Living Out Extravagant Grace

Parable of Laborers in the Vineyard, Rembrandt (1637)

Pentecost +16
Living Out Extravagant Grace
Katie Whitmire
Jonah 3:10–4:11, Psalm 145, Philippians 1:21-28a, Matthew 20:1-16

What a picture of the extravagant grace, unbound love, and mercy of God our readings today offer us, and how these characteristics mark the kingdom of heaven. How God imparts this generosity on a communal and corporate level as well as to the individual offering them transformation. In both the Gospel reading and the Old Testament scripture God pursues us toward our purpose embedded in community. These themes are likely not novel for us. We who call ourselves Christian like to proclaim God’s character as one of extravagant grace and generous mercy, especially as it relates to our lives. Phrases like ‘God is so gracious’ or ‘so good’ and ‘His grace is sufficient’ come easily–true statements. We also speak confidently about God’s plan for us, how He pursues us with purpose. Jeremiah 29:11 “for I know the plans I have for you” is oft quoted–again true. However, my hope today is that we will not just hear what already know how we have always heard it, possibly fitting God and his character into our way of being, contextualized primarily in reference to our personal relationship. Rather than hearing these scriptures through the cultural lens in which we are situated and even the Christian cultural lens that we have learned, or simply accepted, that we might experience these truths. For fresh eyes and hearts open to transformation. In a way that might prompt us to question and even problematize how I, individually, and we, as Christians, enter into and engage in community.

For the past several weeks, Doug has been talking about, our shared life together, living and loving in community. A theme that flows out of the Gospel readings which have been a series of parables in response to the disciples’ questions. Questions that reveal that they are placing Jesus and his teachings into their known systems– political, religious, social. The disciples ask, who will be the greatest in the kingdom? Clearly expecting the kingdom of heaven to work like our earthly kingdoms, a system of hierarchy and power, categorized into good, bad, better and best. How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me? The implication being that there is a limit. A system based on deservedness. With each question, Jesus proceeds to lay out for them, and us, how the kingdom of heaven works. If you have heard Doug’s recent sermons you already have a hunch, but it is not our way. In each response Jesus reveals a kingdom that is almost the opposite of our systems. Some call it upside down, but maybe it is even more mysterious than that. The use of the terms opposite or upside down still implies some hierarchy. Both descriptions are still a way of trying to fit Jesus’s teachings into a system we can conceptualize. This is a normal and human tendency, but maybe we need to get out of our heads and into our body, experiencing the mystery and transformation that Christ offers.

So when we come to our gospel reading today, it is yet another response to a disciple’s question situated directly after Jesus has told a young, devout, wealthy man that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew tells us that the disciples were astonished to hear this, staggered. This was not aligned to their systems of meritocracy, power, privilege. Puzzled they ask, if he cannot enter “who then can be saved?” Then Peter pipes in, “We’ve left everything to follow you?” It’s as if he just finally processed the admonition Jesus offered the rich man, to sell everything and follow him. So, Peter says, We’ve done that “what’s in it for us?” What is our reward? Yet another revealing question, deeply rooted in a retributive system of reward and punishment. So Jesus responds with a parable likening the kingdom of heaven to a landowner or an estate manager who hires workers early in the morning for an agreed upon and generous wage.

Throughout the day the landowner continues to pursue others, those who still have no labor, no purpose, and he offers them meaningful work in this community, generous and inclusive. At the end of the day the landowner calls in the workers for their wage, the “reward” that Peter seeks in his question. Paying the last hired first, they receive the generous day’s wage agreed upon. The other workers look on surely in excitement as they expect this kingdom to work like the kingdoms and systems of the world, awaiting an increase in wages since they worked longer hours. It stands to reason in a hierarchy, a meritocracy. I wonder if the disciples were listening with the same eagerness and assumptions, they too would receive a greater reward for their sacrifice. Yet in the story all the workers receive the same wage. When confronted as unfair, the landowner expresses the nature of this kingdom—not based on earning, win win. Generous to all and extravagant in mercy, the kingdom reflects the character of the king. The last hired received the same as the first, the last will be first, and the first hired received the same as the last, the first will be last. This is difficult for us because we are so bound by our own systems. Perhaps we have come to accept the truths in this parable, but if we are honest it ruffles our feathers. I certainly hear echoes of “My thoughts are not your thoughts. My ways are not your ways.”

