“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” Matthew 9:37
Did you ever try to express what the harvest meant to you? Did you ever find words that really captured what the work of the summer months meant for you and for the community in which you lived?
The harvest is not so much something we can describe as something we sense and, just as we can think of the harvest of the land through our five senses, so, in the Bible, our senses are used to describe the spiritual harvest.
What we see at harvest time today differs very much from what we might have seen thirty or forty years ago. The harvest now generally means machinery and, often, very big machinery. Harvest when I was young meant a Fordson tractor pulling a binder and men following behind to put the sheaves into stooks; it meant a grey Ferguson pulling a trailer on which the sheaves would be stacked before being drawn home to be put in a barn until threshing time. The sights of harvesting have changed, but the harvest still looks much as it did. The fields might be bigger but the crops still look as they did.
Jesus describes the spiritual harvest as something to be seen. He says in John Chapter 4 Verse 35, “Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest”. Wouldn’t Jesus still say to us, “open your eyes”? We look around us and we see a great spiritual harvest that needs to be gathered, and I wonder how we respond? Is our church one that is concerned with itself, its own few acres of spiritual harvest, or are we prepared to work for something much bigger?
What sounds do we hear at harvest time? I remember walking along a road in the Basque country in Northern Spain on a holiday in the 1980s. The fields sloped steeply and it was quiet except for the sound of two men working with scythes. Apart from vintage days, there are not many places now where you would hear a scythe cutting hay; the gentle sound seems a big contrast with the hardness of the work. Harvest sounds now are mostly mechanical; the huge engines, the blades moving as they cut through the crop; the constant noise as work that once took days is done in a few hours.
In Saint Mark Chapter 4, Jesus tells a story of a man sowing seed and then reaping the crop . The seed that falls on fertile soil produces a good yield, Jesus says in Verse 8, “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown”. It was a crop more like that of this year than last, a good crop, a good harvest. Jesus uses it as a picture of the work of the church; people are to listen to what he says about the spiritual harvest. In Verse 9 he says, quite plainly, “Whoever has ears, let them hear”. When we come to give thanks for the harvest, do we do so with ears open to what Jesus is saying? Do we hear Jesus’ words, or do we hear just the sound of the words, as if from someone standing in a field and think they are being spoken to someone else?
The sense of touch is very strong in memories of the harvest from when I was a child. They were the days of short trousers and the stubble would leave a small boy’s legs scratched and there was nothing for it other than a splash of Dettol being put in the hot water when it came to washing before bedtime: I can still feel the sting as I washed my shins. In times when work was by hand, there were many different sources of touch: the smooth handle of the pitchfork, the coarse hessian sacks that held the grain, the tightness of the twine around the sheaves. Without touch, the harvest could not have been gathered.
Anyone who has walked through a field of grain at harvest time will recognize the actions of the disciples in Saint Luke Chapter 6 Verse 1. Luke writes, “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels”. You can feel the grain in your hand as you rub it and blow the chaff away.
Jesus was challenged about what his disciples were doing; did he not know that rubbing the ears of grain amounted to work and that work was forbidden on the Sabbath? The challenge brings a firm response from Jesus; he is Lord of the Sabbath. When we think about all the different touches, all the different senses of feeling involved in the harvest, let us remember those disciples with the ears of corn and ask ourselves whether the Lord of the Sabbath is Lord over our own lives.
Two more senses, taste and then smell. What taste would we associate with the harvest? There are tastes that are very vivid in my memory. There was weak orange squash drunk from bottles. My granddad got cross if it was made too strong; he said it was then too sweet and didn’t quench the thirst. Sometimes there would be Robinson’s Lemon Barley Water, it had an edge to it and seemed better if you were really thirsty. The taste of blackberries picked from the hedgerows around the fields still remains fresh.
The sense of taste is very important in the story of Jesus’ first miracle. Jesus goes to a wedding at Cana in Galilee and the wine runs out and he tells the servants to fill six thirty gallon jars with water. Saint John Chapter 2 Verse 9 tells us, “and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew”.
The taste of wine would always remind the servants and Jesus’ disciples of the power of Jesus to change things; the power of Jesus to take something ordinary and make it into something special. Our sense of taste can be a daily reminder not only of God’s goodness and lovingkindness to us, but of his power to change things if we are prepared to do as he tells us and to put things into his hands.
And, finally, the sense of smell. There are so many smells that go with the harvest. The smell of diesel, the smell of hot engines, the smell of hay and corn, the smell of hot dinner on the kitchen table, and the smell of apples. If there is one smell, for me, that goes with the harvest, it is that of apples. Perhaps it is all the harvest thanksgiving services I have attended, but I think it’s because harvest time was the time when the apples were ripe. In those times when fresh fruit and vegetables from all around the world were not available in the shops all year round, the fresh apples were good.
The sense of smell fits well with our responsibility to bring in a spiritual, as well as a physical harvest. Smell can permeate, change a place, change people’s thoughts. Saint Paul writes, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 2 Verse 15, “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing”. It is some responsibility that we have been given; to be the aroma of Christ, to be his presence among the communities in which we live.
Five senses: each reminding us of the good things we have received from God’s hands; each reminding us of what we should give to God.