Tuesday, July 15, 2014
The Sunday Sermon: Unnecessary Abundance
In Rebekah's case the babies weren't just doing baby aerobics but they were actually wrestling each other: the verb used here is translated elsewhere as broken, crushed, smashed or oppressed. There was some serious sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, and they hadn't even been born yet. Even though Rebekah didn't grow up with Abraham's God, even though she's an outsider, she is driven by her discomfort to kneel before Jahweh and raise her plaintive voice: Why does it have to be this way? What is going on in me? And Jahweh, the God of Abraham and Isaac, but not until now the God of Rebekah, answers her with grace: a prophecy, an oracle.
It's worthy of note that God speaks to this woman, this foreigner, who is not even praising God but complaining. And the prophecy is startling: "You aren't just carrying twin babies, you carry the future of two nations within you, and they will not be friends. Unlike everything you know and expect, the elder will not prevail over the younger." And so the seed is planted within Rebekah. The younger twin, quiet little heel-grabber Jacob, will be the carrier of the promise, and he will be Rebekah's favorite, hanging out with her in the tent and helping in the kitchen, while his hirsute, huntin-shootin-fishin brother Esau the Red will be the apple of his Dad's eye. This is a surprising story on all fronts, because Rebekah takes center stage and Isaac, the inheritor of the promise, is in the wings. It's Rebekah who wields the power here. It's Rebekah who has the word from The Lord. It's Rebekah who teaches Jacob to cook and coaches him to be a shrewd negotiator. It's Rebekah who, when Isaac is blind and dying, sends Jacob in dressed up as his brother with some tasty goat stew to steal the blessing intended for Esau.
And it's Rebekah who ultimately makes the great sacrifice of sending her darling away so that he won't be murdered by his furious twin. She sends him away to her relatives across the desert, knowing that she will likely never see him again, knowing that he, like his father, will find a cousin to marry and thus the line will continue. Rebekah gets her revenge for having been sold away to marry Isaac, while she also directs the plot and ensures the continuation of God's promise. Rebekah is the sower of the seed.
What a story! What a soap opera! But you have to wonder why. Why the details? There is far more than we need. There is extra material here. The simple story, the efficient path to salvation, would have been one son, everyone loves him, promise is passed down, move on to the next generation. Instead we get twins, fighting for supremacy, one tricking the other, one wanting to hunt down the other, conspiracy, secrets, deception, and one-upmanship; and at the end of it, the unlikely outcome that the younger brother is the one favored by God. There is all so much more than God needs in order to ensure that the promise continues. There is needless abundance, an embarrassment of riches, in this multi-layered family story that becomes our story, the story of the genesis of God's people.
The Bible isn't efficient. It isn't a list of instructions for right living. It isn't a guidebook or a rule book. It's a complicated collection of stories about diverse people, written and edited by diverse people across centuries, a cornucopia of variety that in its surprising fullness gives us a picture of the God we worship in relationship with the people we have been and still are: a God who showers abundant love, compassion and forgiveness on a people riddled with sin, anxiety, and alienation. It's a story of seeds cast into the wind, and of the rocks, weeds, and fertile soil that those seeds encounter.
Last week some generous parishioners gave me three large clivia plants for my patio garden. It turns out that they had saved all the seeds from several plants and sown them as an experiment. In due course they had a bumper crop of seedlings and being thrifty people they repotted all of them, with the result that they now had dozens of plants to water, feed and give away. I sympathise: I also find it extremely hard to thin out seedlings or throw away living plants, however feeble, even when the textbooks say that thinning out is for the good of the crop as a whole.
Nature's prodigal abundance is hard to grasp: the clouds of pollen, the acres of frogspawn, the hundreds of ova nestled within a young girl's body, the maple and oak seedlings that spring up between urban paving stones: the hundreds of millions of potential lives in ocean, air, and earth that are snuffed out by disease, climate, or predators before they've even begun. Waste seems to be built into the design of the universe. Waste, or prodigal abundance? A squandering of scarce resources or a generosity that beggars our imagination?
