Sunday, July 30, 2017

Finding God

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.  Genesis 29:15-28 (NRSV)

I am Leah. Daughter of Laban. Daughter-in-law of Isaac and Rebekah. Wife of Jacob. The oldest of two daughters. Sister of Rachel, like me, also a wife of Jacob.

You remember me, don’t you? The wife that Jacob didn’t love. The daughter with weak eyes. Your translation of the story doesn’t tell the truth. My eyes were weak, which meant they lacked lustre. They didn’t sparkle. Between my sister and I, I was the plain one, unattractive. My sister, Rachel, she was was graceful and beautiful. It was Rachel who first caught Jacob’s attention at the well that day.

Another well romance, you say? Yes. Because it was the only place where we could come into contact with men. With our potential future husbands.

When Jacob met Rachel that day at the well, he’d been there for awhile talking with the shepherds. Bragging really. He asked them why they waited to gather all of the sheep at the well before they removed the lid--suggesting it would be more efficient for them to water the sheep as they arrived and then continue to graze them as others arrived and were watered. The shepherds, well, I’m sure they rolled their eyes at this newcomer, this stranger. Who seemed to know everything. 

They explained to Jacob why they did this--that the stone covering the well was so heavy that they needed several men to remove it, so need to wait until shepherds gathered and could do it together. No one shepherd could lift the stone by himself.

It was about this time that Rachel approached the well with her flock. The shepherds who were there told him who she was--that she was the daughter of his uncle. Cousin of Jacob. Then, Jacob felt the need to display his own strength. For the shepherds. But, mostly, I think for Rachel. Jacob rolled the stone covering off the well, entirely on his own. He watered Rachel’s flock. It was, then, that Jacob told Rachel who he was. That he was our kin. He kissed her. And he wept, as was often customary. 

Rachel ran to tell our father, who then ran to meet Jacob at the well. There, my father embraced Jacob, kissed him, and invited him into our house, where Jacob told his story. Everything. The story you heard last week--how he had tricked his brother, Esau, out of his birthright and his blessing. How Esau had become so angry he vowed to kill his brother, Jacob. How Rebekah their mother, who favored Jacob, sent him away for a few days to escape Esau’s wrath. How Jacob had traveled the long distance to our homeland. And how, during his trip, he had seen God and been blessed by God.

Everything that had happened to him he shared with my father. Hearing it, my father acknowledged that Jacob was indeed our flesh and blood. And he welcomed Jacob into our household.

It was about a month later, after Jacob had been working beside my father for no wages, that my father approached him. My father told Jacob that, even though he was our relative, there was no need for him to work for free. He asked Jacob what he would like to be paid. 

It was then that Jacob named his price. He had fallen in love with my sister. My younger sister, Rachel. Jacob told my father that he wanted to marry Rachel. My younger sister. 

You know how wrong this is, don’t you? It was our custom that the oldest daughter would be married first. That I should have been the first to be married. That if any sister were to marry Jacob, it should have been me. 

Yet, I had no voice in the decision. Neither did Rachel. My father agreed with Jacob that he could marry my sister. But, because, Jacob was destitute and had no property or belongs, he could not offer my father the bride price. And so, in exchange for it, my father told Jacob that he would have to work for my father for seven years. 

What could Jacob do? He had no leverage against my father. He had nothing to offer him for my sister. So, Jacob agreed. It was a handsome bride price for my father, who knew Jacob had nothing else to offer and who was so shrewd in negotiating the agreement.

Time passed. Seven years. I think, though, for Jacob it felt like only a few days. He was so enamored with my sister. Finally, the time came for the two of them to be married.

It was a week-long celebration in our custom. A week of festivities and rituals that brought our entire family and community together to celebrate the joyous occasion. Of the marriage of Jacob and my younger sister. The wedding that should have been my wedding.

It customary that at the end of the week, the marriage would be consummated. The wedding night. 

It was on this night that my father came to me. He directed that I put on my veil--one that would cover my face fully. And, then, he led me into the wedding chamber. Into the room that was to have been the room where Jacob and my sister would consummate their marriage. Instead, he told me that I would be a substitute for Rachel. 

I had no say in the matter whatsoever. Neither did Rachel. I knew this would cause hard feelings--harder feelings--between my sister and I. And, yet, what could I do? It was not my place to disagree with my father.

I’ve never fully understood why he did this. Why my father tricked Jacob. Perhaps, he understood how much he had flaunted tradition by agreeing to give Rachel, his youngest, away. Rather than me first, as his oldest. Perhaps he understood how upset I’d been.

