Siblings and soil

Sermon 5th July 2020, Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Genesis 25.19-34 & Matthew 13.1-9,18-23

sowerThis morning we hear two iconic stories, which I am sure are familiar to many of us. The story of Jacob and Esau, in which Esau sells his birth right for an evening meal, and the parable of the sower, in which we hear about four types of different soil. As always, I think, when we read or hear these passages, the question to us is how we relate to them. How may these words speak to us today, this morning? What is it that we need to hear? The way I often try to do this is by imagining myself to be one of the people in the story or imagining what it would be like meeting one of them.

It seems that today’s readings lend themselves particularly well for this. For those of us who have siblings, we may look at our own relationships in the light of the dynamic between Jacob and Esau. And I suspect that many of us will hear the parable of the sower and wonder what type of soil we are.

The risk with this approach, which becomes very clear today, is that we may approach our text very binary: am I Jacob or Esau? Am I rocky, thorny or fruitful soil? It is then only a small step to apply this to others too. What type of soil would my neighbour be? Surely, the people we never saw at church again after their child’s baptism are a little bit rocky, and those successful businesspeople who never have time on a Sunday morning are perfect representatives of the thorny soil?

It is then that we fall into the trap to which Jesus points us in Luke’s Gospel when he tells the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector. He told this parable to some who trusted that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. They could have so easily been us at times!

So this morning, I would like to suggest that instead of asking ourselves who we may be in these stories, maybe a better question is, when have we been like those in the story? By doing that, we start to appreciate the depths of these stories, and how they can deepen our relationship with God and one another.

Let’s look with that lens to the story of Jacob and Esau. Even before they are born, their mother Rebekah is told that her two sons will become two divided nations. I wonder for those of you who are parents, have you ever worried about the future of your children, and felt helpless being unable to change what lies ahead of them? The two brothers are very different: Esau is a skilful hunter, a man of the field. Someone, it seems, who would demand respect and a role model for others. In contrast, Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Someone, it seems, who was a little bit odd, not quite what a real man should be like in those days.

Again, I don’t want to think so much about the question whether we are more like Jacob or Esau, but when we have been in a situation like theirs. When have we felt like someone others could look up to, an example, living each day as it comes, confident of our own ability? And what were the situations in which we felt quiet, withdrawn, not quite what people expect of us; yet maybe at the same time comfortable with that, knowing that someone loved us for being just like that?

Also, I wonder how both brothers felt after the exchange of Esau’s birth right for a pot of stew? Did they feel that somehow they had done God’s will? Or did they feel remorse? The feeling we read about last week when Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that we do not do what we want, but the very thing we hate?

Looking at the story in this way, we see that there is no real black and white, no real them and us. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes very powerfully on this story, and what its complexity can reveal us about God, so I would like to quote him at length here:

To be chosen does not mean that others are unchosen. To be secure in one’s relationship with God does not depend on negating the possibility that others too may have a (different) relationship with Him. Jacob was loved by his mother, Esau by his father; but what of God who is neither father nor mother but both and more than both? In truth, we can only know our own relationship with our parents. We can never know another’s. (…) Love is not quantifiable. It rejects comparisons. Jacob is Jacob, heir to the covenant. Esau is Esau, doing what he does, being what he is, enjoying his own heritage and blessing. What a simple truth and how beautifully, subtly, it is conveyed. It is one of the Torah’s most profound messages to humanity – and how deeply (in an age of “the clash of civilizations”) the world needs to hear it today.

To be chosen does not mean that others are unchosen: ‘us’ does not require ‘them’.

The same applies to our parable of the sower. Don’t worry, there is not a second sermon coming here, but some optional homework – as I’ve been telling a lot of my pupils in the last few weeks. Look at the parable again, with that question in mind: when have I been which soil, and what does that mean for my relationship with God?

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