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Pentecost 3A RCL June 21, 2020

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Last Sunday, our first reading ended with the birth of Isaac. At last, Abraham and Sarah have a son. This Sunday, we celebrate the weaning of Isaac. Scholars tell us that in those times, about sixteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, babies were weaned when they were three years old. There is a great feast going on to celebrate this occasion, and Sarah sees the son of Hagar, her slave, playing with Isaac. Hagar’s son is older than Isaac. 

Years ago, when Sarah had been unable to have a child, she told Abraham to have sex with her maid, Hagar, so that he would have an heir. Such things were done in those times. Having an heir meant having a future. 

Now, Sarah is seeing Hagar’s son as a threat to her son Isaac. He is older and he might try to present himself as Abraham’s heir in place of Isaac. So Sarah tells Abraham that he must order Hagar to take her son and leave. They are in a desert environment, and this is going to place Hagar and her son in great peril. Abraham is very upset over this. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah is asking and God also tells Abraham that It is through Isaac that Abraham’s descendants will be named, but that God will make a nation of the son of Hagar.

Abraham gets up early in the morning, gives Hagar a skin full of water and some bread, and sends her on her way with her son. Hagar goes into the wilderness of Beer-Sheba. She puts her son in the shade under a bush to try to protect him from the sun. Then she goes as far away as she can and still see him. She does not want to see him die.

Having done all she can, Hagar begins to weep.  The text says that “God heard the voice of the boy.” Apparently, he was crying, too. Thus we learn the boy’s name, “God hears” is the translation of the name Ishmael.  The angel of God calls to Hagar from heaven and tells her that God will make a nation of Ishmael. God calls her to take her son’s hand.  Then she sees a well. She goes and fills the skin with water and gives Ishmael a drink.

The text says, “God was with the boy and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. His mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” Ishmael is a Bedouin, the ancestor of the Arab people. Christians and Jews trace their ancestry to Abraham through Isaac. Muslims trace that lineage through Ishmael.

On the human level, this is a story of jealousy and fear on the part of Sarah, emotions that drive her to treat Hagar and Ishmael very badly. On the divine level, this is an eloquent statement that God can love and protect more than one person or group at the same time.   

Biblical scholar Thomas Troeger writes, “The failure of people whom we have most honored and admired, people like Abraham and Sarah, cannot defeat the compassion of God who intervenes to rescue and uphold us.” (Troeger, New Proclamation A Series 1999, p. 121.)

Our epistle today reminds us that we have been crucified with Christ. Our old self has died. As Paul writes, “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again.” We have been crucified with Christ, and now we are in newness of life with him. We are being transformed into his likeness.

In our gospel for today, Jesus talks about many things. He talks about confusing evil with good. He says that everything will come out into the light. He tells us that God cares even about a sparrow, that God knows each of us intimately, even to the number of hairs on our heads, and God loves us very much. He tells us not to be afraid. And then he, our Lord, the Prince of Peace, says something that shocks us. “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” And he says that even family members will be set against each other.

Our baptismal vows call us to honor the dignity of every human being. This is a very difficult thing for us humans to do. In our own country, people held slaves until the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Indeed, people continued to keep slaves until the first Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation. We have come to realize that one human being cannot own another. It is wrong. 

And yet, we have had such difficulty thinking of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters as fully human, just as we had a problem thinking women were fully human. We thought that getting a college education would be too difficult for them, that their minds were not up to that challenge, We thought that women should not vote, that they were not quite up to that task. 

When we were hiring workers, we hung out signs saying “No Irish need apply.” The tendency to put down other people, deny them their human rights, the tendency to be blind to the fact that God loves each of us and all of us, is, in my opinion, what our Lord is talking about when he says that he brings a sword of division. He is calling us to work our way through this issue so that we can help him bring in his peace, his shalom.

When he said, “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you,” he knew he was challenging us. But I think he also thought and hoped that, with his guidance and grace, we would be up to the challenge. 

Our lesson from the Hebrew scriptures, written by the Elohist writer almost two thousand eight hundred years ago, addresses this issue. God loves Hagar with the same infinite love with which God loves Sarah. God loves Ishmael with the same infinite love with which God loves Isaac. As Bishop Tutu says, “God has a big family.” Within that big family, may we all be one as Jesus and God are one.  Amen.

