the wheat from the tares. Christ will gather the wheat into the barn, and bind the weeds into bundles to be burned. Christ will be coming at the harvest, this line of interpretation goes, to separate the faithful from idolators, the righteous from the disobedient, and so we must go forth and proclaim the good news, urging all to believe in Christ and follow in his way, before the great and terrible day of the Lord.
But these parables aren’t only about the final judgement. We don’t even have to believe in a final sorting to understand the urgency in them. We don’t have to believe that some folks are going to heaven and others to hell to appreciate the urgency of going out into the field and proclaiming the gospel, in word and in deed. Jesus told the disciples this parable because he had compassion on the crowd. They were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd. The need was urgent. People were hurting: suffering from disease and sickness, battling all kinds of demons. They were losing hope: burdened by guilt, by overseers, taxes, poverty. Jesus had been teaching, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. But even he couldn’t do it alone: “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” he says. And then — in the next paragraph - he summons the twelve disciples and gives them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and also authority to cure every disease and every sickness. He then sends them out. The harvest was plentiful; the laborers were ready.
And so it is for us, too. The harvest is plentiful and the time is now. The return of Christ and the full redemption of the world is probably a long ways off, no one knows that day or hour. But for the child who is hungry now, in Germantown or Bangladesh, the need is urgent. For the young man in prison, in despair about his future, the need is urgent. For young people in danger of going to prison, and their families, the need is urgent — for ways to avoid it and for a more just system. For the older person who is lonely, yearning for friendship, the need is urgent — there may not be much time left. For children and families pulled this way and that by school demands or financial troubles, by the internet, by peer pressures — the need is urgent — for stability, for community, for guidance. For nations on the brink of war, such as our own, the need is urgent — for diplomacy, for peaceful solutions. For refugees from Syria, or Mexico, the need is urgent — the need for freedom and safety. And finally, for creation, for those who are poor around the world and for future generations, the need is urgent — the need to turn from fossil fuels and the greed and fear that keeps us clinging to them — so that future harvests - future harvests of wheat and vegetables — may indeed be plentiful. Everywhere the need is urgent: for hope, for new life, for a helping hand, for justice, for peace.
And just as Jesus called and equipped the disciples, Christ calls and equips us. To proclaim and teach the Word, so all may hear the invitation to forgiveness and new life in Christ, and hear God’s instructions for abundant life. Christ equips us to help and heal those who are hurting, in body, mind and spirit: through prayer, through loving community, through the sharing of our treasurer. Christ calls and equips us to cast out unclean spirits: the unclean spirits of greed and violence, of envy and hate, or ignorance and prejudice, so we may live in a world where peace and justice reign. It’s a high and human calling — angels can’t do it. Christ needs hearts and heads and hands on earth to gather the harvest.
Today we give thanks to God for calling and equipping some among us for what we call the “ordered ministries” of the church, serving as deacons and elders — and in our congregation, also trustees. We’re grateful for their gifts; we’re grateful for their willingness to come to meetings, to make tough decisions, to organize things so the church may grow and thrive. But it’s not just officers who are called and equipped: we all are. Some among us may be called to pray or comfort those who are grieving; others to teach our children; others to offer hospitality at the coffee hour or Elder Diner; others to lead the congregation in song; others to work with young people at REACH; others to witness against gun violence or racism or mass incarceration (or climate change). And some of us may not feel called to do any of those things — but we do them anyway. For the harvest is plentiful; the need is great; the time is short.
And now . . . .