Editor’s note: The following is condensed version of a recent sermon delivered by the Rev. Carroll Bundy, pastor at New Hope United Methodist Church.
Today we are going to talk about “the harvest.” In Matthew 9:37, Jesus tells his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers.”
If we read just this one passage, we believe the people are standing there ready to be taught about Jesus as the Son of God; that they are willing to change their hearts and minds, repent of their sins and allow God into their very being. All is right for a bountiful harvest.
Jesus often used analogies of the lives of farmers when teaching about the Kingdom of God. Everyone in that day and time had at least a basic understanding of farming, and most had a more practical working knowledge. Farming was hard work in harsh conditions, and you could do everything right, but still lose a crop. You could work from sunup to sundown, and at the end of the season have a bountiful harvest standing, and still face the hard work of getting it out of the fields and into storage. And even with a harvest ready to be gathered, you were still subject to disasters happening.
Much has changed for farmers since Jesus’ day, but a few things still hold true. There is a lot of work, a lot of worry, a lot of long days, and a lot of prayer to get a crop ready for the harvest. Depending on the crop, there are a lot of preparations to be made. The land must be prepared for the seeds. There are insecticides, pesticides, breaking up the ground, pack, or rowing, disking, planting the seeds. Even once planted the seeds need things for life. Water and sun. Moderate temperatures. Farmers prepare the fields with all of this in mind.
What happens if we have a heavy rain, or if we have no rain, or wind, or storms? There are no guarantees in farming, even if you do everything right. Still today, with all our modern technology, things beyond a farmer’s control can cause a crop standing in the field to be damaged, or even lost, before it’s harvested and safely stored.
Jesus did a lot of this early work — soil preparation, if you will — by planting the seeds of salvation and then nurturing, preaching, traveling and explaining to a people who had never understood that God was still in the world today. Jesus was sent by God to be the farmer who could produce a bountiful harvest of souls, to share the Kingdom of Heaven with a world that was suffering the storms of life.
The God they knew was one only of laws, who said if you do this, this and this, then and only then, after you die, you won’t go to hell. They didn’t know the peace of God in their lives. They didn’t know the family of being part of the Kingdom of Heaven. They weren’t raised that way, they weren’t taught that way.
Jesus saw these people who didn’t know God. He saw a people who were, in His words, “like sheep without a shepherd,” and he felt compassion for them.
Jesus saw people who were living their lives in ways that He would never live His life. They were doing things to one another out of ignorance, selfishness and fear. They were like children who were lost, who were like sheep without a shepherd. They didn’t know God.
But Jesus didn’t get angry with them. He didn’t suggest the world would be better off without them. He didn’t blame them. He felt compassion for them. He felt sympathy, empathy, understanding, care, concern, mercy.
Much has been said about why Jesus would tell his disciples to only preach the Good News to the Israelites. That they shouldn’t go to the Gentiles or Samaritans. I have two thoughts on that.
First, the disciples were not ready, not equipped to go to a people who did not even know about God. They needed to start with people who would more readily accept them, particularly with Christ already having preached and taught among them. The disciples would be watering, and nurturing and, yes at times, harvesting seeds that Christ had planted.
Secondly, the Israelites didn’t know God, didn’t have a relationship with him. God promised Abraham that his heirs would be a blessing to all the world. So by telling disciples to preach to them, Jesus was saying, let’s give them one more chance, another opportunity to be part of that blessing. Let’s teach them about God, so they can become God’s disciples to the world.
People, there is a reason that I am standing here today, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with you. Think about all that has been in the news these last few weeks. The riots, the scenes of people burning and looting their own neighborhoods. Now think about your thoughts when you hear, and read, and see the pictures of the people throwing firebombs, smashing windows, and running away with other people’s property. What are your thoughts about a person who is doing things that are just plain wrong?
Are your first thoughts for those who are rioting and destroying? Do your thoughts include sympathy, empathy, understanding, care, concern and mercy? Do you hear, as in understand, or comprehend, what we are preaching to you from this pulpit each and every week?
In Matthew 9:36, the disciple says, “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
When you look into the crowds, do you see a plentiful harvest? When you look into the crowds, do you feel compassion? Jesus said they were like sheep without a shepherd. The harvest is plentiful. The knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven must begin with us, with those who call themselves Christians, with those who claim to be children of God. The harvest is plentiful. But it is not going to be easy. Repentance begins with us. We need to know God before we can teach others. We are not here each week for our own benefit. We are here to learn to be harvesters, to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
Many times we will be unprepared, unable to defend ourselves. We’ll be sheep among wolves. We are not called to be ignorant. Quite the opposite: we are called to as smart as the serpent, the most clever of all God’s creatures. But we are also called to be innocent of wrongdoing.
The harvest is plentiful, but there are not enough workers. People, if the work was easy, anyone could do it. It’s not easy getting the good news out to a world that does not believe, a world that is out for “me.” “Love your neighbor” is not just a saying. Change has to start here in our hearts and minds.
Mark Twain said, “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” It’s easy to see how others need to change, how others need to hear the good news of the Kingdom of God. But before we can be the shepherds we must first change us. We must see what needs changing in our own lives, in our own hearts, in our priorities.
Farming ain’t easy. Neither is spreading the truth about Jesus Christ, the truth about a God that loves us. The world needs the peace that comes from a personal relationship with God. When you see the crowds, what do you feel?
In the closing verses of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said to his gathered disciples: “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”