12 July 2020

Sermon: 6th Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon: 6th Sunday after Pentecost

12 July 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long

Genesis 25:19-34 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; NRSV

Greetings on this day, this moment between storms. I don’t know about you, but the weather is often reflected in my moods; and while I appreciate the rain the clouded darkness settles on me, and I rejoice when the sun breaks through again. I am unsure right now whether I look forward to the another storm that threatens for tomorrow, or not, although my weather app suggests it is receeding. In the midst of all the storms of life we already face, I am sure that more sun would be a gift, and this gift is my prayer for those living in less privileged accommodation in our city than myself who are enduring flooding and the wet destruction of their lives during this weather cycle. Storms are an experience of the unexpected, and although we are generally forewarned each storm brings elements of unpredictability and heartache. As we ride the present storms of the pandemic and lockdown, and now renewed load-shedding, we are reminded of the importance of making room for the unexpected. In the Daily Office of Morning Prayer that I use regularly at the moment there is a lovely phrase, “May we find wisdom and life in the unexpected.”[1]

In today’s reading from Genesis we hear that Rebekah is experiencing a storm in her womb as her twins struggle together within her, causing her to enquire of the Lord (25:22). It seems a natural thing to do when we find ourselves caught up in chaos we neither expect nor understand: we question, we seek wisdom. When I first met with the Archdeaconry Clergy about 5 weeks into the Lockdown via Zoom, most of us reflected on how those first five weeks had strengthened our relationship with God, and I have heard this repeated in other conversations since with both clergy and lay people, and it is probably true for many of us gathered virtually this morning. The COVID-19 storm continues to flood our lives, and causes us to seek refuge, and because it has thrust us into uncertainty and carried us beyond what we can control, God becomes the focus of our search; maybe not for all, but for many. I encourage you to make space to reflect on your learnings, on your experience of these last few months, and to note the wisdom you have gained (perhaps journal your thoughts, or talk it through with a trusted friend or confidant).

Just as the Cape storm of the last few days will possibly birth another tomorrow, so back in Genesis we find Rebekah – from the struggle in her womb – birthing two children whose relationship will be an ongoing storm. Because it is written down for us we forget that these early stories in Genesis were originally oral narrative, passed from one generation to another. I find it helpful to imagine them as fire-side stories, told after a good meal, a cup of something comforting in hand; and then I listen for the story behind the story. I listen to a community seeking wisdom in the telling, sorting through their chaos, searching for meaning in their changing landscape. We see in Esau and Jacob a common theme in Genesis: a community of Pastoralists reflecting on the broader human developmental shift away from an early Hunter/Gatherer way of life towards the more settled agrarian culture that increasingly marks their human experience. The story explores the question as to which way of life is right, which one has God’s blessing. There is humour in the telling of the story: one twins heel in the hand of the other as they are birthed, the older unthinkingly swopping his birthright for some soup (and clearly not thinking the transaction a serious one), and in seeking the blessing of inheritance from his father discovering he has been tricked in more ways than one in the loss of the gift. Humour is how we best hear truth, and it’s a story with much truth, with a personal feel, that impacts on how the world is changing, and the uncertainties underlying the seeming securities of life.

This Genesis story is a useful one as we reflect on change in our own context. We know that substantial shifts were already underway before the pandemic, and we were already experiencing the challenges of this new context: a shift described increasingly as the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) that most of us don’t really understand, except that we find it increasingly difficult to get our heads around a new phone, and realise we can do a whole lot of shopping without going to a shop;  and we are happy that we can video-call family living in Australia, or in other distant places. The change hasn’t just been around technology: we’ve also noticed that it’s more difficult to get our children and younger generations into Church, that our friends are less interested in formal religion, and that truth is increasingly relative for many people. And then came COVID-19! Suddenly all this 4IR-stuff means we can close the Church building and still gather, get everything delivered that we need (if we press the right buttons on the computer screen), and even have a social life – all in the virtual world that previously was the domain of science fiction and seeming fantasy. Due to the virus we were not given any choice, we were thrust into it, into the eye of the storm. 108 days later, how are you coping with the change?

I wish we had time this morning to hear from you all, and as I say this I realise it is important we create an opportunity and time to share our experiences. However, for now it’s important to think about what we mean by change. Change is never sought for itself and is often thrust upon us at a moment not of our choosing. From a faith perspective change is a gift that brings us deeper wisdom and endows us with a greater wholeness of life; in essence faith-based change is transformative. Richard Rohr helpfully comments, “The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But the mystery of transformation more often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart—chaos—invites the soul to listen at a deeper level, and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place. Most of us would never go to new places in any other way. The mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, dark night, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, [chaos] does not feel good and it does not feel like God.”[2]

As I have stated in previous sermons the pandemic has thrust us into a new context, rather than a new normal, which we are discovering to be filled with uncertainty both in the present and for our future; and it is marked by the falling apart of all that has previously made sense of life. Richard Rohr’s use of the word chaos aptly fits this uncertainty, especially as we continue to mourn – even lament – the loss that this collapse marks for us. This chaos may not feel good or feel like God, but from a faith perspective it is the medium through which the transformative power of God is able to embrace and heal us. It is the liminal context in which hope is renewed.

The falling apart of the old is visible in the cracks that the pandemic has highlighted in our society, our economy, and our political environment. The pandemic has acted as a kind of earthquake, shaking up our world to the point where we are forced to acknowledge that the structures of our society are beyond repair. We really need to rebuild; and the task is daunting, but not impossible. This is a kairos moment – a propitious moment for decision and action – for South Africa and the Western world; and in the context of our worship gathering today, a personal moment of kairos for me and for you. It is about allowing the change we are experiencing to become transformative, and to do this we need to hone our ability to listen deeply to one another’s stories, to avoid being reactive, and to be truly empathetic. Empathy is not a trait that comes easily to us, but in order to empathise with someone’s experience we must be willing to believe them as they see it and not how we may imagine their experience to be.[3]

We do always have choice: like Esau we can seek to hold to a past way of life, and in so doing lose our birthright; or like Jacob we can choose to embrace a new future, and – perhaps with necessary guile – ensure we have God’s blessing. My prayer is that we will have the courage to walk away from the brokenness of the past that still impacts so painfully on our present, and commit to working together towards a more whole and abundant experience of life and shared relationship. We may not be able to change the world, but we have the power to change our world: our own relational environment, our experience of community and of one another. This is our hope.

Let us pray,

God of the Edges,
even muzzled fear growls,
you know this.
You saw this in the people who had chained
the man who howled.
Open in us a thousand thousand pathways
into story.
Because you did this, and Hell was emptied.

[1] Pádraig Ó Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community
[3] Attributed to Brené Brown https://brenebrown.com/about/
[4] Pádraig Ó Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community

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