a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Crazy Grace”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
November 10, 2019
Luke 8: 4-8
4 When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: 5 “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. 7 Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. 8 Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
Well, this morning I want to do a “Chinese menu” sermon. There is something for everyone. If you are looking for “what’s in it for me?” or more of a “what does God expect of me so that I can be a ‘good Christian.’”
Perhaps you have heard plenty of sermons from preachers telling you what you should give to be loved and approved of by God. The woman described as the “spiritual advisor” to the current President is shown in a videotape advising her congregation and all those listening on her television show that God demands that they give all their January income – whether by pay or by dividends, etc to her as “firstfruits” which are demanded by God in the Bible. I snarkily suggested that I would include that in my stewardship sermon for those of you who wanted to be “good Christians.” If you prefer a different approach, there are plenty of preachers who will try to sell you on the idea that God is a “quid pro quo” God. God will bless us “IF” we give a certain amount. Or if we give God will repay us ten, a hundred-, even thousands of times over. And they quote Scripture to justify this. I have to admit I find most of this “odious,” “distasteful,” and to be honest – Biblically and ethically immoral.
So how do I go about challenging all of us to grow spiritually as “stewards of the Gospel?” That is the description I suggest we all use to understand what God wants us to be. We are given the Gospel as a gift, as a sign of God’s love, as grace. Now, by Gospel I don’t mean the Bible. I mean literally the good news that God’s love is, [ that is it exists ], and it is for everyone, and God gives it extravagantly, even wastefully, in a kind of crazy grace that pours out in ways that if we really understood it would “blow our minds,” as those 1960’s hippies used to say. This is the core meaning of this passage of Scripture. God is a crazy, extravagantly generous God.
Now the challenge to “proving” this is that there are many people who don’t seem to be blessed. They are poor, they are sick, they are suffering from injustice from a variety of powers and people. How do we proclaim this crazy grace in the face of suffering? Most of the answers Christians give to this, are to me to be honest, neither helpful or faithful to the God I believe in. So I really have to say, I don’t have a great answer. The best I can do is in the face of difficulties I strive to believe God intends blessing, God does not punish to “correct” us, and that God works to bring good out of evil and renewed life out of any kind of death.
Let’s look at today’s Scripture. It is a simple story and it says something powerful about God’s extravagant generosity.
What do you identify with in this morning’s Scripture? Are you like the seed? Or are you the soil? But wait, not every seed is the same, and not every soil is the same. But then, neither are we all alike. Are you the sower? Or is that Jesus, or God? This is why simplistic explanations of parables gets us in trouble. Remember parables aren’t just some simple little story with a cheap moral. You can’t flatten these stories out and make them into an “A+B=C” proverb. As one writer put it, “In the preaching of Jesus, parables were … disturbing stories that threatened the hearer’s secure [understanding of the] world -- the world of assumptions by which we habitually live, the unnoticed framework of our thinking within which we interpret other data. [Eugene Boring, Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible, p.299]
If we free up our understanding of this parable it offers a bit of something for everyone. If you think of yourself as a seed that has been tossed on one of the soils in the parable then there is a variety of choices. You may feel you are in “good soil,” ready to produce a ‘great harvest’ for Jesus. You may think you are kind of choking on the weeds of life and are afraid you may not make it much longer, there is something here for you. If you are at a rocky place in life and you feel like the only birds in your life aren’t the “bluebirds of happiness,” but the vulture-like fowls from an Alfred Hitchcock movie, then you are certainly in this parable.
So what is disturbing about a little story about some seed tossed out on different places? Well, first off, what kind of farmer goes around tossing seed everywhere? I don’t know much about farming, I couldn’t grow a tomato if you offered me a million dollars to do it. But even I know that farmers don’t just go around tossing seeds everywhere. That’s wasteful! I know they prepare a field, they dig it up, I think it is called “tilling it,” though I don’t know what that exactly means. They fertilize the soil to make sure it will produce the biggest, best tomatoes possible. They pull all the weeds, yet Jesus talks about throwing seeds on some ground that evidently has never been “weeded.” Who farms like that?
