The Harvest Is Plentiful
November 03, 2002
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease. (Genesis 8:22)
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field." (Matthew 9:35-38)
Reading from Swedenborg
In the inner meaning, the seeds that are sown in the field are true ideas of faith that are planted in goodness. Harvest means their ripening when particular types of good develop from them. . . .
In a broad sense, the field, in which the harvest is, refers to the whole human race, or the whole world; in a less broad sense it refers to the church, in a narrower sense to a member of the church, and in an even narrower sense to the good in a person of the church--since this goodness receives the true ideas of faith just as a field receives seeds.
From the meaning of the field, it is clear what "harvest" means. In the broadest sense, it refers to the state of the whole human race as to its acceptance of goodness through truth, in a less broad sense to the state of the church as to the acceptance of the true ideas of faith in goodness, in a narrower sense to the state of a person of the church as to that acceptance, and in a still narrower sense to the state of good as to the acceptance of truth, and so the planting of truth in goodness. (Arcana Coelestia #9295)
The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. (Matthew 9:37)
The Bible is truth; but meaning is something that must be drawn out. And truth can be applied to many things--all things, actually--in different ways.
Our passage this morning is a familiar one. It is often read in reference to evangelizing and proselytizing. The meaning drawn out is that there are many people out there, it is going to take a lot of work to convert them all, and there aren't enough people to do the converting. So the message is: let's get to work and go gather them in for the Lord.
I've always had a problem with this concept. For one thing, I do not like being pressured into believing things, and I can't bring myself to go and try to talk people who aren't interested into buying something. I'm just not a salesman. I am not earning my way into heaven with the number of souls I save. My salvation is not dependent upon whether I convince a certain number of people to believe in God. It's just not what I do.
On the other hand, I think believing in God is the single most important decision people make in the course of their lives. And while believing or not believing is the essence, what people believe about God is just as important--and far more interesting to me. I am much more interested in sharing what I find to be interesting and exciting. I am far more likely to invite a friend to something I think they might find valuable than I am to go out and try to convince strangers that they should believe what I believe.
So let's look at this passage as containing a different kind of truth, and see if we can apply it to our lives in a different way.
Swedenborg often--very often, I should say--suggests that when looking at a passage, we should move from general ideas to specific ideas. Today I want to do exactly the opposite. We are not going to begin by talking about the harvest and the number of laborers and the grand concept that implies. We are going to talk about the reason for the harvest, the reason for the need of the laborers. We are going to begin by talking about one kernel of wheat. The concepts of harvest and the fields--these are general ideas. One kernel of wheat is a specific idea. One kernel of wheat is the truth in microcosm--the truth in miniature.
I recall a famous painting that shows a scene of harvest. It shows a wheat field being harvested: men with their shirt sleeves rolled up leaning on their scythes, women and children gathering the cut stalks, and a group of workers pausing to share in bread and cheese and refresh themselves with water. Now, imagine a painting like that about three feet by four feet large. You can see all the detail--the different characters doing different things, the field, the wheat still growing, the wheat having been cut and gathered, the people eating the bread that the wheat will soon become. Now take that picture and shrink it down to about three inches by four inches. You have to look closer to see, and some of the detail is not readily apparent, but everything that is in the large picture is there in the small picture. That is the kind of truth we will find in examining the concept of one kernel of wheat as opposed to the concept of the harvest.
So let's think about one kernel of wheat. It is small and hard, like a stone. All that is within it is contained within sharply defined limits. It is not soft and fuzzy or transparent and indistinct. It is specific and concrete. And in these properties it is very much like a stone.
We have learned before that a stone represents truth. It represents an idea or a concept that is simple and easy to get hold of; it is a thought that is easy to understand, and not debatable. It is simply true. Now, a truth like that can have all kinds of effects. It can just be, and if no one notices it, examines it, or does anything with it, it has very little effect. But like a stone that gets in your shoe, and as you walk begins to irritate your foot and cause pain, a simple fact that gets in the wrong place, that gets applied in the wrong way, can very quickly become a source of discomfort and irritation.
A kernel of wheat is something like a small stone, but it has some different qualities as well. A kernel of wheat represents a piece of information--but a very different kind of information than a stone. A stone simply is. It can be used as it is; it can be combined with other stones to serve certain functions; but only with great difficulty can it be changed. A stone is like a fact.
A kernel of wheat is something like that, but different. A kernel of wheat is like a piece of information that in and of itself we can't really understand or make use of. But it can be stored in our memory. It can be combined with other pieces of information. And if you take that piece of information and add water, things happen.
Water, too, is a symbol for truth. It is new information, but it is a much clearer and more readily absorbable kind of information. Have you ever had a concept that you were having trouble understanding, and someone said something, or you read a passage, or even experienced something that changed the way you were thinking about the problem, and you gained a whole new insight into the problem? That is what adding water to a kernel of wheat is like. Some new information makes things happen.
Stones in their natural state tend to represent truths from the Word, truths from God. This is opposed to bricks or chiseled stone, which have been made or changed by human effort. Remember that altars in the Bible were built out of unhewn stones. And remember the five smooth stones that David drew out of a brook and used to win his argument with Goliath. Five simple ideas taken from the Word, and one of them delivered simply and directly, was all David needed to stop Goliath in his tracks, even with Goliath's sword and spear and armor and shield--things that represent doctrine, reasoning, and arguments that have been developed and organized by human reasoning. These are not bad things if you now how to use them. But they are not as good as simple truths from the Word in the hands of someone who knows how to communicate them!
