Worship for July 12, 2020
In our worship video last week, my friend, the Rev. Dr. Sam Parkes mentioned that one of his favourite parts of scripture is Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55. Scholars call it “Second Isaiah”, working from the theory that one of Isaiah’s students followed in the tradition of the prophet, and offered needed words of hope to the people of Israel, when they were living in especially troubling times.
To open our time of worship, I want to read a few lines from Isaiah 55, that talk about the hope we can find in God’s word, the message of God’s love. God is not finished with us yet, and the way things are, is not the way they will always be:
Isaiah 55:10-13 The Message (MSG)
8-11 “I don’t think the way you think.
The way you work isn’t the way I work.”
“For as the sky soars high above earth,
so the way I work surpasses the way you work,
and the way I think is beyond the way you think.
Just as rain and snow descend from the skies
and don’t go back until they’ve watered the earth,
Doing their work of making things grow and blossom,
producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry,
So will the words that come out of my mouth
not come back empty-handed.
They’ll do the work I sent them to do,
they’ll complete the assignment I gave them.
12-13 “So you’ll go out in joy,
you’ll be led into a whole and complete life.
The mountains and hills will lead the parade,
bursting with song.
All the trees of the forest will join the procession,
exuberant with applause.
No more thistles, but giant sequoias,
no more thornbushes, but stately pines—
Monuments to me, to God,
living and lasting evidence of God.”
I have another reading for you, from the Book of Genesis, in the 25th chapter. It tells a story I remember well from Sunday School, about two brothers names Jacob and Esau.
Genesis 25:21-34 The Message (MSG)
21-23 Isaac prayed hard to God for his wife because she was barren. God answered his prayer and Rebekah became pregnant. But the children tumbled and kicked inside her so much that she said, “If this is the way it’s going to be, why go on living?” She went to God to find out what was going on. God told her,
Two nations are in your womb,
two peoples butting heads while still in your body.
One people will overpower the other,
and the older will serve the younger.
24-26 When her time to give birth came, sure enough, there were twins in her womb. The first came out reddish, as if snugly wrapped in a hairy blanket; they named him Esau (Hairy). His brother followed, his fist clutched tight to Esau’s heel; they named him Jacob (Heel). Isaac was sixty years old when they were born.
27-28 The boys grew up. Esau became an expert hunter, an outdoorsman. Jacob was a quiet man preferring life indoors among the tents. Isaac loved Esau because he loved his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29-30 One day Jacob was cooking a stew. Esau came in from the field, starved. Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stew—I’m starved!” That’s how he came to be called Edom (Red).
31 Jacob said, “Make me a trade: my stew for your rights as the firstborn.”
32 Esau said, “I’m starving! What good is a birthright if I’m dead?”
33-34 Jacob said, “First, swear to me.” And he did it. On oath Esau traded away his rights as the firstborn. Jacob gave him bread and the stew of lentils. He ate and drank, got up and left. That’s how Esau shrugged off his rights as the firstborn.
Like many other prospective parents, Isaac and Rebekah despaired of ever having children. When Rebekah did become pregnant, it was a difficult pregnancy. Rebekah felt like there was a fight going on within her. When it came time for her to give birth, she had fraternal, not identical twins.
Esau, which means “hairy” came out first. Jacob, whose name in Hebrew is related to words that can mean either “heel” or “cheater” comes out after him.
The story says Jacob was grasping his slightly older brother’s heel as he came out. Holding on tight. Was he trying to come out first, or pull his brother back in? It’s an evocative image.
These stories existed in oral, story-telling form, for many generations before they were written down. The ancient poets who wrote down these old stories were known for showing, rather than telling, when it came to their characters. An action, a physical description, even a name, took the place of a long explanation of what the person was like, or how they would eventually behave.
Esau was a hairy, brawny boy who grew up to be a man of the field, who liked to hunt, and bring home wild game. Jacob was the second born son, but only by a matter of seconds, who looked for ways to raise his own status, to get ahead of his older brother.
Jacob and Esau were born into a culture in which their roles were set for them, long before they were even a twinkle in their parent’s eyes. The eldest son would inherit 2/3 of his father’s property. The younger son was entitled to the one third that was left. Daughters and widows were not even in the equation. Custom dictated the eldest son would receive the larger share of the estate, and also assume the larger share of responsibility for the women, children, slaves, animals, and other property.
Much is made of Jacob’s scheming nature. He was home, making lentil stew, when his brother came in from a day out hunting. Esau was famished, and may have said something like, “I’m so hungry I’d do anything for a bowl of that stew!”
Jacob may have asked the leading question, “Would you give up your rights as first-born son?’
Esau, the brawny one, who is not the brainy one, says, “Sure, just make sure you fill it to the brim. I’m really, really hungry!”
Jacob comes across as the wily one, willing to cheat his brother out of his inheritance, and who puts a price on common decency- when someone is hungry, and you have a big pot of stew, you feed them, don’t you?
Esau seems the slightly dim-witted tough guy, who lets his belly do his thinking. He’s hungry now, and that is his consuming concern.
Neither brother looks very good in this story, at least when we only consider the characters and their actions, but do not pause to ask, why, really, are they acting this way?
Like many others, I watched with sadness, horror, and deep concern when cities in the United States boiled over with protests, and sometimes riots, and violence, destruction, and escalating racial tension. These things are nothing new, but rose to fevered heights in the aftermath of what seems like an endless list of racially-motivated crimes against people of colour, such as George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Breonna Taylor, the decorated paramedic in Louisville.
