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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Abundant Grace

In these parables Jesus shows that we are not saved by what we do, or by who we are. We are heirs of eternal life because God has chosen to make us so through the cross and resurrection. To us is left simply the opportunity to say, “yes.”

The Rev. Art Halbardier
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 17 A
     texts: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; Romans 8:26-39

This is the third week we’ve heard parables about seeds, weeds, planting and the like – the stories Jesus told to describe the kingdom. As a result, over the past two weeks we have essentially exhausted the ELW corpus of hymns that sing of planting, harvest, seeds, soil, gardens, and even weed control.

We’re out of hymns, but we’re not done with the parables. Today we have the climax of Jesus’ teaching about “the kingdom.”

Jesus was a master of clear speaking. He frequently astounded the religious leaders with his ability to explain fine points of scripture. Even as a 12 year-old, the temple priests were amazed at his understanding. People said of Jesus, time and again, that he taught with “authority;” he was direct, plain-spoken - not like the scribes and Pharisees.

But, when Jesus taught about the kingdom – the new relationship between God and the creation Jesus was sent to establish – for this, he turned to parables.

The core of that kingdom/relationship we call “grace.” How do you explain the unrestricted, undeserved love of God for rebellious and hateful sinners, whom God still so loves in spite of our arrogance that he sent his own Son to pay the debt of our sins? Such love, such “grace” defies explanation – even for a master of explaining. So Jesus described it in parables . . . in stories. Each parable holds up to us a facet of that grace, to ponder, to wonder. One after another, each brings us a bit closer to understanding, and if not understanding, at least to believing it is true.

Let us retrace our steps. Two weeks ago came the story of the sower. It depicts someone who doesn’t give a fig about agronomy, but it’s a great image of grace. This sower throws seed everywhere. Throws seed on rocks, under thorn bushes, on the hard path – not just the plowed field. Seed covers every square inch, whether it has a prayer of growing there or not.  Rain falls on all the seed; there is hope it will sprout and grow. That’s the way of God’s grace.

Then last week, Jesus told of another farmer. This fellow had paid closer attention during classes at “Ag School”; he plants carefully for a great crop. But, some scoundrel, determined to settle an old score with him, comes along at night and plants weeds in his field. Both weeds and wheat come up healthy as can be. The workers don’t know what to do. Ripping out the weeds would certainly damage the wheat in the process – this was before the advent of selective herbicides.

The farmer decrees, we must let them both grow. At harvest, I, the farmer – of course this is Jesus – I will deal with the problem myself. Which, we can expect, since it is Jesus, will tell us something about divine grace. We’ll find out more about that later.

The disciples of Jesus are embarrassed . . . they don’t get the point of either story. But they save face by waiting until they are in private to ask for an explanation. Jesus explains, but his explanations, as we heard are truly a belaboring of the obvious. As a result, it’s easy to assume that the disciples must have been particularly dense to not have gotten the point.

But, hold it. Flag on the floor! No one, including us, could have gotten the point of Jesus’ parables until after he was crucified and rose from the dead. Only after God’s plan for saving sinners was clear, did the amazing grace in these parables begin to make sense to anyone.

But, I get ahead of myself. Today, we’ve added almost a full “six-pack” of parables to the first two. All seven must be considered together, for the stories are like beads on a string, like facets of a stone, individual pieces of a puzzle.

Today’s stories are brief, one or two sentences each, delivered rapid fire, without a word of explaining. The kingdom is like a “mustard seed,” Jesus says; like “a woman baking bread,” a “found treasure,” a “especially valuable pearl,” “a net.”

After #5, Jesus turns to the disciples, asking, “Do you understand?” These guys who have just asked to have the sower and the weeds explained, now pipe up as one, “Oh, yes, Master! Absolutely!”


But, eventually they do understand. And, we can, also. When the light of cross and resurrection lights the way. Behind the stories is the knowledge that Jesus gave his precious life for every seed, weed, speck of flour, every saint and scoundrel, the greatest and the worst of us.

But, again, I get ahead of myself.

The kingdom, Jesus tells us first, is like a “mustard seed” – one lone, tiny little seed, lost in a field of tomatoes, bush beans, broccoli, whatever. But this mustard seed has a trait no seed of comparable size possesses – the capacity to grow into a large bush with many branches.

Describing it as a “tree” may be a bit of hyperbole, but certainly the mustard becomes the most prominent plant in the field – its branches large enough to provide a home for birds if they choose – that’s something no brussel sprout or pepper plant can claim. The mustard bush towers over the other plants. The grace of God dwarfs other promises of hope, security, and salvation. This any eye should clearly see.

Hardly taking a breath, Jesus says the kingdom is like yeast which a woman uses to make bread. A WOMAN, mind you! For any of you who wish there were more female images for God in scripture, take note. The woman baking bread is Jesus. He is, after all, the one assembling the elements of the kingdom.

And this is a REAL WOMAN. Forget that little slip of a maiden on our bulletin cover, or a delicate French lady assembling her daily pair of baguettes. THIS WOMAN dumps 3 measures of flour onto the board . . . that’s somewhere between 10 and 16 five-pound bags. It takes a couple of gallons of water to make it come together into dough. Any woman who can knead this mountain of dough into bread is a force to be reckoned with. But, without yeast, all you’ve got is 100 pounds of wallpaper paste.

The kingdom is like the yeast.