Pentecost 2 Proper 6A   June 14, 2020

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8

In our opening reading, Abraham is taking a siesta in his tent under the oaks of Mamre, near Hebron. It is a very hot day. As he rests and perhaps dozes a little, three men appear. This is not unusual. Travelers often came by.

In the Middle East, a desert culture, the rules of hospitality dictate that you should welcome strangers, feed them, give them water, and offer lodging if they need it. So Abraham jumps up, has his servants wash the visitors’ feet, gives them a snack of bread, and prepares a feast.

But these visitors are no ordinary people, They are God and two assistants. When they are eating the meal that has been prepared, they do a very unusual thing. They ask Abraham how his wife Sarah is doing. There is no way that a traveler would know the name of Abraham’s wife.

Now, we need to stop and remind ourselves of a few things about Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is now one hundred years old. When he was a mere seventy-five, God called him and Sarah to go from their comfortable home and life in Ur of the Chaldees, pack up everything they had, and begin a journey to a land they did not know. Ur was a town in what we would call southern Iraq. By this point in the story,  Abraham and Sarah have traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles.

Abraham is one hundred years old and Sarah is not far behind.

When God called them to make this journey, God told them that they would have descendants as numerous as the stars or as the number of grains on the beach. So far, there are no descendants.

Sarah is listening in on Abraham’s conversation with God and the two assistants. And God says to Abraham, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

At last? After twenty-five years of wandering and enduring one challenge after another and and no word of good news, no hope? After all this, God is going to give us a son? Sarah, listening behind the tent flap, bursts into laughter. She howls with mirth. Oh, how she laughs.  She rolls on the ground. 

Later on she tries to deny it. But she did laugh. And once the divine visitors leave, Abraham has a good long laugh, too. And, in due course, Isaac is born. We can imagine the joy of Abraham and Sarah. After all their journeying, all their suffering along the way, they have a son. The name Isaac, means “laughter.”

Abraham and Sarah are the great icons of faith. Along the way they would sometimes remind God, “Lord, you know that promise about all those descendants? It hasn’t happened yet.” And God replies, “Be patient, It will happen.”

When we have a hope or a dream that means a great deal to us, sometimes when it happens, we laugh. The joy just spills over. We have wondered whether it would ever happen, and, when it finally does, we burst out in good deep, joyful laughter. Maybe quite a bit of it is relief, too, that we did not hope in vain and that God’s grace finally prevailed.

So, this week, I hope we will all think of Sarah, listening inside the tent and bursting out in laughter. I hope we will think of how she and Abraham kept the faith, never stopped hoping. And I hope that we may actually have a few moments of laughter over something this week. This laughter scene is like a precious gem in the Scriptures, something we can carry with us forever,

Another gem is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Like Abraham and Sarah, we have faith. And because of the love of God and the reconciling work of our Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit, we have peace, through everything. These are challenging times. But Paul tells us that we can “Boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” 

When we suffer through difficult times, and keep the faith, that builds our endurance, so that we can remain strong through other challenging times. And that endurance produces character. It strengthens our ability to follow Christ, to be the kind of person he calls us to be. And character produces hope. As we grow stronger and stronger in Christ and become more like him. we are more and more open to the hope that he gives us every day, every moment, together with his gifts of faith and love. Individually and together, we are a people of hope. 

And a third gem in our gospel for today: Our Lord is sending his apostles out to spread the good news. He is sending us, too. And he says, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Because he is with them, his kingdom has come near. Other scholars say that the translation is also, “The kingdom of God is within you.” We have been created with the divine spark of God within each of us, We are children of God and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. We are co- builders, with Christ, of his kingdom, His shalom.

Three gems from Scripture. Abraham and Sarah burst out into joyful laughter! God does keep God’s promises! 

Paul’s wise teaching: suffering builds endurance builds character. builds hope.

And our Lord’s assurance: the kingdom of God is near you; the kingdom of God is within you. Our loving God gives us the faith and the strength and the grace we need to get through challenging times. Our Good Shepherd is leading us. God is as close as our breath. God is within us. Amen.

Pentecost 5 Proper 9A RCL July 9, 2017

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:11-18
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Our opening reading from the Book of Genesis is relatively new to the lectionary. The first time we encountered this lesson was back in 2011. Sarah has died, Abraham is growing older, and he sends his faithful servant to find a proper wife for Isaac, his beloved son.

