Sermon - Sunday, 30 July 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 30 July 2017.

Scripture: Genesis 29 15-28 / Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

Text: Jesus said, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed ………….the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches                                                                                                                    (Matthew 13: 31, 32)


 In 1997 Arundhati Roy’s first novel won the prestigious Booker Prize.

Described as a beautifully fractured tale, infused with luminous imagery, wry wit and butterfly-delicate characters, it was the title that caught my attention

The God of small things

The novel tells the story of brother and sister, Estha and Rahel, dizygotic twins, that is, twins born from separate but simultaneously fertilized eggs, born and brought up in the Indian region of Kerala.

When they were aged 7, their beautiful young cousin, 9 year old Sophie Mol, comes to visit from England.

An illicit liaison and tragedies, accidental and intentional, shake the world of all three children exposing not just the tensions within the family circle but hinting at tensions and fault lines in wider Indian society.

At times funny, at times painful, at times almost unbearably sad, Roy’s book explores the ancient themes of love and loss, hope and despair, truth and deceit.

Despite what its title might suggest, The God of small things is not an overtly religious book, yet, exploring as it does many of the deep issues of our common humanity, the wonderings and longings of the human heart, the experience of birth, life and death, their meaning and their purpose, the daily opportunities and challenges of home and family life, the social and cultural context in which we live, the book’s resonance with the Biblical narrative is, I am sure, immediately evident.

From the account of his birth, clutching at his brother Esau’s heel, to the way with the connivance of his mother Rebekah he stole his elder brother’s birth-right, covering himself in an animal skin and confusing Isaac, their elderly, blind and frail father into giving him his blessing, the story of Jacob, the 3rd patriarch or father-figure of ancient Israel, like the Booker prize winning novel, is a story of surprising twists and turns.

As we pick up the story this morning, Isaac had died, and, having escaped Esau’s murderous intentions, Jacob has again taken his mother’s advice and sought refuge in the home of her brother Laban.

Laban has two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and it is the younger girl, Rachel, who catches Jacob’s eye.

Promised, or so it would appear, Rachel’s hand in marriage, Jacob spends seven years working for his uncle.

Far from being seven long years, the story teller reports such was Jacob’s love for Rachel it felt to him no more than a couple of days.

Quite what these seven years meant to Leah and Rachel, their world turned upside down by the unexpected arrival of their cousin, is not reported.

Did the sisters ever come to hear of how Jacob had stolen his brother’s birth-right and blessing?

And whether or not they did, given the precedence of the first born, what made Jacob think he could continue to disregard the accepted social norm, ignore the older and unmarried Leah, and take Rachel as his wife?

As the story unfolds the alarm bells are ringing and so it transpires when on the wedding night, rather than Rachel, the younger, loved, desired and promised bride, it is Leah, the elder, unloved, undesired and inconvenient cultural problem to be solved daughter who is brought to Jacob.

Now quite how Jacob spends his wedding night with Leah and doesn’t realise it until the morning is not explained.

Suffice to say, the tables have turned and the deceiver now finds himself deceived.

Confronting Laban about the deception, Laban reminds Jacob of the precedence of the first born and that it was impossible to give his younger daughter in marriage before the older one.

However, as if to compound the situation, Laban then promises Jacob that if he continues with Leah’s bridal week, then Laban will give him Rachel in marriage the following week on the condition Jacob continues to work for him for another seven years.

If this all begins to sound like something from the a television soap opera then you are not far wrong, the obvious difference being this is not a convoluted television story-line aiming to keep the viewer ratings high, this is part of the Biblical text.

Sordid, seedy and distinctly unedifying, the Biblical scholars have puzzled over what to make of this charade of deception and indignation.

As the narrative unfolds, both sisters become wives to this still hunted man, hardly the ideal beginning to family life, and not just any family, the family of what would become God’s chosen people Israel.

Yet paradoxically I wonder if it is the very absence of the great Biblical themes of creation, salvation and redemption which the story-teller would have us notice – and with it the insight, as well as being the God of the big things of life, our God is the God of small things.

And Jesus said, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed……………

A mustard seed planted, yeast mixed with flour, treasure buried in a field, the sudden glint of a fine pearl, a fisherman’s net full of fish: coming at the mid-point in his gospel Matthew has gathered together a number of Jesus’ sayings which had clearly etched themselves on the hearts and minds of his disciples.

As with the Jacob narrative, these short, pithy parables raise as many questions as they answer because it makes little sense, for example, to find treasure, bury it in a field, and then go and buy the field in which it is buried.

Could it be then that in offering his disciples these startling little snapshots of the kingdom of God, Jesus is trying to focus their attention in a different direction?

Several months have passed since the morning on the shore of the Sea of Galilee when he called the fishermen brothers to follow him.

The group of four have become twelve, the inner group of a much wider group of women and men who accompanied Jesus through the towns and villages of Galilee.

As he taught in the synagogues, Matthew reports people were amazed by the authority of his teaching.

His miraculous powers were evident when, at his touch or word, people found healing and new life.

So too his divine power and promise as a storm was stilled, a crowd fed with a few loaves and fish and a dead girl was brought back to life.

As the disciples watched, wondering and marvelling, and as the crowds declared nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel (Matthew 9:35) Matthew also reports the religious authorities started to take notice.

When they saw Jesus eat and drink with tax-collectors, the Pharisees thought they saw a glutton and a drunkard.

As they heard him forgiving people their sins, they thought they heard a blasphemer.

And when they saw him heal a man on the Sabbath, they thought they saw someone disrespectful of their ancient laws and customs, someone to be stopped.

If the Pharisees were not wrong in what they saw but misinterpreted what it meant, so too did the disciples as they debated among themselves who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

And so Jesus told them these parables because the first disciples needed to learn – we all need to learn – the kingdom of God is about faithfulness, not flashiness, a desire to serve, not to be served, a willingness to walk the second mile, turn the other cheek, forgive not just seven but seventy times seven, and a refusal to walk past on the other side of human need.

Earlier this year Margaret and I joined Edinburgh Street Pastors late one Friday evening at the Cowgate’s Charteris Centre as they packed their rucksacks and prepared to head out into the night.

Our team spent the first couple of hours on George Street stopping to chat with people sleeping in the shop doorways or in the little side alleys.

Stories were shared, so too were hugs and kisses, as warm as the seemingly endless supply of tea, coffee and chocolate biscuits coming from the rucksacks.

Photographs were taken, so too a video which was viewed over 113,000 times on the Church of Scotland’s social media site, and prayers were said as the Street Pastors moved slowly along one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious thoroughfares, engaging in the most simple acts of human kindness with some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland’s capital city.

A mustard seed, yeast, buried treasure, a priceless pearl, a fisherman’s net: Jesus told these parables so that his disciples would learn to look for the signs of the kingdom among the hidden things and the hidden people of life, the ones so often overlooked, forgotten, neglected and abandoned.

And he told them because then or now our God is the God of small things

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen