Harvest Time Has Come
Farmers in the American West say it is the worst they have ever seen. No water. Plenty of sunshine. Plenty of Seeds. Plenty of work. But not enough rain. They are worried about the harvest. If their harvest is not good, we all suffer!
This is the concern that drove many of the stories Jesus told. It was an agrarian economy: fields and vineyards, good soil and rocky soil. barns and silos. Seed time and harvest time. Early rains and latter rains. It was all about the garden, the farm, the field. The harvest.
Our concern today is not the harvest from the fields out west, but the harvest the Jesus describes in his stories: the kingdom of God, the rule of God, the will of God on earth as it is in heaven.
We also are in a dry spell. We also worry about the harvest. And not just us: all over the country Christian communities and pastors are concerned about the harvest. We have suffered a series of setbacks to gospel work: not just us but every congregation in this county, in this country.
First, there is a sustained decline in church affiliation, in every tradition, every denomination, and in almost every church. Just this week, I spoke with a person who works with a large, regional firm, building sanctuaries and designing space. He said, for the last three years most of our work is helping megachurches off load their property and downsize their facilities and cut their campuses down to a more manageable size.
Second, there is the politization of the faith. Pastors and bishops and entire congregations have been drawn into the political fray. They have stamped particular candidates as the Christian choice and others as unacceptable to Christians. In western Wisconsin, the bishop of the Roman Catholic Church told a particular priest to resign his parish. The James the Less Parish near Madison, Wisconsin. He had become too vocal, too political, to partisan. He said, “A catholic cannot be a Democrat.” The priest, Father James Altman has refused, has appealed his case to the Vatican, and has raised more than $650,000 to fund his defense. But this kind of political activity has turned off members…and voters.
Third, the pandemic has shut us down. All of us. Churches closes, and for good reason. But now, pastors are wondering if the people will return. Just this week, I met with the minister of worship at the first Baptist church in a large Carolina city. “We are gathering about 25% of our pre-covid congregation. We are worried.” On top of deaths due to covid, we are worried about departures due to covid.
Will there be a harvest for the kingdom of God? Will there be a harvest for Providence Baptist Church? Let us take encouragement from the words of Jesus!
“The kingdom of God is like farmer who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, while he is asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grow. But he does not understand how it happens. The earth produces the crops on its own…As soon as the grain is ready, the famer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.”
This is not the most famous version of this story. That one describes the four times of soil and explains that the mean. The seed that fell on good soil, Jesus said, represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest. We sometimes think it is the gospel that is planted; and the soil is our hearts; and there is merit to that way of looking at it.
But consider this: the soil is our community, and the seed that is planted …. is ….. YOU!
God has planted you in this beautiful place called Henderson County, North Carolina. Some of you were planted here a long time ago; and some of you, like me, just this year. But God has planted you here as the sign and substance of the gospel, of the kingdom. Some of you were planted here by birth; others by circumstance of marriage or employment; still others by strange happenstance. By whatever route, God has brought you here, planted you here. You are God’s investment in Henderson County.
You are God’s kingdom. You are God’s garden. You are God’s field of wheat.
The growing of things is a great mystery. Jesus said as much in this parable. Jesus said the farmer does not understand how everything grows. Neither do I. Or you! Some things take root and thrive; somethings shrivel and die. Who knows why?
A few years ago, I bought a plot of land behind our house on St. Simons Island. It was overgrown with bamboo. Have you ever dealt with bamboo? It is an invasive species! It took me two full years to clear that lot, working plant by plant, stalk by stalk, and then root by root. I dug up every root. We put in gravel walking paths and raised flower beds and berms along the edges.
My wife Jan has the green thumb, actually the golden thumb: knowing what to plant and where. She is the gardener extraordinaire. Hardly a day goes by that some community walker or passerby does not stop and speak some word of wonder at the transformation of that old overgrown jungle.
