Artwork: Vincent van Gogh, The Sower
Good morning and a very happy Thanksgiving to all.
Thanksgiving is not a Christian festival per se in that it’s not like Christmas or Easter. But of all the civic holidays, surely this one connects most intimately to what we’re all about as the Church. Gratitude, giving thanks to God, is so fundamental to the Christian life. The main thing we gather to do every Sunday, Holy Communion, is also called the Eucharist, which means ‘thanksgiving’.
Thanksgiving is also a strong affirmation of the goodness of God’s creation and a reminder to us that the goodness of the land and human labour come from the goodness of God. Whether one lives in the city or the country, Thanksgiving reminds everyone of our rural roots: our dependence on the land and the labours of our farmers and all who work in agriculture and food production.
And we see this all throughout the Bible from start to finish – it’s the true farmer’s almanac in that so much of it is about the land, labour and the fruits of the earth. For example, most of the Old Testament festivals and ceremonies had to do with the agricultural year, such as the offering of firstfruits in today’s reading from Deuteronomy.
And the themes of seedtime and harvest; planting, watering, growth; sowing and reaping – these are central images the Bible uses to describe the Christian life – our growth and maturity in Christ.
We see this in all our readings today.
Let’s begin with our Gospel from the end of John ch. 4: the sower and reaper rejoicing together.
This is a conversation between Jesus and His disciples that took place just after His interaction with the woman of Samaria at a well, a source of water. And we need to understand that background to set the scene for today’s story.
So first, just a quick review of the first part of John ch. 4:
One day, in the heat of the noonday sun, Jesus stopped by a well where a woman from Samaria had come to draw water. And the two of them were there alone.
Now in those days, a Jewish man was not supposed to speak to a woman in public; furthermore, a Jew was not supposed to speak to a Samaritan person at all because those two ethnic & religious groups were bitter enemies; and furthermore we learn in the course of their conversation, that this particular Samaritan woman had a checkered sexual past. Jesus knew that she had had five husbands; and so she would have been considered a ‘loose woman’, or perhaps a town prostitute, and thus a social outcast.
At the well, Jesus asks this woman for a drink of water and this leads into a deeper conversation about the living water that Jesus will pour out through His Holy Spirit.
The mission of Jesus, His whole purpose in coming into the world, was to pour out His Holy Spirit, a shower of blessing, so that all who believe in Him and receive His Spirit will not just get to drink this water for themselves, but will become fountains of living water - a never-ending source of fresh water that bubbles up and overflows to bring irrigation, refreshment, and thirst-quenching to others.
And this Samaritan woman was so transformed by her conversation with Jesus that she became, you might say, the first fountain of living water – and a preview of what we all can become.
She overflowed with amazement from meeting Jesus; she left her waterpots and ran back to her town, exclaiming: Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ? (John 4:29)
Here is a woman who, just an hour or so before, had been completely trapped in a life of brokenness and a social outcast. All she could do was eke out a daily existence and go to the well to draw water in the heat of the day when no one else would be there to sneer at her and mock her. Now she had become the first evangelist to the Samaritan people. And in response to her testimony, the Samaritan crowd rushed out to meet Jesus.
So in today’s Gospel, when Jesus says to the disciples, ‘Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest’, He is referring to, He’s pointing to, this approaching crowd.
The Samaritan woman shared the good news of Jesus. She scattered the seed of the gospel amongst her townsfolk; and the firstfruits of the harvest grew and ripened instantly. This crop of believers gathered to Jesus and His disciples. And after they gather to Jesus, they too are transformed by Him, as they report back to the woman: 'It is no longer because of what you have said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Saviour of the world.' (John 4.42). Friends, that is the firstfruits of a harvest that now includes you and me and everyone who has ever come to believe in Jesus.
In the agriculture of God’s kingdom, sowing and reaping coincide and happen continuously. As Jesus says, Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. Friends, what we learn here is that the joy of the Christian life is inherently linked to mission: sowing the seed of the gospel and reaping a harvest of new Christian believers.
And I must say I have found this to be true in my own ministry. The most rewarding moments in priestly ministry for me have been when I’ve been privileged to be a part of someone’s journey in coming to faith in Jesus Christ – and thanks be to God, we’ve had a few of these in the past year here at St. James.