This is one of several parables in which Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to familiar people or things– a rich man, yeast, a mustard seed, a farmer—in order to illustrate the realm of God. I’ll spare you the details of the etymological rabbit trails I traveled down when looking at the word kingdom, but there seems to be consensus that the likely Aramaic word that Jesus would have used to refer to the kingdom would have focused on the reign of the king, the activity of the king, rather than a territorial  boundary. So, not a location or a certain group of people, but rather a realm that reflects the character and action of the king.

Jesus also tells us that the kingdom of heaven is here, it is at hand (Matt 4:17). It is not a place we are waiting to go. In Luke 17, he makes clear that the kingdom is not something that we can quantify by watching for it to arrive, it is not a tangible thing we will be able to point to. Instead he says it is within us. Could it be that this kingdom is a way of being or rather a way of seeing? Cynthia Bourgeault describes it as “a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place.” It is within us, embodied.

So what are the implications of that? I have often read these parables as if the landowner is God, allowing them to be just enough removed from me and how I engage in community. Almost dismissive, responding to them in agreement, “Yes God is gracious to all. Sure, he pays the workers the same wage,” but Jesus likens the landowner to the kingdom rather than the king. A kingdom that is within me. A whole new way of seeing the world. A kingdom that pursues others, a kingdom that is inclusive and generous with all, not based on meritocracy. How then am I living out the realm of the King? How then am I embodying the kingdom, looking at the world through transformed awareness?

I hesitate here, as again it is tempting to be bound by or see through our systems of doing of earning. We might hear in those questions an invitation to do by mustering up. Doug, in talking about all of the communities that we participate in last week, shared Paul’s encouragement to live into loving each other but also warned of the danger if we try to generate this love of our own strength. We must first experience the gracious generosity of God. Out of that embodies experience we can be transformed to love. The quote in the bulletin last week from Hans Urs Von Balthasar illustrates this well. It begins with the reference to Paul saying that none of us lives for herself. This is not alluding to a self-sacrificial, servant-hearted, meeting of other’s needs. It is a belonging to God. We do not live for ourselves as we owe our very existence to God. We belong to him, and as Von Balthasar says, “If we owe ourselves to Christ, then we owe ourselves to divine love… that means to be permitted to love, to be able to love… the most sublime freedom.”  When we live out of our identity as God’s, we release the systems that the ego so identifies with, and we embrace Christ in us and in all things. We are truly free to love.

In a reflection on the writings of John Duns Scotus, Richard Rohr comments:

God in Jesus moved people beyond the counting, weighing, and punishing model—which the ego prefers—to a world in which God’s mercy makes any economy [or] (worldly kingdom) of merit, sacrifice, reparation, or atonement both unhelpful and unnecessary. Jesus undid “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) notions of human and animal sacrifice (common in most ancient religions) and replaced them with an economy of grace and love. [or] (God’s Kingdom)

How do I still find myself wanting to fit Jesus and the kingdom of heaven into the safety and comfort of the systems I live in? How do I live and love in community in a way that reflects the kingdom of the world instead the kingdom of heaven? How do I still find myself unfree to love? And who do I still find myself unfree to love?

Before I move on to the Old Testament reading, I would like to use two characters from a play by Victor Hugo that many of you may be familiar with, Les Misérables, to help illustrate the kingdom of heaven as it is described in scripture and the kingdom of heaven as I fear we as Christians have more often come to manifest it. I have not read the novel but have enjoyed the Broadway play and two movie adaptations of it. The story is a family favorite, and recently, Liza and I settled in to watch the film again. The tale is filled with deeply moving story lines and rich imagery, and while meditating on today’s readings I was impressed with the parallels- a depiction of God’s extravagant grace that offers us transformation, and when experienced, it compels us, and frees us to love unbound, as well as our strong tendency to place God and others into our known systems of meritocracy, hierarchies of power, good vs. bad, and the conflict we might encounter in our own hearts when faced with God’s purpose for us.

