The Harvest & A Labor Shortage
Sermon #189 St. James the Less #96 6/14/20
Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
My Grandfather’s Garden
My maternal grandparents have lived in a small brick house in Berry Hill, near 100 Oaks in Nashville, since 1955. They were able to buy it thanks to the G.I. Bill for $10,000.
Over the years my grandfather had the brilliant idea to slowly buy up the land around him. He had neighbors all around, but there were vacant lots behind them which were connected to his small backyard. By the 1970's he had acres and acres of property, and he turned it all into a garden.
The top part of the garden, closest to the house, he planted ten or so rows of corn. In the middle part of the property he planted green beans, squash, and more tomato plants than you could imagine. And then in the lower garden you could find a random assortment of watermelons, beans, and more tomatoes.
In the summertime the house was filled with baskets of vegetables, and anytime a friend or neighbor paid a visit, they would leave with a basket of fresh food, whether they asked for it or not.
The members of the small Methodist church in Greenbrier where my grandparents attended, knew they could expect tomatoes each Sunday.
We did our fair share of picking and canning tomatoes throughout the summer months as a kid with my grandmother, but a majority of the labor fell on my grandfather. And for him it was a labor of love. In retirement the garden has been his world. He spends hours every day tending the plants he has so meticulously sown in the ground.
My grandfather has always prided himself on his work ethic. He grew up on his family’s tobacco farm and spent most of his life working the land. Over the years, he routinely refused any major help. He alone would till the land, drive the stakes into the ground, and do all the hard labor himself.
But over the past two or three years, as he has now surpassed his 90th birthday, he’s finally allowing the family to do more work in the garden than ever before. He’s doesn’t have the energy as he once did, much to his chagrin.
But as he has gotten older, the garden has also gotten smaller. The upper garden is now a patch of grass, the middle section has been cut in half and now has only ten or twelve rows of tomatoes, while the lower garden is home to a few vegetables here or there.
When us grandkids come to help out, the work only lasts twenty or thirty minutes. There just isn’t enough work to keep us all busy. But some of that may be intentional on my grandfather’s part. I think he may prefer sitting on the back porch with us, sipping on a glass of sweet tea and talking, than working out in the garden.
Even so, there aren’t vegetables in every corner of the house anymore. Instead of getting a basket full of tomatoes during each visit, you may now get four or five in a plastic bag.
In my grandfather’s case, the harvest is minimal, but the workers are abundant.
But in our gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus paints the opposite picture. He looks out at the crowd and sees a large harvest, and one that won’t diminish over the years. In fact, this harvest continues to grow larger and larger.
And so, this morning I want to think about the mission of God, and our place in it, while using with this imagery of the harvest to guide our thoughts.
The Helpless Crowd
Probably the best place to start is by looking at the reason Jesus used the image of a harvest in the first place. Leading up to our passage late in chapter nine, Jesus has healed a number of people. He has seen individuals and families who are truly suffering.
As he goes through different bustling towns and smalls villages, he is saddened by the crowds that he sees. They look “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” A modern paraphrase of this might be that Jesus sees “people who are barely making it” (Bruner).
It is quite extraordinary how Jesus is portrayed here. It doesn’t say that he looked out at the crowd and saw first and foremost their sinfulness but their helplessness. He saw that they were wandering in life, not really knowing what to do next.
Before ever talking about salvation and the need for a Savior from Sin and Death, Jesus in our passage understands that the crowd in this moment needs a shepherd, a really good shepherd.
And because of their helplessness he has compassion for them.
Rarely does the Bible ever give us such vivid personal details. We usually don’t know how Jesus is feeling in a given situation, yet here we get a glimpse into his mind, but more importantly, into his heart. The gut feeling he has when he looks at the crowd is compassion.
And as Christians, we are called to share in the heart of Jesus, because when he looked out at this group who was “barely making it” he had compassion on them and we should too when we look out at the world.
The Church’s mission into the harvest field is borne out of Jesus’ compassion for people. He looked at them and loved them. And so, at the heart of mission is the call to go out and help people, period.
We don’t even have to get in an argument about faith vs. works, because Jesus loved and served people and we should too.
And we should not fear going out into the harvest because he is, after all, the Lord of the harvest. This means that it’s his garden we are going into. That may be a good reminder for all of us who are intimated about being a worker in this kind of mission field.
We are reminded here that this is not our harvest. At all times God is in control. This is his garden that we are going into and he has already done the hard work.
Unlike some other parts of the Bible, here Jesus seems to indicate that the planting of the seed, the weeding and watering, all of that time-consuming work has already been done by God. All we are called to do is reap what God has already sown in his field.
And so we know that the work we are called to is to share in Jesus’ compassion, and we know that the field we are working in is his to begin with, but what about those we’ll be working next to? Jesus did say after all there is a shortage of workers.
A hint can be found in the list of apostles we have in our reading. Apostle is a title that means “the Sent Ones” or “the Ambassadors.”
There is a subtle message in this list of names, which is a message we need to hear.
We have the typical names, with Peter at the front, and we even have our own St. James the Less mentioned here as “James son of Alphaeus.” We also have “Matthew the tax collector.” One commentator called him “Matthew the right-wing tax collector” who, before being called by Jesus, made sure his friends and neighbors paid what was due to the Roman Empire. He was seen as a traitor and a sellout by the locals.
And then we have Simon the Cananaean whose title can also mean Zealot. Simon is a left-wing radical who desired to rid the land of the very empire that Matthew had aligned himself with. Zealots like Simon were not too interest in debates about Roman occupation, they were willing to fight to the death for their liberation and independence.
Tucked in this list of names, which we’d usually just glance at and move on, we find Matthew and Simon who represent the two ends of the political spectrum in first century Palestine; and yet both had been called by Jesus, and both were being sent out into the same harvest field for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
It’s a subtle yet important message for all of us to hear, especially with everything that is going on. With this list of the first ambassadors of the Good News it is clear that we don’t get to choose who’s next to us in the field; Jesus brings people who represent many different ideas, even opposing perspectives, to gather God’s harvest.
Going to the Garden
And so, what does all of this mean for us today?
Well first, we are to know that the work of mission is not all up to us. We are called out into the field, but the Sovereign Lord of All has been in the field diligently working all this time.
We are also reminded as Christians that we should be a people of compassion: to not label each other first by our sinfulness (or perceived differences) but our shared helplessness; that we, along with the rest of humanity, are in need of a really good shepherd (and you and I know him by name).
The harvest is plentiful, in fact it is overflowing, and I see some wonderful laborers right in front of me. Laborers who know a thing or two about compassion, about loving service to those “who are barely making it,” and who want others to know the Good Shepherd as well.
With that said, I’ll meet you in the garden.
2nd Sunday after Pentecost. Year A. Mt. 9:35-10:23. Dale Bruner’s Matthew.