Last week, I had the privilege to be the presenter for the spring clergy conference in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana. We spent an entire day reflecting together on the ways in which congregational life can be both gift and challenge. We told some stories. We laughed. We prayed. A good and (hopefully) fruitful day for those present.
I was also invited by the Bishop of Northern Indiana to offer the homily at the closing Eucharist. When he told me the lessons that would be appointed for the day, I couldn’t help but chuckle. I knew the sermon my clergy colleagues would hear would be the very one I heard on my grandpa’s front porch 38 summers ago. And I gave John Wesley Crider full credit! God rest his soul!
Now, my maternal grandfather wasn’t a preacher. He was a farmer — a sharecropper. He was an avid reader with a pointed wit. He was a keen observer of people and life. He also took a good deal of pleasure in poking at my adolescent illusions of intellectualism.
The sermon from Grandpa happened this way. We were sitting on straight back, wooden chairs looking out across the cotton and soybean fields that surrounded his modest house. The Louisiana heat was oozing off the crops. The sun was blazing. He had just taken a fresh dip of his favorite snuff, and readjusted his broad-brimmed farmer’s hat when he queried, “You fancy yourself a student of the Scriptures, don’t you now?”
“Yes sir,” I replied with probably a tad too much eagerness.
“Well then, let me tell you, with all due respect to the Apostle Paul, he knew nothing about farming.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Haven’t you read the part where old Paul says something about Apollos planting and him watering and God giving the increase?”
“Well, like a typical preacher, he left out one very important detail from his metaphor.”
“Weeding! There’s lots of work that has to take place to make sure the crop doesn’t get choked out by all sorts of stuff. You don’t just plant it and hope for the best. You gotta sweat over those plants. You worry over ’em. You tend ’em. They take your time, from sun up to sun down. Day in and day out. Sure there’s lots out of our control — like the weather and such, but the farmer has to keep working the field. He can’t stop until harvest time.
Oh, and while I’m at it, with all due respect to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that bit about the fields being ripe to the harvest? Don’t Jesus make that sound so simple? Go out and pluck off a few bushels of the harvest and go about your business? Not likely!
You see, Gary, every time I hear that Gospel passage, all I can picture in my mind is a field of cotton — acres and acres of fluffy white bolls — so inviting, so promising. But there’s a catch. To harvest the crop takes a toll. The plant does not willingly give up its fruit. Anyone who’s ever picked cotton has had their hands and arms shredded in the process, even if they’re using gloves and wearing long sleeves.”
We sat in silence as Grandpa allowed his sermon to sink in. Then he said, “But Paul and Jesus did mention something very important. We can’t go it alone. We’re all laborers in the field of the Lord. We need each other.”
I didn’t say “Amen.” But I should have. Instead, 38 years after the fact, standing in front of some fellow clergy, I added a final paragraph onto Grandpa’s sermon. It went something like this…
We are sent into the world on a Gospel mission — where there’s planting and watering and weeding and harvesting to do in the name of the Lord. Some of the work isn’t glamorous. Sometimes the work of ministry isn’t very efficient. Sometimes it looks like a lost cause altogether. But we go on about our work. Faithfully serving where God has called us, aware that we’re not alone, giving thanks that God has given us fellow laborers to help us shoulder the load. We plant seeds we’ll never water. Weed fields that seem like a waste of time and energy. Water plants that may not bear fruit for generations. And every great once in a while we get to participate in the joyful labor of harvesting from fields in which we expended no previous effort. And through it all, it is God who gives the increase.
(Thanks, John Wesley!)