Allow me to attempt to paint the movie’s opening scene for you. The prisoner, Jean Val Jean, has come to the end of a grueling 20-year sentence for the crime of stealing bread for his hungry nephew. Prison guard, Inspector Javert, summons him to receive his papers for release, but not before ensuring he knows his identity, deviant.  As Val Jean attempts to reenter the world he is made aware of this identity over and over again. Every time he shows his papers, wherever he attempts to find work or shelter, he is met with disgust. At best he is shunned, feared, and assumptions are made. At worst he is ridiculed and beaten. His defeat is palpable as he comes to terms with the reality that perhaps there is no way through short of embracing this imputed identity. Sleeping on the street, a bishop encounters Val Jean and invites him to share a meal and a bed. A good deed, a one night respite. Val Jean, in desperation, aware that when morning comes he will face the same oppression, seizes the moment and steals the priest’s silver, items of value that might be sold for lasting opportunity. He runs, but it is not long before the thief is caught. He is dragged back into the home of the bishop by police with the stolen goods. Shoved and struck to the feet of the bishop on his knees as the criminal he is, he awaits his next sentence. Face to the ground, his fate certain, the bishop moves toward Val Jean, looks into his eyes, sees and reflects his belonging, his true identity, and proclaims to the room that indeed these were gifts. How fortunate it is that Val Jean is back because he forgot the most valuable items, silver candle sticks, extravagant grace. Adding these to Val Jeans loot the bishop, still locked on Val Jean’s eyes, commands the police to release him, blesses them and sends them on their way. With great compassion the bishop asks Val Jean to remember this, to experience in this a higher plan. He gives Val Jean back to God to claim his true self, not the identity that has been imputed on him through the harsh realities he has faced in the world.

The character experiences God’s extravagant mercy and allows it to transform him. It is only out of this embodied experience that he is free to love unbound. The act of remembering is not cerebral, but experienced, compelling him to not live for himself, bound by systems of the world, but to love like the king. This purpose is made abundantly clear throughout the rest of the movie. His transformed awareness truly turns the world into a different place.

As the character Val Jean lives out this transformation, the story simultaneously follows inspector Javert. I wonder if he is a better representation of the church’s historical interpretation of the kingdom, evidenced by our actions. Javert, the prison guard, who serves Val Jean his release papers, is loyal to a deeply ethical system. An upholder of the law that, by nature of its function, categorizes Val Jean as bad, deviant. As a result of Val Jean’s experienced transformation, his old identity is destroyed and he escapes parole.  Javert cannot release this injustice. Val Jean’s delinquency haunts him, and the two continue to meet throughout the story– one compelled to unbound love, the other compelled to unbending morality. In their penultimate meeting, Javert, acting as a spy in the rebellion has been caught by the revolutionaries. Val Jean in the barracks, not necessarily identified to their political system more as a result of love, namely protecting his daughter’s beloved, has earned the revolutionaries’ respect. Seeing that Javert has been caught, Val Jean asks the leader of the insurrection for the prisoner, implying that he will carry out his execution. Request granted, Val Jean leads Javert to an alley. Javert, certain of his fate at the hands of the uprising, much less his enemy, awaits his death. Expecting revenge, he instead is met with extravagant grace. Val Jean sets him free with no condition no blame, validating his belonging and urges him to run to safety. Despite experiencing such extravagant grace, Javert cannot give up his persistent pursuit, and a scene later, post-battle, he tracks down Val Jean, at last free to arrest his willing deviant. But something has shifted, and he walks away. In a haunting scene we watch Javert battle with the system he has so faithfully held onto, so ordered his life by and made his purpose to uphold, yet it is at odds with what he has experienced, love and mercy. How can Val Jean be criminal and offer extravagant grace, deviant and love unbound? Javert’s system is flawed. Now faced with the same opportunity for transformation, having experienced the same extravagant grace, his life given back, ripe for embodying new identity and purpose, the burden is too much. He cannot reconcile it in his mind. He cannot receive a grace that requires him to transform, and he plunges to his death in the river Seine.

