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The World Turned Upside Down
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
July 12, 2020
A Reading from the Book of Genesis
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
This summer at UPC we have been preaching through these family stories in Genesis but I have to admit that this one feels a little daunting — if only because I’m an only child, and so the story of this foundational sibling rivalry feels totally inaccessible. I have no idea what it’s like to fight with my brother or sister, but Jacob and Esau surely do. They’re going it from the first moment, they’re bickering in the womb. Jacob reaches for his brother’s ankle on the way out of the birth canal. They carve out their own arenas; eventually, Esau the hunter and the outdoorsman, Jacob happy with more domestic pursuits, but they never get along. They’ve never gotten along. They’ve spent their lives putting as much distance between one another as possible but eventually some push has to come to some shove and so on this particular day, Esau comes in tired from the work and Jacob has made some stew and Esau says let me have a bit of that stew and Jacob says not unless you give me your birthright. Which is a high price for stew. And maybe a shock to the whole system. Except of course that they’ve been going at it from the first moment and it was always going to come to this. And so Esau gives up his birthright. And Jacob takes over, and so it will be for chapters waiting to unfold. This family will never be the same.
But also, these family stories aren’t just about this one family; perhaps especially in this case, the story has bigger fish to fry than settling one inheritance claim. Jacob might not feel like an entirely sympathetic character right here — a birthright being a high price for stew, especially when your brother is fainting with hunger. But Jacob also seems to be laboring for a higher cause — namely, that God has already told his mother Rebekah, back when she could feel the children fighting inside her — that God already told her that there were two nations inside her, and, moreover, that the elder would serve the younger. This pronouncement is a huge deal. Like most of its ancient neighbors, Biblical Israel runs off of the idea of primogeniture — namely, that the oldest son always inherits the parents’ estate by default. It is by every measure simply the way that things happen, one of those rules so firmly set that nobody thinks twice about it. Except here. Here, God tells Rebekah that the younger of the twins in her womb will rule over the older. This is a rule-breaking, precedent-shattering, world-turning-upside-down sort of thing to say. And then Jacob, of course, just plays his part. And the world turns upside down.
With that in mind, we do end up in a bit of a chicken-and-an-egg-type-scenario. Does Jacob extort the birthright from his brother because God has already called him into overturning this order? Or does some sneaky Biblical editor somewhere slide this divine pronouncement a few lines right before Jacob’s bad behavior, just to give him some justification — it’s not my default, Divine Providence made me do it. But I’m not sure that’s quite the right approach. Most of these foundational Genesis stories would have been compiled and edited during Israel’s time in exile, which was a time of political and cultural and theological crisis. A time when the overturning of the existing order would have been entirely desirable. And a time when some of Israel’s most celebrated figures were getting by on the guile and deception that was necessary to survive in a foreign court. Israel in exile understood that the world was not arranged the way it was supposed to be arranged — but also that in that crisis something new was waiting to be born, something was determined to be born, clawing its way out of the womb to be born, like the future for the house of Jacob was always gonna have a few tricks up its sleeve. Like God was going to get God’s way.
Last Wednesday, I hung out for a few minutes at the choir get-together and I introduced them to one of my favorite bits of theology. It’s been on my mind a lot lately. I wish I could tell you that it was a particular piece of scripture, or the language of some prayer from the ancient deep, or the incisive commentary of one of our great theologians. Instead, I have to confess that the clip playing on a loop in my imagination is of the modern philosopher Homer Simpson. Homer is sitting on the couch, lamenting the affairs of the world, and his daughter Lisa approaches. She says, “Look on the bright side, Dad! Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do for opportunity?” And without missing a beat, Homer responds, “Mmm… crisitunity.” Now, the internet is not united about whether this is a good representation of Mandarin. I can attest that it’s a good representation of Homer Simpson. And I’m also not sure it’s a bad take on the way the world turns through this story of these two brothers. That for all the crisis in this family. And for all the crisis of this history. That somehow God is also sensing opportunity. In the same breath.