The servant remains unnamed but many scholars think it is his beloved and trusted servant, Eliezer. Abraham has heard that his brother, Nahor, has married Milcah, and that have had a family. One of their sons, Bethuel, has become the father of a young woman named Rebekah. Abraham thinks Rebekah would be just the right wife for Isaac.

Eliezer goes back to the homeland of Abraham. Every step of his journey is steeped in prayer. He goes to the well, which is always the meeting place of the village, and Rebekah not only offers him a drink of water but also offers to water his camels. This is the height of hospitality, which is a great virtue.

In those days, women and children were considered as chattel, possessions like a chair or a good cow. A father could give his daughter to a man without even consulting her. But in Rebekah’s family, they actually ask the young woman’s opinion, and Rebekah says that she would like to marry Isaac. She has a choice in this important matter.  There is a celebration, and then Rebekah and her nurse and all her maids get on their camels, and the journey continues. Clearly, Rebekah is a woman of substance. They finally arrive in the Negeb. Isaac is out walking in the cool of the evening, looks up and sees the camels. Rebekah is very pleased to see Isaac, and they enter into a marriage based on mutual love and respect.

This story has at least two major themes. The first is that Eliezar’s journey on behalf of his master is rooted and grounded in God’s will and direction. The second is that, even in those days, Rebekah’s family asks Rebekah’s opinion, and they listen to her. Even though she is a mere woman, she has a voice. She is a capable and gracious woman of means and status, and that will be reflected in her marriage.

Our reading from Paul describes our own experience. We can want to do something, and will to do something, but sometimes, we do just the opposite. Or, we can make up our mind not to do something, but then we go ahead and do it anyway. At times, we humans can feel as though there is a war going on inside us.

When Paul talks about our “mortal bodies,” or our “members,” Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger tells us those terms can be translated as “all the faculties and functions of the person.” Left to our own human faculties and abilities, sometimes we do the opposite of what our best intentions call us to do.

If this continues, and we do things we know are destructive over and over again, that is one sign of addiction. We become powerless over alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or spending, or eating, or electronic devices, or accumulating wealth and power, and on and on the list can go. Recently, I heard a report by an electronics expert on how our phones and iPads and computers are set up to make us addicts. We  become programmed so that we will need to check our phones or ipads more and more often to see if there is something new on Facebook or Twitter. We are constantly checking our devices. People looking intently at their phones have actually walked out into traffic.

Step Two of many recovery programs says, “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Sanity comes from the root word sanus in Latin, meaning healthy. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could return us to health (sanitas.)

Paul writes, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Our Lord can rescue us from this merry-go-round of brokenness.

Our gospel for today describes crowds who are never pleased. John the Baptist fasts and drinks only water, and the people don’t like him. Jesus eats and drinks wine, and they say he is a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus says that wisdom is given to infants, meaning that wisdom does not necessarily reside with those who have college degrees or important titles or great wealth and power but can be given to anyone, regardless of status, and is often given to those who have very little material wealth.

Then Jesus says those words which are among the gems of the Bible: “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.”

The Pharisees burden people, especially, the poor, with over six hundred laws which they cannot possibly follow. The “infants”, the everyday people, do not have the leisure time to follow these rules. They have to spend most of their time working to support their families. The Pharisees and other teachers of the time ask people to follow a set of rules.

Jesus is asking us to follow him. He understands what it is to be human. He truly loves ordinary people like you and me. He is meek and gentle. He is also trained as a carpenter, and a good carpenter in those days would fashion a yoke to fit every lump and bump on the neck  and shoulders of an ox. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows us intimately and who can lead us into green pasture and beside still water. He can lead us into newness of life.

His yoke is easy and his burden is light. He frees us from the struggle that Paul so aptly describes.

May we follow him.  Amen.

Pentecost 3 Proper 7 RCL June 25, 2017

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

As Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann observes, our first reading can sound harsh to modern people, but to people of that time, the story is about God’s mercy. Scholars tell us that this passage is from the person we call the Elohist writer, because he refers to God as Elohim, Lord. This author was working around 750 B.C.E. The events he is describing go back hundreds of years before that.

Sarah has given birth to Isaac, a happy event, and Isaac is growing. Back in those times, polygamy was the custom, and Hagar, Abraham’s other wife, has a son called Ishmael. Sarah does not want Ishmael to have the same rights of inheritance as Isaac, so she asks Abraham to send Hagar away. In a nomadic desert environment, this is an especially cruel thing to do.

