‘The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers in his harvest.’ (Matthew 9.37) Most of us in this community are not directly involved in farming and our work is not concerned with ensuring a good harvest, but we all depend on good harvests for reasonably priced food in the shops, not just in this country but in many parts of the world. Closer to home, we all will admire fields of corn turning to gold as they reach maturity in the next couple of months. Those of us with gardens and allotments will be hopeful of a good season to.
But Jesus is not talking here of agriculture. He is using the countryside around him to make a point about the Kingdom of God which was central to his message. Put simply, the time was right for people to be gathered into the kingdom as the labourers of his day would go out into the fields to gather in the crops.
But how do we relate to that picture? Can we believe that there are many people just waiting to embrace Jesus’ kingdom, to own him as their Lord and King and to live lives worthy of him? Evidence might suggest otherwise; to a poor harvest with little to show for it.
During our lifetimes, we have all seen the decline of Christianity in our country. The influence of our faith is diminished in public life, fewer stories from the bible are told in our schools and there is less coverage of Christian worship and events on TV and radio.
We have also seen shrinking numbers of people in churches. When I arrived, I quickly discovered that the Wrexham Anglican churches which make up our Mission Area had lost around a quarter of their membership since 2010. I am pleased to say, thanks be to God, that has now stabilised and last year the seven churches grew by 13%. Membership in St Margaret’s remains remarkably constant, but our country is littered with churches of all denominations which have closed or are sustained by tiny congregations. Statistics continue to show that regular church goers make up an ever decreasing percentage of the population.
It would also be true to say that we have all witnessed a dilution of Christian values in society. We could debate what we mean by that and yes people do show their love and concern for people in need as has been demonstrated in the support for the residents of Grenfell Tower in London over recent days. Yet in areas such as family life, sexual behaviour, and ethics in business and the work place, there is generally less willingness to accept the frameworks offered in the bible.
Against all this, it is easy for us to become disillusioned. We may conclude that Jesus’ words applied only for his day and not ours. Yet, if we do that, we ignore the growth of Christianity in many parts of the world often against amazing odds. In China and even Syria and Iraq, people are coming to faith in the Son of Man on the cross and the empty tomb of Easter. Our own history has witnessed times when many have turned to Christ in times of renewal and revival. Indeed, there are many churches across the land which buck the trends.
But how can this happen?
Churches try to find answers but in my view, they often turn out to be only half right. In response to the decline of Christianity in public life, the church can be frenetic in trying to reassert itself ensuring a presence in schools and other public institutions, wading into community initiatives and ensuring that it’s voice is heard on the issues of the day. Prayerful support for people and society at large can only be good, but while it may nurture the crop, how far does it go towards harvesting it?
When it comes to smaller congregations, the response is to make churchgoing more attractive and appealing, especially to younger sections of the population. The music, the language, the style and even the seating arrangements all come in for scrutiny. I have no problem with that. There is no doubt that traditional ways of doing church are not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet, just because church tries to be cool and trendy does not make it popular overnight. Worship should be an authentic expression of adoration to God from that community of Christians.
As for the loss of a distinctive Christian ethic, some are inclined to suggest that the church should simply align itself with the majority views of today’s society; that it cannot hope to attract fresh people while it hold quaint ideas on homosexuality and abortion. These are of course big issues and the churches have things to learn from the evolving ethics of the day and prejudices to repent of. But I am convinced that Jesus and the church which bears his name is meant to be a sign post and not simply a weather vane in these matters and that we do not gain credence in the long term by simply adopting current trends.
So, what ultimately is the harvest of which Jesus speaks here all about? Is it not all about ‘making disciples’? Last week, we read of Jesus’ final command to his disciples: ‘Go therefore and make disciples.’ (Matthew 28.19) A disciple can be best described as a committed follower. The original twelve had to learn how to turn their backs on old ways of thinking. They had to learn to forgive, to love even their enemy and to put Jesus before friends and loved ones. Commitment is not a popular concept in twenty first century Britain, yet Jesus calls all his followers into a committed relationship with him, with his father in the power of the Spirit which will transform their lives. It is when people opt into this that they are truly harvested. On another occasion, by the lakeside, when Jesus was again calling his followers, he says: ‘Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’ (Matthew 4.19) The image here is not of playing with fish on a line but catching them in nets. Thus caught, they become a harvest from the sea. But they must be caught! As one wag once put it: ‘We are called to catch people, not just influence a few.’
As we hear today’s gospel reading, (Matthew 9.35-10.8) there are many things said about the way we as existing disciples of Jesus, should respond to those who are not. Jesus has compassion on the crowds and so should we. He is involved in a healing ministry. That is the calling of the church too. He gave his followers authority over evil. He gives the same to his ministers today. Yet running though this is proclamation is the call to announce and proclaim the kingdom and invite a response, to harvest, to gather the willing into the kingdom.
While all the other ways in which the church engages with the world are important as part of a wholistic approach, proclamation is central if we are to reap a harvest, if we are to catch fish, to grow the church and build the kingdom.
On Tuesday of last week, some of us learnt about the plans of the ‘The Turning Team’ along with local churches to reap a harvest in our town next month. The method is very simple. People are approached on the streets with several short questions about their beliefs. If they are not interested, then no worries. If they engage in conversation and ultimately a simple prayer of commitment, then they are invited to give contact details for follow up. This has produced fruitful harvests in many English towns with up to a quarter of those engaged in conversation being effectively supported into a church congregation.
One final key point. Jesus says: ‘ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. It is the Lord’s harvest. We must pray for labourers. Can I ask you to do that for Wrexham…but be aware, you may end up being one yourself!
Trinity 1 18.06.2017