By: Rev. Patrick Malphrus, Moderator

Last year’s theme, chosen by Dr. McGregor, was “Preparing the Church for the Return of Christ Jesus”, and what a fitting theme! Dr. McGregor, I believe, chose this theme before anybody knew what Covid was. Before we came to use terms like “social distancing” or “flatten the curve”. Oh, what a time. Toilet paper roamed free on the plains. There were no gasoline shortages. Beaches and vacation destinations were open, and having lots of Corona, to some people, was a very good thing.

Alas, how all of that changed. And with it, Dr. McGregor’s theme and challenge became even more fitting. Last year we, as a General Synod, were challenged to “focus our attention on faith as Christ-like deeds over against faith as mere confession.” In other words, and I’ll be much more terse than Rob Roy would ever be, talk is cheap. This faith we claim to possess is not manifest simply in theoretical ideas or lofty systems of theology, but rather, has real-life implications.

Further, we were challenged to “engage our faith and explore the extended meanings of our confession”. What an appropriate and fitting challenge this was when it was offered, and remains to this very day, especially in light of the business that lies before us, for we find ourselves in a predicament.

Let’s be honest about it. We face several issues this year, don’t we? Issues that require us to answer some really tough questions about our identity. About who we are, what we have been, and where we believe the Lord wants us to go. And the fact is that what we do or don’t do as a court will, by default, answer these tough questions, whether we want to or not.

We face issues that Satan would love to use to sift us like wheat, to use Jesus’ words to Peter, and leave us disjointed, focusing only on ourselves and our internal problems as a denomination, instead of uniting in the Spirit, to see the Gospel of Jesus Christ advanced.

And when you combine these things with the realities of COVID? Though we may be coming out of the time of COVID, and please, Lord, let it be so, I’ve come from the People’s Republic of Virginia, but now am breathing the free air of my home state, South Carolina. But even though we may be coming out of the time of COVID, we’re still dealing with COVID’s aftermath. With its angst and uncertainty.

And then throw in what’s going on politically and socially in the world around us, the moral degradation of society, as we know it. The collapse of Western Civilization. How our culture mourns over that which should give it joy, and rejoices over that which should make it weep.

But wait, there’s more. Forget about society at large. Throw in what’s going on in the visible church! And no, I don’t just mean the big, mainline denominations that have been forsaking Christ and God’s Word for years. Admittedly, we in the ARP have to deal with some serious and difficult issues as a denomination. Things like denominational restructuring and finding a solution to our retirement crisis. But Fathers and Brothers, praise be to God that we aren’t dealing with some of the fundamental theological issues that others are facing. Others who, in terms of conservative Presbyterianism, were previously considered to be of the same ilk as we!

We’re living through what many have called “The Great AWOKEning”, where so many compete to be the “wokest” in all the land, embracing social justice cause, after social justice cause, rewriting history, and in many cases, destroying it. How shameful. But worse than that, many churches and denominations are arguing over the clear meaning of God’s Word, and telling lies so hellish they smell like smoke. And if you don’t know what “woke” means, come see me and we’ll talk.

Put all of these things together and what do you get?  You get here, today, June 8th, 2021 and the reality that this is the world we’re living in. But, this is also the field of labor the Lord has called us to. And its with our field of labor in mind that I would point you to this year’s theme, which is a Scripture passage, really.

I want to give you the Biblical context of this year’s theme. Luke chapter 9, beginning in verse 57 says:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’  And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has not a place to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Yet another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’” (ESV)

Do you see what’s going on here? This isn’t a complicated text that we’ve come to. Jesus and His disciples are going along the road. Which road? Well, if you were to rewind and read verse 51 you’d find that pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry where it says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We’re on that road. The road to Jesus’ suffering and death, but also glory. And Jesus went along this road for you, Christian.

But nevertheless, Jesus and his disciples are making their way down the road and first someone comes to Jesus and says “I will follow you wherever you go.” Did this man, who we do not know, know where Jesus was going? I think not. Or at least I doubt he knew why Jesus was going to Jerusalem.

Even so, Jesus replied as he did, saying that foxes have dens, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has not a place to lay his head. Fascinatingly enough, it’s not by mistake that if you were to rewind even further in Luke 9, you’d find the disciples arguing over who would be greatest in the Kingdom. Well, needless to say, the man did not, after all, follow where Jesus went.

The passage continues by saying that as they went along, instead of someone coming to Jesus, Jesus went to someone and said “Follow me.” This man used the excuse of having to bury his father, to which Jesus replied “Let the dead bury their own. You go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” Still another came, proclaiming a desire to follow Christ and said he, indeed, would follow Jesus. But that he had to first go and say goodbye to his family.

And Jesus’ reply to that man in verse 62 is our theme for Synod. Verse 62 says, Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” And, so, not for the first time, Jesus used agricultural imagery to convey a very important message. A message and a warning that we should all pay very close attention to.

I’m not exactly a stranger to agriculture, myself, you know. One of my grandfather’s was a farmer, by trade. My other grandfather was a farmer, too, and then ran a country store. At one time almost everyone in the South was involved in farming in some way, and my family has been here a long time.