God tells Abraham to grant Sarah’s wish and assures Abraham that God will take care of Hagar and Ishmael. In a heart-wrenching scene, Abraham tenderly gives Hagar some bread and water, puts little Ishmael on her shoulder, and sends her away. She wanders in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the bread and water are gone, Hagar puts Ishmael under a bush so that he can at least have some shade, and she prays to God that she will not have to watch her child die.

God answers her prayer. She looks and sees a well nearby and gives Ishmael some water. God promises to make a great nation of Ishmael.

Thus Abraham becomes the father of both Jews and Arabs.

It is important to note that, at this very moment,  children are dying of hunger and thirst in many places around the world because of war and famine. This reading calls us to join with God in offering mercy and help to these people. Episcopal Relief and Development and other groups are doing just that every day.

Our gospel for today is filled with many profound thoughts. Our Lord is letting us know that his light will reveal everything. He is also preparing his followers to face persecution. He says, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” He assures us of God’s love. God cares about one sparrow. God knows us and loves us. Jesus tells us God knows the number of hairs on our heads. As one wag put it, “God counts the hairs on our heads—and on our wigs, too!”

But then our Lord says something that shakes us to our foundations: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace  to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And then he describes all the divisions that will happen because of him. Son against father; daughter against mother; daughter-in-law against her mother- in-law.

It is important for us to realize that Jesus is not saying that he likes this division. In his wisdom, he says that, when we are sincerely trying to discern what he is calling us to do, when we are trying with his grace, to figure out what we are called to do in order to build his kingdom, there are going to be divisions.

One of the most tragic examples of this division, in my opinion, is our own Civil War. People on both sides could find justifications for their opinions in the Bible. Clergy preached on behalf of both sides of this issue. Good people took both sides of this issue. We can picture a family on a plantation torn apart by this question.

Other relatively recent examples come to mind. Families were divided by the Vietnam War. A young man, after much prayer and guidance, becomes a conscientious objector. His father, a career military man, cannot understand this.

We continue to be divided by issues of race.

In Ireland, the home country of half my family, Protestants and Roman Catholics have been mortal enemies. Hopefully, things are changing.

In the Church itself, we have had all kinds of divisions. Scholars discovered very early liturgies, and we had the Green Book, the Zebra Book, and finally the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Some people loved the peace; some did not.  Then we revised the hymnal. That was a bit easier. Some people left the Church over the ordination of women. Some left over the ordination of LGBT people. God’s mercy and love have carried us through many times of trial and tribulation, and, thanks be to God, we are still here.

The unfailing love and inclusiveness of God challenge our longstanding notions and traditions of tribe and class and race and religion and privilege. It is so difficult for us to realize that God loves everyone. It is so easy for us to exclude one group or another, one person or another.

Our opening reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, which dates back over 2,700 years, is telling us that God loves both Jews and Arabs. Abraham is the father of Jews, Arabs, and Christians. And our Lord is calling us to take up the cross, and, as our Unitarian-Universalist brothers and sisters would say, “stand on the side of love.” God has a big family. It includes everyone.   Amen.

Lent 2 Year A March 12, 2017

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Lent is a time for journeying. After God’s people had been freed from slavery in Egypt, they journeyed for forty years in the wilderness until they finally reached the promised land. After he was baptized, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, accepting and absorbing God’s love, growing closer to God, and, through prayer, coming to a clear understanding of the nature of his mission and ministry.

In our first reading today, we meet one of the great heroes of our faith, Abraham. Abraham had a good life in Ur of the Chaldees. Ur was an ancient city located in Mesopotamia. It is located on the right bank of the Euphrates River 225 miles Southeast of Baghdad and about 9.9 miles from the city of Nasiriyah in Iraq.

Abraham had a wife, a large extended family, flocks and herds and many possessions.What Abraham and Sarah did not have, much to their sorrow, was children. God called Abraham to leave everything and to journey far from his home into a new land. God said that God would make Abraham a blessing. God also said that Abraham and Sarah would have children as numerous as the stars. Abraham accepted God’s call and became a great icon of faith for all of us.

