The Extravagance of God

The Sower by Vincent Van Gogh (1888)

Pentecost 6 2017
Rev. Doug Floyd
St. Brendan’s Anglican Church
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Bobi Jones sings a song a praise “To a Scrap of Pasture Pushing Itself Between the Slates of Pavement.” As he gazes at this grass, Jones sees the Lord revealing His glory in creation.

“He’s hard at it repeating His nightly performance,
In artificial light at the centre of town.
Though over and over a stone’s put over his tongue
He’ll keep talking through pasture and forming images in grass.”

In the middle of a town square filled with people moving to and fro, God reveals His holy power and glory in a single blade of grass. This blade of grass becomes a “thin place” where the glory of God is revealed, shouting aloud the wisdom of God. But the simple pass by and miss the awesome display of God’s wonder.
Though we pave over the earth, His song cannot be stopped. Jones writes, “His lightning will tongue-lash freely from the earth.” In this small blade, Jones sees a “deluge” and an “eloquent greenery” that “narrates His life and speaks in parables on all sides.”

Jones calls us to look with him,

“When we look, there are angels near the stage
            And the mist at the back, its head in feathers.”

This has a sense of angels around the throne as in Isaiah 6. This small blade peeking through the sidewalk invites those who pause to behold the glory of God bursting forth in creation. It hints of incarnation as well as death and resurrection.

The pavement and the civilization cannot repress the unconquerable life of God in Christ.

He’s performing. The foolish civilization of today can
Kill Him and bury Him deep. The inherent will frolic through the soil.
In the hand of the grassblade the creation trembles,
And it sows eternity itself: tender is the land.

Everywhere we go, we see blades of grass bursting forth from ground, rock, pavement and more. We are surrounded by parables of God’s vital life. I am thinking about this poem as I think about the parable in today’s Gospel. Jesus tells a story about a sower, seeds, soils, and finally an abundant harvest.

St. Jerome reminds us that even as Jesus is telling the parable, he is sowing seeds, and I am struck by the abundance of seeds. Though the birds devour them, the sun scorches them, and the thorns choke them, the seeds keep coming. As Jesus speaks He is casting seeds on the path, among the stones, beside the weeds and on the good soil.

The Word keeps going forth. Unstoppable. Abundant. Fruitful.

Isaiah declares that God’s Word goes forth like seeds.

10          “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven 
and do not return there but water the earth, 
                        making it bring forth and sprout, 
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
            11          so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; 
it shall not return to me empty, 
                        but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, 
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.  (Is 55:10–11)

This abundant Word of God produces a harvest: some a hundredfold, some sixty and some thirty. This is an extraordinary harvest. The abundant sowing and abundant harvest give us pause to consider the extravagance of God. As John Nolland points out, “Looking back from the end [of the story], the central dynamic of the story is provided by the carefree sowing of a farmer who, because of the extraordinary potential of the seed he has, has no need to be parsimonious with his precious seed grain.”

God’s Word is effectual and he shares it without restraint. As Jesus proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Mt 5:45). There is no scarcity in God’s goodness, God’s mercy, God’s blessing of sun and rain and air and earth. He overwhelms with His mercy and grace.

In the parable, we’ll notice grass or weeds bursting through rocks, pavement, stumps, and more. It should continually remind us of God’s abundant sowing, His abundant blessing. Jesus speaks of the various soils where the seeds are thrown, and he defines each soil as the human heart.

He proclaims the message of the kingdom to disciples, to Pharisees, to Sadducees, the people of each town and village. Some respond in anger; some walk away; some are moved with joy but fail to stand firm; some begun to follow Him. As Jesus speaks, His Word takes flight in the wind, blowing across the countryside. Soon other people want to see this Jesus. Somewhere a tax collector named Zacchaeus hears the word in the wind, and when Jesus comes near his town, he will go out to see Him. Somewhere a Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed child will hear of this Word and when He draws near, she will cry out for mercy on her child. Somewhere there’s a Pharisees named Saul of Tarsus who hears about this Word and resists it.

