Preached on Sunday, 23.07.2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
For all sorts of reasons, the story from Genesis we have for today is a difficult story. We find it hard to get into the culture of the time; we know little or nothing of the marriage customs of the time it portrays; we might even find it hard to work out why the story is there at all – what the point is of a story that only succeeds in re-emphasising the non-status of the women in the story, the all-powerful position of Laban, the pater familias, the personification of the ‘family values’ that a certain kind of religion (to be found in all the religions of the world) tries to say is the cornerstone of the good society.
In part it is a continuation of the wider narrative that seeks to portray the widening reach and variety of the children of Abraham. And to that end we are probably meant to ignore the improbability of a man not noticing that he was in bed with the wrong woman, even if we might buy into the idea that the woman, oppressed by the societal and family expectations of her time and place, or even a believer in them, would agree to the deception. But then there is an awful lot of deception in the Genesis narrative – much of it accomplished by Jacob himself; and his deceptions are not yet over.
We also may notice something: at Bethel, which we looked at last week, God says to Jacob, ‘know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ And yet in this morning’s story we can look all we like, but we will find no mention of God whatsoever. Is that significant – or is it just a coincidence?
And if the story of Leah and Rachel is not disturbing enough, we have a reading linked to it for today which provided the scripture sentence with which we began the service: ‘we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose. ‘ It’s quite a claim, isn’t it? ‘All things’ doesn’t leave much out – it doesn’t leave anything out – and it makes the sentence hard for us to accept.
In a world of abuse and terror and hatred and intolerance and disease and hunger and warfare and desperation and racism and homophobia and xenophobia, of intolerable poverty and ridiculous wealth, of want and waste, environmental degradation and human degradation, can it possibly, conceivably, be true that ‘all things work together for good’?
Are we meant to take Paul’s thoughts and apply them retrospectively to Jacob and Laban, Leah and Rachel? Are we meant to look at that story and say – ah well, it all worked out in the end. And are we meant to add in the second part of what Paul says: ‘for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose’? Are we meant, then, to look at the Genesis story and infer that, in spite of there being no mention of God, God was there after all, looking after Jacob, making sure that everything, in the end, came together – because Jacob had been called, because Jacob loved God, because Jacob was part of God’s purpose?
It is, I think, a lot to ask. It’s a lot to ask because, if taken to its logical conclusion, that line of thinking leads us to a place where people for whom things come together are in that fortunate position because they are called by God, part of God’s purpose – and we can forget about the rest because they are not. And I would think that not many of us are willing to reach that conclusion.
It’s a conclusion that divides the world into winners, for whom we have respect, and losers, whose plight is a waste of our time and the world’s resources – and it gives that worldview a halo and a divine blessing. It may be enough to ‘get on’ in a nightmare world, but it has nothing, but nothing, to do with the kingdom of God.
So how do we know that? How can I say that? How do we know that God is with us, or that God is calling us, or that God has a purpose for us? If it’s not that everything is going well (though that might be the case), what is it?
The kingdom of God, of course, is impossible for us to define. We know that because even in the bible that is never done. Jesus never defines it – all he does is offer a series of clues, or hints, or paths; he says to those who will listen that there is a path, or a line of thought, which we can follow – and see where it takes us. And it just might be that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is, after all, the kingdom of God.
So let’s look at some of the paths Jesus suggests – and ask ourselves if any of the possibilities are paths to which we feel we are being called. But here’s a clue before we begin: Jesus always talks about a way, a path, a journey – or, as I said, a clue, a hint. If we wait for the end of the rainbow we are likely to be waiting a very long time.
In our reading this morning from Matthew’s gospel we heard: what is the kingdom of heaven like? And then we heard four different ways of thinking about it: the seed, the yeast, the treasure, and the merchant – or is it the pearl? Let’s have a wee look at each, and each of us can ask ourselves if any of these fit with our own understanding of the kingdom – or of ourselves.
The kingdom of heaven is like a seed. That short sentence, if no other, ought to be enough to remind us, to convince us, that the kingdom of heaven does not come among us as a finished article, ready-cooked. The kingdom is planted in us. And a seed, as we know, can lie, seeming to do nothing, for a very long time; it sits getting ready, taking root, getting bedded in, before the first invisible growth makes its first tentative push through the soil.