Or, perhaps, he knew that, as soon as Jacob married Rachel, he would be leaving to return to his homeland. To be with his family in Canaan. To take Rachel away from us. So far away that we would likely never see her again.

Or, perhaps, it was simply because he had seen how hard Jacob worked. Harder that most of his other men. And that it had cost my father little, except for his daughter. Perhaps his plan all along was to get another seven years of free labor out of Jacob.

Whatever the reason, I became Jacob’s first wife. Head of his household. In the dark.

When jacob awoke the next morning and saw it was me in his bed instead of Rachel, he was furious. He ran to my father. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Didn’t I work for you to have Rachel? Why did you betray me?”

Do you see the irony here? The trickster tricking the trickster. What is the saying you have? “What goes around, comes around.” It was as though God was teaching Jacob a lesson for all of the ways in which he had tricked his own brother. That Jacob was reaping what he had sowed.

What messiness there is in our families! Tricks and deceit. Sibling rivalry. Brokenness.

And lest you sit there comfortably on this Sunday morning and condemn my family and our actions or our culture, you might look in the mirror yourselves. If you did, you might see that you and your families are no different. There is no “them” here. We are you. You are us. We are all far from perfect. Messy. Broken. We hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally. We act in our own best interest and against the greater good of others in our families. We fail to ask those who have no power about decisions that impact their lives. 

To look into the midst of our family--and of your family--is to look straight into human brokenness. To look on our culture negatively is to hold up a mirror to your world that still judges individuals on their appearance and treats women as less than men.

So, where--where in the midst of this messiness and brokenness--are we to find God? To find the Good News? The Gospel? Where is it to be found?

The Scriptures tell of the story of my husband’s ancestors--Abraham and Sarah--warts and all. It isn’t cleaned up to impress anyone or to give you impossible and unattainable role models for moral living. We are all faithful and sinful. We are all blessed by God and cursed by our own actions. We are all saints and sinners.

In Psalm 105 earlier, you read that “God remembers his covenant forever, the word he commanded to a thousand generations, which he made with Abraham, the solemn pledge he swore to Isaac. God set it up as binding law for Jacob, my husband, as an eternal covenant for Israel.” 

In our stories--yours and mine--God continues to work. To move God’s plan forward. God is present because God keeps God’s promises to a sinful humanity. God is faithful when we are busy managing our lives. Even if we don’t see it at first or have a hard time finding it, God is there. God loves us--the broken families of the world. God loves us so much that God will send his son to “the sons of Israel” and, by extension, to you and to all people. 

This is the good news. For you and for me. And for all people. Of all time. And all place. 

“O give thanks to the Lord,” the psalmist writes. “Call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples.” 

May this be our response. For all time. Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Love Changes Us

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.  Genesis 28:10-19a (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The story of Jacob continues this week. You remember Jacob from last week, don’t you? Son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. Jacob. That trickster. A cheater. The one whose name, literally, translates “heel.” 

Last week, we heard the story of how Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of both the birthright and the blessing to which he, as the oldest son, would have been entitled. The birthright, which would have given Esau double the inheritance of Jacob. And the blessing from God--you remember it, don’t you? The same promise given to both Abraham and Isaac--that God would give them their own land, would make them into a great nation, and would bless them so that they might be a blessing to others.

Both of these--the birthright and the blessing--stolen by Jacob from Esau.

One can only imagine how angry Esau must have been at his brother. In the verses that precede today’s story, we read that Esau said to himself, “When the period of mourning for the death of my father is over, I will kill my brother.” Esau was so angry that he plotted to murder Jacob, his own brother, after the death of their father Isaac.  

Somehow, Rebekah, their mother, got wind of Esau’s plans. And so, she called for Jacob--her youngest and her favorite.  She told him of Esau’s plan. She told him he needed to leave. That he needed to go to Haran--back to Mesopotamia, the land from which Abraham had traveled at the very beginning of all of these stories. Rebekah told Jacob to go to Haran and to live with her brother, Laban, for a short while. For, literally, just a few days. Until Esau’s anger might dissipate and his murderous plans might, perhaps, be set aside.

So Jacob left. Quickly. Leaving his mother and father and his own homeland with his life. He traveled all alone. Vulnerable. Sleeping under the stars at night. Day after day, traveling far, retracing the steps of his grandfather, Abraham. All alone. Running away from his past and what lay behind and forward into his future, uncertain of what would lay before him.

