Nothing Is Beyond Redemption
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July 12, 2020
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
One of the great limitations of recording a sermon online is that there is no possibility of getting any interaction with or feedback from a congregation. This reality is something which clergy have learned very clearly in the months since the lockdowns began across the world, and it is a reality which prevents me from asking a simple question right now. Had we all been gathered together inside the cathedral this morning, I would have ventured to ask you a simple but profound question. What I would like to know is have any of you ever actually seen a chicken cross a road?
Since our youngest days, we have been asked, and have probably asked others, that old, old question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”. However, if you put the word ‘chickens’ into a Google image search, you will see pictures of the birds in all sorts of farm-like contexts. But scroll as you might through countless pages, you will not find a single genuine picture of a chicken on a road.
Chickens are not creatures of great intellect, but those who own and farm chickens know full well you don’t put chickens on roads, which is why the simple question about the chicken crossing the road is, of course, the stuff of a certain kind of humor. So let me ask another simple question that rears its head in the readings we have heard this morning from Genesis and from Matthew.
Jesus is out to tell us something. About that he is quite emphatic, demanding of his audience, “Let anyone with ears listen!” And what he tells his audience is this: ‘A sower went out to sow.’ But can you tell me - WHY did the sower go out to sow?
Bizarrely, we heard - we SORT of heard - that question being asked by the long-suffering Rebekah in our first reading. The stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs that we find in Genesis are both full of surprises, and also repositories of age-old truths and realities. Abraham and Isaac and their families do longevity remarkably well, and - with the help of God - cope also with the issues around fertility. To our modern ears these accounts bring many surprises of this kind, and we heard of one such surprise today.
At the age of 59 or 60, Isaac is about to become a father for the first time, Rebekah, his wife, having been barren until the Lord intervened and answered Isaac’s prayer. (We might note that it is, specifically Isaac’s prayer on behalf of his wife - we do not know whether it was Rebekah’s prayer.) And, as can be the case in the contemporary world where medicine and science can augment prayer in dealing with such issues, Rebekah has conceived not one child but two - she is expecting twins. The sower has indeed gone out to sow. But even before they are born, we learn that the children ‘struggled together within her’, leading her to cry out, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”, and she goes to inquire of the Lord. She is, you might say, asking the question, “Why did the sower go out to sow?”
Families are complex things, and if such was the cry of Rebekah while the twins were still babies in her womb, the consequences of the sowing of the sower would only worsen in the years that would follow. Even if we had no further knowledge of the lives of these two children, the very fact that the one baby comes out with his hand gripping the other’s heel is enough of a hint in the narrative to tell us that trouble is in the air. From the word go, the twin lives of Esau and Jacob demonstrate for us the hard truth that the seed of the sower falls on all kinds of ground. Centuries before Jesus would speak about such things, it tells us that the seed has to contend with both rocks and thorns - a metaphor, if you like, that speaks well to the twisted stories of these two brothers and their parents, let alone speaking to the twisted and complex realities of the ethnicities and sovereignties of the middle east both then and now, which is clearly foreshadowed in the account of their lives. In an age where the pursuit of equality has become something to be taken very seriously - and, at least in the church, is something we understand as being not merely a political necessity but a theological one - we should weep at the prediction Rebekah receives from the Lord that is about division, about the strong and the weak, and how one would ‘serve’ (or enslave) the other.
That the Lord predicts it does not, of course, mean it is a situation of the Lord’s choosing or endorsing, and, if you read on through several chapters of Genesis, you will be reminded of just how conflicted the lives of these two brothers become. And to compound the tragedy, Isaac and Rebekah are hardly model parents. We are told clearly that Isaac loved Esau but that Rebekah loved Jacob - not an indication of first-rate parenting skills - and there are signs to suggest that Isaac’s love was a selfish and self-fulfilling kind of love. Esau becomes a great hunter and is able to provide lovely meat for his greedy father - and yet this great provider of fresh meat sells his birthright for a bowl of lentils. A clue, perhaps, that Esau is forced by his over-bearing father to pursue a life that has no real appeal to him, while Jacob, as the ‘stay at home’ son is cultivated by his mother into a life of deceit and dishonesty.
