The harvest and the kingdom
“The Sower” by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888. Oil on Canvas. Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, Netherlands.
By Geoff Sinibaldo
Originally published Nov. 20, 2013, at sinibaldo.wordpress.com. Republished with the permission of the author.
(Jesus) said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:2-3).
Today is the holiday we call “Thanksgiving.” It is a time we not only remember our past as strangers in a new land, but we gather in the present to celebrate the harvest. It is a bountiful harvest. Our tables will be full of a bountiful feast — not with hopeful anticipation that we have secured enough provisions to last us through the winter — but with family, friends and the inevitable stuffed belly that looks for a sleepy place on a couch during the football game.
We have much to be thankful for — our lives, our livelihoods, our relationships, our health (and even when our health is dicey — access to the care and medicine to make us well again), and even though we cringe at our politics, we still live in a land of relative peace and stability.
Technology booms, the economy creeps along at a slow pace but is at least moving again and the people charged with the task of keeping us safe both at home and abroad are diligent, well-equipped and stand head and shoulders above any fighting force that has ever been assembled.
We have much to be thankful for; we are indeed blessed in ways beyond those we so often take the time to consider. We share what we can. We remember those who struggle. For the most part, even during challenging times we keep a positive attitude and remember how fortunate we are.
I should end there and wish you a happy and safe Thanksgiving. (I do by the way).
But Jesus has a pesky way of taking our assumptions and flipping them around on us. When I was thinking about harvests (and I wrote this first paragraph) I looked up Luke chapter 10. In this passage Jesus is not talking about celebrating the harvest but being called into it. He is not talking about food on our plates or money in our wallets. Nor is he talking about shelter, health or finding that comfy spot on the couch to let your turkey settle in your stomach. Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God. The image he uses to open that kingdom up to us is that language of harvest.
I’m no farmer (ask anyone, I am not much of a gardener, either), but I do know that to have a plentiful harvest one needs to care for the soil, use fertilizer, plant the seeds, nurture the crops, keep out pests, tend to it regularly and eventually bring in the yield. We get to enjoy the variety of foods on our plates — from sweet potatoes to cranberries because somebody, somewhere else, took the time to produce them.
We keep them in business through the distributors who take them to market and eventually our local Stop and Shop stocks them on the shelves next to everything else that finds its way into our cart. Then the harvest makes its way into our cupboards and refrigerators back home. And if we are reminded or think about it in time — into the food pantry to share with others in need.
What if the kingdom of God worked like that? — or to put it another way — Do we ever consider the church working like that?
Consider this: Jesus sent out his disciples, those first laborers of the harvest. For generations that calling brought an enormous yield, more than could be used. The movement of Jesus’ followers changed societies, then cultures, then spread rapidly. In time “the church” developed a culture all on its own. There were struggles, of course. Opposition met them at every turn.
People died for their faith, and yet the yield was so high, the harvest so plentiful, they kept planting, kept nurturing, kept pruning, kept looking for new fields — mission fields, to sow the amazing seed that is faith in Christ — crucified and risen. Even today, 21 centuries later — the church is growing, expanding and bringing high yields. We just don’t see it on a regular basis because the places the church is growing the most extensively are far away.
What we have experienced in the West, and specifically in North America is atrophy and decline. Many of us have been thinking about the symptoms of that decline for years, and many of us long for days where the harvest is bountiful once more. Many have even suggested the methods and crops themselves need to adapt — after all, our palates change. There is much to glean from these discussions — I have been part of them, and have been sharing them for a while. But as much as people long for something new, it has been difficult to discern what that might be. I’m starting to see something take shape, and I want to share it with you now.
For a while now the church in the West, the church in America, mainline denominational protestantism in particular has undergone massive decline. If any of the demographic projections have any merit at all they suggest that decline will only continue. Here is the problem — if I can build on the harvest image — for the last few generations we have been tending to our own field.
That field, for a variety of reasons, has been infringed upon by many forces, which have come to take up permanent residence and build upon it. What was once acres and acres of endless farmland is now urban development, suburban sprawl, interwoven global economies, industrial and technological growth, religious wars, world wars, cold wars, culture wars, generational wars, and these major themes do not even begin to scratch the surface of difference between those first disciples huddled in a room wondering what might happen to them now that Jesus was dead and buried and we, who sit huddled in our little rooms wondering if our churches can survive.
There is one similarity however. Jesus rose from the dead, and appeared to them. The Spirit came and sent them out. The seeds of faith are sown and the harvest is plentiful. What remains is a question — Are we willing (as they were) to take the risk and do some planting?
What has changed in the church, subtly over time, is the shift from planting seeds, sending people into the fields and reaping the harvest to storing grain and hoping the winter isn’t too long.
This is the shift we need to make as one community. This is the shift the church as a whole must learn once more if Christianity is not only to survive in the 21st century, but be of any value outside itself. Everything we do should be about planting, nurturing, tending and sending. We have enough storage. We don’t need a full silo to protect us from the coming storm.
What we need is to train and equip people to live their faith in the world. Church is not the destination we hope to preserve so we can have a better barn. It is the sending place that helps us grow so we can tend to the relationships, work and opportunities to serve others that cross our paths on a daily basis. So that when we do, we can plant a seed, nurture some growth, give a little water and light and help others to thrive as they too bask in the Son.
We come to the table not so we can sit on the couch later with full bellies, but we come to receive Jesus, the Bread of Life who sends us even hungrier to live and serve and make peace wherever we go in his name.
“Ask the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See I am sending you like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Jesus doesn’t say it is going to be easy. Far from it. But nevertheless, Jesus sends us. Once we grasp that being sent is our primary calling — the harvest awaits us.
That harvest is worth celebrating!
Find a link to Geoff Sinibaldo’s blog sinibaldo.wordpress.com at Lutheran Blogs.