In our gospel for today, we meet someone else who is on a journey. Nicodemus is a leader among his people. He is a person of deep faith. But there is something about Jesus which compels Nicodemus to go and see him. Being a member of the council of the elders, Nicodemus is taking a great risk to go and talk with Jesus because there are some people on the council who think that Jesus is up to no good, and, if they ever found out that Nicodemus had actually visited Jesus, it could cost him his job and maybe his life.

So Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Nicodemus tells Jesus that he knows Jesus is a teacher who has come from God. He is going to ask Jesus some questions. but, before he can do that, Jesus throws him a mysterious comment. Jesus says that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they have been born from above. What in the world does that mean?

Well, Nicodemus takes it literally. You can’t be born when you have grown old, he reasons. Only babies are born. Being a member of the council of the elders, he is old. Then he becomes even more literal. He thinks Jesus is talking about going back into the womb. Jesus throws him an even more mysterious comment. We can’t enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit.

In our baptisms, we have been born of water and the Spirit. We are no longer of the flesh, that is, on the human level only. We have received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We have the gift of newnesss of life. We see things, not only on the human level but also on the level of God’s vision of shalom, God’s kingdom of peace and harmony. Life has a whole new meaning for us.

We can see Nicodemus grappling with these new ideas. And then Jesus ends their discussion with the best of the Good News: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What does this mean for us, especially now in Lent? There is a  wonderful hymn which says, “Love came down at Christmas.” Jesus came to be with us because of love. Jesus is love. God is love.

Into a world controlled by the powerful and ruthless Roman Empire, God came to be with us. God came to be with us to say to us, “Always remember, I love you, and I will be with you. I will be among you always.

And he says, “The journey can be difficult, It can seem impossible at times. Always remember that I am right beside you. Sometimes I will go ahead of you, like the Good Shepherd that I am. I will go ahead to show you the way. Sometimes, when it seems impossible to take another step, I will even carry you. I will always be with you. You are not alone, You are never alone.”

This Lent, we are following our Lord on his way to the cross, that instrument of torture and humiliation. Yes, our Lord died on that cross. Why? Because he loves us.  And because he was trying to show us another way to do things. Not by earthly power, but by the power of the Spirit, the power of love.

In a profound sense, our Lenten journey is a journey begun, continued and ended in God’s love.  As we accept and absorb God’s love, we are changed. We are reborn. We become new people. We look at the world and at people with different eyes, eyes filled with hope and love and compassion.

And that changes everything. It changes us and it transforms the world. God’s love heals and changes us and the world. By virtue of our baptisms, we are a part of this process of transforming the creation.

Love came down at Christmas. Love lives among us. Love has been crucified and has risen from the dead.  Love is with us always. We are never alone. He will walk with us, He will go ahead to show us the way. He will carry us when the going gets too tough. He is transforming us. He is transforming the world. May we follow him.  Amen.

Second Sunday after Pentecost Proper 7A RCL June 22, 2014

Genesis 21:8-21

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Romans 6:1b-11

Matthew 10:24-39

In our first reading this morning, Abraham and Sarah have received a great gift—the birth of their son, Isaac. On the day that Isaac is weaned, there is a feast of celebration.

But then jealousy creeps into the picture. Sarah sees the son of Hagar, her maid, playing with Isaac. Years ago, when she thought she would never have a child, Sarah told Abraham to have sex with Hagar so that Hagar might give birth to an heir. Now Sarah sees Hagar’s son Ishmael as a threat, so she tells Abraham that he must send Hagar and Ishmael away.

Abraham is upset. This seems extremely harsh. God tells Abraham to follow Sarah’s orders and God will not only save Hagar and Ishmael, God will make a nation of them. Abraham gives them bread and a skin of water and sends them away. Hagar is devastated. She wanders around until the water is gone, then puts Ishmael under a bush so that he might have some shade, walks off the distance of a bowshot, meaning that she can still keep an eye on Ishmael, and sits down to wait for her child to die. She is so desolate that she cries. Ishmael cries, too, and God hears his voice. God opens Hagar’s eyes so that she can see a well of water right in front of her. Their lives are saved. Ishmael grows up and marries a woman from Egypt.

To us, this story may seem cruel. But back in those days, your heir was your future. Sarah is trying to protect the rights of her son and the future of Abraham and her family. Hagar is a slave. She has no power in the culture. She must obey the orders of her mistress and master.

The key theme in this story is God’s mercy to Hagar and Ishmael. God protects them and gives them a future. God saves their lives.

