Our Scripture reading today is one of many in the Bible which use images from harvest-time. Jesus, especially, used the image of harvest as the symbol of the coming of the Son of Man to judge the world – a symbol he took over from John the Baptist, who had said that the Messiah was coming, "his winnowing fork in his hand."
Well, we know what they meant, but I wonder if we feel the power – and the hope – in those images, since we are so estranged from the cycle of seasons, of the sowing and reaping and so on which is the immemorial pattern of civilized life. Even those of us who grew up in a day when far more people lived on farms than now had conveniences that were changing people's relationships with the land – tractors and threshers and combines and so much else.
And as for those who have grown up since – well, I had a friend from New York in college who had never seen corn on the cob. When first served that way to him, he put the ear of corn in his mouth end-first, like a hot dog. And I would dare say there are those today, even in our charming rural community, who wouldn't know how to shuck corn – or who have never eaten home-canned vegetables – who haven't even weeded a garden.
So maybe we miss some of the impact of all these parables that talk about the last judgement and the fate of the world in terms of harvest – ‘cause harvesting – and especially, its completion, the "harvest home" – is not something that most of us can relate to any more.
For back in the day – by which, I mean not only when the eldest of us was young, but from long before Xt all the way up to modern times – the entire community lived by the rhythm of agricultural life. Most people were engaged in growing or herding or hunting or gathering food, fiber, and so on for their own use: the "family farm" was not a business, but what actually fed the family that lived on it. Those few who were not directly engaged in growing their own food were mostly in trades that supplied those who did grow food with tools and supplies, and even those whose livelihoods were in no way related to scratching the soil for a living – the educated, the artistic, the wealthy, the soldier – kept gardens.
And EVERYBODY took part in the harvest, farmer or no, for all hands were needed when the time was right. The origin of "fall break" in our school calendar has nothing to do with educational theory, and EVERYTHING to do with the need for "all hands" to help with the harvest. (Up till recent times, the schools in Maine gave a whole week off for fall break – because the kids were needed to help with the potato crop.)
And when the harvest started, everybody worked almost non-stop until it was all "in." Harvesters worked into the night by moonlight to get the crop in from the fields; the womenfolk had to feed the men working in the fields. After the crop was in, the grain had to be threshed, then winnowed, then stored away safely. The fruit had to be preserved or stored – in New England, they used to keep the upstairs bedrooms unheated so they could use one as a "pie safe," for the women and girls would bake all the pies they would eat over the entire winter & spring in order to use up the crop, and store them upstairs – as well as making jams, jellies, preserves, and so on.
The men and boys had to slaughter all the animals they weren't going to feed over the winter -- the hides went to the tannery, the bristles to make brushes – joints of meat had to be smoked or salted, sausages made and hung in chimneys or smokehouses. Garden vegetables were hung from rafters, root vegetables stored in cellars, grapes and olives pressed for wine and oil, even the grain stalks put away for fodder or straw.
Every pair of hands was needed, including friends & visitors, and all other business was suspended until every last thing was put away – for on the success of the harvest depended the survival of each family – and of the community as a whole.
It was a frantic, exhausting, exciting time in the life of the community – and when it was done – when it was all in, the whole harvest "home" – then the partying began. For the first & only time in the year, there was enough to eat and too much – people who never ate fresh meat from one year's end to the next ate huge meals of beef and poultry. Rich people kept open house for their neighbors, and people dropped in to eat and drink and acknowledge that everybody – high or low – depended upon each other, and owed each other respect. The season from Thanksgiving to New Year's that we jokingly call "the eating season" has been that way for thousands of years – long before the Christian Church put the celebration of Christmas onto the Winter Blowout.
People partied not only because there was plenty of food to party with, but because for the first & only time in the whole year, there was almost nothing to do. The fields lay fallow with nothing to tend, few livestock were wintered over, all the wood had been cut – even serfs and slaves had time off – for a while: until winter set in hard, when the family & community had to go back to rationing their substance, being careful how they used food and fuel, not knowing how long it would be before the warm weather returned and the spring planting could begin it all over again.
Now, I go to some length to paint this picture because in our day, we have a fundamentally negative view of the doctrine of the return of Christ and the last judgment. We are apt to view the promised – or should I say, threatened – return of Christ as a fit of pique on God's part: as if he were a tetchy father getting more and more annoyed at the rumpus going on at the children's slumber party and shouting from the top of the stairs, "DON'T MAKE ME COME DOWN THERE!"
But to those who lived by the cycle of the seasons and whose hopes were set on the next harvest, the images used by Jesus and others in the Bible should be seen as fundamentally POSITIVE. The fact that there IS a harvest means that existence is not pointless. It means that all the labor and worry and pain of living has a goal. The promise of harvest is the promise of FULFILLMENT: God will not finish off the world because he's tired of it; rather, God has promised to complete the world – to make creation what it always aspired to be. The harvest says there is life beyond this life, that all our deepest hopes for love and joy can come true.
And just like EVERYBODY took part in the harvest, so everybody can take part in the new Day that God will bring to pass. Toward that end we labor for our Lord, remembering how he said "the fields are white unto harvest" – trying to do good and persuade others of the goodness of God and the rescue of sinners by Jesus Christ.
And after the harvest comes the party – the eating and the drinking and the happy meetings. God invites his children to an everlasting party when the harvest of souls is completed, compared to which our earthly celebrations are only a dim shadow.
We are told to watch and pray, to earnestly desire the coming of Christ, to hasten the Day in its coming. And every time we pray, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," we are praying that the great day of harvest will come at last.
"Harvest Home" is a more appealing way of thinking about the fate of the world than "Doomsday," I think. Ah, but Jesus did say, "not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven." And toward that end, many of the harvest images in the New Testament are given in warning. For we are not only laborers in God's field – we are also the crop he hopes to raise. And while he knows that some of the grain will multiply a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold – largely because of differing circumstances in the soil in which the grain is planted – nevertheless, there are also weeds in the field, as our reading this morning talks about.
The world is full of evil as well as good, and there are bad people as well as good people, faithless people as well as faithful people. And we wonder why this shd be so, since God is said to care for us so much. But Jesus's story explains this:
Another parable he put before them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?' He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.' The servants said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he said, 'No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
God lets the good and the bad grow side by side, and will separate them out come the harvest. Like a good farmer, he will save every last bit of the harvest that is of any use at all – even what we would think today is beneath our notice – but weeds are weeds, and fit only for burning.
And so the first concern that we should have as we contemplate the Day of Judgment is that we should earnestly desire to be good grain – to belong to Xt, and show some kind of gain for his kingdom. The amount of our achievement for him is not what's important – only that we should belong to him and serve him as we can. For then we shall pass through all difficulties and dangers and be gathered to him forever, to know the joy of his Harvest Home feast and receive the reward that awaits all those who have loved his appearing.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
For the Hymn of Response, we'll be singing that old classic Come, Ye Thankful People, Come -- one of the most theologically sound hymns there are (and, of course, hallowed by the memory of singing it in childhood).