And thus the seed that has been sown does what it always seems to do - does what Jesus knew all too well - it falls on the path and on the rocks and in the thorns, not just on the good soil. And, frankly, when we read of the lives of the ancient forebears of those of us who worship the one God, it is pretty hard to find any ‘good soil’. So, we have to ask, echoing the sentiments of Rebekah - why does the sower go out to sow?
Because chicken farmers are not stupid. They do not put their chickens in the road, for they know that if they did, certainly around the streets of Chicago or any other traffic-rich city, very few of the chickens would ever make it to the other side. And no sensible sower goes out deliberately to throw their precious seed on the path or the rocks or amongst the thorns. We should remember that this is a parable, and Jesus did not intend these words to be a succinct guide to arable farming. His audience would doubtless have contained a good number of people who had more convincing experience of this kind of farming than Jesus had ever had, and who probably knew how to sow genuine seed quite effectively.
But this is a parable, and, as we are told, the seed about which Jesus is talking is the word of the kingdom, or, as Luke puts it more bluntly, the word of God. And that word has a wider reach than any seed in the hands of any farmer, for it is THE word for the whole world: Good News for all the children of the one God, Israelites, Edomites and even those who dwell in Chicago. Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews was clear that ‘the word of God is living and active’, and the writer of the fourth gospel was clear that the Word had become flesh and lived among us. And the Word of God came into the world not because of the good soil, where God’s abundance could already yield thirty, sixty or a hundred fold. The good soil was doing just fine, as it always does. If all the soil of God’s creation had remained good, rather than being subject to the sinfulness of fallen humanity, the Word of God would not have needed to become flesh and dwell among us.
No - the Word of God came into the world precisely because of stony pathways, because of rocks and arid places, and smothering thorny bushes and plants that choke out the prospect of life in all its abundance. The Word of God comes into the world precisely because in Isaac’s era and Jesus’ era and in every era of history down to our own, God’s children fall away, and are lured by the cares and wealth of the world, or are snatched away by the lure and power of evil. For, as Jesus delights in telling the Pharisees just a few chapters earlier in Matthew, he has come “not to call the righteous but sinners."
And that’s just as well. It’s just as well for Jacob, whose scheming ways are introduced to us in this morning’s reading, as the prelude to one hell of a story. Before the sower intervenes to help put things right in a divine wrestling match which will feature in our readings in early August, Jacob will have broken his family apart, lost the right to be regarded as his father’s son, and entered a night of darkness that will last more than fifteen years. Jacob will most certainly come to know what happens when seed falls among thorns.
And, in its own way, Jacob’s story is also both the story of the world, and it is also our own story. Jacob’s story is the story of the world, because we know so very clearly that the distribution of good soil is not an even one or a fair one. The resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests in recent weeks is but one stark reminder of how sinful humanity put choking thorns and scorching rocks to ruin the good soil of countless fellow children of God. Jacob’s story is the story of the world as we hear the constant rumblings about plans to annex the Jordan Valley by the Israeli government - a stark reminder that the tense relationship of the ‘two nations’ about which the Lord spoke to Rebekah back in the mists of time, continues in that very place to this day.
And Jacob’s story is our story - my story and yours. For within our own lives we know full well that our own soil contains rocks and thorns that stifle our proper and full response to the loving, living Word of God, and which prevent us from yielding the fruit of our divine calling. But - thank God - as those of you who are fans of Monty Python may well remember from their final movie in 1983 (aptly called The Meaning of Life!), every seed truly is sacred (and you can check that in the Greek), and in the great economy of the true sower of the seed, nothing is beyond redemption.
So I call you as I call myself to have a heart of gratitude, because the Sower has not deserted us. This Sower may not be a wise farmer, but this Sower has gone one better - for this Sower is the God of Love, and the God of Love is interested in more than just the good soil.
This Sower has gone out into all the dark places of the world, to sow the word of God, and to call all people to yield abundant fruit. Because the world needs today, just as it did when Jacob was a boy, the world needs those seeds of love, equality, justice and service to counter the thorns and rocks of this complex world. Whatever the soil we have created for ourselves, or which others have created for us, let us always give thanks that the Word of God has not deserted us, and continues to call us to share in that unending love. Amen.