Was reminded this week how much we do is about strengthening our ties together.
The way we’re formed into families and friendships
Little pairs or triplets or gaggles of love.
Aristotle once described human beings as “social, rational animals”[i]
by which he meant
Thinking beings who are naturally inclined to be bound together
through love and society.
In this and in many other things, I think Aristotle was right on the money.
This week I celebrated our nation’s Independence Day holiday
with a group of closest friends
six adults, six kids
countless ooohs and aaaaahs over fireworks and bratwurst.
We also made some quick revisions to our wedding policy here at the Kirk
since someone wrote asking about a possible wedding here next year
and we needed to get those changes finished.
Meanwhile, I sat with someone who is quite content in her singleness,
thank you very much
as she told me about the friends and nephews in her life
who give her such joy that she teared up talking about them.
And I also helped a few families say goodbye to loved ones for a final time,
as we prepare to do this again this coming week too.
These are all holy moments, the joyous and the difficult alike.
Our families are all different. Our friendships are not the same.
There are people who give our lives such meaning and joy that we gush over them,
and family members who have done such harm to us
that our fists clench when the thought of them enters our mind.
The life of faith is, at least partially,
about strengthening the good and healing the hurt in our relationships,
our families, our church, our community, our world.
We might be rational, social animals,
but the work of nurturing healthy relationships:
father, mother, daughter, son, sibling, lover, neighbor, friend
is constantly challenging, consistently nuanced and contextual.
It can be exhausting and maddening and frustrating.
More than that, it can reveal our basest nature, at times.
One way to read these stories in Genesis and Exodus
is to see them as the travail of human efforts
at nurturing healthy, loving relationships,
and the interest God evidently shows in fixing them.
it is good for us to enjoy a story of when relationships actually work out well.
We have to be careful not to tune out this reading from Genesis this morning.
To be sure, it seems so…..blasé, does it not?
One thing we might have come to expect from this series of stores
is intrigue, drama, narrative tension.
I mean, over the past few weeks we’ve seen God doing God’s thing
creating the heavens and the earth, moving over the dark void
and breathing the ruach of God, the breath of God
into the earth creature, the ha ‘adam
and giving it life, giving us….life.
The schedule caused us to skip over some of the amazing initial stories
of God’s efforts at working with us…Noah and the Ark
Babel, the tower and the origin
of so many different languages and cultures
and even the first stories of the covenant given to Abram and Sarai
But we spent some time reflecting on the sordid details
of Abraham and Sarah’s rejection and banishment
of Hagar and Ishmael,
and then, last Sunday, on Abraham’s complicity
in the binding and near sacrifice of his son Isaac.
The writers of Orange is the New Black
or Downton Abbey.
Some of the great contemporary writers of our time couldn’t come close
to the narrative heights of these stories.
Such misery and literary schadenfreude
or delight in the misfortune of others.
So when we turn to this story, this beautiful story, true…
but this much-more-calm, much-less-tense, dare-we-say more boring
tale of a servant sent on a mission to procure a wife for a patriarch’s son
a story with no subterfuge or deceit
no moral outrage on par with child sacrifice or rejection
well, you might begin to wonder how it fits.
As one person put it: “Human affairs go well in this tale.
God delights in the happiness of Rebekah and Isaac,
as God’s good and ungrudging gift.”[ii]
I’d forgive you for glossing right over it. And don’t worry.
Next week we jump right back in it
with the dubious passing of Isaac’s birthright to Jacob instead of Esau
through cunning and a bit of lentil stew.
But the point of these tales doesn’t lie in their dramatic heights.
The purpose isn’t to point out how sordid life has to be.
Sure, our lives have plenty of intersection with these other stories.
We ourselves get the base emotions: jealousy, yearning for more
guilt over hypocrisy
so deeply wanting to follow God
that we sometimes miss God’s point
and do dangerous, hurtful things.
We read in the paper, every day, the troubles human beings have
dealing healthily, truthfully, lovingly with each other.
We get it. That’s one reason we’re here, I think.
We’re trying to learn, to get inspiration for how we can do better.
But the point isn’t simply that. The point of these stories is about God.
These stories are always about God:
How God loves God’s people,
and is shaping, forming, directing us
helping us learn from our ways and pointing us to our better
fuller, truer selves.
So, this morning, we turn again to the story of Abraham,
who after his dramatic encounter on Mount Moriah,
after loosening his son Isaac from the ropes
and sacrificing the Ram found there instead,
they return home.
And next, as the narrative goes, they carry on life as usual
sojourning in the land of Canaan,
from their homeland in Mesopotamia,
following the promise and the direction of Yahweh.
Sarah dies, and Abraham goes to great length to negotiate the purchase of land
in Canaan to properly bury her.
He buys a plot of land in Hebron, according to the text,
and lays her to rest there.
This will later become and important claim to the land,
tying the Hebrew people there.
But the plot continues, and Abraham lives on
and he gets older, and his son Isaac gets older.
And one day, Abraham steps out of his tent
and surveys his estate: animals and produce and gold and merchandise
a man of great accomplishment and means and wealth.
But he knows his son Isaac has not found a mate, and apparently he wants one.
Abraham wants it too, for he is concerned about offspring
and the promises that God made about his descendents.
So he calls his most trusted servant
and he loads him up with unbelievable wealth from the safe
and a hoard of pack-animals to help him carry it
and he makes him promise to go back to his homeland
to find a suitable wife for Isaac.
This wasn’t just your normal promise.
Not even a pinky promise,
as my daughters would ask of you for their heightened vows.
This was a hand-under-the-thigh promise.
