With binoculars in hand, I entered the field seeking a better angle to see the mix of sparrows stealthily foraging in a brush pile. The field, jointly owned and managed by the conservation department and a local farmer, had evidently lain fallow for a season. I quietly walked around the brush pile, identifying white-crowned and white-throated sparrows. After the sparrow pack moved on, I turned and faced the field.
A thought occurred to me. What if someone unexpectedly gave me this field in its current condition with the expectation that I would deliver a harvest? What would I do?
Whatever I were to do would involve a long, slow process. You cannot give me a field one day and expect that the next day I will produce bushels of corn or truckloads of pumpkins. Unless I climb a fence and steal the neighbor’s corn, I will have nothing to show for some time. Starting from this point, it will take months to evidence any noticeable harvest. Cultivation takes time and the passing of seasons and requires patience without cynicism or resignation.
And since I know little about farming, I would have much learning to do. I’d want to know about my field—soil studies, agricultural studies, climate studies, water studies, and market studies. There’s no sense planting banana trees in Missouri or rice in Arizona. I’d need to learn from other farmers. I’d talk with them, watch them, ask their advice, see what works for them, and pattern my work after theirs. Yet studying and learning does not bring a harvest.
I’d get to work, doing something each day to move toward the harvest. The kind and volume of work that fill my days would differ from season to season. Sometimes the work would involve tilling the soil, enriching the soil, planting the seed at the right time. Other times involve cultivation, watering, protecting from pests and rodents and weeds. Other times require harvesting at perfect ripeness and readiness, and then immediately doing the “groundwork” for the following season.
And I’d have to attend to pacing and rhythm. Some periods require repressively long hours of urgent work and other periods involve simply reading and learning more. There are times of ripeness and readiness I dare not miss, seasons of unusual and one-time-only opportunity. Some evenings I’d need lights as I worked through the night, not because that’s my preferred schedule, but because the ripeness of the crop or the changing weather requires it.
And, of course, I’d have to learn to live with mixed and inconsistent results. There are good seasons and bad, harvests that exceed expectations and others that disappoint. I’d take the long view and trust that if I repeated the right actions year after year, that harvests will come, some large, some mediocre, and some small.
Scripture is replete with images of seeds and sowers, farmers and soils, seedtime and harvest, vines and branches. The biblical writers remind us of the patience and hard work required, and of the risks of birds and rocks and weeds. They also steady our fears with the promise and hope of harvests, some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold, and some a hundredfold.
These metaphors describe our souls. We’ve each been given a field. Our personal work is difficult and lifelong, the risks are many, and fruitfulness is expected. How do we till and re-till the soil, plant the right seeds, protect against the weeds and pests, and offer fruit pleasing to our Lord? God’s is a Spirit of assurance, of vision, of sustenance, a present help in trouble. We do not garden alone. God is the Lord of the harvest. And each of us has been given a mission field, the people who surround us, our network of friends, relatives, and strangers whom God intends to reach through us with the good news and hope of Christ.
These metaphors also speak of our congregations. How are we doing with the hard work of preparation, of cultivating the hearts and minds and souls of people? And each church has a mission field. Each has been entrusted with a field, the community of people that surround us, the large numbers of people who do not know Christ. The mission field also includes countless people who suffer from loneliness, poverty, racism, or violence. This field provides the mission and purpose for our work, and we serve in obedience to Christ and out of love for neighbor and for God. How are we learning about this field and how best to bring forth its yield? How are we protecting, and cultivating, and caring for the mission field? The mission field includes the people in the community and around the world whom we’re particularly equipped and called to reach through service or invitation.
The United Methodist Church, with millions of members, tens of thousands of churches across the continents, and hundreds of clinics and schools and billions of dollars in material resources, also has a mission field. Imagine the possibilities! Imagine the expectations God has for us! Imagine broken lives restored, communities transformed, people healed, suffering relieved, homes rebuilt, hope restored, unjust systems changed forever, souls graced by the love of God. We dare not turn our back on the responsibility given us, the mission field entrusted to us. May every ministry we initiate, every program we prune, every practice we learn, every decision we make, every prayer we offer turn us toward the mission field and toward the rich harvest God intends through us.
How does your congregation study the mission field in your context? How do you study the field and learn the practices that bring a harvest of changed lives? How is your congregation equipped to reach mission fields far from your community?
For more, pray your way through Galatians 6:7-10 or Luke 8:4-15 or Luke 10:1-17. Use The Message for additional perspectives to our usual readings of these passages.