Kernels of wheat are like good thoughts. They don't necessarily come from the Word. More likely they are things we learn from living in the world. They are good thoughts that contain within them the potential for good things.
How do we use a kernel of wheat? How do we make use of a good thought?
Most importantly, kernels of wheat must not be allowed to go to waste unnoticed. We need to recognize them, acknowledge them, gather a whole bunch of them together, and then grind them all up. In other words, we need to store up the good thoughts, think about them, and break them down into simple ideas--little bits of information that are related, but not stuck in one form or another. Then we mix them all together, and turn them over in our mind again and again.
Now we have to add a few more things to the mix:
First a little salt. Salt is like earthiness, lustiness, the harsh, sweaty realities of life; the facts of life, if you will. Too much is not good; it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But not enough, and life is too bland--and just not very interesting.
Then we need a little oil. Oil is love, divine blessing. It is like compassion and forgiveness, but with honor and respect as well. It is what makes things run smoothly. Again, too much and you have an oily mess; but not enough, and things get dry, and just don't hold together.
And we also could use a little yeast. Yeast is a kind of mystery ingredient. It is like spiritual knowledge, but it is also like worldly knowledge. It is not absolutely necessary, and a little bit goes a long way. Remember Jesus' warning about the yeast of the Pharisees. And remember Passover, when God tells the Hebrews to make bread without yeast in preparation for their escape from Egypt. But yeast in the mix can make the end product much more desirable and enjoyable.
Now if you are following me here, we have taken all these good thoughts and ground them together in our minds. We've added the facts of life, we've added love and compassion, we've added knowledge of the world and of the spirit, and we have mixed them all together.
Now at this point, we have been thinking very hard about something, we've got all the information we can use, it's been thoroughly discussed and analyzed, and it's all right there in front of us. But somehow it doesn't look so good. It is just a big sticky doughy mess. This is the time to let it sit. Go take a walk. Go do something else, and let time and the mystery of divine providence do its work. Let the whole mess simply percolate inside of us.
Every once in a while, we go back and take a look. And if I'm not mistaken, we have to punch it down. This is like when a new idea or solution starts to emerge, and we knock it down with sharp criticism and reasons why it won't work. This happens two or three times. And while it seems harsh to the outside observer, it helps to insure that when our new thoughts begin to rise up and take form, they expand beyond their original form in ways we might never have expected--in ways we could not have made happen by ourselves. Then the end result will be thoroughly mixed, and with just the right consistency.
For the final stage, we must apply heat. So we put this big glob of stuff in an appropriate container, and put it in the oven. Heat is love. Heat is passion. And an oven at 350 degrees is a little more than an affectionate peck on the cheek. Baking in the oven is like the crucible of life. It is tough love; hard work; passionate intensity. But not too much for too long, or you burn out that which you care for. And not too little, or you get something half-baked and very doughy.
Yet after it comes out of the testing period, when we have done all of these things, those little grains of wheat, those good thoughts, have become a loaf of bread, an act of loving kindness, a gift that we can enjoy, that we can give and share with someone else, so that both giver and receiver are filled with warmth and goodness.
That is why we have kernels of wheat. They grow and ripen in their own time, in their own way. And we go through the intentional work of collecting them and gathering them. It is hard work, and it takes effort--and some good tools can really help in the process. When we take those good thoughts and combine them with others, and with a sense of life on earth, and love and compassion, and a little divine mystery, we end up with something that is worth so much more than what we began with.
There are so many good thoughts out there! They must not be allowed to fall to the ground and waste away unappreciated. They must be honored and gathered and put to work so that those good thoughts end up becoming warm feelings and useful actions.
This is the harvest I hear Jesus speaking about. And the harvest is plentiful. There are so many people who have good thoughts and good intentions, and they often don't quite know what to do with what they've got. They may not even understand the value of what they have to offer. It is the people who can help get them together to serve in ways that warm the heart, heal the body, and serve God that Jesus is referring to when he says the laborers are few. We don't need to go out and convince people to believe; we need to help the people we know find some way to put their constructive thoughts and warm feelings to use in a way that provides good things to share.
Kernels of wheat to loaves of bread. Good thoughts to acts of love and charity. This is the meaning of the harvest. This is the truth that is contained in the kernel of wheat. This church is the wheat field. And you and all of your friends and acquaintances are the wheat itself. And the good thoughts you have are the kernels of wheat.
Our worship services, the rehearsing and performing of the music, the meetings of the Women's Alliance and the Trustees, the work of the various committees and the Sunday School teachers, the Fryeburg Fair booth. All of these represent the work of the harvest. It is through the combined and organized efforts of the people serving in all of these ways that the good thoughts waving around in our heads get turned into loving acts that inspire minds, warm hearts, and fill both people's tummies and the church's bank accounts--not to mention its pews.
So think about this passage. Think about the specifics of a kernel of wheat. Think about the big picture of the fields and workers and the harvest. And think about how you can take what kernels you have, and gather the kernels your friends have, and we can combine them together, and through loving action create the bread of life that we can all then share together.
O Lord of the harvest, thank you for providing such rich fields of grain, not only to feed our bodies, but to feed our souls. As we bring home the harvest of earthly food, show us also the ripe harvest of spiritual food: the good thoughts that you have planted in our minds, which have grown into mature ideas useful for our inner and interpersonal sustenance. Send into our minds the workers of good will and devotion to serving our fellow human beings, so that we will harvest that ripe spiritual grain, grind it in the mill of our minds, add some practical experience, compassion, and inspiration, and bake it in your powerful love. Then we will all enjoy the nourishing bread of mutual love and kindness. Amen.
Rev. Ken Turley