Will we allow our experience of radical grace to transform us?

In the OT reading this morning we find Jonah after the more familiar storyline of not just refusing but running from God’s purpose for him, resulting in being thrown overboard a ship and swallowed by a whale passing 3 days and nights in the dark belly. Then experiencing God’s grace and generosity. God commands the whale to vomit Jonah onto dry land. This is his opportunity for transformation, a resurrection, to experience his belonging and love unbound. He goes in that direction at least, though it is likely out of fear and the “if you will just let me out of this alive” promises he has made to God in a dark moment, but Jonah goes in the direction that God is leading- Nineveh. He tells the Ninevites of their need for transformation, the coming consequence if not, and they listen. They trust the word that Jonah has spoken, and they turn toward God. God shows them mercy, extravagant grace, and they begin to embrace God’s transformation in their lives and in their community. The reading today picks up where we find Jonah sulking. He’s angry because these are not the kind people that should be receiving God’s grace. They’re not chosen. Like Javert, despite experiencing grace himself, he cannot reconcile this. This generosity and mercy does not fit into his system of good and bad. It is not fair. He tells God, quoting Psalm 145, the Psalm we read today, “I knew you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.” The psalm says the Lord is good to all and has compassion on all he has made- not on the good ones, or the right ones or those who claim Christianity. He tells God that this is why he ran from God’s purpose in the first place- He knew this would happen. And now he would rather just die than see the Ninevites transformed! When God asks Jonah, if he has a right to be angry about this, Jonah just leaves the city, I imagine a stomping off, but only far enough out to sit and watch.

It says, “he wanted to see what would happen” In this I hear someone so attached to their way, so sure of how things work, certain that what they deem should happen will come to pass. He watches, even hopes for destruction. God still pursuing Jonah, ready again to offer an opportunity for transformation, provides a shade tree, a vine to grow up and offer Jonah shade as he watches, and in his narrow view he begins to feel better, comfortable. The msg says “Life was looking up.” In his system, a deserved gift rather than extravagant grace. God then proceeds to destroy the vine with a worm, and Jonah once again is so angry he could die! So again, God asks, what right do you have to be angry? Jonah answers that he has plenty of right! Jonah is concerned about his comfort, the way he sees the world, his system and his identity as chosen. He is not concerned about extravagant grace, inclusivity, or transformation. He has yet to understand that he owes himself only to God, freeing him to love, even the Ninevites. The book ends with God pointing out the discrepancy between what he is concerned about and what Jonah is concerned about.

I wonder if, like Jonah and Javert and many others before us, I have become so identified with the systems that reflect our version of the kingdom that I run from a grace that requires me to transform, more fearful of the kingdom that Jesus came to reveal.

What kingdoms am I bound by? Loyal to? Who is included? Who is othered?

Who do we deem worthy of grace? Who do we condemn?

We claim the truth of God’s extravagant mercy for ourselves, but how still do we place that mercy into our systems and structures of deservedness and meritocracy? In what ways to we subscribe to a hierarchy of power and reward?

These scriptures offer great news. Even as I answer these questions and come face to face with my own distorted allegiances, even as I run from and resist his transformation, we have the great promise of God’s extravagant grace, offered even to us. In his extravagant grace he will continue to pursue us toward his purpose.

They also offer great hope, the hope of his kingdom within us, the kingdom marked by unbound love. We have only to experience God’s promised extravagant grace and allow it to transform us, to become aware of our belonging, and embrace our identity as his. Owing ourselves only to divine love we are free to release the systems and the ego that so identifies with them, and truly love.

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