July 6, 2014
- Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
- Donna G. Joy
GENESIS 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; PSALM 45:11-18; ROMANS 7:15-25A; MATTHEW 11:16-19, 25-30
The stories of Abraham and Sarah which precede this morning's story set the tone for what we have heard today. These stories begin with Abraham's willingness to leave everything (to sacrifice everything) and go where God was calling him to go (and Sarah's willingness to go with him). Then there is the story of Sarah's grief over not bearing a child, and her plan which Abraham carried out in fathering a son (Ishmael) whose mother was Sarah's maidservant, Hagar; and Hagar's openness to seeing God - particularly in the midst of the harshest of wilderness times - and hearing God's promise that Ishmael will become an important person in carrying out God's plan. Then the great gift of the birth of Sarah's and Abraham's child, Isaac (the cherished, long awaited son). Then the heart wrenching story of Abraham's willingness, once again, to follow God's call . . . to sacrifice his beloved son - with, of course, God intervening in time for the child to be saved).
Today we have heard the story of Abraham - many years later - commanding his servant (his senior, most respected servant) to travel to Abraham's homeland to choose a wife for Isaac, and to bring her home. This story is placed in between two obituaries; it follows just after the report of Sarah's death (Isaac's mother) and is located just before the notice of Abraham's. This is significant for at least two reasons: First, it is a reminder that in the midst of death new life and possibilities are born, and secondly, it reinforces the whole point to the Abraham and Sarah stories, which is that this is to be the birth of a new people; God's chosen people. So, of course, as one generation begins to die, the choosing of a wife for Isaac is critical to the continuation of the story.
Here, then, Abraham's servant sets off to Abraham's homeland to find a wife for Isaac, and he takes with him ten camels and some of Abraham's most valued possessions. After arriving at the right place, in the evening when the women go to the place where they can replenish their supply of water, he puts the camels just outside the town near the well, but before beginning the process of searching for the right woman, he prays. He informs God of his plan, which is to say to one of the young women, "Please tilt your pitcher and let me drink." If she answers, "Drink, and I will water your camels too..." - then this will be a sign that she is the one God has chosen to become Isaac's wife.
So, when this scenario unfolds, it becomes clear to Abraham's servant that a young woman by the name of Rebekah is the woman that God is calling to become Isaac's wife. Not only does she offer the desired response, but she also has all the right background and necessary credentials. The servant makes clear to Rebekah God's plans for her future; she quickly runs to her mother's house; there is some negotiating between her brothers and Abraham's servant; Rebekah herself agrees to go immediately with the servant; as they become close to the family home she spots Isaac, and they become husband and wife. So, God's plan will continue to unfold because of the joining of these two people.
Now, in looking at this story, reviewing it and reflecting upon it, it occurred to me that I was having some difficulty in determining who is the main - or central - character. Other than God - who is - in fact - the main character throughout the whole of scripture - which character stands out over and above any of the others. Is it Abraham, because it begins with his courageous act of faith? Is it the servant, who provides most of the action and demonstrates remarkable faith through his prayer at the well? Is it Rebekah, who shows hospitality to the servant at the well, and who agrees to leave her family and all that is familiar to her, in much the same way that Abraham once did? Is it Isaac, who quickly recognizes that God is calling Rebekah to be his wife? Or, is it Sarah, because of her willingness to follow God's plan by going with Agraham in the first place all those years before? Or Hagar, who was prepared to be faithful to God's plan, and sacrifice tremendously in the process?
Genesis, chapter 24 in particular, calls forth a drama that involves many characters - each one fulfilling a necessary role in God's plan - with no one specific or isolated hero. And with this in mind, the more I think about this, the more it becomes clear to me that this realization becomes one significant key to its interpretation. Genesis chapter 24 offers a series of stories in which each and every character has an important (or heroic) role. This is a story of how God works out divine promises through the interrelationship of many people doing good but not necessarily exceptional things. Abraham, Sarah, Eliezer (Abraham's servant), Rebekah, Isaac, Hagar... each of these characters tries to discern and follow the will of God at some point in the story, and the greatness of the story is dependent on the faithfulness of each one. The central message here is that it is a story about many characters whose collective participation brings about a heroic act; in particular, the carrying on of God's promise of and to a new generation.
