The extravagance of the undeserved

In the body of this sermon there is reference to the series of sermons preached in the preceding months and to the pictures that were used in the sanctuary for each of those Sundays. Some of the pictures from each of those Sundays were used to decorate the sanctuary this Sunday. A handout was created for each Sunday in the series showing the pictures and themes of the message. Their content was posted on this blog as Creation, Garden, Fall, and Violence. The Noah pictures have not yet been posted.

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10 / Lectionary 15, Year A
July 16, 2017

Matthew 13:1-9: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”

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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

In searching for pictures for the bulletin this morning I found a painting of a vaguely Nordic and somewhat effeminate Jesus, dressed in a pale orangish-red tunic with a pale blue wrap. It’s the kind of soft, sentimental Jesus that irritates me. But I considered it for the bulletin because the cloak around his shoulder contained seed that he is scattering into the earth. Set next to the parable of the sower and the seed, the painting does two very important things: it puts the focus back on the sower, and it reminds us that in this parable we are talking about Jesus.

We keep thinking that the subject of this parable is the different kinds of soil. And when Jesus talks about this parable later, in private with his disciples, he will talk about the various soils to describe the things that cause the word of the kingdom to bear no fruit. But the meaning of this parable isn’t about what kind of soil we are – or should be. The parable is about a sower casting seed. And the question that matters is “How is this like the kingdom?”

The punch line in the story is the incredible harvest. Though seeds fall on the path and are gobbled up by birds, and seeds fall on bad soil and gain no root, and seeds fall among thorns and never bear fruit – though all kinds of seeds are wasted and lost in the act of sowing, yet the seeds that find good soil erupt in overwhelming plenty. A normal harvest was about four-fold. A good harvest maybe five. But this harvest is 30, 60 and 100 fold!

This is as if a man goes to the casino with a bucketful of nickels, and some get spent on drinks, some are given as tips and, in his drunken state, coins fall to the floor and then, behold, the alarm bells go off and he wins a million dollars!

Why is this like the kingdom?

Do you feel the awkwardness? A little bit of outrage? This is not fair. He doesn’t deserve it. It makes you want to argue with the parable. “But, but, but…”

But there are no buts. The kingdom is like this. And before we start talking about the moral qualities of the various soils, we have to deal with the extravagance of the undeserved.

Jesus is tossing out the gifts of God like clowns casting candy to children at a small town Fourth of July parade. They are not meted out one at a time to the deserving; they are tossed freely and recklessly to all. Abundant graces.

Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus said:

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

We kind of stop listening after Jesus says “love your enemies” – but what is the reason we are told to show steadfast love and kindness to our enemies? Because God shows steadfast love and kindness to his enemies: “He makes the sun rise on the just and the unjust.” God doesn’t parcel out his mercies one at a time according to our deserving; he lavishes them on the world. The Sun rises. The rains come. The earth puts forth its bounty. Summer follows spring. Spring follows winter. All the promises spoken to the world at the time of Noah abide. The rainbow stands in the sky. Thieves may punish thieves in the natural order of things, but there is no lightening striking down the wicked. “He makes the sun rise on the just and the unjust.”

The reign of God is extravagant mercy. It will be tossed out on Samaritans and Ethiopians and Gentiles. It will be tossed out upon Roman Centurions and Synagogue elders. It will be tossed out on friend and foe alike. It will be cast like a net into the sea that hauls up a boatload of fish. Jesus will feast at the home of tax-gatherers. He will touch lepers and feed five thousand from five small bits of bread. Women of questionable reputation will burst into the house to weep at his feet.

The reign of God is extravagant mercy. The men who worked only an hour will receive a full day’s wage like all the rest. The sons who shamed their father and betrayed their family will be welcomed home. The sins of the whole world will be lifted away – the deserving and the undeserving.

This is the story we have been telling through the pictures that are here on the walls:

[Creation] God speaks and the word creates a good and beautiful world.

[Garden] God bends down to form humans from the dust of the earth and breathes into them the breath of life, forming us as creatures designed to be in relationship. But that relationship with all the other creatures of the earth is not a full and equal partnership, so God creates a woman from a portion of that first human’s own body.

[Fall] But humanity turns away from God, refuses to trust God’s word, grasps at the apple, and the fabric of the creation is torn. We who were made for connection are alienated from one another.

[Violence] But violence spreads. God comes to appeal to Cain when he faces the choice whether to hate his brother or seek reconciliation. And though it ends in murder, God does not turn from him. Lamech kills a man for wounding him and boasts that he will avenge himself 77 fold. By the time of Noah, God laments that the earth was filled with violence and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. ”

[Noah] But in that moment when all life deserves to be wiped from the face of the earth, when the whole experiment should be sunk beneath the primordial waters – in that moment God chooses to save.

Radical grace. Underserved mercies. Rain for the just and the unjust. God’s love and faithfulness for all nations. This is the kingdom. This is the work of God: to redeem God’s world, to create again a world where every heart is filled with God’s spirit, where every heart is turned towards others in faithfulness and love.

A table where all are welcome.

Extravagant mercy. Reckless, wanton, unmerited mercy. Mercy scattered upon the deserving and undeserving that results in a world filled to overflowing with grace and kindness and justice and joy.

And what shall we do with such a kingdom?

That’s really the question, isn’t it? What shall we do with such a kingdom? What shall we do with such an extravagant and gracious God? What shall we do with the promise of mercy reigning over all? With the promise of endless nickels pouring over the floor?

We can live it or reject it, but we can’t change it. We can’t turn it into moralisms. We can’t turn it into candy only for the good boys and girls. We can’t make the parable say “be good dirt,” any more than we can say “be good slot machines.” It’s not about the dirt; it’s about this amazing and foolish sower and the wondrous, unexpected harvest, and whether we will rejoice and live the joy or turn away.

But even if we turn away, there are seeds that will fall into good soil and will bear fruit a hundred fold.