Based on Jesus interpretation of the parable, this Saul is like one who hears the word and does not understand it. The evil one snatches away what has been sown in his heart. The seed does not take root, but instead he actively opposes the seed and will eventually spend his life, seeking to destroy this word.

But then, in the mystery of God’s grace, this hard, unyielding soil, will be softened in a moment. Saul will be humiliated before the voice of God and the Word will penetrate his heart. The hard, unmovable path will become good soil producing an abundant harvest.

The transformation of Saul to the Apostle Paul helps me to think about how the various soils that Jesus describes are not a permanent state. The hard heart can be softened. Then again, Hebrews warns against the heart growing bitter.

As I think over this parable in relation to my own life, I have been all these types of soil. I have known the sense of deadness and boredom in hearing God’s word. Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes, “We think that God’s Word has been heard on earth for so long that by now it is almost used up, that it is about time for some new word as if we had the right to demand one.” He continues, “We fail to see that it is we ourselves who are used up and alienated, whereas the Words resounds with the same vitality and freshness as ever; it is as near to us as it always was.” I am that man who could hear and read the Word with no response, with dry bones, with cold heart.

I have also been the one who responded to the word with joy only to doubt God’s faithfulness later on. Or what about the man who hears the word but the cares of the world choke the word and make it unfruitful. It sounds a bit like what the Desert Fathers name acedia (a-see-d-a). It might be called boredom, distraction, busyness, or even depression. Some called it the noontime demon.

In some sense, it is the inability to be here, now. The Desert Father Abba Moses was known to say, “‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’[1] Evagrius said, ‘Cut the desire for many things out of your heart and so prevent your mind being dispersed and your stillness lost.’[2]

Learn to be present where you are. They’re telling the monks, don’t go search out better monasteries. Don’t go search out better … Some other place where you think that you have a closer ability to connect with God. Be still, be here, be now. Be present. Because this is where God will meet you. And it is where He will expose the coldness of your heart. He will expose your distractedness. He will expose your inability to trust Him. Sometimes this acedia can look like depression, it can look like the inability to do anything. The inability to leave my home, or the inability to be focused in the moment. But other times it actually can look almost just the opposite. It can look like I fill my life with so much busyness that I am unable to be present in the world.

When I was in college, I was part of a team that helped lead our church’s college class, I led a discipleship group, I started a drama team, I was working with the youth group on Sunday’s night, and I was dreaming about either becoming the man who brought a fresh revival to the Baptist church or becoming the man who was killed on the mission field. I was moving toward the next big thing.

One day all of us guys were sitting around talking about our sense of call, and turns out every one of us thought we were going to be martyrs. We all had these high dreams that we were going to do these great things for the Kingdom, and it’s certainly not bad to dream, but we were always moving to the next big thing. The next big thing.

Within two years, Kelly and I were married and living at a rehabilitation ministry in Walland. My days were spent with one group of people, leading a Bible study. I wasn’t even invited to the staff meetings at the church. I was completely isolated. No activity. God took all the activity away. I had one thing to do: Spend the day with this small group of guys, doing a Bible study, working on the farm. Completely isolated, completely opposite from what I had been doing in college. He was teaching me how to do one thing, to just be present.

As it turns out, He has had to do that a lot in my life. Kelly always says, “You’re interested in too many things.” Before you know it, I have hundreds of things going, and suddenly everything ceases, not by my choice. Suddenly it all ceases, and I have to relearn how to do one thing, to be cut out from the frenzy.

As I think about learning to do this one thing, learning to be still, to be present, I was thinking about cultivating our heart. I’m just going to list a few things. These are not unfamiliar to us, but just a chance to remember them afresh. I thought of four things that Scripture often talks about in relation to cultivating the heart.

  • Humility
  • Remembering
  • Thankfulness
  • Sowing

Scripture again and again calls us to this humility, both to God and to other people. Both Peter and James say humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God. We know Paul’s story. If you don’t humble yourself you will be humiliated. When God is cultivating the heart, either the heart will humble themselves, or He will humility them. There is some sense in the humility, it’s simply dependence. It is returning, which, really what repentance is, just returning. It’s turning again and again back to God in dependence.

