The Extravagance of God

This is it: week one sermon at South Bay Christian Church. It's been a really lovely day; in addition to a very warm reception from the members of SBCC, eleven (!) people from our congregation in Pomona came up and surprised me, and took us out to lunch. You can click on the link to read the scripture.

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

And so we begin with a parable.

I can’t think of a more nerve-racking genre of scripture to proclaim in my very first sermon in this community. The only predictable characteristic of Jesus’ parables is that they are unpredictable. The Christian theologian Walter Wink once preached that “Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds, condensed metaphors that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives. Parables are not illustrations; they do not support, elaborate or simplify a more basic idea… They are the jeweled portals of another world; we cannot see through them like windows, but through their surfaces are refracted lights that would otherwise blind us—or pass unseen.” Now that is a beautiful description, and I think Pastor Wink may well be as accurate as he is poetic.

But if parables are like prisms reflecting God’s truth, they are also like greased watermelons. The tradition of greasing up a ripe green watermelon and tossing it into a swimming pool was always one of my favorite summer games. The watermelon floats on the chlorinated surface, as slippery as can be. The objective of the game is to get the watermelon from point A to point B, and as you can imagine, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. It doesn’t take long for the players to realize that seizing the watermelon is a fruitless strategy—pun intended! A greased watermelon refuses all attempts at captivity. The only way to get that watermelon across the length of the pool is for players to collaborate. If everyone creates enough splashes and waves, sure enough, the melon will drift toward the goal. Of course, everyone gets pretty drenched, and no one can claim an independent victory.

Parables are slippery little fruits themselves. When we happen upon a parable, such as that of the Sower, we are often tempted to clutch it tightly and apply one neat meaning to its mystery.

There is a certain safety in drawing boundaries around what a scriptural passage can and cannot mean. It is comfortable to match up each element of the parable of the sower with a corresponding designation: the seed represents the gospel, we represent the soil, the thorns symbolize adversity, and so forth. However, the second we grip that interpretation too tightly, the whole parable slides out of our embrace. Just like the slimy watermelons bobbing around in lakes and swimming holes, parables are served best by cooperation and a certain fearlessness of splashing up a storm.

In today’s reading, we are offered not only the parable of the Sower itself, but a rich interpretation of the parable. In Jesus’ explanation, he helps us to see the parable in a faithful and thoughtful manner. The seed, we are told, is the word of the Kingdom, the good news of Jesus Christ. The sower is being a bit of a spendthrift with his gospel seed, dropping it every whichway—on the path, in the rocks, among the thorns, and finally, within the space of the dark and nourishing loam of the field. This is where we come in, for as hearers of the word, we are analogous to the four types of soil. Upon hearing the parable of the sower, we are enjoined to consider just what kind of soil we might be.
Did my lack of understanding of the gospel cause it to be removed from my heart? Did I claim fidelity to God, only to witness my faith collapse when the going got tough? Did my faith suffocate from neglect when I forfeited God’s grace for more possessions? Or have I received the gospel with humble understanding, welcoming the word of God into the very marrow of my bones and in turn welcoming others into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit?

These are great questions, and they are questions we should ask ourselves continually as we endeavor to follow Christ. But there is more than one way to slice a watermelon, and in this time of anticipation and vitality, I want for us to let go of one excellent interpretation for another possibility.
Let’s direct our faithful imagination to the sower of seeds. If this guy really wants to run an efficient farm, if this guy genuinely expects to coax all of his precious seed into fields of gold, why must he be so maddeningly wasteful with his seeds? Unless our poor sower has a hole in his seedbag, he seems to be awfully careless. Any good farmer knows that birds will devour seed dropped on the path. Any good farmer knows that rocky soil is an inhospitable environment for dependable roots. Any good farmer knows that thorns will extinguish tender, green shoots.

We’ve been pointing fingers at the soil all along, but perhaps the sower is to blame for his extravagance with the valuable seed!

God always has been rather extravagant, right? After all, God wasn’t content with a few measly varieties of flora and fauna. God’s creative spirit continues to pervade a world full of fantastic diversity. We are stewards of an earth abundant with oak and cactus, seaweed and roses, electric eels and labrador retrievers. And God’s creativity is matched by God’s compassion. As hardworking stewards of creation, people of faith are given the gift and the responsibility to observe the Sabbath—not five or ten hours of rest, but one full day of rest and re-creation, twenty-four hours of wasted productivity. Call it abundant, call it inefficient—call it whatever you want, but there is no doubt in my mind that our Creator is one extravagant God.

God wants the seeds of the gospel planted in the hearts of all of us. God yearns for a harvest resplendent with the grain of faithful discipleship. God has such extravagant hope for the children of this earth that as a sower of the gospel seeds, he showers any and every surface with the promise of redemption. The Divine Sower does not peer down at our imperfections—at our sinfulness, our weakness, our fickleness—and save his seed for our worthier brothers and sisters. The sower has an indestructible hope that despite the deficiencies of the soil, a great and glorious harvest shall be reaped. And those gospel seeds surely do multiply, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty, nurtured by God’s love. In spite of the fruitless plants, God’s extravagant hope is met by an equally extravagant yield.

I believe with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my strength that God has extravagant hope for the present and future of South Bay Christian Church. And I pray that each and every one of us can match God’s hope with our own hope for this community.

Like all congregations, we have our birds, rocks, and thorns to address. We do not need to fear these challenges; we can name them and accept them, knowing that God releases a cascade of compassion onto our failings as well as our successes.

The memory of past days when the pews and cribs were full is sweet, but not if we allow it to steal our present hope like a greedy bluejay.

The excitement of calling a new pastor is justifiable, but not if we expect the novelty of my youth to nurture the harvest. Like rocky soil, novelty produces a superficial crop.

And then there are the thorns. We inhabit a culture that vehemently rejects the good news of Jesus Christ. The perennial sins of materialism, selfishness, and apathy toward the life of the Spirit are ever present, eager to snuff out the gospel we seek to cultivate.

So we have some obstacles. We are also blessed with an abundance of excellent soil. This community is comprised of committed followers of Christ who willingly seek out meaningful ways to live the great commandments and commissions of the Christian life. If we were especially efficient gardeners we would painstakingly avoid the traps, and plant our seed only in the safest of soil. But we are not called to be especially efficient gardeners; we are called to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ. We are called to direct our attention not to all the possible ways our ministry might fail, but to faithfully lavish the good news seed within and beyond the boundaries of our community, on meager and hardy soil alike.

We must trust that God’s creative spirit will participate in the gospel greening of this place. God’s love is limitless, no matter the grade of the soil. God’s mercy is extravagant, no matter the interpretation of the parable. As people of faith, as members and friends of South Bay Christian Church, we can joyfully and confidently place our hope in the harvest, now and into our brilliant future!

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