An act of solemnity that is attested to in several ancient societies
that gives this particular vow heightened meaning.
So much so, that the servant is worried:
what happens if I can’t find her?
what happens if she doesn’t want to come back?
He’s no fool. He knows that most women aren’t keen on
dropping everything, travelling across arid terrain
with strangers to marry an unseen princely type.
Do I come back and get Isaac to show her I’m not nuts?
The servant isn’t sure, you see, that it will work.
And Abraham says, essentially: Go. Do your best. Trust in the LORD.
And if it works, it will work. And if not, you’ll be released from your oath.
So he goes. And he prays. And he reaches his destination
with an affirmation that the woman who shows kindness to him
a stranger from a strange land
and who offers to water his camels too
going above and beyond,
needing much more than a sip
but gallons and gallons of water, you see…
SHE would be the one to receive the invitation.
Our particular reading has the servant retelling this part of the story,
but the narrative just before recounts it piece by piece.
The hour darkens, and the time comes for the women to come draw water.
And Rebekah comes forth,
and the servant greets her with no small amount of hope.
And she offers him a drink. And then there is this little pause,
several words of the story where not much happens.
A space, scholars observe, before she then offers to water those camels..
“a heart-stopper,” says Old Testament scholar Robert Alter
“enough to leave the servant in grave momentary doubt
as to whether God has answered his prayer…”[iii]
But she does offer. And the servant knows that God is behind it.
And he rejoices, and offers her gifts, and immediately goes
to talk to her family about whether she might go back with him
to become the wife of Isaac.
And after some negotiation,
they ask her, what she thinks: and she speaks a word of assent.
She will go.
In an era where many pairings were not voluntary, the scripture makes a point
of giving her voice, to speak her agreement.
And they depart, traveling back to Canaan, where she becomes Isaac’s wife.
This tale may not have the intrigue of our previous few weeks,
but in the story of the chosen people, it is no less important.
Each relationship in the story of the early families of the Hebrews is important,
for it is through their children and their children’s children
that a people are born, that the covenant is fulfilled.
What would have happened if the servant had been wrong?
If the wrong person had been approached, one who would have said no?
If the explanation had been incomplete or troubling
such that the parents would have forbidden it.
Sure, they were distant kin,
but that’s a long way away,
and they’d likely never see their daughter again.
Their permission isn’t a given.
So much has to go right….for the promises of God to have a future here.
As much as last week, when Isaac was under Abraham’s knife.
As much as the week before, when Ishmael and Isaac were threatened
by maternal jealousy and conflict.
So much has to go right here….for the promises of God to have a future.
But God is STEADFAST.
God is SURE.
God encourages the servant to keep at it, in confidence and trust
that God walks along with him and will keep all things right.
In classical language, we call this a story about the PROVIDENCE of God’s Love.
How God PERSISTS and PROVIDES and ENGAGES us
not just in the scary times, the trying times, the dramatic times,
but in the normal, everyday, earthy times
and in everything in between.
Indeed, at ALL times, God’s love abides.
The providence of God.
We often get God’s providence wrong, though.
We think it means God putting Love into this person’s heart over here
or Wrath into that person over there.
Or we think it means God stoking that hurricane
or this illness
or that miracle cure.
Somewhere, we started mistaking a magical or an interventionalist view of God
for this idea of God’s engagement with the world.
If we’re looking just THERE for God, we’ll too often miss where God ACTUALLY is
working in and through and along side us
allowing us the freedom to be fully human
while working to bind us together in relationships
of love and caring and support for each other.
So the ancient Hebrews took a break from their sordid tales of family strife
to tell us of the time when Abraham sent a servant to find a mate for Isaac
and the servant found Rebekah,
and she heard the story of God’s leading him to her
and she pondered it in her heart, and she said yes.
Saying yes to God. Saying yes to a new future, God’s future.
Saying yes, and becoming a key part of a new people.
The Hebrew Scriptures contain many love stories.
Jacob and Rachel
Samson and Delilah
Hosea and Gomer
the lovers who are the center of the Song of Songs.
To name a few.
These all remind us of the glories, and the perils, of love.
The story of Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage is another such story,
but, like many of the others,
is also more than the tale of two people who love each other.
It is the story of the love of God for God’s chosen people.
It is the story of a God who binds us together with others
so that we can feel love, and comfort, and companionship
so that we can fulfill our nature
to love one another, and to feel love in return.
We might at this point close our eyes,
and think about those people who are a blessing to us.
Who is it, in your life, that has nurtured you, fulfilled you
helped you KNOW that you are loved and precious and amazing?
It might be a parent, or an intimate partner, or a dear friend.
Someone who held your hand when you were sick
Who showed up when you needed them most
Who helped you, held you, defended you, said “I love you” to you.
Providence doesn’t mean that God FORCED anyone to do those things for you
Providence means that, in and through them, we sense the workings of the God
who loves us, cares of us, helps us, is present for us too…
Thanks be to God for those people!
Thanks be to God that we aren’t just rational animals,
but that we are SOCIAL animals too,
and that God wants us to feel fully loved,
May it be that we find our mission, as God’s people,
to be about serving and loving in God’s name,
so that all may have THAT sense of belonging,
And so may we, too, give thanks for the loves of our lives
and the God who nurtures the best love we can offer to each other
May it be so. Amen
[i] See De Anima (Rational Animal) and Politics (Social Animal)
[ii] Alan Gregory, Feasting on the Word: Additional Essays. Year A Proper 9. Pastoral Perspective
[iii] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (W.W. Norton & Company. 2008) Genesis 24
photo credit: hojusaram on flickr, Relationships are Complicated under Creative Commons License.