Pentecost 6 – sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 12th July 2020

Genesis 25.19-34; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

Who are you?

The question is perhaps rarely put as baldly as that. More politely perhaps, at a party or work meeting, we get asked to say something about ourselves, reveal something of who we are. If you are anything like me then there are perhaps stock answers that we offer – something about work, family, where I am from. If the conversation progresses we might talk about our sense of identity, nationality, faith, what we get up to outside of work and family. And then as the conversation goes deeper we might talk about the kind of person we are – our characteristics and personality – and we begin to tell stories that exemplify that or show how we come to be that way. Stories that help make sense of ourselves, to ourselves as well as to others. Stories that display and reveal something of the depth of each of us. Any conversation about who we are that lasts for very long moves beyond a succession of facts about me, into stories. Because stories are how we understand ourselves and each other.

One of the reasons I love the Old Testament – and wish perhaps that we read it, and preached on it, more – is that large parts of it are stories. Stories that reveal in the telling something of who the people of Israel, the people of God, are. Today we began the story of Jacob, the last of the three great founding forebears: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob it is who will later be named Israel, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. So his story is one that will be picked up and woven into many people’s story – he will become a fundamental part of how the whole people of God understand themselves. And so it’s a story worth attending to, for the clues it reveals about who this people are, what has shaped them. The story of Jacob is deep in the DNA, we might say, of the people of Israel, and therefore of us too. The bible invites us always to see our story in the light of this story, our own stories both reflected and revealed.

Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, finds herself pregnant with twins, struggling within her. ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ she enquires of God. Rebekah already has a sense that life with twins will never be easy. God’s answer invites us to see the twins as fathers of rival nations: Edom (which means red, ruddy) and Israel. Esau, red and hairy, is born first; Jacob swiftly follows, his hand already gripping Esau’s heel – a telling detail of the story. And then, as the boys grow up, we are invited to see other contrasts: the hunter and the gatherer; the man of action and the quieter reflective one; the one loved by the father, the other preferred by the mother – Daddy’s boy, and Mummy’s boy? The final vignette reveals Esau as governed by his belly – willing to sell his birthright, the right belonging to the elder, for a bowl of lentils that meet the immediate need of hunger; and Jacob, we gather, is altogether different – clever, a trickster who is happy to exploit his brother’s need to reverse the usual power relations. And yet that hand gripping the heel of the other echoes through the story – these two, a study in contrasts, are nevertheless intertwined.

The question, ‘Who are you?’ swiftly, in conversation, becomes a story intertwined with the story of others. In conversation we make points of connection, and difference, with the story of our conversation partner. Taking the cue of this story, of the birth of two nations in these brothers – and here I begin to tread warily – we might find echoes of the story of Scotland and England. National identity, and how that connects for each of us with our own personal sense of identity is complicated, but at the most basic level the story of Scotland, of what it is to be Scottish, is intertwined with the story of England. It’s a story often of contrast, but also about that intertwining, a rivalry and a need of each other. Our Old Testament story, told principally from the perspective of Jacob and his descendants, is both a laughing at their neighbour – the Edomite, so named for their forebear who sold his birth right for a pot of red stew – but also an admission that they are indeed bound together.

The story delights in Jacob’s cunning, and it doesn’t stop here; the story goes on to tell of his tricking of his now old blind and needy father, Isaac, to further rob Esau of their father’s blessing. Jacob’s cunning has a dark, uncomfortable side, even as he dances through life. He too will be tricked in his turn (but that’s the story for a future week), and this is not the last we hear of Esau either. Jacob and Esau’s intertwined stories continue, toward one of the most devastating and moving moments of reconciliation in the bible. Through it all we are invited both to recognise and rejoice in Jacob’s cunning, but also sense that things are more complicated that we like to admit. That there is both dark and light to Jacob, and to us.

In contrast, the story, the parable of the sower, told by Jesus in our Gospel can seem remarkably straightforward. I have to admit that I often find it a bit flat, predictable, ponderous even compared to other parables. The story of the sower who goes out to sow, with the seed falling on very different ground and soil, feels very direct, but it doesn’t have that element of surprise seen in the best parables or a twist to draw us in. I realise that much of that reaction is due to the somewhat crude tagged on explanation of the meaning of the parable given to the disciples. Many scholars argue that this explanation reflects the interpretation that the story gained in the early days of the church. For me the best stories are those that, like people, resist easy explanation. The explanation given tends to emphasise the seed that does not reach full harvest and the different ground it falls on. We become tempted, in this telling, to identify ourselves, or others with inhabiting a particular ground – well-trodden or rocky or thorny. One way to restore the surprise to the story is to remember that the first agrarian hearers of the story would have been astonished at the profligate practice of the farmer, throwing his seed around, willy-nilly. Any good subsistence farmer would have been much more careful than that, and ensured that the seed landed in good soil. And so the parable, on that telling, becomes also about the mysterious activity of God’s grace, dispersing seed in all directions, rather than through careful planting. God’s purposes of an abundant harvest are achieved through waste and destruction and indiscriminate sowing, so that the good soil might be also be seeded. That’s a surprising and very different way of imagining the activity of God in our lives and world.

I find that a more helpful way to understand the parable as, like Jacob, I know that within all of us is both dark and light; we all have within us a mixture of rocky, well trodden, thorny and fruitful ground. Our more honest stories reflect that. Maturity of faith and life comes when that ambiguity is admitted – when we move beyond painting ourselves, and others, as all good or all bad; when we admit the truth that we and others are more complicated than that, but that God’s abundant grace keeps being given out in expectation that the harvest will come.

Who are you? Who are we? As we navigate our way out of this time of crisis and re-evaluation, who are we called to become, where within us and between us might the seed be growing, waiting to be harvested? We will discover that as we tell our stories, stories of rivalry and intertwining, and as we recognise our need for each other, as we recognise God’s abundant grace at work in ourselves and each other. Amen.

 

Questions to consider

How are stories a unique way to understand ourselves and others?

Who do you sympathise and identify with in the story of Jacob and Esau?

In what ways do you find the categories of ground identified by Jesus in the parable of the sower – trodden down, rocky, thorny and good – helpful?

What does the action of the sower, and by extension, God, in distributing seed in such a liberal and indiscriminate fashion, suggest to you about the activity of God in the world?

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