"The harvest is ready," said Jesus. "The harvest is ready, but..." What is our excuse? As a congregation, our harvest is ready, but... Jesus found himself in an administrative position. He saw far more to do than he was able to do personally. He saw far more opportunities for the kingdom of God to take hold than he was able to handle. He saw village after village ready to hear. He saw people, multitudes of people, in need of and ready for the kingdom of God. But, he couldn't do it all himself.
"The harvest is ready, but the laborers are few." So he recruited and appointed seventy, trained them, and sent them out in pairs to go to every village where he himself intended to go. "The harvest is ready, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest," Jesus instructed.
The harvest is ready, but... As a congregation, what is our problem, what is our "but"? The harvest is certainly ready. There are more people in our region than ever before. There are tremendous spiritual needs. People live under indescribable stress. Every day we hear of another company that is cutting back on jobs. People are struggling with loss of income. The interest rate on savings accounts is now at the Great Depression level of 3% and under. Marriages are in trouble. Parents need guidance and confidence in rearing children. The schools are deteriorating. Crime, drug, alcohol problems are rising.
If there was ever a need for salvation, it is now. If there was ever a need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it is now. If there was ever a ripe field waiting to be harvested, it is now. But... we have empty pews, under-utilized classrooms. Why is the harvest postponed again?
This year of 1992 we have identified ourselves as a congregation, a church, who "helps each other into relationship with God." Our program theme, our identity, who and what we are as the First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto, is to "help each other into relationship with God." We have the theme. We have the message. We have the music. We have all of you laborers. We have the Savior. The harvest is ready, but...
I'm now beginning my tenth year of ministry with you as your senior minister. Bishop Talbert has reappointed all three of your ministers, and I am grateful for our entire staff team. You are blessed with able and committed staff. I am very grateful for our lay workers. We are blessed with an abundance of able and committed chairpersons, teachers, committee members, group leaders, musicians, ushers, greeters, etc. As a congregation, you can't be beat. You are generous, caring, committed. The harvest is ready, but...why is the harvest postponed?
I'm glad Jesus used the image of a harvest to describe the success of his ministry. As a boy on a Minnesota farm, I remember with fondness the fall harvest season, when the gigantic threshing machine, pulled by a tractor, would roll into the neighborhood to harvest the oat crop. It would move from farm to farm, followed by all the farmers who would help one another by taking their wagons to the fields where the oats had been cut, bundled, and placed in shocks, like a teepee. They would load the bundles on their wagons and bring the oats to the threshing machine which would separate the grain from the straw.
The best part of the day was the meals. The neighborhood women would come to help, with each hostess trying to outdo the others. Oh, the feasts! The worst part of the day was my job which was holding the sacks, filling them with oats as they came pouring out of the chute. It was a hot, dusty job.
By the time I was old enough where I could go into the fields and load a wagon, the combine had replaced the threshing machine. The combine did all the jobs by itself. Not only was I out of a job, but a gigantic blow was struck at community life, for no one came together to watch a combine. No one served big meals, because there was no neighbor there to eat them. The farmer by himself and the combine placed the neighborhood festival of harvesting.
I firmly believe part of the reason America is in trouble is because community life has been systematically destroyed by machines and big corporate business. Large agri-businesses replace the intimate family farm. Huge supermarkets replace the friendly neighborhood store. I remember when my family went to the grocery store. We took eggs and traded eggs for groceries. My mother would hand the grocer a list of what we needed. The grocer would run around the store and gather the items, while the customers visited with each other, and the kids ate candy. Now the customer runs around the store with a stupid cart, the kids still eat candy; but no one visits with each other! We call it progress!
Machines and impersonal huge corporations may have replaced farmers and community spirit, but machines cannot do God's harvest. Supermarkets cannot do God's harvest. God's harvest cannot be done by staffs of large churches. Ministers only lead, we can't do the work alone. Jesus discovered that. Jesus knew he was only one person; he needed laborers to go into the villages. Jesus knew he needed people, not impersonal institutions, to do God's harvest.
God's harvest is like the threshing harvest with all the neighbors working together, helping one another, hauling, bagging, cooking and washing dishes, everyone visiting, joking, teasing, enjoying one another, and each doing what he/she is able, . Our farm was the smallest. We had a small John Deere tractor because my dad could not afford a tractor as big as most of the neighbors. Because it was small with little power, it continually got stuck in the manure when the ground thawed in the spring and we had to clean out the barn yard. So, we named our tractor "Stinky." Stinky was not as fast as the other tractors in gathering oats, but no one criticized. My dad and Stinky did as much and as fast as they were able. But, he got to eat just as much as the other farmers.
The harvest is ready, the needs are great, people are hurting and lonely. They are looking for the love of God. We will do God's harvest when we as a congregation all work together, fellowship together, laugh together like a neighborhood threshing crew. Each one of you is essential. Each one of you is as important as the next. We can all invite people to church, share our faith, and welcome them when they come.
Jesus sent the seventy out to the villages. I send you out to your neighborhood. Certainly there are children there who need to come to Sunday School. Certainly there are lonely people there who will welcome your friendly visit. Certainly there are people under stress who need the love of God.
We are also in the enviable position where the villages often come to us. Every Sunday we have visitors. Every Sunday there are people here church shopping. There are people who come looking for friendship, looking for a church home, looking for fellowship.
Let me tell you about two churches Ellie and I visited years ago while on a trip. The first church we visited was in Missouri. After the worship service, not one single person spoke to us. No one even said "hello". The minister shook our hands and said, "Good morning." As it was a small congregation, he had to know we were strangers; but there was no recognition or acknowledgement. No wonder it was a small congregation.
The next Sunday we were in Texas. After the service, before we even reached the aisle, I was asked by several to join the choir and the Methodist Men. Ellie was invited to join the United Methodist Women and a circle. They didn't waste time asking if we were new. Some folks are hesitant to talk to people they don't know because they might be embarrassed to find out they have belonged to the church for 25 years. Don't ask people if they are new. Just talk to them. Invite them to join the choir. You know if they are in the congregation, they are not in the choir!
You must know who is in your class or group. Invite those who aren't to join your group, even if they've been here 50 years. You can certainly invite people out to the patio for fellowship. "Join me on the patio so we can become better acquainted," you can say. It doesn't matter if they are new or old-time members. Talk to people you don't know; don't just talk to people you know. Have fun, have a good time, enjoy one another. Spread the love of God.
Jesus gave instructions to the seventy as he sent them out to do God's work. Jesus commissioned the seventy, and his instructions can be summarized into two: "Pray and get moving." The instructions began with, "Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." Jesus told them to begin with prayer. Pray for your church daily, Pray for me, pray for our staff team and church leaders, pray for all the laborers, pray for one another, pray for yourself and let God use you. Let's begin undergird the tenth year with prayer.
And, secondly, Jesus told the seventy, "Go!" "Go on your way," he said. Get moving. Do it. Do what God puts you to do. If you don't pull your wagon, if you don't load your wagon, if you don't carry oats to the threshing machine, the harvest will never be accomplished.
The harvest is ready! The needs are there. The people are out there and in here. You, the laborers are plentiful! The harvest is ready, but...nothing! Let's do it!
© 1992 Douglas I. Norris