My dad went to Clemson University to study agriculture, but as my mother, a University of South Carolina grad says, he went to the University of South Carolina for his higher education and then went into School Administration.

So, I’m no stranger to agriculture. Why, though it has drastically changed, I grew up surrounded by peach orchards in Spartanburg, SC, I know my way around a tractor. I’ve tossed square bales of hay on the back of a trailer, and let me tell you, you don’t know manual labor until you’ve done that.

But over the last 4 years, I’ve had the honor of serving as pastor at Old Providence up in Spottswood, VA. Founded in 1742, next year we celebrate 280 years. God has been faithful all these years and we continue to grow.

We’re situated in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, which was called the breadbox of the confederacy and had more mills per capita than anywhere in America during the war between the states. And to this day, farming is a major part of that community and its surrounding area.

And while I wasn’t exactly a stranger to farming before going to Old Providence, I have come to understand farming much better. Of farmers, at least. Especially in relation to putting your hand to the plow, as it were. For you see, when it comes to crops, whether it’s corn that needs to be planted or harvested, or hay that needs to be cut and baled. Or even chickens, turkey, cattle, or sheep, no matter what variety of farmer you are, when it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work, you do it.

In times of planting or harvest, farming doesn’t wait, you see. When you start something, you finish it. And if problems surface along the way. If a machine breaks down. If an animal wanders off. If a storm blows in. Or, if like the first winter we were there, everything freezes solid, and you end up having to haul water to the animals, with farming you have to make a way.

Farmers are different people because of this. Different in all the right ways. Those who are used to putting their hand to the plow don’t wait around for someone else to address the problems they face. They don’t turn their head to the side and hope their problems disappear. They don’t go looking for someone else to blame and just lament their circumstances. They don’t leave their field and go find someone else’s because it’s greener. They understand it’s greener because that’s where the manure is.

Interestingly enough, during my second summer at Old Providence, we had quite a dry spell and one farmer did say that in the past during droughts folks would say “we must not be paying the preacher.” But in all seriousness, when trouble comes, farmers roll up their sleeves and get to work. They put their hand to the plow and don’t look back.

One of the reasons they are like this is that they know what happens when you do look back. In short, things get sideways real quick. If you start one job and then start thinking about another, and leave the one for the other, you’ll never get anything done. And soon enough, neglect takes its toll, and the harvest is bitter, indeed.

While the machinery has changed, and while yields have drastically increased, the principle remains the same as it did when Jesus first said these words in our passage, and the warning remains true that the one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back isn’t fit for the kingdom of God. But in all these things we should be encouraged.

In spite of the difficulties we face as a denomination. In spite of the fact that we’re tempted to conclude that the field to which we’ve been called is nothing but rocks and thistles, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 9 also remains true—the harvest is plentiful, indeed. Will we be workers? Having put our hand to the plow, will we look back?

Let’s be honest. We are tempted to look back. I don’t know about all of my fellow pastors, but for me COVID really was a time like no other. We pastors had to reinvent the way we do ministry, become social media pros, computer scientists and sound technicians. We weren’t allowed into hospitals. And that was harder than you know. We couldn’t be in our peoples’ homes. And because of all of that change, quarantine was no vacation for us.

And pastor, if quarantine was a vacation for you? Well, the current state of your congregation probably reflects it.

Yes, we’re tempted to look back. And elders, you’ve been tempted, too. Are tempted, in fact. Tempted to be passive and just “let the preacher do it”, and as a result, not fulfill your vows.

As it relates to denominational affairs we’re tempted in all sorts of ways, too. We’re tempted to protect interests. Tempted to be angry. Tempted to accuse and impugn motives. Tempted to see one another as opponents, as if we are on different sides. Tempted to despair.

But instead of despair, let our hearts be filled with delight at the challenges we face. Not because we must relish the necessary work, this is hard stuff, after all.

But even so, let us delight in the fact that God is good, and that by His hand we have the opportunity to be laborers. We have the assurance that God is sovereign and that his command to us is sure. That if we seek His Kingdom first, and His righteousness, that all other things will be added to us.

Let us also look upon each other as co-laborers in the field, not opponents. There’s work to be done and the more we work together, the quicker our work is accomplished, and the better it is done.

Instead of fighting or accusing, let us love one another and realize that while we may be tempted to bicker and argue and draw lines of territory or whatever else may happen at Synod, the world outside doesn’t know we have retirement plan problems. Our children don’t care that we’re considering restructuring.

The society around us that is wondering and wandering and groping in darkness needs to see the light of Jesus, and this must be our motivation for why we do what we do. Is it easy? No. As Dwight Eisenhower said “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles away from the corn field.” If theology is just an idea or philosophy to you, then church seems easy, too.

Putting your hand to the plow is never easy. But I’ve learned from my people that loving the work makes all the difference. Fathers and brothers, let us love our work. And let us remember that whether you are a pastor who has taken vows, or an elder who has taken vows, it’s all the same. In doing so you have put your hand to the plow.

Don’t look back.