But this: last year, she planted two bushes, one on either side of the gravel walk, at the place where the walkway begins at our back porch. One on either side; same plant. I wish I could tell you the name of the plant. All I know: it has bright purple blooms. Same plant. Planted the same day, in the same soil composition, one on either side of the walkway. You would think: they have the same opportunity to grow and flourish and blossom. But, in one of the mysteries of the backyard garden, that did not happen.
Today, one is going crazy: big, healthy, beautiful, overrunning the space around it so that periodically it must be trimmed back. The other one, on the left: not so much. It never bloomed. It stayed small, puny, disappointing. In fact, earlier this spring, Jan dug it up and threw it away. It is a mystery why some plants flourish, and some shrivel.
It is a mystery why some people flourish, and some shrivel. Why some people survive, and some succumb. Why some people grow, and some don’t; why some blossom and some don’t. What is it inside a person, their soul, their spirit, their mind, their imagination that produces very different results, very different people, very different believers, very different residents of the kingdom of God?
What about you? Are you a healthy plant, growing up into beauty and joy? Are you a struggling flower, fighting against unknown forces? Are you a shriveled bush, collapsing in upon yourself?
We want to be the harvest of God. We want our Lord and master, the great Gardner of Creation, to step to the edge of this gospel field and survey us, the Providence Baptist Church, and say, “Oh my, what a wonderful harvest is coming!”
There is a big difference, isn’t there, between those flowers and fruits we plant in the back yard, and the men and women, boys and girls God plants in this church: yes, there is a big difference,
We don’t normally think of plants being conscious of their potential and their struggle; we don’t project onto that bush planted by the side of the gravel path as having awareness, and engagement and what we now call agency, that it has any role to play in its flourishing.
Not so, you and me. We know what is happening around us and in us. We see the challenges and opportunities. We are aware of the struggle, of success and failure, of opening like a beautiful flower or shriveling like a weed covered with poison spray. We are not passive in the face of hardship and disappointment and failure. We are not passive in a time of challenge and struggle. We are full of the spirit of the living God. We are covered with the glory of God. We are connected to a wide ecosystem of living things, people who are precious and full of potential. We have been planted in the garden of God.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ to John the Apostle, what we often call the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, is full of weird images and armed conflict. But the very last vision, the last scene, the image with which the entire Word of God ends is this.
“Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing form the throne of God and of the lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street, on each side of river grew a tree of life, baring twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used as medicine for the healing of the nations.”
Here is the collage of mixed metaphors: the city scape, the royal throne, the medicinal task, the mountain stream; and yes, at the center, the garden, with the tree of life, bearing fruit the whole year through, which is used for the healing of the nations.
Where is this tree of life? Who is this tree of life? How is it the nations are healed, justice established, righteousness practiced? Who is it that is doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God? Where can we find those who live within the grace of reconciliation, the fellowship of the community, and the love of God for all people?
Can THIS be the place? Can WE be the people?
Are we already living and breathing and growing in the garden of God? Are we planted here for the healing of the nations?
I’m going to tell you a story. A story of two of the brightest flowers in the garden of God. They showed up in my class at Georgetown College in Kentucky. It was a preaching class of 12 people. The other ten I knew. These two were strangers. A black man and a white woman, sitting side by side.
“Let’s begin the class,” I said to everyone around the circle, “ Tell us your name and something about yourself.” And so we started. We came to this young man. “I am a new student. I play football. I needed a class and the advisor recommended this.”
Normally, students who sign up for a preaching class were known to me: students active in the chapel and campus religious life. but he was a stranger. “My name is Bruce,” he said.
She was next. “My name is Jennifer. I live in Louisville. I am here to play volleyball.” She smiled sweetly, and I nodded in her direction.
“You both live in Louisville,” I said; then added, “You may need to carpool some days to drive over here.” It was an hours drive at least.
These introductions finished, I began the class, explain assignments, grading, and our annual preaching field trip to Chicago. I gave them the dates. We were off to a good start.