It’s a crisitunity. And now we live in an era of crisitunity. There’s no doubting the crisis. Two months ago, we were beginning to have a reasonable conversation about when and how we might begin to open the church building for some limited use, but now, of course, the pandemic numbers running through Travis County have reached unimaginable levels. It’s a humanitarian medical crisis created in no small part by the political crisis of having leadership that is clearly and profoundly ill-equipped to prioritize the health and safety of real people. And of course, those crisis don’t exist in a vacuum — just yesterday I was looking at a zip-code-by-zip-code breakdown of infection rates through Travis County and was again so woefully unsurprised to see how much more prevalent the pandemic is in Austin’s historically black and brown areas, which, of course, are where the effects of this prolonged shutdown are being most acutely felt. So we have an economic crisis inside a medical crisis inside a political crisis inside a racial crisis and of course, there are educational crises and cultural crises and emotional crises all following so quickly alongside. You don’t need me to tell you this. A lot of things are breaking at the same time.
But when the world turns upside down. There also has to be opportunity. There has to be what if. What if a year of pandemic invited us into an entirely new appreciation for the work of the scientists and researchers who have been laboring to understand how the world works? What if a year of pandemic could finally teach us how unimportant our borders and boundaries are, and how urgent our community fabric is. In Manhattan, they have used the empty lanes of traffic to let the sidewalk cafes sprawl for socially-distanced diners. Why would we ever want to put the cars back? What if a year of quarantine could show us something about the value of being outside, or the value of being at a theatre, or the value of being in a classroom, or the value of being in a sanctuary? What if a year of shutdown could teach us how to pay an essential worker for essential work? What if a year of economic collapse could help us imagine a world based on the forgiveness of debts and the forgiveness of debtors? What if this godforsaken year is also God calling our imaginations to account, demanding of them, demanding of us, some new thing born in the rubble, clawing its way out: a new vision for God’s people, a new vision for God’s creation, a world turned upside down?
And of course, here at UPC we are not immune to this crisis. It’s been four months since we’ve worshiped in the sanctuary, four months without feeling the waters of baptism or tasting from the table of grace, four months without hearing the choir’s harmonies run through your bones, or sharing a hug in the courtyard, and for as rich a community as we are able to make here on Zoom worship, I know there are folks who have sat in our pews for a long time who can’t quite find their way in to this technological moment. And then of course, in the midst of this crisis we are also having to say this terribly unsatisfying goodbye to Pastor Krystal Leedy, which of course, leaves our church family in its own kind of crisis. We care so much about this thing we call church, and this family we call our church family, and as I listened to the congregational meeting last week, I could hear the love and care for this family come through with every faithful question and every wrestling turn. But of course, the crisis is still a crisis. What a terrible thing to pile on top of the year that has already been.
And yet. Even here. There has to be crisitunity. There has to be a what if. What if, through all of this Zoom worship, through all of these Zoom meetings, through all of this Zoom fellowship, what if through all of this Zoom church we are being called into some new thing together? What if something is being born here, clawing its way out? What if we could commit never to reentering our sanctuary again until we know that the folks who now worship with us from miles and miles and miles away could remain part of this worship family no matter the geography? What if the partnerships that UPLift and our Service volunteers have forged throughout this city, in this time of pandemic, what if those partnerships became our new normal and not just the temporary needs of the day? What if the crisis in our community calls us into a more public proclamation of the gospel we believe? What if we likewise have this strange pandemic moment, and this strange family crisis, and in that, an opportunity to reimagine these key parts of our own mission, our rooting in worship, our growing through education and service, our connections to campus and community? I say, “What if?” but it’s no hypothetical: this is what’s happening right now, your Service Committee is in the midst of reimagining its work, your UKirk Committee in the midst of reimagining its ministry. This whole church reckoning with one simple foundational truth: that we are not going to be the same church on the other end of whatever this season is. That God is calling us to a new thing.
I know it feels a little uncertain right now. But I also know the future always has some tricks up its sleeve. I know that God always has some tricks up God’s sleeve. And I know that God is going to get God’s way with us. And I know that the God of Jacob, who clawed his way into turning the world upside down, I know that the God of Mary, who sang her unforgettable song of turning the world upside down, I know that the God of the Prophets, who spoke with such eloquence about turning the world upside down, I know that the God of Jesus Christ, who broke the bonds of death to turn the world upside down. I know that this God will not stop. I know this God will not yield. I know this God will not let us go, not until that day when the kingdom comes and God’s will be done. I know the moment feels unsure. I know the moment feels unstable. I know the moment feels like crisis. But I also know this Gospel, that there is no force in history like the power of God let slip upon the imagination of God’s people. We are going to be the church that God calls us to be. We are going to be the people that God calls us to be. We are going to be the kingdom that God calls us to be. Because our God is a relentless God. And in the relentlessness of that power, and of that grace, and of that love. The world will turn upside down. Thanks be to God.
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