Readings Genesis 3: 8-21 and Mark 13: 14-22
Who’s heard a story that explained a landmark? Or a story that explains why an animal looks or moves a certain way? Or the way a people came to develop a certain way or practice? If you’ve been fortunate enough to spend some time on country with the Indigenous peoples of those lands you might have heard stories to explain why a particular hill has a flattop, or why the crow is all black when so many other birds are magnificent in their colour.
While being many other things as well, our reading from Genesis is one such story (an etiological story – to use the technical term). It is a story that seeks to account for a common reality. Why is it so hard to draw one’s livelihood and food from the land, why does it hurt to give birth, why does the snake slither on its belly… in other times and places (and ongoing) other reasons and narratives emerge to explain these realities, and that’s not a conflict with the account we heard, for the point of such etiological stories is about more than explaining why something is the way it is, they concern the world in which we live now, and the ways we relate to one another and to God.
So let’s focus in on what is said to the man and the woman, and what we might glean from this about the way the world is, and how God might desire it to be.
To the woman, God decrees that pregnancy and labour will be marked by pain. While this references, at a primary level, the physical pain of labour, there is another way as well that I think this can be read. Many mother’s, many parents – particularly in times marked by conflict, insecurity, poverty, strife feel a pain over bringing a child into the world. A few recent studies have observed an increasing apprehension (or avoidance) of bringing children into the world with the increasing climate emergency, which give a parent pause as to whether a child will be born into a better/secure world. This is a pain of pregnancy brought on by the consequence of sin – the fear of bringing new life into a world marked by death and suffering.
In some ways Jesus touches on this fear in our gospel reading. Jesus, reflecting on the days where the Jewish community might again face increased persecution and violence by the hands of Rome, laments and is anguished by the thought of those women who might be pregnant or nursing during that time. Many of us will have likely seen images coming out of Ukraine, (or the floods) where parents are seeking refuge and safety while cradling young children – this is a reality of our world, and one which Jesus laments, and one which no doubt has sprung to mind of many mothers and parents to be in places on the precipice of conflict and disaster.
If this is how the world is, if Genesis gives us a glimpse of the reality of impending parenthood as tinged by fear and pain, it also asks us the question: if we are people who confess the goodness of God’s creation and live in the promise of God that all creation will be reconciled and redeemed… how can we live in a way that both acknowledges the reality of suffering and points to the promise of redemption? Can we create a pocket of this world a little more like how God desired it to be, than what it currently is?
In this case, how might we support parents both in the lead up to and wake of birth. It is increasingly the case that young parents live further from their own parents and support networks. The isolation and increased pressure of trying to do it all alone (which is an anomaly when we look at the grand sweep of history and culture – where, as the idiom goes, it takes a village) take a tremendous physical and psychological toll. How can we, as a community, offer support and respite, how can we fill gaps that an increasingly fragmented society creates? Beyond that, how can we be advocating and agitating for action on those bigger points of stress? At any climate event you’ll see young parents who are worried for the sake of their children, are we ready to share their worry, their struggle? The church is that corner of the world who acknowledge the reality of the world as it is, and are attuned to the promise of God that things can and should and (ultimately will) be different. Our actions, taken on behalf of a weary and worried world testify to the promise and presence of God. (The Church Forests of Ethiopia - pictured above - are a great example of this kind of acknowledgment and witnessing - have a google to find out more)
Let us turn now to the man… because of his indiscretion, it will be painful to toil the ground in order to eat from it, fields will be marked by thistle and thorn, and no food shall be harvested, except by sweat and grit. This ceaseless toil will mark his days until he returns to the earth that has already taken so much from him. (now there’s a gendered dynamic – childbearing with the woman, labour with the man, that again reflects its time… but like with the worry over children, the impact of inhospitable fields affects humanity universally).
This reality is perhaps more muted for us in our time, given that we are a long way from primarily agrarian, subsistence living – and yet, we know it to be true, we know stories of drought and flood and the devastating impact it has on those who farm. We know the stories of the ill treatment, injury, and despair of those (often migrants) who are forced into the vast systems agro-commerce. Even at the most domestic of levels, anyone who has ever mowed a lawn or weeded a flowerbed, knows that it takes sweat and grit and can leave the body spent. So if that is the reality – if labour (and again, we might expand that to not just the labour on the land, but all that labour which we perform to sustain our life and the lives in our care) if labour is a toil then how might we respond?
We need to be a people who push against the spread and encroachment of work in the modern world. When someone shares that they are consistently working 70, 80 hours a week and are expected to be able to respond to emails and calls day and night, week day and weekend – we need to be able to say, it should not be like this so how can we help you change that situation. We need to push back against a culture that continues to foster the idea that one’s identity and worth is tied to work (and working harder and longer). We need to be intentionally seeking to cultivate and encourage places and practices of Sabbath. To be a people who value rest, and pleasure, and the connection and community that comes when people can spend time, can indeed waste time, together. To be a people who are a living reminder that God blessed rest, and desires for us to rest (not as a reward for hard work), but because the world is a gift and we should be able to enjoy it (and not just till it).
The building blocks of our society – the bringing and birthing of new life and the provision of sustenance for that life – are marked by pain and toil. Genesis tells us this has been the reality since almost the beginning, and Jesus reminds us this will be the reality for some time yet. It is our imperative then, as the church –those who understand the reality of the world as it is and the promise and intention of the world as it should be and ultimately will be – that we organise ourselves to live in a way that helps people experience more of the should and will. We serve our neighbours, we run programs, we offer hospitality, we witness to the good news, we advocate and agitate for change so that others might get to experience the peace, hope, love, and joy of the presence, purpose, and promise of Christ, who suffers with us and has made a way for the age to come where that suffering will be no more.
How do we counter the world as it is with the hope of what it should and will be? This seems like a hard calling… and yet, as always, the church is never charged to do anything alone. As Paul reminds us: Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword separate us from the love of Christ? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We stand firm in the face of present sufferings in nothing less than the promise and reality of God’s ceaseless and victorious love! Christians are those who know that we live, first and foremost, in the reality of Christ’s love. We live in the reality of Christ’s victory of Sin and Death, we live in the reality of the already and not yet kingdom of God, we live in the refreshing shade of the coming new creation all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. This reality does not consume the reality of suffering and toil now, but it is also not consumed by that suffering either, for the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
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