A Sermon by The Very Reverend Frank Nelson

Psalm 145:14-21, Genesis 31:43-32:2, Romans 10:17-11:6

It’s very nearly five months since I last preached a sermon at Choral Evensong – actually since anyone on the Cathedral staff preached at Choral Evensong. The last Sunday evening sermon was to have been the first of three preached by Bishop Denise as part of our Lent series. That was not to be. The topic of my sermon was the Book of Lamentations. How little did we know then just how much lament would follow over these past few months – lament in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons – as COVID-19 began its relentless march across the globe.

And so we find ourselves at the beginning of August, a month after we began to hold Choral Evensongs in St Peter’s Cathedral following the initial lock-down. Over these past weeks we have enjoyed some wonderful music as the Cathedral Choir and the St Peter’s Consort have graced us with their presence, their voices and their ministry. South Australia continues to be blessed with mercifully few cases of the coronavirus. Long may that continue.

The same sense of blessing is not necessarily true when it comes to readings from which to spark a sermon. I know that our readers will have read more widely than simply the passages set for tonight for on their own they make little sense. Unlike the snippets we can lift out of the Gospels – Jesus’s parables for example, or a particular incident such as the feeding of the five thousand, or a particular healing miracle – tonight’s two readings both come as part of extended passages which we have been reading in recent weeks.

Tonight I invite you to focus on two words found in Genesis 31 verse 47. Each word refers to the same heap of stones – the place of a covenant, a border agreement, made between two bitter rivals: Laban and his son-in-law Jacob. The words in question, and you can see them in your printed text, are Jegar-sahadutha and Galeed.  As far as I am concerned both are unpronounceable – at least in any reliable way, unless you happen to be a scholar of ancient Aramaic and Hebrew. And there is the entry into understanding this passage.

But let me take you first to another Old Testament book – this time Deuteronomy. Chapter 26 is the setting for a harvest festival. As the people bring their gifts to the temple and lay them before the priest in thanksgiving for the year that is past and the crops that have been reaped, they are to recite a particular mantra. Found in Deuteronomy 26: 5ff it begins thus: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number and there he became a great nation…” In a few short verses the ancient memory of time spent in a foreign land and a miraculous rescue by the god who was revealed to Moses at the burning bush is recited. One of the remarkable things about this recitation is that it reminds the local farmers to care for the poor among them – the widows and orphans, as well as those who are aliens – and therefore have no legal rites.

It’s the reference to the wandering Aramean we should note particularly for it refers to Jacob, younger son of Isaac and grandson of the great ancestor and forefather Abraham. In time God comes to be identified as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the story of their itinerant backwards and forwards journeys among many peoples is never entirely forgotten. Most of the Book of Genesis is a collection of sagas around these three people – and their wives and concubines and offspring. As the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob emerged into a people, a nation, eventually identifying themselves as Hebrew-speaking Jews who looked to the great King David, they found themselves living uncomfortably with their closest neighbours – the Aramaic speakers of ancient Syria. You don’t have to read far in the Bible to find endless petty, and some not so petty, quarrels and wars, between the people of Aram and those of Israel and Judah. One of the most famous stories read at Christmas tells of a sign being given to the Judean king – a son born to a young woman. We are so busy wondering about a virgin birth that we are prone to miss the setting – war waged by King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel who teemed up on this occasion against their common enemy, Ahaz, king of Judah. (See Isaiah 7)

Back to Jacob and Laban. Jacob the trickster, who outwitted his hungry brother Esau, had himself been soundly tricked into working seven long years for his beloved Rachel – only to wake up on the morning after to find Leah in his bed instead. Some wedding party that must have been! Tonight’s reading is the result of his father-in-law’s jealousy of Jacob’s wealth. Jacob flees and is pursued. Warned in a dream not to harm Jacob, Laban suggests a covenant, a border agreement, be made between the two. The heap of stones, called in Aramaic Jegar-sahadutha and in Hebrew Galeed is the boundary marker between the two.

So much for the story as we have it – but is there more? Yes, there is. In biblical studies the phenomenon known as aetiology is common in Genesis. Aetiology tries to find or explain the cause or reason for something. In this case the enmity between two close neighbours – people who constantly crisscrossed each other’s land, married and intermarried, and yet could not stand each other.

As the conviction grew that it was the Hebrew-speaking people, the Jews, who alone were God’s Chosen the problem of what to do with those who shared so much became a real problem. Enter stories such as we have tonight. A heap of stones with two names – one Aramaic, one Hebrew – and the long-running animosity between Jew and Aramean is neatly explained.

Jump a good few centuries to a Roman citizen who also happened to be a member of the highly educated Pharisees and his take on the birth and death of a man from the backwater town of Nazareth. Having persecuted the fledgling church unmercifully, St Paul later went on to be the great evangelist for Christ crucified. As we glean from tonight’s second reading – a passage from the Epistle to the Romans – it pained Paul to realise that his own people, those who should, so Paul believed, have seen the light and recognized Jesus Christ as Messiah, steadfastly seemed unable to do so.

Much of Paul’s message in his epistles is that the ancient walls of division and separation – whether between Aramean speaker and Hebrew Speaker, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free – had been turned upside down by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew records in his Gospel that, at the moment of Jesus’s death, the temple curtain, which separated Jew from Gentile, was ripped apart, torn in two from top to bottom. (Matt 27: 51) In what is surely one of the most moving passages in Ephesians the writer, perhaps St Paul, says this: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph 3: 13 – 14)

I wonder, when he penned those words, did Paul have in his mind a far-away and ancient heap of stones known variously as Jegar-sahadutha and Galeed?

Sadly, the divisions made by our metaphorical heaps of stones are all too real, frequently stirred up in the search for a scapegoat for our own short-comings and blindnesses. Maybe these two strange names for a heap of stones, and the story behind them, will inspire us to reach out to someone on the ’other’ side, whichever and wherever that might be.

Almighty God, as your Son our Saviour was born of a Hebrew mother, but rejoiced in the faith of a Syrian woman and of a Roman soldier, welcomed the Greeks who sought him,
and needed a man from Africa to carry his cross;
so teach us to regard the members of all races as fellow heirs of the kingdom of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

This prayer, written by Olive Warner, is closely associated with Toc H.