Every time we look at the parable of the sower we need to remind ourselves that our place in the parable is not as the seed – it is as the soil. The seed is planted in us, takes root in us and, eventually, grows in us and, we hope, bears fruit in us, in our lives, and in the life of the world around us. So, then, at what point do we notice the seed, at what point do we respond to the seed, at what point do we acknowledge the call of the seed on our lives?
There is a way of thinking about this that looks for certainty, for a finished article, in someone’s faith before they regard that faith as mature enough to merit the name – but it seems to me that that approach gets in the way of the seed. It’s the kind of approach that wants to dig up a seed to see how it’s getting on – and in the process stands every chance of leaving the plant still-born.
So it is important that, in our own lives and in the lives of others, we are open to being aware that there is a seed growing, or even a seed planted. When, for example, there is someone who is thinking of making a public affirmation of their faith or, as an adult, is considering being baptised, we do not look for a faith that is fully formed, that understands everything, that has no doubts of any kind – for which if us ever understands everything, has rid ourselves of any trace of a doubt about anything, or can say with confidence that our faith has no further process of maturation to go through. The only thing we need to notice is the seed.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. This image too is about growth, but this time the growth is different. A seed grows into a plant that can be seen and admired and recognised; the growth of yeast is all about making a difference to everything, making everything rise together – so that the effect can be seen, but the agent producing the effect disappears.
The kingdom of heaven is grown, then, in a process whose origin will be lost in the process itself. The kingdom of heaven cannot be pinpointed, cannot be pointed to, cannot be distinguished from everything else. Like the Holy Spirit, all that can be identified is the effect.
So how do we respond to this clue, this hint? The first thing to notice is perhaps that this model does not look for the growth of the kingdom in the growth of the church. There is, sometimes, a temptation for the church to equate its own existence with the work of the kingdom, or as evidence of the work of the kingdom.
But if we take seriously the clue of the yeast then all that thinking has to be abandoned – because, if you went to eat a loaf and found a big lump of yeast in it, you would know that the yeast had not done its job. The yeast gives up its life for the risen life of the loaf.
And the same will go for the life of an individual Christian. The kingdom of heaven, at work within us and through us, brings about an existence where what is important is the life of the world. The kingdom of heaven releases us from an obsession with ourselves, with our own spiritual life, even with our own church.
Instead it calls us individually and collectively to work for the growth of the world – growth in justice, growth in love, growth in godliness – and, in the process, to disappear into the life of the world. So don’t obsess about yourself, we are told; fling yourself into the world, for the good of the world; offer yourself as the kingdom, and let the kingdom come.
Our last two hints, clues, paths, are not about the kingdom of heaven within us – they’re about going out and finding it. There is a treasure in a field, and a pearl in the ocean; they’re about giving up everything for the sake of the kingdom. So in these cases the kingdom is not about what is produced, it’s more about an attitude.
In these parables the characters in the story go looking for something of overwhelming worth – so they know that what they are seeking is currently beyond them, but they are willing to set what they do not have above everything that they do.
These are images for a pilgrim people, a people who are not set in their ways, who recognise that they have not reached the end of their journey, who know that the kingdom is not a possession but an ambition – it’s what carries us forward, makes the journey worthwhile. It’s the hope for which we strive, the star by which we are guided.
Jesus did not, I think, ask us to harmonise all these roads into one; he offered them to us, hoping that one of them might strike a chord, ring a bell. For those who are called by any one of these, to those who find in any one of these a purpose, to those who find in any of these a way to express their love for God and for God’s world, they offer a way to see how all these things work together. That is because we are not all called in the same way, we do not all understand the kingdom in the same way – but when all these ways, and all the people who respond to them, are put together, they work together for good.
So, for Jacob, was the willingness to work for many years for Rachel, the willingness to put up with a manipulative father-in-law, the willingness to carry on when he knew he had been conned, his way of displaying the search for the pearl of great price? Was Rachel the embodiment for Jacob of the embodiment of the kingdom of God? Was his commitment a model for our commitment in the work of the kingdom? And do those questions make up for the highly questionable story in which they are planted? I leave you to decide!