Biblical scholar James Newsome writes, “The saving of Ishmael’s life and his subsequent marriage to an Egyptian woman fulfill God’s promise [that God would make a nation of Ishmael]. And so, Abraham is on the way to being the father of not one, but two nations, an understanding reflected in the modern Arab view that Abraham is the father of both Jews and Arabs.” (Newsome, Texts for Preaching, Year A, pp. 372-73.) This story, written by the Elohist writer about 750 B. C. reminds us that, in the family of God, there are no outcasts. Also, God’s blessing can be given to more than one person or group.

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul is dealing with people who think that, since Christ has set us free from sin, this gives us a license to keep on sinning over and over again. Paul is reminding them and us that baptism is a death to sin, death to the old life and rebirth into a new life. In the early Church, baptism was done by immersion. The imagery of drowning, dying to sin, was very clear. Paul closes with that wonderful sentence, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Through our baptisms, we have been changed. We have been made new. We are new people. The course of our lives has been changed forever.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is preparing to send the disciples out to do their ministry. He is giving them the most powerful guidance that he can offer. He is letting them know that their ministry is not going to be easy. He has already been facing pressures and threats from various authorities. He knows that his followers will face challenges.

One of his most profound messages is not to be afraid. How fear can paralyze us! Someone said that ninety-nine percent of the things we worry about never happen.

Nothing that Jesus teaches is secret. Scholars tell us that the Essenes had secret teachings. We know that other groups do that as well. With Jesus, everything is right out in the open. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light,” Jesus says. Don’t be afraid of what people can do to you or say about you. Don’t be afraid. God is holding you in the palm of God’s hand. God knows you and God loves you.

And then he says that thing that is so difficult for us to understand, that he has come to bring not peace but a sword. Sometimes when we answer the call to follow him, it cuts to the core of the most important things in our lives, even our families. A young man feels deeply called to be a medical missionary in Africa, and this means he will not carry on the family business. This hurts his father. The mother tries to see both sides.

A young woman is brought up in a family that does not practice any faith tradition. They do not go to church, synagogue, or mosque.  In fact, they identify themselves as atheists. They feel that all religion, all faith, any kind of belief in God or in a Higher Power, is illogical foolishness. The young woman goes off to college and enters a time of spiritual exploration. She discovers the beauty and depth of the Episcopal Church. She wants to be baptized. Her parents are shocked. They think she has lost her mind.

In the early Church, as folks answered the call to follow Jesus, they were moving into uncharted territory. Their families had no idea what they were getting into. Often, entire families adopted the new faith. But if only one or two family members decided to follow Jesus, there was often great tension over this decision. All of this took place against the backdrop of Roman persecution and hostility from those who looked askance at the new faith. All of these factors put pressures on families.

Is Jesus saying that families are not important? Absolutely not.  Scholars tell us that, when Jesus talks about members of families being set against each other, his premise is that families are one of the highest values in life.  (Fred Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year A, p. 338.) The family is precious, and following Christ is even more so.

To entrust our lives to our Lord, to give our lives to him, to allow him to live in us and to live in him, that is the goal.  Our Lord ends with this paradox: ”Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Sometimes we humans think we know what life is all about. Sometimes we tend to think only in human terms. There is something much bigger than the human level. God loves us beyond our power to fathom. God cannot protect us from every adversity because we live in a fallen creation, but God can help us find wells of new life where we did not see them before, and God can lead us to paths of compassion and service we are not able to discover or travel on our own. Amen.

Pentecost 3 Proper 9 July 3, 2011

Pentecost 3 Proper 9A RCL July 3, 2011

Genesis 24: 34-38. 42-49. 58-67
Psalm 45: 11-18
Romans 7: 15-25a
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Our reading from the Hebrew scriptures today tells the story of how Abraham finds a wife for his beloved son, Isaac. The psalm is a song for a royal wedding. Our passage from Romans is Paul’s honest and insightful account of the struggles of the spiritual journey. We want to do God’s will, but, in spite of our best efforts, we do fail. Sometimes we get into recurring patterns of doing what we do not want to do and not doing what we know is right. At such times especially, God’s grace is the only thing that can break the chain and get us back on track. In our gospel, Jesus tells us that he is here to help us carry our burdens. It is a yoke for two oxen, a double yoke. We don’t have to do it alone.