I take no credit for this harvest – I always felt as though I was just sort of along for the ride. But it has brought me deep joy and satisfaction to witness the transforming power of Jesus Christ at work in the life of a new believer. I have experienced that power at work in myself, as I know many of you have in yourselves, but to see it at work in another is an amazing experience.
Jesus wants all His disciples to have the same heart for this that He does. He calls this harvesting, and says to us, in effect, “Until you know the joy of harvesting, you don’t know what it means to live a satisfying life. I have food to eat that you do not know about. It is to do this work.” This is what Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again for. This is the food that gives Him satisfaction and sustenance. He says, “I live to see people transformed through the gospel; and not just individuals, but families, neighbourhoods, cultures and institutions. That’s what gives me my purpose.” And friends, Jesus wants this to be our purpose too.
Jesus brought the Samaritan woman to faith. She then brought others to faith in Him. That’s the way it ought to be in the church. The church must become an evangelizing community. It should become a common expectation that new believers will come to faith in Christ here at St. James. And as I said, we have had four such people in just the past year alone. They all took our Christian Foundations and Following Jesus courses, which are available at any time to you and those you know.
Today’s reading from Galatians tells us how each one of us can contribute to the health and growth of St. James – how you can be a sower and a reaper.
We should rejoice and celebrate with the new Christians in our midst, and allow that joy to inspire us to continue sowing good seed.
We must also acknowledge that the past months (and almost two years now of this pandemic) have been discouraging in many ways.
But Paul, an early Christian writer and missionary, and the author of this letter to the Galatians, encourages the church at Galatia and us with these words: Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
Just as inexperienced gardeners might fail to water and weed in their discouragement over slow-growing seed, so Christians might fail to persevere in their service and ministry.
Just as in gardening or farming, so too in the Christian life, there is usually a delay between sowing and reaping; and the growth in-between is often imperceptible. (The Samaritan woman’s instant harvest is certainly possible, but uncommon.)
People who do good will eventually see the fruits of their labours. To persist, to not grow weary in doing good, is to sow to the Spirit, Paul says. This sowing to the Spirit means to do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
The life of the church is not, in the first place, about meetings, property management etc. (necessary though all of that is); the life of the church is about doing good to the person in front of you, giving them what is best for them, whatever love discerns to be their needs, be they material, social or spiritual.
And Paul clarifies that we are to do good, as we have opportunity. That is, you’re not individually expected to meet the needs of everyone. Rather, you’re encouraged to look around and serve those in your sphere, according to your gifts and abilities. For you, that may be volunteering with our Sunday School, Chancel Guild, Outreach Committee, Pastoral Care team, or with more informal acts of love and support for other members of St. James.
This is the lifestyle from which we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Now to be sure, this life demands some sacrifices: weeping with those who weep, giving of your time, money and talents. But the rewards are much greater, just as the harvested crop is more valuable than the cost of the seed. That’s because you get to witness changed lives, you get to see and contribute to individuals, families and communities becoming healthier and more fulfilled.
I can assure you that this will bring you a deep satisfaction. You will be a fountain of living water, a sower and a reaper, you will eat the bread of eternal life, which is to do the will of God and accomplish His work.
And part of the fun and adventure of it all is that your own personal character will be transformed through your ministry. What you get out of it – and what God gets out of it – is the person you become, which is also the person you really want to become deep down.
Your conscience will be clear, your heart happier. You’ll develop a less selfish and more satisfied character, which will serve you well in times of pressure, suffering and temptation.
Our first reading from Deuteronomy is part of a sermon by Moses that unpacks the meaning of the Ten Commandments. The short passage that we heard about the first fruits offering is part of the expansion and application of the tenth commandment: Thou shalt not covet. So the point is that offering your first fruits to God with thanksgiving is the antidote to our human temptation to covet.
Offering your first fruits of time, talent and treasure will make you more grateful and content with what God has given you. You’ll live with gratitude and be able to give thanks to God in all circumstances. So friends, in conclusion, here are some questions to consider:
I’ll close with some more words from Paul, not from Galatians, but from his Second Letter to the Corinthians:
Friends, the point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. […] He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. (2 Corinthians 9:6–9, 10-11 ESV)