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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The sultry days of August always bring me back to the early years of my childhood and the time spent on the family farm. As a daughter of the Great Depression, my mother insisted on canning her own fresh vegetables, so every August, she headed to the farm with children in tow to pick sweet corn. In contrast to my country cousins who lived on the farm, I was considered a city slicker. They were embarrassed that I couldn’t tell the difference between a combine and a manure spreader. At the State Fair, they regarded Machinery Hill to be the Midway.
But we could all laugh at farm humor. These were the jokes we told one another. Why shouldn’t you tell a secret on a farm? Because the potatoes have eyes and the corn has ears! Or, What farm animal keeps the best time? A watch dog! Or, Did you hear about the magic tractor? It turned into a field! In my mind, it always seemed that farmers had a better understanding of Jesus’ parables and teachings. That is certainly how I felt as we walked through the fields picking sweet corn those warm August mornings.
Two thousand years ago Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Jesus’ words are just as true today. All around us men and women and children are searching for a way to live. They are longing for direction and a path to meaning. All around us, there are men and women who seeking to fill their emptiness with something of substance. Yes, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Unfortunately, religious communities can be their own worst enemies. There are times, we can’t tell the difference between a combine and a manure spreader.
This morning let me share with you the qualities of healthy growing congregations who do understand the importance of the plentiful harvest. First, healthy growing, congregations have a compassion for those around them and they feel their pain. They are not merely sympathizers, however, they are doers. Second, vibrant, growing congregations pray and live a life tempered by prayer. And third, vital, growing congregations willingly become the workers who Jesus call them to be.
First, healthy growing congregations are filled with compassion for the crowds of people that surround them. In Scripture, we read that Jesus was “moved with compassion.” When Jesus looked out on the crowds of the people around him, he was moved with pity; he was moved with empathy; he was moved with deep feelings for all those people around him. This should tell us something about the nature of God’s people, the church, as well. We are to be a people who look at the people around us, and our hearts are moved. If our hearts are not, there is something tragically wrong.
Farmers have that same sense of passion for the harvest. They know the precious possibilities of the harvest and they understand the lost potential of a field where there are no workers to reap the harvest. The harvest is precious to the farmer, just as people are precious to the church.
Unfortunately, not all of God’s followers believe that the harvest or people are precious. Jesus taught that there are many good attributes that we can admire in others – compassion, concern, wisdom, and understanding. But these attributes are meaningless if they are not coupled with dependability. In times of trouble when we really need a friend, what help are compassion, concern, wisdom and understanding if the friend is not nearby or fails to honor a promise or commitment? It may often be dismissed in hiring interviews, but one of the greatest human qualities is dependability. If, when people think of you in later years, and they can say, “He was dependable or she was reliable,” they will be paying you a mighty compliment. Reliability and dependability go hand in hand with the saying of the Norwegian bachelor farmers of my childhood, “Say little and do much.” The same should be true of religious communities, especially the church.
And yet, there are people we meet, professing Christians, who prefer to make all kinds of grandiose promises to God, but they lack the gift of dependability. Their performance doesn’t live up to their promises. Many times these are religious people- including pastors. They profess, “O yes, God, I will be your faithful disciple. I will carry out the mission of the church. I will do your work in the world. Count on me. I’ll get the job done for you, Lord.” But they do nothing. And so God goes forth and finds some less churchy people who actually do go and do what he wants done in this world.
My friends, we cannot be a great church without seeing the precious potential and possibility of the crowds around us and showing compassion-in deeds. Not cynicism. Not indifference. Not now. “I’m too busy.” Healthy, growing congregations must have compassion for the crowds. Everyday.
The second characteristic of vibrant, growing congregations is prayer. Compassionate men and women are often people of deep prayer. We read that Jesus, looked out at the crowds with compassion, and saw their pain. “The harvest is plentiful.” Then Jesus said, “Pray. Pray to the Lord of the harvest that God would send workers. Pray to the Lord of the harvest.” The work of the kingdom, sowing and reaping, always begins with prayer, morning, noon and night.
Just about every farmer I knew as a child had at least one prayer posted on a wall in their kitchen in the mudroom. There was one on our family farm as well. “Lord, bless this land you’ve given me, and may I always know, As I tend each crop and critter, You’re the One who helps them grow. Grant me the strength and wisdom, Protect me from all harm, and thank you Lord, for the gracious gift… the blessing of my farm.”
Although in my family, there were a few of the more conservative farmers had a quotation of Ronald Reagan’s less publicly displayed as well. “A farmer took a piece of bad earth and made things flourish thereon. Proud of his accomplishments, he asked his minister to come by and see what he had done. The minister was impressed. “That’s the tallest corn I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen anything as big as those melons. Praise the Lord!” He went on that way about every crop, praising the Lord for it all. Finally the farmer couldn’t take it anymore. “Reverend,” he said, “I wish you could have seen this place when the Lord was doing it by himself.”
Jesus taught that God’s spirit lives in us and we live in him because at the heart of the Christian life is prayer. And so we pray. And specifically, we pray that God would lead us to other people who are in need. We pray for ourselves that we would be willing. You can’t do God’s work without prayer for others, your self and your congregation. It won’t work. For a vibrant, growing community, it all begins with prayer.
Finally, vital, growing congregations trust that God sends them out as workers. In scripture, Jesus doesn’t ask: “Lord, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send members.” The purpose of the church is not to find members or to have their names on the membership role. Nor did Jesus say, “God, send worship attendees.” No, Jesus prayed, “Lord, send workers.”
A good farmer knows that there is an urgency to the harvest. While I know little of farming, I do know that when the tassels of the sweet corn turn white, you should begin planning for the harvest. I also know that when the tassels have turned brown, it may be too late. We often hope that the harvest can be completed without our intentional efforts. It’s rather like the exasperated mother, whose son Jimmy was always getting into mischief. One day she finally asked him, “How do you expect to get into Heaven?” The boy thought it over and said, “Well, I’ll just run in and out and in and out and keep slamming the door until St. Peter says, ‘For Heaven’s sake, Jimmy, come in or stay out!’” Yes, we hope that the harvest can be completed without our labor, but friends, vital, growing congregations know that both work and energy are needed.
My friends, the harvest may be plentiful, but it isn’t easy, and it may be messy. There will always be storms and hurricane. There will be wars and injustice. There will be divorces and families falling apart. There will always be poor families living down the street, with not enough money and emotional resources to make it. And what will be your response to this pain and devastation at the harvest, far and near? St. James writes, “A Christian faith that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. “ Jesus wants you to do the work for him here on earth, in his kingdom – He wants you to be his hands and feet. But it may demand a change of heart from you.
Throughout history, church communities have been blind to their own need to have a change of heart about doing his work in the messed up world around them. And yet, Jesus comes time and again and invites you and me to experience a change of heart…so that we can be the willing workers he needs.
Indira Gandhi, the assassinated leader of India, said, “My grandfather once told me that there are two kinds of people: those who work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was less competition there.” A change of heart, my friends, begins with you and your answer to God’s invitation, “The harvest if plentiful, but the laborers are few.” And how will you answer? My friends, if there is to be joy in the harvest, the work of the kingdom must begin with you. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.