This morning I want to try to shed some light on the first lesson. This passage has not appeared in our lectionary until the development of the Revised Common Lectionary which we adopted for use only in 2008.

If we read the part of Genesis which precedes this passage, and we look at the part right after God has spared Abraham from sacrificing Isaac we learn that Abraham has found out that, back in Haran, Abraham and Sarah’s home, Abraham’s brother, Nahor, has married a woman named Milcah, and they have had several children. One of these children, Bethuel, has become the father of a young woman named Rebekah.

Then Sarah dies, and Abraham arranges for her burial. Abraham is now old. God has richly blessed him, and he wants to be sure that God’s promise of descendants as numerous as the stars will come true.

So he asks his most trusted servant, who is not named but we think it is his servant Eliezer, to go back to Haran and pick a wife for Isaac from their home tribe and family. He does not want Isaac to marry one of the Canaanite women because they do not believe in Abraham’s God. Abraham also does not want Isaac to go back to Haran. He wants Isaac to stay in the promised land, so he tells Eliezer that an angel of the Lord will go with him and guide him on this mission. Abraham tells his servant that he should, with God’s guidance, pick out a woman to be Isaac’s wife, but, if the woman does not want to come back to Canaan with Eliezer, he should abort the mission. And he will be free from the oath he is about to take. Eliezer takes a solemn oath to carry out his master’s wishes.

So Eliezer takes ten of his master’s camels and all kinds of choice gifts from his master, and he sets out for the town of Nahor, which is near Haran. When he arrives, he makes the camels kneel outside the city near the well. It is toward evening, and the young women will come to draw water. Eliezer prays to God, and he says, “Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer me your jar, so that I may drink,’ and she shall say,’Drink, and I shall water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.”

Along comes Rebekah, with her water jar upon her shoulder, and the scripture says that she is very fair to look upon. She fills up her jar, and Eliezer asks her for a drink, and, sure enough, she offers him a drink and says she will water his camels, and the scripture says, Eliezer  “gazed upon her in silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.” (Gen. 24:21.)

As you can see from the passage which Lori has read, everything went according to plan, and we need to remember that Eliezer is trusting in God’s guidance every step of the way. This is the next step in carrying out God’s promise—to find the wife God intends for Isaac.

Rebekah has extended hospitality to Eliezer on behalf of her father, Bethuel, and now Eliezer has come to their home and is asking for Rebekah’s hand in marriage on behalf of his masters, Abraham and Isaac. Here we have to add a note about courtship in 1600 B.C. E. As one scholar puts it, the well is the singles bar in each town. The young men go to the well. The young women are drawing water.  The young man, of course, usually knows the young woman and what family she comes from; he asks her to marry him, gives her some appropriate gifts, and goes to her father’s house, whereupon the father would usually, if he feels this young man is a good match, just hand over his daughter to be married.

This is not the case in our story, Rebekah is given the privilege of choosing whether she wants to marry Isaac.  She is given a great deal of power in this account. She chooses to go to Canaan and sets out with her retinue.

They finally come upon Isaac in the Negeb. He is walking in the field in the cool of the evening. Rebekah sees him and asks who the man is. Eliezer says that it is his master. Isaac has become his master. The leadership is passing from one generation to the next. Isaac and Rebekah do not actually run across the field into each other’s arms, but they might well have done so. Eliezer tells Isaac the details of the journey, and all is well. Isaac brings Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent, and the rest, as they say, is history. And there is another very important point. This is not just another arranged marriage, as was the custom in those days. The text says of Isaac, “He loved her.”

As with the story of Abraham and Isaac, this story points out an increased level of understanding of several things. First, this marriage comes about as a result of God’s guidance. Eliezer, the faithful servant, is praying throughout the journey and seeking God’s will. Secondly, Rebekah is respected. Her father asks her what her wishes are. Her husband loves her.  She has a voice. She is a woman of substance.

But the major point is that every step in this story is taken with the guidance of God. What a wonderful example for us to follow. What a faithful servant of God and of his master Eliezer proves himself to be.

As Paul eloquently describes it, our journey is sometimes a struggle. Thanks be to God for the gift of grace. With God’s grace, following in the footsteps of our Lord can be, and often is, a journey of joy.

May we seek God’s guidance as faithfully as did Eliezer; may we seek and do God’s will with God’s grace. May we let our Lord Jesus be our partner in the shared yoke of obedience.