Bible reading: Matthew 9:35-10:8
‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few’. Sermon given by Revd Sue McCoan at the Celebration Service 18th June 2023
Jesus was using this as a figure of speech. Sadly, over the last 2 years, we’ve had this played out before our very eyes. In the first half of last year, £22million pounds worth of food was wasted – left to rot in the fields – because there were not enough people to pick them. The wheat fields are OK because wheat is harvested by machine, but farmers whose crops needed picking by hand really struggled.
It’s partly Covid – foreign workers went home and didn’t come back – and partly Brexit making it harder to get visas. But now there are questions raised about how to recruit more British people to do these jobs. We might identify 3 factors.
First, you need motivation. Why might someone be enticed to go and pick strawberries all summer? It’s hard work! And it could be a long way from home, so there’s your family to consider. You might be living in temporary accommodation, like a caravan – would you want that? What would make someone want to do it?
Then, you need people who are capable of doing the job. For picking fruit, you might need to bend a lot; you have to walk between rows. That would rule out someone with mobility issues. You need a light touch, so you don’t bruise the fruit. In the past, it was often women and children who did seasonal picking, because they had smaller and more delicate hands; that was before most women had full-time jobs.
Finally, as with any job, you need to pay enough to make it worthwhile. But then of course that puts up the cost of the fruit, which means people can’t afford to buy it, and so on.
I’m glad it’s not my job to try and work this out. Let’s get back to Jesus – a much happier place to be.
Here is Jesus, in our gospel reading, going around the towns and villages of Galilee, preaching in the synagogues, healing the sick, spreading the good news of the kingdom. But every time he meets the needs of one group of people, he finds there’s another group behind in just as much need. And there’s only one of him, and he is human – he only has the same number of hours in the day as anyone else, and he gets tired. He needs more help. The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.
Jesus has already called his disciples to follow him, and they have been watching and learning from him. They have been there when he was teaching the crowds, and they have had some in-depth teaching on their own as well. They are the obvious people to share his workload, to spread the good news of the kingdom along with him. So how does Jesus get his workforce to take on this extra task? Which might well be hard work, and will often mean being away from home and staying with temporary hosts.
First, the motivation. Jesus is moved by compassion. He sees crowds of people in so much need of God’s love. They are suffering; they are worried about the present and anxious about the future – like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus longs to bring them words of comfort, healing, wholeness of body, mind and spirit. The disciples have seen that compassion in him; now they are called to share this compassion themselves.
Secondly, the capability. The disciples have already been learning from Jesus, from his words and his example. Now, he gives them specific abilities to equip them for the job they have been called to do. In the very first verse of chapter 10, we’re told Jesus summoned the twelve and ‘gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out and to cure every disease and sickness’. Essentially, they are extending the work of Jesus, so Jesus extends his authority to them.
And thirdly, the payment. What wages does Jesus offer? None!
They are not doing this for financial reward. He says, in verse 8: you received without payment; give without payment. Some of you might remember the chorus, ‘Freely, freely you have received; freely, freely give’, which is from an older translation of this verse. The whole process of mission is framed in the language of gift. The disciples can give, because of what they have been given.
There are lessons here when we think of the mission of the church today, of the way we can spread the good news of the kingdom of God in 21st Century London. It can be quite a daunting prospect – many people seem indifferent to the idea of religion; some have bad memories of church being unkind or unwelcoming. And yet people are in great need, as they were at the time of Jesus.
The starting point for any mission activity of the church or of individuals has to be compassion. It’s not about recruiting people to our way of thinking; it’s not about getting the numbers up; it’s not even about keeping our churches going. We share the good news because we, like Jesus, see people all around us who are suffering; we see people who are worried about the present and anxious about the future; who are like sheep without a shepherd. We share, with Jesus, that longing to bring them the wholeness of body, mind and spirit that comes from God.
So that’s motivation. What about ability? Sometimes we are hesitant, because we don’t find it easy to talk about our faith, and we very probably don’t have gifts of healing and casting out demons.
We need to remember that those were the gifts needed for that specific task, for those particular people, at that particular time. When you are getting something new off the ground, you need to make a big impact, very quickly. The task, for Jesus and the disciples, was to let people know that the kingdom of God was near. The quickest and most effective way to do this was to let people see lives being changed, including by dramatic healing.
Most of us are not called to such a dramatic or intensive ministry. But we can be sure that whatever God does call us to do, God will equip us with whatever gifts are necessary.
So we have motivation, and ability. And what about wages? We get exactly the same money as the disciples – zero. We’re not in this for any financial reward. We too have received freely from Jesus; we too are called to share in what we have already been given.
The harvest is plentiful. The labourers may seem few. But we can support one another. And we can all be motivated by compassion; we can trust in God to equip us with what we need; and we are called to share in the amazing generosity of God.
Are we up for it? Are we willing to join in the workforce for Jesus? I hope we are. Let’s go for it!