The King James Bible says she “hid” the yeast in the dough. Any baker knows, yeast must first be dissolved in water. Water and yeast go in together. Then the kneading begins. Until not a grain of flour is left untouched by the power of the yeast.

If it’s wet, it’s leavened. If that suggests baptism to you, that’s points for you. But, that’s another sermon. We have more than enough to deal with today.

Onward we go, for Jesus did. Now he takes a slightly different tack. The kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field. Too great and heavy a treasure to dig up and carry away. But, knowing it’s there, who would not immediately convert all liquid and non-liquid assets to cash and buy that field?

Hardly pausing for a breath, Jesus continues: The kingdom is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. One day, sorting through piles of fake gems and costume jewelry, he finds an exquisite, perfect pearl – the finest he’s ever seen. Immediately, he liquidates his entire inventory of cubic zirconia, rhinestones and resin beads to buy this one incredibly valuable pearl.

Those listening may have wondered: Well, of course he would! What fool would pass up such an opportunity? What fool would not bet the whole farm in order to buy the field with the hidden treasure?

And we, too, are led to wonder: What fool would settle for less than the free gift of God’s grace, or pass it up for a cheap imitation? What fool indeed? But there is unfortunate truth to the saying, “There is one born every minute!”

Finally, just in case anything was left unclear after the story of the sower, or the story of the yeast, Jesus doubles back to this theme, saying the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea. Here, we need to pause for a breath. And a brief lesson in Greek. The Greek word for “net” here is a word used only this single time in the New Testament.

Think not of the nets used by Peter, James, and John on the Sea of Galilee, or any other nets mentioned in scripture. Those are two different Greek words entirely. This word used only this once in this parable is a sagéne (sah-gay-nay). A “seine” – a “dragnet” pulled along the bottom of a river, lake, or shoreline collecting everything in its path. Lots of fish, of course . . . but also lots of flotsam, jetsam, rocks, old tires, boots, bottles, and beer cans. All are gather up in the sagéne. Nothing is left behind.

When the net is full, then the sorting begins. The fisherman separates “good” from “bad”. Now what is GOOD? Of the fish, perhaps Chilean Sea Bass? Walleye? Trout? Salmon? BAD may be “trash” species, or fish too small to be worth anything, or are sickly looking. In other words, GOOD is purely in the eye of the beholder, what is judged valuable, pleasing, and useful to the one doing the sorting.

But, maybe there’s more to the image. The sagéne is full of fish, but also whatever other garbage and debris it may have scooped up.

It’s curious that the word “fish” which appears in our English language Bibles, though it may be implied, “fish” doesn’t actually appear in the Greek text. The Greek only says “of every kind” was caught in the net. So who’s to say it’s only fish that the fisherman may deem as GOOD?

A still useful left boot to replace the one that washed overboard last week? That may be good, also. Maybe he thinks that rusty old anchor would look really fine on his mantel if he just cleaned it up?

The point is, be it only fish or more than fish, nothing in the net is inherently bad, just because of who it is, or because it’s not something else. It’s all left to the judgment of the one doing the sorting.

“So it will be at the end of the age,” Jesus says. When we stand before the divine judgment, the one judging us surrounded by angels is our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who gave his own life for the the world and rose in triumph to live and rule.

Before him there will be not one person standing who has not been redeemed by his blood, reconciled by his suffering and dying and rising. All this Judge sees before him is GOOD . . . for he suffered and died to make them so. In the end, the truth is that both heaven and hell will be populated entirely of forgiven sinners. But, the sorting will occur.

Yes, we cannot forget the two middle parables in today’s gospel - the pearl, and the treasure in the field. Despite the fact that no one is left out of being redeemed, that God’s forgiveness is a free gift, there are still those who think faith is foolishness, or who think they are essentially good people and that’s enough.

There are indeed fools for whom selling everything to get the precious pearl or the field with the hidden treasure is just too much. Or, perhaps see the world to be full of pearls just about that precious, and a lot cheaper to boot. Or, who simply don’t like pearls. Who just don’t get what’s so amazing about God’s grace for them.

No wonder, after that final separating of good and evil, there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This is not pain inflicted by the “furnace of fire,” whatever that is. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” is misery that springs from within, for there is no greater pain than anguish over the opportunity they spurned, the free gift they trampled underfoot, the Christ they rejected.

We are not saved by what we do, or by who we are. We are heirs of eternal life because God has chosen to make us so through the cross and resurrection. To us is left simply the opportunity to say, “yes.”

Jesus chose parables to describe the new relationship with God created and sealed in his own suffering and death. Because explanations, even for the master of explaining, were simply inadequate.

Now St. Paul was NEVER at a loss for words, and he was certainly a most gifted explainer as well. And, he lived as do we, in full knowledge of the cross and resurrection; its light shines through his many, many words about God’s grace.

Paul’s point in today’s second reading sums up the message of the parables: “We are MORE than conquerors through Christ who loved us.” The threats to that faith in the world are many. Death, life, the ruthless violence of the present, anxiety about what may come, all these threaten and challenge our confidence in that promise.

But, yet, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing is greater than the grace of God.

Philip Yancey once summed up the meaning of grace in many fewer words than St. Paul, but no less memorable ones: He wrote, “There is nothing I can do to make God love me more. There is nothing I can do to make God love me less.” Nothing I do can make God love me more...or less.

There’s really nothing more to say beyond that, than, “Thanks be to God!” And, “Amen.”

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