This is what I like about the desert fathers, everything’s always much simpler than all these complex methods. It’s the simple act of breathing. Every time I breathe I’m aware of my dependence. I can’t produce my own oxygen, I can’t sustain myself. They speak of breath prayers, and for me the most basic breath prayer of all is “Jesus mercy.” Jesus mercy. Some would breathe it in, “Jesus mercy,” breathe out. Breathing, the habit of returning. The habit of being present. Rowan Williams says his favorite is, “God make haste to help me.” He says it’s a great prayer when you’re trying to pray and you’re distracted. He says you just keep praying that prayer. Your mind gets distracted, “God make haste to help me.” Learning to be present, to trust.

Then something happens in just this simple returning, depending. The simple act of breathing and trusting God. He wants to open my expectations of who He is. When we think we’ve already read all there is to know in the Word, we think we’ve understood everything, and we’ve formed sort of a closed circle. Chesterton says the most dangerous man is the rational man who has a closed circle, and he can’t get outside his loop. He thinks he knows everything, but God’s not inside the loop, so he’s just running in circles. We can even do that with our own faith. I can feel like I’ve figured it all out and I’m in this circle, but God’s calling me outside it always, opening. That means letting go often, letting go of what I think I already have mastered.

When I was in graduate school, the first class I had to take a small group communication class. I said, “I’ve done small groups my whole life. It’s an insult to me to have to take a small group communication class.” Turns out, it was the very class God was using to deal with my own anger. He had plans for it.

There’s also this humility to other people, which is maybe harder. Again and again, it’s odd, we see the words “Submit to one another” in the New Testament writers. “Submit to one another.” The submission, I don’t think is the idea of enslaving myself to one another. It has the idea, if we think of Romans 12, of considering others higher than myself, of honoring them. That the person I talk to is the gift of God. I need to listen. Pay attention, respect them. Find ways to serve.

No false witness. We live in a culture of false witness. All the time, people we know and don’t know, people are always sharing false witness. I need to speak good words, blessings over the world.

Quickly the other three. Remembering the daily act of rediscovering the grace of God in Scripture and the Daily Office. Leaning how to remember the world rightly, so the Daily Office has morning and evening prayer. Whatever tradition, many traditions, the Lutherans have morning and evening prayer, many churches. The evening prayer is often a time to reflect back over the day in the light of the Word, so I’m remembering the world rightly. If I’m not remembering it rightly I’m getting angry, I’m getting bitter, I might hold un-forgiveness, but I end the day by returning it back to God as an act of worship, and remember it rightly as an act of His Word.

Weekly communion is when I gather with all the people of God, and we remember rightly that it is Christ’s gift, His blessing. Then as I begin to do that it teaches me thankfulness, really. It teaches me to begin to see the wonder, like Bobi Jones and the little blade of grass sticking through the pavement. The wonder that is all around me every moment GK Chesterton says the world is not lacking wonders, but in wonder. That we fail again and again in our sense of wonder. We do not have the ability to see the glory of God, he says, because we’re sinful. He said, we need the childlike mind to be healed and begin to see the gift of God in every moment.

Then as I do, as I begin to realize I’m in a world of abundance, then I am free to sow. I’m free to open the hand, to give and not to get. I’m always ready to give, to pour out, doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter of somebody else gets the honor I think I deserve. Doesn’t matter. I’m free to give. I’m free to bless. I’m free to join in the mysterious extravagance of the sower, who is always expecting an abundant harvest.

By God’s grace, He’s gently loosening the soil of my heart so that I can become truly a fruitful plant. That’s the mystery of the heart in this parable. When it begins, we’re the soil, but by the time you get to the end of the chapter, we’re also the seed. The word has so penetrated our hearts, we’ve become the seed and we’ve become the fruit. That’s the mystery of His grace.

Thank You Lord, that you pour out Your grace upon us. May we be a fruitful planting may we sow Your seeds, and may Your word take root in us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

[1] Ward, Benedicta. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin Classics) (p. 10). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
[2] Ward, Benedicta. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin Classics) (p. 10). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

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