So, with this in mind, one significant message for us today seems clear. Let's think about this, for instance, in terms of how this might apply to our life as a congregation. God has plans for this faith community; plans that require this to be a sacred place in which people may come to grow in their faith and be nurtured along the way. But this doesn't happen because of one, individual heroic act; it happens because of many faithful people, each trying to answer God's call to serve and be faithful.
Some have been called by God to proclaim God's Word through taking on the ministry of reading within the context of the liturgy of the Word; others have taken on a Sacramental ministry in presiding over and/or administering Communion and/or offering the Sacrament of anointing and prayers for healing; others have recognized within themselves a gift for music, and have answered God's call to share that gift in liturgical music leadership; others are called to be intercessors; others to ministries of hospitality; others have answered God's call to ministry to and with our children; others quietly prepare the space for worship by serving on altar guild and setting things before each service and putting things away after our worship has ended; others take care of the building so that we have a well manicured and maintained building in which to worship, and beautifully maintained grounds on which our building is placed. others are called by God into administrative roles. No one heroic act makes God's plan unfold; God's plan is carried out through a whole multitude of people doing what God has called them to do.
God has plans for this faith community; plans that allow this place to be one that reaches out and shares the Good News of our faith with others; plans that require this to be a place that takes seriously the words of the dismissal which conclude our liturgical gathering, and begin our renewed responsibility each week to become the church dispersed. Each of you, every week has individual, faithful acts to fulfill, so that collectively God's plan may continue to unfold. God has plans for you this and every week of your lives: visiting someone who is sick or lonely or afraid; volunteering to do something that God has given you the skills, talents and time to do; speaking up when you see an injustice, even when you know there may be a price to be paid; supporting organizations such as P.W.R.D.F., Kairos, Habitat for Humanity...; behaving in a responsible way in terms of how we manage and take care of God's creation...; to share God's love and forgiveness in every aspect of our lives...
Indeed, God's plan unfolds, not because of one single heroic act, but because each and every one of us attempts to discern and follow God's will within the context of our ordinary, everyday lives. Now, having said this, we all know how challenging this is: how challenging it is to take seriously this call to follow God's plan - God's agenda - rather than the path of our own desires and our own will. Paul, in his letter to the Romans this morning, refers to this challenge as the struggle between good and evil with the understanding that evil is giving into the human tendency to cater to our own selfish desires, while doing that which is good is to open ourselves to follow God's will - God's plan - God's agenda, rather than our own. It seems that the characters in and associated with our first reading this morning, although flawed human beings - just like each of us - were committed to doing their level best at opening themselves to discerning and following God's will.
And furthermore, Paul also points out quite emphatically that - for those who have chosen to follow Christ - the ability to follow God's will is only possible through Christ - only possible with Christ at the centre. This is also emphasized in our Gospel this morning which clearly points out our human limitations, our acceptance of Jesus' authority and our call to full-fledged discipleship of service - each of us, ordinary human beings that we are, faithfully, one step at a time following God's will, doing God's work so that in the grand scheme of things extraordinary things may unfold. Jesus knows only too well how exhausting this journey can be - at one level it is exhausting to put aside our own selfish wants in order to be open to God's plan - so he has laid out provisions for us along the way... "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Indeed, our strength for the journey can only come from God; and as a Christian people, we believe, in particular, Jesus. As we attempt to carry out God's plan within the context of our everyday lives, we will find the power and strength to do this only when we open ourselves up to receive the gift of God's grace. We are offered such rest and refreshment each time we receive: (1) the Sacrament of the Eucharist; (2) the Sacrament of Anointing and prayers for healing; (3) each time we turn to Scripture to open ourselves to God's Word; (4) each time we experience - give and receive - the gift of forgiveness; (5) each time we enjoy and appreciate the beauty of God's creation; (6) each time we give and receive love within the context of our friends, and family....
Through our willingness to discern and follow God's plan within the context of our individual, ordinary lives God can allow extraordinary things to unfold. And God feeds, restores and nourishes us throughout the challenges along the way. Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine! Amen.