Matthew tells us that Jesus goes out and sits by the shore. He makes himself available to everyone, not staying behind a desk or a locked door. He doesn't require appointments or turn people away; he isn't careful with his time. I read this week of a clergy colleague who likes to do his sermon preparation in a coffee shop. He was asking for ideas about how to tactfully tell people who stop by that he's busy and not to be disturbed. My view is that if you are going to put on a clerical collar and sit in a public place you may as well invite people to sit down and talk. It may feel like a waste of time, a scattering of seed on rocky ground, but you never know what harvest may ultimately spring from that openness. Jesus sitting on the beach, telling stories to the crowd: it's a very different picture from the priest hiding behind his laptop at Starbucks. My weekly breakfast hour at Harvey Milk's is a small investment of time; it's not a grand gesture, but it's something I can do for the neighborhood, to let them know that the church is there for them, in a way that I suspect many Hillcrest residents haven't encountered before.They need someone to waste a little time on them, to start chipping away at the anxiety they may feel around religion.
In our anxious age it's easy to be discouraged by all the bad news we hear: protesters bullying terrified children who have turned themselves in at the border; corporations and even churches bringing suit to be allowed to deny women health care; the needless deaths of thousands who don't have clean water to drink or wash; newly democratized nations descending into civil war. Our puny efforts seem pointless: what difference can a donation to ERD or my signature on a petition to Congress really make? We might as well give up and focus inward, on the things we can control, like the color of the paint on our walls or even the configuration of the pews in the chancel. We might as well restrict our conversations to people we already know and agree with. That's the temptation.
But then we turn back to Scripture and today's parable. What does it say to us about the life of faith? This is the parable of the sower, not of the seed. It's about how we as the sowers of God's seed are to behave, letting go of anxiety about scarce resources or imprudent investments and scattering the Gospel seed with joy and prodigality. It's about giving that guy at the traffic light a dollar without worrying about what he will spend it on. It's about shining the light of Christ even when there's nobody to see and appreciate it. It's about offering a smile to that grouchy clerk at the grocery store even when you won't ever get a smile back. It's about being open to conversation with someone you don't know. It's about saying your prayers in the face of terrible tragedy or hopeless conditions.
The new nation of South Sudan is embroiled in civil war, just three years after its founding. The people of Sudan are no strangers to civil war: the country was in chaos for 50 years in the 20th century, with millions of people displaced from their home districts and rendered homeless for more than a generation.
When the civil war ended, people returned in their thousands to their homes, where they tried to restore their old way of life. One Episcopal missionary, an agricultural specialist, tells the story of being asked to teach a class on basic agriculture: how to prepare soil, rotate crops, save seeds, and make the best use of your acreage, things I remember learning, even as an urban kid, in elementary school. As the missionary talked to the recently returned exiles about these basic principles, a grandmother at the back of the class put her hand up. "I remember those things," she said with wonder. "When I was a child the elders taught me how to do this, but until you told us, I had forgotten, because I have spent my life away from my ancestral land." An entire generation of people had lived in refugee camps, and the basic skills of sowing and tending crops had been all but obliterated. It is a terrible thing for a nation when its elders have forgotten the basic skills of staying alive. But the people of South Sudan are nevertheless sowers of the seed: they are joyful, committed Christians who live with gratitude for every simple blessing of life. They have been generous in sowing the seeds of faith, and the church is now the single most effective institution in the country, far more so than the elected government. Sowers of the seed, no matter how bad things are; living into abundance and renouncing fear and anxiety.
At the doctor's office the other day, the waiting room TV was tuned to a David Attenborough nature documentary. It showed monkeys and parrots feasting on fruit, high in the treetops. They were careless eaters: as they plucked and pecked, much of the fruit fell dozens of feet to the ground where neither monkeys nor birds would ever venture. But waiting beneath in the shadow of the trees were herds of deer, which immediately gobbled up the dropped fruit. The abundance was not wasted. There was enough for everyone, and each species did its part in making use of the food and ensuring the spread of the seeds. There's a parable here for those with ears to hear: God's abundance is for everyone, not just for the treetop dwellers or for those who can reach the tips of the branches. We just have to figure out a way to share without getting into wrestling matches about who goes first. God's ways are not our ways, and there's more than enough blessing to go round. Be sowers of the seed, on rocky ground, among the weeds, in good soil and bad. Because nothing is impossible for God, and the yield will be more than you could ever imagine.
July 13 2014
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges