A Season of ThanksGIVING: When the Harvest Comes
Lectionary Texts: Luke 19: 1-10, 2 Thessalonians 1: 1-4, 11-12
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, October 30, 2016
- Starting at the End
When I was in seminary, Perkins arranged for students to participate in a small question and answer type discussion with bestselling author and Academy-award-winning screenwriter, John Irving. You might remember his bestsellers “The Cider House Rules” or “A Prayer for Owen Meany” or “The World According to Garp”, which was made into the Robin Williams movie. But one of the questions that someone asked Irving was how he went about constructing his stories. The question was, of course, not surprising. The answer, though, might have been to some. Irving leaned forward as if he had some wonderful secret to share. And he told us that when he sat down to write, he always wrote the ending first and then backed through the story, creating characters, plot, and theme. The point of the story is, after all, that with which we are left. Regardless of where it’s located in the work, the point is never completely known until the end.
He went on. After he envisions the end, he flashes to the beginning and begins building what happens to get there. What he said was that it was a way to build it, to invite people into the story and make them want to stay with it to the end. I think he’s completely right. I may not have realized it, but that’s the way I write. I don’t just start at the beginning and proceed by stomping and chomping my way through. I start with a premise, an ending. In a sermon, it’s usually something that you want to say at the end that you hope in some way will make enough of an impact that people will at least carry it home with them. (Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.)
Our faith story is no different. I don’t think God started “in the beginning” without some general idea of where things would end up. In fact, we are told in Scripture that God had us in mind—every detail of our being–long before we came to be. I think God knew all of this. It was a plan—not a predestined path, but a plan. God had some vision of who we would be and then God sat back and waited—waited for us to choose the path that would take us to the fullness of life, that would, essentially, take us to the harvest of all that we had planted before. And, no matter what, God is hoping that we’ll see it through to the end, that we’ll have the faith to wait for when the harvest comes.
- The End of the Zaccheus Story
So, the Zaccheus story…why did Jesus tell that one? What was the point? What was the end? Well, we don’t get that. Imagine…Jesus has left Zacchaeus’ house. His voice has faded. Perhaps he had left Jericho altogether, heading into what would come in Jerusalem. The servants are clearing the table. But amid the background noise, Zaccheus begins to think. What have I done? What was I thinking? What did I promise? How will I ever give away all my possessions to the poor or repay those poor people that I have cheated four times over? This will change everything.
I had heard a lot about him. I was sort of enamored. I had heard his stories second hand. And then I heard that he was coming to Jericho. This would be my chance. I just wanted to see him. But I didn’t count on his searching me out, almost looking for me. I guess I shouldn’t have climbed that tree. (Now I will call your attention to something. There is nothing more confusing than a misplaced pronoun. The passage says that Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus because he was short. We read into it (because of the song) that Zacchaeus was short. Remember the song…Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see…But the Scripture just says that “he” was short. Maybe Jesus was short! Just something to think about.)
So, back to Zacchaeus…For whatever reason, I wanted to get over the crowd. And if I hadn’t, I never would have seen him.
I was embarrassed though. When he called me out, he was wonderful—welcoming, really, even though I’ve done the things I’ve done. But the crowd seemed unforgiving. I figured that they would point out what I have done. (After all, remember that Zacchaeus was a tax collector. We talked about that last week. They would collect money from their neighbors, give part of it to the Roman government, and pocket a part of it. Jews were prohibited from being tax collectors.) So here he was…
But Jesus didn’t care. He saw me in the tree and he came to my house. He welcomed me. He accepted me. And I have been changed. It’s a little overwhelmimg. But I am a different person. I now understand what transformation is all about.
What if Jesus had listened to my neighbors? What if he had followed the rules? What if Jesus had done what he was supposed to do? I would not be here. I would not have changed. I would not have somehow felt compelled, in gratitude, to give away part of what I have. There would have been no harvest. You have to be ready when the harvest comes.
III. Envisioning Harvest
So, what, exactly, is that harvest? What, exactly, is the end of the story? Ralph Hodgson said that “some things have to be believed to be seen.” I believe that. God is expecting us to look beyond. That is the whole point of the story—to see beyond our own limitations, our own expectations, to see beyond where we have limited God.
