Matthew 9: 35- 10:8

The harvest is plentiful, we hear Jesus say right on the heels of this description of the sorry state of people’s lives. Harassed, helpless …  like sheep without a shepherd … abandoned, leaderless or at least without leadership that gives a wit about their well-being …if anything, is the source of the harassment -- which is not hard to relate to these days. So here’s Jesus standing amidst a great field of people in distress, and what does he say? “The harvest is plentiful.”  And we might wonder at what he sees … what’s the good, the fruitfulness to be gathered up there?  

We might have wondered until now … until these days when, in North American cities and around the world, the streets are vibrating with people, so many of them harassed, yet filled with fire in their hearts for a new day.  What we’re seeing is the ripeness, the rising up in readiness.  The time has come and it is now and there’s no turning back, any more than you can reverse the ripening of whatever fruit you care to name. In this sea of Black and Brown, Indigenous, Asian and Caucasian bodies, there’s the fruit of justice that’s ready to be harvested … so ready to be gathered up and celebrated, feasted upon … so ready that if it’s not harvested, well, the spoil that hits the ground will be tragic to beyond telling.

The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few, Jesus says. This is the thing … harvesting, no matter what’s being harvested, is hard work … the hard work many of us would sooner leave to others … like the migrant workers, as we call them, within our own food production system. “The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few,” Jesus says, like he knows full well, harvesting is indeed labour intensive work.

So what’s the labour involved with harvesting this fruit of justice?  In the article I included in yesterday’s e-news by Nate Behar, he pretty much spells it out, no holes barred. Here’s a small taste of what he has to say:

“The concept of caring needs an overhaul. … Since the first slave was dragged across the sea and the plunder of Black bodies began, what we’ve needed is not passive assertions that people care about us.  A passive act of caring internally is no more than a self-serving pat on one’s back to ease any guilt.  Caring has to grow into a verb that ignites a mental fire when it’s heard, sending its subjects headlong into action, with selflessness as its driving force.  Caring needs to motivate people to act in defiance of their status quo — because change has never come from sitting in comfort, or upholding the hegemony that has taught little white children to scream “------*” at little Black children to break their spirit. An act does not become selfless until the actor is risking something they hold dear: something as peripheral as their comfort, or something as qualifiable as their job.  Action from allies that stress the limits of their own self-interest are needed to create any paradigm shift.  If we can tilt the idea that to care for somebody means to think of them and their experience fondly, and instead let it mean that we will fight with a fire in our loins to make what ails them end, we begin to have a chance.”[1]

The labourers are few, because this work, this labour of seeking, of harvesting justice is costly. It asks of us more than we might understand. 

A few days ago this piece arrived into my inbox, by Mary Luti, entitled Endure. She begins referencing these few lines from what’s called the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, where we read:

Let us run with perseverance the race set before us, looking to Jesus, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame.   Consider him, so that you don’t grow weary or lose heart. - Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV, excerpted)

And then Mary goes on to recall this:
“In the late seventies, the pastor of my white suburban church proposed a partnership with a black church downtown. To promote racial harmony, he said. He was friends with the pastor, they got along well. Why not all of us?

Soon we were hugging each other monthly at youth group exchanges and shared potlucks. We began including spirituals in our traditional Sunday service. We shouted “Amen!” when their pastor preached. We raised money to repair their church’s roof. Harmony reigned.

Until it didn’t. Until somebody mentioned a recent police shooting. Until somebody said “racism” and it wasn’t a white person who said it. Until somebody raised their voice, and somebody else cried. Until we began feeling unappreciated. We were making an effort, weren’t we?

That partnership drifted, ended vaguely. Back in the suburbs, we never asked why. Never learned that those periodic encounters were at best a warm-up for the long, crucifying work of self-confrontation, repentance, and conversion. Never grasped, in our bruised white innocence and sentimentality, that harmony is easy – justice is not.”[2]

“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few,” Jesus says to his disciples.   This is Jesus, the realist. The realist, but not the cynic!  So he doesn’t leave it there. He goes on. “Ask,” he tells them, “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”  Pray that God would send the people who are needed.  We don’t hear that the disciples dropped to their knees in earnest prayer, but we might imagine them nodding in agreement that this is a matter for prayer, that something of God’s passion would stir in the hearts of dear knows who.

But what happens? The next we know, Jesus summons the twelve themselves to go!  He doesn’t just send them off.  He first instructs them: “go nowhere among Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” … in other words, begin where you are. Begin right where you are.  He also, the text says, gives them authority to cast out unclean spirits and to cure every disease and sickness.  How might we hear that, I wonder, beginning right where we are? Jesus not only empowers them to be about this costly healing work.  He also warns them, “I’m sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

When Frederick Douglass was asked what should be done about injustice, he responded, “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.” He advised: "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."[3]

That piece by Mary Luti, about her experience of the black and white churches together, here’s how she concludes:
“We should’ve been praying more in those months. Not for harmony, but for endurance. For the grace to not grow weary, to persevere through the hard stuff so that one day we could move off the starting line we’d mistaken for the finish,  and actually run the race.  All those months we should’ve been considering Jesus, so as not to lose heart at the first sound of hammered nails.”

And then she offers a prayer that God willing, we would make our own.

“Crucified Jesus,” she prays, “you endured through cross and grave. Grant us your costly perseverance, for the sake of justice and joy.  AMEN!

[1] Nathaniel Behar,  To Pimp a Movement, Medium Magazine, June 5, 2020
* Even though this was a direct quote from Nathanial Behar's article, we have removed a word due to its potentially triggering nature.  
[2] Mary Luti, Endure, posted on the Still Speaking Daily Devotions of the United Church of Christ,  June 11, 2020
[3] Frederick Douglas, cited in “We Don’t Need Anymore Allies. We Need Accomplices in the Fight for Justice,” by Sharif El-Mekki, Education Post  March 13, 2017