June 25, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
Jesus told his disciples, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” From the very beginning of the bit of Matthew’s gospel we just read, it sounds a bit like a setup. There is a lot of work to do, and there are not enough people to really do it all. And the best he can come up with is that you just have to pray that God will send more workers to share the load. How does this make any sense? How does it help anyone? What is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, here?
Jesus had been traveling for some time. The chapters before the passage we just read include story after story after story of Jesus healing people who were blind or paralyzed or out of their minds. They include stories of Jesus calming storms and calling disciples. And they include stories of Jesus being confronted by Pharisees and scribes, the people in official positions of religious authority who should be supporting the work of God. But, we learn in the stories, they were really jealous and scared and all of those other feelings we all feel when we don’t understand what God is up to. To do a quick read of those chapters makes me dizzy with the amount and the pace of the very meaningful work Jesus was doing; each paragraph seems to begin with a phrase like, “as he was saying this,” or “just then,” which keeps the demanding pace and dizzying amount of work in the forefront of the stories. Finally, Matthew just takes a deep breath and says, “Jesus went about…teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” The details about what he taught, how he proclaimed, and whom he healed fade into each other; there were just a lot of needs, and he was just very, very busy trying to keep up with all of them.
There are appointments to make, and rides to arrange. There is homework to get done, and kids’ activities to get to and from. There are neighbors to take care of, and letters to dear family members to write, and sick people to visit. There are the phone calls to return, the e-mails that are stacking up, and that silly little sound that comes on whenever someone sends a text keeps ringing or bleeping or doing whatever it does. There are bills to pay and groceries to buy and when are you ever going to get a chance to wipe up that sticky mess in the bottom of the refrigerator? There are worship services to plan, and mission projects to work on, and children to teach, and a steady stream of repairs that need to be done on the church buildings. Never mind the grieving that got interrupted with more grief, the celebrations which were planned but never implemented, and the little acts of grace which we really want to do, but something always gets in the way. It is all good stuff. It all helps people who need a little help. But it feels like the more work we do, the more work piles up that has to be done.
“The harvest is plentiful;” it is a bumper year for things that need to get done, both big things and small things, with the fields overflowing with good works. “But the laborers are few,” and they are overwhelmed, and they are tired, and it seems like half the things that need to be done are well beyond the knowledge and skill of the people we have to do them. It feels like a setup; the work seems impossible, success feels out of our reach, but we have to do it anyway.
The only way it makes sense for Jesus to say what he said in the midst of this overwhelming work he was doing is the sentence that came just before his observation that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Just before he said that, Matthew gives us a small detail, one of those things that is easy to overlook as you are skimming along looking to get to the exciting, dramatic walking-on-the-water or feeding-the-multitudes kind of miracles. “When he saw the crowds,” Matthew says, “he had compassion for them.” Jesus looked on all of those people who were blind and crippled, he looked at those violent storms and those would-be disciples, he looked at those Pharisees and scribes, and he was swept up in a desire to care for them. “They were harassed and helpless,” Matthew says, and Jesus wanted to be with them, to reach out to them, to get to know them, and to use whatever power he had to help them, so that they wouldn’t have to suffer any more.
Jesus had compassion for the people, and so it didn’t matter that the needs were so much bigger than the laborers who could meet those needs. His compassion is the gospel here, the good news in this story, which renders meaningless all of the other news about the problems that make people crippled, blinded, swept up in a tumult, lonely, jealous, and scared. His compassion kept him going in the face of the overwhelming appointments and homework and activities and phone calls and emails and text messages and unmet needs and unresolved grief and incomplete acts of grace, both big and small. His unlimited compassion gave him the strength, the hope, the resolve, or whatever it was that led him to go into that harvest knowing that there was no way the job would get done with the resources at hand.
And his compassion led him to turn to his disciples. After he suggested prayer as a way to find more laborers for the harvest, it was like he had an idea, or perhaps an answer to that prayer. He summoned them, calling them each by name, as if their name alone was enough, and it didn’t matter what each one did for a living or where they went to school or what disabling conditions they had or how strong or weak they felt on any given day. He gave them the authority they needed over those spirits that tried to limit their ability to do what Jesus needed done. He gave them instructions: find the people who need your help. The ones you are looking for are not the ones with power and wealth and other privileges. The ones you are looking for are like sheep who are lost, and no shepherd is going to go looking for them. Give them good news. Heal them the way I would heal them, and be generous about it. Trust them. Seek them out. Offer them the gift of that peace which passes understanding, and if they refuse to take it, cut your losses and move on to someone else. After all, the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.
Jesus’ compassion is so powerful that it drives him to do what seems impossible. And his compassion is so powerful, too, that it draws in others to do that same, seemingly impossible, work. Jesus’ compassion turns to each of his followers, each of us, and calls us each by name and compels us into something far bigger than any of us thinks is possible. His compassion keeps us going when we think we have run out of energy, of time, of attention, of money, of authority, of needs, and of all the other things necessary to heal and to teach and to calm and to resist. His compassion directs us as we plan worship and work on mission and teach children and repair buildings. His compassion helps us to see what is important as we go to appointments and get to activities and return phone calls and even clean up sticky messes.
So what do we do when the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few? Do we simply throw up our hands at the impossibility of it all? Do we secretly suspect that it is just a big divine setup, wherein God is giving us some cruel test or another? No. We follow Jesus, who has compassion on those who are harassed and helpless. We follow Jesus, whose compassion led him to pray for more laborers to help with the work. We follow Jesus, whose compassion led him to share his authority. We follow Jesus, whose compassion is powerful enough to cure, to raise up, to cleanse, and to free people from whatever disease, demon, or death has possessed them. We follow Jesus, whose compassion calls out each of our names, as if our names alone are enough to give us a place among the laborers in that field.
Friends, there is a lot of work to do. More importantly, there are a lot of people who are harassed and helpless. And so my prayer this morning is that we will join Jesus in his compassion. My prayer is that we will join Jesus in his prayer, in his sharing, in his curing and raising up and cleansing and freeing. My prayer is that we will join Jesus in the harvest. Because the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.