So, I have two more stories. First, I want to tell you about John. John was an older man that I knew at my last church. He and his wife had no children and little family. John and I became close as I walked with him through his wife’s bout with brain cancer and her eventual death. On the day that she died, I sat on the floor beneath him in her room at the Houston Hospice building just holding him. He would not leave her. They had been married 67 years. I have to tell you that we all assumed that John would not be long behind her in leaving this life. But he somehow got to the other side of grief because of his Sunday School class and the rest of his church family. One day I was in the Chapel taking in new members (we would do that in the Chapel on Communion Sunday) and in walked John. I just sort of looked at him, confused. He sat down and he looked at me and he said, “Ok, I’m ready.” I just stood there. He went on. “You see, I’ve been coming to this church for right at 50 years, but I only came because Wanda came. In fact, I’ve always sort of been against organized religion. But I think I’m ready. I think it’s time.” So, at 89 years of age, John was baptized and joined the church. You have to be ready when the harvest comes—WHENEVER it comes.
The second story is about a teen-age girl named Agnes. Agnes believed that she had a calling to be a missionary and, particularly, to young children who lived in poverty. So she approached the elders of her church and told them what she felt God was calling her to do. They asked her the obvious question: “How much money do you have?” She pulled her hand out of her pocket and showed them three pennies. “Silly, you cannot build anything with three pennies.” “I know,” she responded, “but with God and three pennies, I can do anything.” To the world, Agnes would become known as Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa of Calcutta) and upon her death, her orphanages employed 4,000 people in 123 countries throughout the world. Mother Teresa once said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” You know, you just never know when the harvest will come.
- The End of the Story
We don’t really know what the end of the story is—but we can imagine. That’s the whole point. We have to imagine it. God started with it and our faith while not allowing us to see it, will enable us to envision what it could be. See, think about the metaphors about planting and harvest. A farmer doesn’t just plant and hope for the best. A farmer plants the seeds with the expectations that the harvest will come to be.
So what is in your harvest? What have you planted? What have you done with the seeds that God has given you? 19th century English poet Alfred Austin once said “show me your garden and I will tell you who you are.” Does your garden bear those seeds that you have been given to plant? Now don’t get me wrong. We all know that planting is hard. There are just too many factors with which to contend. And sometimes those factors are such that our seeds just don’t come to be. So what does that mean? Do we just sit back and wait and pray that God will do something? And then do we become frustrated when the fruit that we were planning on doesn’t come? Are we tempted to just give up, maybe let God do all the heavy lifting?
Have you ever thought that perhaps God has given us the seeds not just to produce fruit but to learn how to plant? The fruit is important but, as we’ve said, it doesn’t always come to be for us. But if we spend our life planting, God has promised that somewhere, somehow, some way, the fruit will begin to grow. Having faith, being a disciple doesn’t mean living a life of planting and harvesting, planting and harvesting, and necessarily reaping what we sow. Being a disciple means living most of your life between the time of planting and the time of harvest. It means that even faced with what may seem insurmountable uncertainty, we have faith, faith that the harvest will come.
- What Harvest Are We Expecting?
So, our expectations of what will happen are everything. It doesn’t mean that we KNOW what that will look like; it means that we will position ourselves to be open to whatever that is. It means that, like Zacchaeus, we will follow our heart rather than our mind. But it also has to do with the way we look at things.
There is an old wisdom story that tells of those that were building one of the amazing old cathedrals. Now, keep in mind, these cathedrals did not take a year, or ten years. They took centuries. Those that started the work knew that they would never seen the fruits of their labors. But they poured their heart out, nevertheless.
Once, someone asked a builder of these great cathedrals what he was doing. His response was that he was laying bricks. He was right. So, the person asked another person that was working on the project. He responded that he was making a living for his children and his family. He was right. Then the person asked a third builder. His response? “I am building a cathedral.”
See, we’re all building a cathedral. That will be the end of the story. That’s what we envision. And yet, we want to see the fruits of our gifts. We want to reap the benefits of what we give. But the story is not about what happens now; it’s about the ending that will come. So what we could imagine that could be is huge.
In a moment you will turn in your pledge card. This is not about immediate fruits; it’s not about what you think it should go toward; this is about envisioning the harvest that is yet to come. There is an Arab proverb that says if you expect to see the results of your work, then you have simply not asked a big enough question.
Maybe that’s what makes it faith. Faith does not teach us to believe; it teaches us to wait with expectant hope that when the time comes, the clouds will part and the light will break through. In the meantime, we are called to keep building cathedrals, and dreaming beyond what we think is realistic, and allowing ourselves to be changed, knowing that it doesn’t matter whether or not we see them completed but only that we had faith enough to imagine it to be, to wait until the harvest comes.