Sunday, July 10, 2011

Crazy Generous: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston AB
The Fourth Sunday of Pentecost, 10 Juy 2011
Lectionary Year A Proper 15
Gen 25:19-34; Ps 65:1-13, Rom 8:1-11, Mt 13:1-9, 18-23

"And he told them many things in parables, saying 'A sower went out to sow'" (Mt 13:3)

For years I’ve read and heard that Jesus used parables to convey heavenly truths to ordinary people in everyday language. It’s said as a commonplace that He used agricultural metaphors to reach an audience of peasants and small farmers. I get that, and I know that I’m a city person who doesn’t know beans about beans, or about any other crop, for that matter. However, I think I understand today’s gospel reading from Matthew, the parable of the Sower and the Seed, because like most middle class North Americans, I understand grass. As I write this, I can hear the whir of my neighbour’s sprinklers as the cool of a summer evening descends, and I worry about the yellow patches on my own front lawn. From my study window I can see the bare patch of dirt that my wife carefully weeded, raked, and prepped before spreading grass seed on it last week. Nearby is the giant bag of peat moss that we are going to spread on the grass to enrich the soil, not far from the expensive compost maker I recently bought from Home Depot so we can better divert our green waste into the garden. I couldn’t grow food to feed myself if my life depended on it, but at least I know that you have to work hard to grow things, and so I think I am safe in saying that the sower in the parable is an idiot.

How could you not think that? Here’s a guy who has a bunch of expensive and precious seeds (I am sure that it was harder to get seeds in Jesus’ time than it is now, and I wince when I buy grass seed at the local garden centre) and doesn’t care where it lands. Rocks? The packed hard dirt of the pathway? Thorns and nettles? Bare ground scorched by the sun? Whatever. It’s all good. Really? Would anyone hear hire this guy as your gardener or lawn care man? If you think about it for just a moment, the parable, taken literally, is ridiculous, and I am sure that it’s first audiences, who sowed and reaped as if their lives depended on it (for they did) would have thought it was ridiculous too. And maybe that’s the point. Because there is something about the generosity of God that is ridiculous in its liberality, and that is cause for thanks.

In the second half of today’s gospel reading, Jesus spells out the meaning. The sower’s seed is “the word of the kingdom” (Mt 13:18). So what is “the word of the kingdom”? When Christians talk about “the word” we are talking about scripture, about the message of love and forgiveness that God reveals to humanity across the ages through the writing of prophets, evangelists, apostles as received and understood by the church. It’s not a coincidence, and it’s certainly relevant to our text today, that the Canadian Bible Society has for its logo the a figure sowing seed. *http://* You may have seen that figure on the spine of the little bibles that CBS has been distributing to members of the Canadian Forces for some years now. CBS invests all of its energy and fundraising to distribute bibles and other scripture materials as widely as possible – to soldiers, to Olympic athletes, to convicts – because, like the Gideons, it believes that the word of God can changes and save lives. Think of all those Gideon bibles lying in hotel room drawers around the world, and think of the energy and money it took to get them there. Now ask yourself how many of those bibles are actually read in times of spiritual need or crisis, and you are a step closer to understanding the parable.

“The word of the kingdom” can also be taken to mean Jesus himself, who elsewhere, in John’s gospel, is described as the Word. Jesus as the embodiment of the word and as the personification of God’s love and forgiveness spent three years teaching and preaching to all manner of people, and while some listened, like the “great crowds” we hear of at the beginning of today’s gospel, not all did. In the chapter before our reading today, in Matthew 12, a series of hostile encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders of the day is described. For example, Jesus drives a demon out of one man, and the Pharisees explain it as Jesus being in league with demons (Mt 12:22-28) since they are already hostile to Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath. In Matthew 12 we see Jesus all too aware that his words and actions will not be effective everywhere. Jesus knows that some will welcome his message and thus be good soil, but others will reject it, and thus be bad soil. The point of Jesus’ work, however, like the work of the Sower, is that he is indiscriminate. Jesus does not pick and choose his audiences. He knows that some will welcome his message, and others will reject it. God is like the Sower in that respect, broadcasting his message as far and wide as possible, letting it fall where it will. The inherent generosity of that message is seen elsewhere in Jesus’ parables, f or example in the owner of the vineyard who rewards all labourers equally despite how hard they word (Mt 20:1-16). It is a crazy kind of generosity, but God has the right to be crazy generous. As the owner of the vineyard says in that parable, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Mt 20:15).

The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, like the Sower and the Seed, both point to God's right to be crazy generous with his love and grace. Grace, which theology defines as undeserved love, is God's initiative and He intends to use that initiative. That generosity may offend the sensibilities of some who want to be rewarded for piety or virtue (and which of us doesn't think we deserve at least some reward for our faith, churchgoing, good works, etc), but we should know better. After all, as the late Father Richard Neuhaus pointed out in one of his Good Friday meditations, one of the very first people admitted into paradise by the Son is one of the condemned criminals hanging beside him, which is another example of that lavish grace in action.

Of course there is a place for our response to God's intitiative. Jesus addresses our role in the second half of today's reading, when he explains what is meant by the good soil. Not all hearts will be receptive to the word of kingdom. We all have heard people say that religion is for the weak minded and superstitious, that sort of thing. Part of being a follower of Christ is opening oneself up to the word, presence and leading of God, both in worship and in our own personal time. But there is a danger in thinking that it's all about us. I know very well that there are many times in my spiritual life when I am too preoccupied, selfish, tired, or distracted, yes even by "the cares of the world and the lure of wealth" to be very open to God. I'm not great soil, most of the time. That's when I depend on the grace and the liberality of God.

Now what I've just said may sound overly self-exculpatory, and may well be, but take a moment to think back to our first lesson, the account of Jacob and Esau from Genesis. This story probably was an attempt to explain ethnic origins of Israel versus its neighbour Edom (hence the "two nations are in your womb" reference Gen 19:23) but it's also worth noting that Jacob, whom the Lord supposedly favoured over poor dim Esau (See Mal 1:2f, Rom 9:13) is a real fink. Jacob sneakily and treacherously gets Esau to sell his birthright, as they used to say, "for a mess of pottage". What a jerk. And yet Jacob is the one loved by God and is the one who, as we will see next week in Gen 28:10-19a gets to hang around with angels. Jacob may be a jerk, but he's God's jerk. God uses him as another link in the chain of descendents that he promised to Abraham, as a way of bringing forth Israel and from Israel the Christian church. And if you are offended by that notion of God's injustice, you are welcome to get be offended and get in line behind the Laborers in the Vineyard who felt they were owed more than they got. That is, as they say, how God rolls. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Mt 20:15).

For my part, I am encouraged by the figure of Jacob, because if good things can come of his stony and graspy heart, then maybe there is hope for the poor soil in my own heart. Did you ever take a mountain or a desert path and find one flower or one tree growing where it had no business growing? There's that crazy Sower again, and there's a sign of his foolishness, that something, amazingly, grew where it shouldn't. That's all of us, really, children who, as Paul says in Romans, are only God's by adoption, because God chose us first. I for one am grateful for God's crazy generosity, and suddenly I see that the Sower isn't the idiot I first thought he was.

1 comment:

Vic M said...

Loved this. Thanks!

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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