Well, apparently God does. God is a crazy farmer, if Jesus is to be believed, throwing seeds everywhere, letting whatever happens happen. Most people believe God has this definite, perfect plan that controls all of life, but here is the farmer in Jesus’ story tossing seeds everywhere and letting what happens happen. That is a pretty upsetting narrative if you want a God who is efficient, and effective and a careful manager of resources for the best possible crop.
So how do you feel about a God who scatters grace everywhere, throwing it out there for anyone and everyone? What does that say about a God who is not a thrifty, prudent lover who makes sure no one but those who deserve it get loved? What kind of crazy God extravagantly tosses love and forgiveness and blessings everywhere for anyone and everyone? That doesn’t sound like the American way, does it? We want a person to get what they earned, be loved for what they have done properly, and to be blessed if they worked hard, obeyed our rules and deserved what they got.
Instead Jesus tells us that the extravagant generosity of God, the grace of God is wasteful, lavish, over-the-top love and blessings and forgiveness like something right out of either a fairy-tale or a nightmare depending on how you look at it. Either way I think it challenges our assumptions about the world being an “A+B=C” world or life as always following a predictable plan – do right, do good and you will be rewarded, do wrong, do evil and you will suffer. Too much theology tries to justify all suffering in this way. So let’s look at some of the assumptions that we may need to let go of to understand the extravagant generosity of our God.
Again and again Jesus talked about the extravagant generosity of God. In the parable of the lost coin, Jesus compares God to an old widow, who loses one little coin. She becomes so obsessed that she sweeps out her whole house and when finding it, foolishly spends it on a party with her neighbors to celebrate finding the coin. In Jesus’ time it was a regular custom to hold extravagant dinner parties complete with several courses, fine wines, dancing and entertainment. He tells those who have these extravagant dinner parties, to invite those who cannot repay them by inviting them back, but instead to invite those who cannot pay them back. This is exactly what God does with grace. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus disrupts many expectations, including that a Samaritan would be the one to help a Jew, for Jesus’ Jewish friends considered themselves superior in faith, racial qualities, and in every way. On top of that the Samaritan goes “over the top” in generosity – not only helping the Jewish man when other Jews wouldn’t, but paying for his medical needs, and providing a place for him to stay and leaving extra funds for expenses and a promise to reimburse even more if needed.
So here is my dilemma: What do I say to you that already give generously and have sustained this church’s mission and ministry for years that could help you grow as stewards? You are already leaders and givers. I guess all I can say is “thank you, thank you, thank you for your generosity. I hope that you have found that it is gratifying and meaningful to give so generously. At the same time how do I encourage those of you who do not give anything, have not volunteered to help with anything, and who only show up occasionally to become more invested in this – to give something, even if it isn’t your January income, to do something to help us help you and others, even if it is only an hour or two a week? I can only hope you too will invest in this work, because every investment brings a return, and a good investment brings a return far beyond 1 for 1. I believe serving God through our giving is the most rewarding investment in my life, but hey, obviously I am biased, right?
The parable comes at the beginning of an evangelistic tour Jesus is on. He has packed up the tents and the bus and the gospel choir and is touring through “cities and villages,” proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God. The twelve disciples are with him as are a number of women, who having been cured of various “spirits and infirmities,” were now underwriting the ministry. Luke tells us these women “provided for [the disciples] out of their resources.” So appropriate in this season of talking about stewardship to bring up – who is funding the ministry of Jesus. The women were, Luke tells us. I suspect that they were doing out of a deep gratitude for the ways God had blessed them, healed them, given them a community of loving people to be part of. You never know when or with whom the seeds of God’s love will take root and produce a thousand times over. Maybe it has already taken root in you. Maybe it is about to. What is God’s extravagant generosity producing in you?
I’ll just leave that there for you to ponder on in your own spare time. I’m going to think about God’s extravagant generosity a little more then I am going to fill out my stewardship commitment card to turn in. AMEN.