What causes someone to invest themselves in a cause or an opportunity or a moment when they would have just as easily opted out? What changes their hearts? What motivates our bones to get up and get moving, our brains to fire over a particular conundrum, or our energy to coalesce in a way that matters to ourselves and others?
And why can’t we bottle this for times of great uncertainty and unrest?
When you think about the times in which you were finally *moved* to do something, anything, —what comes to mind?
Chances are, something was at stake for you.
Chances are, there was a larger vision of which you saw yourself a vital part.
Do you remember those exercises in elementary gym class with the big parachute? Everyone would grab one part of a circle of colorful fabric and the teacher would throw the ball in the center. You’d pull and tug along with others standing around the circle and that ball would go airborne. You’d keep it flying in the middle of that rainbow because it was a beautiful thing—everyone pulling and the ripples making the ball roll and bounce.
Today we are back in the vineyard. If you’ve not spent a lot of time among grape vines, you are invited to imagine a pumpkin patch or apple orchard, since those seem a bit more common in these parts. A man has two sons, and we already know that Jesus—or rather, Matthew’s Jesus, is going to share a parable of import. A man has two sons and a field that needs work. Perhaps he had a harvest to bring in, or maybe he had plants to prune, or weeds to pull. I don’t know. Most farmers know that there is quite a bit of labor that is needed just to get to the point of harvest. The weather is one thing; labor is another. Nature provides only so much.
So—two sons. Two different ways to respond to the father’s request. The first son thinks to himself, “No way am I going to work today.” Maybe he’s tired, maybe he’s overwhelmed, maybe he’s feeling lazy, overburdened, over-asked, or just moody. We don’t know. But he tells his father, “I will not go.”
And then he changes his mind. What makes him rouse himself to care? What makes him put on his shoes, find his hoe or sack or bucket, and meet the others in the field? What inspires his change of heart?
The second son replies to his father, “I will go,” but he doesn’t show up. He doesn’t appear in the corn rows in early part of the day or as the sun is going down, when those other workers are putting away the equipment. He seems to change his mind too—or maybe he never changed his mind because, after he had pacified his father with his enthusiastic “yes,” he figured he was good. No need to go…someone else will be there to draw the plough or pick the apples or stomp the grapes. Maybe he got distracted or maybe he found something better to do or maybe he thought he wasn’t *really* needed, or maybe he just figured no one would notice his absence. Who knows? He reminds me of a friend who says “yes” to plans to meet up but then cancels because she got a better invitation or better opportunity.
Matthew’s Jesus asks the disciples, “Which of these two sons did the will of his father?” Was it the one who said, “no,” but then came? Or was it the one who said, “yes,” but was a no-show?
The disciples reply, “The first.” The one who said, “no” but then came anyway. The one who showed up, got his hands dirty, and plugged away anyway. The one who changed his mind and believed that something was at stake.
Over the summer, I read a book by Jodi Lynn Anderson called, Peaches. Published 15 years ago, it is a young adult novel is set in Georgia, in the Darlington family peach orchard. Mr. Darlington is going through a divorce, while simultaneously trying to raise a teenage daughter and keep the family peach orchard solvent. Birdie is his daughter who is a bit introverted but very dedicated to keeping the orchard afloat. While her father begins to suffer from the effects of a depression, she manages both the orchard’s finances and the peach trees themselves. She helps the migrant workers and keeps the laborers morale up and steady. Two other young women find themselves somewhat coerced to work on the farm: Leeda, a wealthy cousin who, initially, could care less about picking peaches in the hot sun, and Murphy, who comes late to the farm as a delinquent who has been causing all kinds of mischief both in her life and in the lives of others.
Powerful transformation occurs as the girls grow in relationship with both the farm and with each other. As bankruptcy, an early frost, and a predatory, neighboring developer threaten the farm and the peach trees, Murphy—the least invested—finds herself increasingly wondering about the Darlington Farm, the workers, and the existence of peaches. And this happens, in some ways, because of her deepening relationship to the other workers and to the Darlington family, of which she has become close. She also begins to see all of what Birdie is trying to carry and she begins to tend a long-neglected family rose bush, which may as well represent Murphy herself.
What makes someone care enough to pitch in and serve God, even when strong forces legitimately or consistently push against that personal investment?
What helps someone to believe that working in a vineyard, orchard, pumpkin patch, or church is worth the time, expense, and near-certain inconvenience?
What makes a community, a cause, a vision, a movement, a nation, –or a church– worth saving?
What is the neglected “rose bush” that is worth tending at the expense of sweat, thorns, unrelenting sun, or thirst?
Yesterday, I attended the Central Atlantic Conference’s Annual Meeting. It was all-virtual for the first time and it might have been easy to opt out. But many chose to “opt in”—and our Zoom gathering had well over 150 or so folks from churches across the Conference. Our own delegates, Linda and Chuck Myers, were present, as well as many of our siblings and leaders in Christ. The speaker, Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear, from the Pacific-Northwest Conference, encouraged all of us to deepen our relationships in this time as part of larger church vitality. Specifically, she told the tale of two baskets. One is loosely woven—yes, the basket is beautiful in an avant-garde kind of way, but you wouldn’t want to use it to carry Legos or water, for that matter. The second basket is tightly woven—the reeds are united in a particular pattern and because of the tight weave, the basket can hold water as the reeds swell together. Rev. Stang-Tregear said something very pivotal for the church in these times: that when we are woven into deeper relationships with one another, when we prioritize this, we can “hold” more together. Like the basket that is intricately woven, we can hold “more” together than any one of us on our own. And because of deep relationship, we actually want to do this.
Rev. Stang-Tregear also said that the key to deepening relationships is to provide opportunities for individuals to share their testimony or “story” with others as essential to building community. Part of her work with church vitality is to help people to see that, by sharing individual stories, relationships can not help but to grow and deepen, as connections form where they didn’t exist before.
We know this, and yet, we find it difficult to practice. We are, in some ways, more isolated than we ever have been. We are, most of us, confined to our own families or family “pods” out of sheer safety. In addition, to sit in front of a screen is more work than some feel they can manage. To worship in virtual spaces or to assemble virtually to discuss some topic may seem disjointed, unnatural, and off-putting. And yet, we persist. Why? What connections do we seek to preserve? What encounters to we hope to have even under these changed conditions?
What happens when one or many choose to opt out of relationship or opt out of caring for the orchard? What happens to God’s harvest when there are too few to encourage, to steady the plow, or to warm the trees from a premature frost?
What happens to YOU when you feel like a neglected rose bush or left to wither in the sun?
Jesus tells the disciples that the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of others. The Darlington farm was worth saving in the eyes of Birdie, the migrant workers, and the peaches that flourished despite every imaginable obstacle. But it took Murphy, Leeda, and others to add their efforts to the mix and to care, especially when the owner of the farm became deeply discouraged. Likewise, in Matthew’s world, the so-called “sinners” saw that God’s kin-dom and vision was worth saving and worth working for, likely because they had experienced first-hand that something important and essential was at stake.
What about us?
What relationships could we deepen—this week– with ourselves, our church, and our communities? What would strengthen God’s harvest here in Montgomery County and further God’s vision in this world that we cherish? Perhaps we might prayerfully reflect upon these questions and consider the ways in which we might relationally support our beloved community in these changed and uncertain times, finding ways to build connection and to “carry the load” with our siblings in Christ.
For, we remember that Jesus tells his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38)
This way, when God calls out to us, we will realize that we are all necessary, wanted, and vital, now more than ever.