It was only later, perhaps days or weeks, that I learned that indeed they were ridging to school together, because, they were living together! I leaned that, as I recall, the day they called to say, our car is troubled, we have no transportation. And I said, “I am in Louisville regularly. Could we meet to continue the class, more like a one-on-one tutorial?” They invited me to their apartment; and I went. It is simple, sparsely furnished. And week after week I stopped by their house to coach them on reading a text, seizing an idea, developing a strategy, finding a story, making an appeal. All the things that make for preaching.
Then one day, after our tutorial sitting on their couch, they said, “Dr. Moody, we have a request for you. We want to get married. Will you marry us?” I was thrilled and said immediately, “Yes, it will be my delight. Do you have a date?” They did, but alas, it fell on the date of our trip to Chicago. “I can’t miss that trip,” I said, “then added: “and neither can you. It is required for passing the course.”
“O yes,” she said, “we want to go on the trip.”
“Then come to campus that day ready for a wedding. I will reserve the chapel. We will gather the class. They can be witnesses to your vows. And then we will all pile into the car and head off to Chicago.”
“That will be great,” they replied.
Except, on the day of the wedding, a Friday, they called to say, “Our car is now broken again.”
I said, “Not to worry. Call around Louisville and find a place where we can have a wedding. I will load the class here, drive to Louisville, pick you up, take all of us to the chapel, and we will have a wedding.”
And that is what happened. At the close of that simple wedding in the chapel of Southeast Christian Church, I announced: ‘Now I have a gift for the bride and groom. As you know, we are scheduled to stay overnight in Chicago in the dorm of Northern Baptist Seminary. As Providence would have it, right next door is a very fine Hilton Hotel. And I have secured a honeymoon suite for the bride and groom. Congratulations!!”
It was a happy day. A wonderful trip. I have done many weddings, but this was the first time I had ever gone on the honeymoon with a wedding couple!!
Bruce and Jennifer, now Mr. and Mrs. Long, stayed at GC only one semester. They moved to California. He completed 20 years in the marines. I tried to keep up on Facebook. A child was born, then another, and finally a third. They were living as believers, seeking to raise their children in the love and instruction of the Lord.
They started a business, a coffee business, with their own brand of coffee, a coffee truck, and a coffee kiosk that makes coffee, that is operated by an app on the smart phone. They started right just before the pandemic. Thinking I might help them, I started promoting their coffee on my radio show. perfectiocoffeeinc.com. I even ordered a bag of their coffee and sent it to every guest I interviewed on my show.
Last fall, I sent out a notice to those who read my newsletter or listen to my radio show: “I am launching an online Bible Class. Would you be interested?” About 40 people responded yes, including Bruce and Jennifer. Ten weeks ago, I finally began, on Monday nights, studying The Prayer of Jesus, what we often call the Lord’s Prayer. And on that first night, Mr. and Mrs. Long came, all the same from Paris, California. Joining our 8 pm EST class at 5 pm Pacific Time.
I always begin the class with this question: “Where did you encounter the prayer of Jesus?” Each week the people respond with: in church on Sunday, at my AA meeting, in this novel I am reading, in a movie I saw. But their answer is always: “Last night, when we knelt beside the beds of our three children, and prayer with them the words our Lord taught us to pray, saying, “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
Two months ago, I received in the mail a note from Bruce and Jennifer. We thank you for your support. We love the class. Here is an offering to help you.” Enclosed was a check for $1,401. I was stunned.
I called to thank them. The next month another check came; then two more. Finally, this note. “We want to send all our tithes and offerings to you.” I broke down and cried.
I gave thanks to God. Not so much for their financial support of my ministry, but because they were flourishing in life, in love, in faith, in business, in friendship.
God had planted them in a garden where I was working. I watered that plant as I felt called to do. But what does the Bible say, “God gave the increase. God gave the increase.”
Thanks be unto God. The garden of God, on both sides of the river of life, bearing fruit in season, for the healing of the nations. God can do among us what God did in them and is doing through them. These are great words of gospel truth: Then Comes the Harvest. Then Comes the Harvest. Let us trust the God of the Garden. And carry on.