When we look at the individual characters in these stories, we may be baffled as how they could behave so poorly. How could that police officer in Minneapolis ignore the pleas of the dying man he held down with a knee to his neck? How did that officer become so callous, so willing to apply lethal force? Why was he unable to see the man under his knee as another human, instead of as a problem to put down? How do people end up that way?
Similar questions are asked when protests escalate to riots, and looting, and businesses and whole neighbourhoods are ransacked, and left a shambles. What is going on for people that they would destroy the stores where they shop, the businesses where they work, and which provide services needed in their community?
What is going on? How can humans get so twisted up, and do such things? I want to be careful not to equate the looting of a store with the killing of a person. They are not the same thing at all. You can replace a broken storefront window, but you can’t get back a life lost to needless violence.
In first year psychology, as well as in first year philosophy, I remember classroom discussions of about what determines human identity, character, potential. Is it nature, or nurture? In other words, is who we are mostly about what came with our original equipment when we were born, or does how, and where we are raised make a difference?
The tradition that gave 2/3 of the father’s estate to the eldest son would seem to grow out of the “nature” way of thinking. The eldest son has privilege and position solely because of being born first. How different is that from the thinking that says white people are just smarter, more ethical, more entitled to privilege, just because they are white? How many people enjoy relatively easy lives, jut because of the accident of where they happened to be born?
When our kids were growing up we were able to put them in a French Immersion school, and provide good dental care, music lessons, opportunities to play team sports, and to take part in Sunday School, and go to church-run summer camps. These are some of the advantages we were able to provide, that have helped in their formation. We are very fortunate.
At one of the Black Lives Matter peaceful protests, I saw a whole family wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan “Children are not born racist. That has to be taught.” This reminds me of the quote by Nelson Mandela, who said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite”.
Most humans are born with the capacity to notice difference. That can be a useful survival tool. Children learn to pick out familiar faces, and they may “make strange” with ones they don’t recognize.
When one of our kids was a baby, we actually had to turn their high-chair away from the dining room table when one of our best friends came over for a meal, or they would howl. It took time, but we were gradually able to let our child see, by how we treated our friend, that there was nothing to fear or worry about. We think she just didn’t like his ginger hair!
Kids may notice difference, and they also take cues from those around them, about the meaning of those differences.
Our gospel reading today is the familiar parable about the sower and the seed.
1-3 At about that same time Jesus left the house and sat on the beach. In no time at all a crowd gathered along the shoreline, forcing him to get into a boat. Using the boat as a pulpit, he addressed his congregation, telling stories.
3-8 “What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road, and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled by the weeds. Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.
9 “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”
One way to read this story is to say the seed of God’s love takes root and grows in the heart of the receptive person, and does not do as well in the heart of the one who is not ready, or willing ,to change their life, to follow God. There is a strong judgement in this interpretation- that some people are just bad dirt- soil that is not ready to support the new life with God.
But that may not be the only way to read that story. The description of the different places the seed lands is pretty detailed.
There is the well trod path where the seeds get ground into the dirt by foot-falls, the rocky ground with thin soil, where seed springs up quickly, but there isn’t enough depth to support long term growth. There is thorny ground, where the pre-existing weeds choke out the new growth. Finally, there is good soil, where conditions support thriving plants, that yield much grain.
Perhaps we can hear that as a reminder that context, the immediate environment makes a huge difference. What is around me, has a powerful effect on me. Nurture matters at least as much our basic human nature.
A few weeks ago we heard from some of our friends in Oakville, that just down the street from a house we rented during Joel’s last year of high school, there was a drive-by shooting. That does not sound like the sleepy, privileged, suburb where we raised our kids. Although, to be frank, in the last 3 or 4 years, more and more of that kind of violence seemed to making its way out from Toronto, into the middle and upper class neighbourhoods. Even so, it is still mostly safer there, than in some neighbourhoods in the big city. Location, location, location. Another way of saying that immediate context, what is actually around you, makes a big difference.
Context is not just the street you live on, or the community around your home. It’s also the income level, the culture, the language, the educational level of those closest to you. It’s the family stories, and the religion, and the attitudes you learn as you grow up. It’s a million million things that go into informing and shaping your view of the world, of yourself, of other people.
In the past, Christians served their communities by building hospitals, to tend to the physical ailments of the poorest folks, who could not afford proper care. Sunday School was invented in England in the 18th century so that children could be taught to read and write and do simple arithmetic, and learn Bible lessons, on their day off from working in factories. This was long before there were publicly supported schools for all children, regardless of income level.
What can we, as followers of Jesus in the early part of the 21st century, do to make our homes, our communities, our nation, a more nurturing environment in which to raise our kids, our grand-kids, and all the succeeding generations?
A way of praying:
At Harrow United Church we are beginning to look at what it will be like, when we return to meeting in our building for worship. We will have to do some things in new ways, and their will be some things we will not be able to do. It seems to me that one thing we may be doing more, is approaching God together in more contemplative ways, and making more use of shared times of silent prayer.
Let’s take some time in this worship video, to quiet ourselves, and offer up to God our own personal thoughts, feelings, worries, hopes, and dreams. After a time of silent prayer, I will say out loud the words of the Lord’s Prayer:
The Lord’s Prayer (together)
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory
forever and ever. Amen