Sunday, 9 July 2017

Becoming Myriads: The Sunday Sermon

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9 – Year A
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

I’m quite taken by the family’s blessing of Rebekah from the Genesis reading – the reading which Sheryl read to us this morning.

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads

A young person stands at the threshold of a life which is rich and open.  There’s something appealing here – I would like my life to be that rich and that open.  I regret the parts of it which may over time have become stunted or locked up.  Lucky Rebekah.  She was young and she must have been in the right place at the right time.

There’s a moment in the first reading when Rebekah slips down the side of her camel, veils herself and prepares to meet the man she will spend her life with.  In our story, this is the happy result.  Go back a bit though.  It follows from an earlier moment after the servant explained how God had led him to Rebekah at the well when her family turns to the young woman and asks – so what do you think?  Will you go with this man?  I refer to these as “moments” by the way because they are powerful little self-contained units which communicate their contents well.  I can imagine the film scene.  I can imagine the painting which some Flemish artist might have painted.  If Caireen were up here telling you the story she would no doubt tell it with all the different voices – including the camel’s voice.

When we gather again in greater numbers at the beginning of September, someone will ask you at coffee time:  So how was your holiday with your family?  

 It had its moments – might be the reply. 

Ah, you say, let me pour myself a coffee and you can tell me about it

We are not expecting to hear about a holiday that had its minutes, are we?  We don’t care that it lasted exactly one or two or three weeks, we are expecting to hear about a holiday which had its moments – we are more concerned about its contents – either good or bad – eventful – joyful – painful. 

We use the word moment and the word minute quite interchangeably.  Take a minute to think before you answer we say to people who are about to take an exam or testify in a court case.  We could have said take a moment to think because we never meant that they should count to sixty.    The first use of the word had nothing to do with time at all – it described a unit of force.  Archimedes used the term to describe the action of levers of various lengths upon their fulcrums.  We might use the word “torque” in its place.  That alternate current meaning of the word moment should have something to do with forces of various kinds – the force necessary to overcome inertia, electrical energy or somesuch.   And even if you’re not an engineer we still use the word Momentum and the adjective Momentous which give us some sense of the difference between a minute and a moment.

And because I’m old and boring I’m going to further illustrate by relating to you a minute of my childhood.

I am ten years old and walking to school.  I walk down the path from our house and turn right on Transit Road.  I carry on to the first stop sign where I intend to turn left.  If I’m walking at my normal rate it takes me just more than a minute to reach that stop sign.    

Let me tell you about a moment from my childhood.

I am ten years old and going to school in Victoria B.C. from my house which is 200 yards from the Pacific Ocean.   I walk out the front door and down the path to the street into fog as thick as pea soup.  The foghorn on Trial Island – just off shore - is sounding its deep two-note blast.  Somebody on our street is burning oak leaves and the air is rich with the smell.  It’s also low tide and mingled in with the smell of the burning leaves is the smell of the seaweed rotting on the beach. The short trip to the first stop sign takes a little longer than a minute because I keep stopping to listen to the sounds and smell the air.  That’s a moment.   You could write a poem about it, it has a shape, it has substance.  Three unrelated worlds weave together into a fabric.  The burning leaves and the smelly beach have nothing to do with the fog or with each other, the foghorn has nothing to do with a small boy’s trip to school but the reason small boys are so often late for school and don’t get the gold star on the chart is that they stop to look at stuff along the way – at the way worlds which are them and worlds which are not them weave together at their intersection into a moment.

Being small one tends to be hit by moments – they happen to you – small people and adults who retain their sense of wonder even in their riper years – are struck by their moments.  They have little authorship over them.  They are lucky to have them. 

Let’s nail this down.  Are you one of those who would like to be fruitful and are not – to be myriads and are not – who would love to rediscover the openness, the beauty and the complexity of life and are not there today.   Doesn’t it seem a little bit cruel simply to say you should stand around until you are struck by something.    That’s no gift.  It would be a bit like saying that on behalf of the Anglican tradition we sincerely hope your lucky number comes up. 

I am compelled tell you another story.

There is a bit of family tradition handed down, from somebody on my mother’s side, that when my great grandfather was studying for the Presbyterian ministry at Queen’s College in Kingston Ontario at the end of the 19th Century, one of the College’s previous graduates wrote back to his friends that the work he was doing in China (on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion) was proving impossible without a wife and could somebody please help him out.  The story has it that a small group paid a visit to the missionary and deaconess’ training home in Toronto and enquired of the young women enrolled there whether any amongst them felt the vocation to marry a missionary in the field. 

I cannot imagine the story without a bit of embarrassed silence.  There must, surely, have been a bit of a pause - an awkward moment.   

As it happened, the query was met with agreement by one young woman in Toronto.  Yes, she felt so inclined.  Letters presumably were exchanged and the young woman packed her trunks and sailed to China at the beginning of a hazardous decade for foreigners (and especially missionaries) living in that country.  One man’s history weaves into the history of one woman – not as an accident or a happy exception or blind luck - but as the fruit of risks taken by the one who asks and the one who answers.

In our first reading this Sunday, Abraham’s servant is given the task of finding a wife for Isaac from amongst his kinsfolk in Mesopotamia.  The servant prays to God for direction, establishes the criteria by which he will know God is so directing him and is subsequently led to the young woman Rebekah who is drawing water at the local well.  Later, when the servant has spoken with her family, they turn to the girl. 

“Will you go with this man?” they ask.   “I will” she says. 

The young woman’s agreement leads to the family’s blessing

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” 

The faith of Abraham’s bonded servant intersects with a young woman’s freedom to say “yes” or “no” and the story culminates in blessing.   Our story weaves together those things which simply are or which “must be” (either by God’s command or by Abraham’s will) with what “could or could not be” due to family politics and individual choice.  Energy – you see - goes into the equation from two sides.  

The question is asked.  The answer is “yes”.  The door to a world opens. 

I hope you’ll give some thought to where you are right now.  Maybe I’m preaching to the choir but you may have some sadness at the thought that you will never see an open door in front of you, or a new horizon, or be better and bigger than you are now.  Is any of this remotely important to you?  Does it hit a nerve with anyone?  Are you disappointed that you may never see the moment when you slip down the side of your camel into blessing or get from where you are now to that fruitful and hopeful place? 

Our key story this morning concerns much more than lucky cards or lucky stars.  Her moment is as much about the word “yes” issuing from Rebekah’s lips as it was about Abraham’s servant having discerned that she was the one.   Our engagement allows and even creates moments.  The weaving together of worlds happens because we want it and because we do it.  By our affirmation, by way of our curiosity and because of our willingness - by the word “yes” which we utter.  Few of us stand on ground so sloped in the right downward direction that entry and discovery are something that we merely fall into by the power of gravity or the weight of events.  Nor are our decisions ever so distilled in pure forms, apart from the ordinary particularity of our lives and families, that the choice is merely obvious. 

Secret gardens, hidden doors, the way in and the way out of labyrinths, pearls of great price discovered amongst lesser gems, all the treasures ever found in fields by nameless characters in Jesus’ parables, and - yes - the very thing which you – men and women, boys and girls - want or need - these are to be found by seekers.  

Will you go with this man?  Will you engage with this community?  There is something you can do.  You’ll do it if you want it enough.  It requires engagement and risk - undertaking tasks which extend beyond your pay-grade and beyond the bounds of what is proven to be safe. For that matter, even beyond the bounds of what is generally considered polite conversation.