It was on one of these lonely nights under the stars out in the open, perhaps in one of his most vulnerable moments, that God appeared to Jacob in a dream and spoke to him for the first time. Calling himself “Yahweh,” translated “the Lord,” God describes himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac. Notice that God does not call himself the God of Jacob. Not yet.

It is in this dream that God makes himself known to Jacob. This God who has a history with Jacob’s family. Who has made himself known through these relationships. As he speaks, God gives Jacob the same family promise. The one given to Abraham and to Isaac. The promise of land. The promise of offspring. And the promise of blessing. 

And, then, God goes one step further. In verse 15 of our text today, we read God’s additional promise to Jacob: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

“I am with you.” Jacob is the first of many more, including Moses and Joshua, to hear this promise of “God with us.” Emmanuel. God with us. The promise of God’s continuing presence with God’s people.

A promise first given to Jacob, who has cheated his brother. And deceived his father. And who is now running for his life. Do you hear the grace in this promise of God? Do you hear the love? 

Jacob’s reaction to this revelation of God is mixed.

He does acknowledge the holiness of the moment and of the place. This place where he has first experienced God’s presence. He marks it. By setting up a pillar of rock and by naming it. Beth-El. Meaning “the house of God.” The place where he has experienced God in all of God’s fullness. A place of awe. A holy place.

Jacob recognizes this moment of awe and holiness. And, yet, he cannot yet fully seem to grasp the magnitude of God’s love and grace. And so, he bargains and wrestles with God. Just as has bargained and wrestled with everyone in his life so far, Jacob negotiates with God. It doesn’t matter that this god is the God of his ancestors. Jacob will claim him if and only if God protects and prospers him.

“IF God is with me, and IF God protects me, and IF I am able to safely return home, then Yahweh--the Lord--will be my God.” Do you hear the conditions that Jacob is placing upon God? The “if...then” that is part of Jacob’s bargain with God?

How often do we do that? Bargain with God. “God, if you heal me from this disease or this illness, then I will be more faithful.” Or “God, if you save me in this storm, then I promise to put you first in my life.” Oh, the conditions we place upon God. Just. Like. Jacob. 

Perhaps that is why it is so important for us to hear these stories of the patriarchs. Not to hear of their greatness and of their deep faith. But, to hear of their weakness. It's as Luther writes in his commentary on this very chapter in Genesis, “ pleases me greatly and is saving for us to hear of the weaknesses of the saints, for these examples of weakness are more necessary for us and bring more consolation than the examples of that heroic and very great fortitude, and other virtues.” 

These saints are weak. Just as we are weak.

But, ultimately, this story isn’t about us. Or about what we should do. Or what we shouldn’t do. This story isn’t even really about Jacob..

This story is about God. And about what God has already done. We’ve seen and heard it as we’ve read these stories in Genesis. How God has made and fulfilled promises to Abraham. How God has made and fulfilled promises to Isaac. And, now, how God is making promises to Jacob. Overwhelmingly gracious promises to Jacob. A cheat. A trickster. A heel. At his most vulnerable moment, as he is running away in fear for his life, from troubles of his own making. In the midst of this. God makes promises to Jacob.

We will see in the next two weeks how God fulfills these promises to Jacob. Just as God did with Abraham. And with Isaac.

It is worth noting the effect of God’s promises on Jacob. The effect of God’s graciousness. The effect of God’s love. It changes Jacob. Self-centered, scheming Jacob. 

Twenty years later, Jacob will return home from Haran, accompanied by his family and his flocks and herds. As he prepares to enter Canaan and to meet Esau after all these years, Jacob prays to God. This time, though, he doesn’t bargain with God. He acknowledges his own unworthiness and God’s faithfulness. Even as he reminds God of God’s promises. There is no “if...then” in his prayer twenty years later. There is only a “because...therefore.” “Because you, God, are faithful, because you have made these promises...therefore I am trusting you to help me now.”

The change isn’t Jacob’s doing. The change is God’s doing. Jacob is changed from a shallow and selfish young man into a man who founds a nation and who, on his deathbed, claims the God before whom his ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked and who has been his shepherd all his life. God’s grace has changed Jacob. God’s love has changed Jacob. 

From that moment on in Jacob’s story, God will begin to identify as “The Lord...the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Jacob’s story is our story, too. Transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Transformed by God’s faithfulness. We are changed. By God’s love.

And, we, like Jacob, are claimed by God. The God of Abraham. The God of Isaac. The God of Jacob. The God who has claimed us and who has claimed all people. Everywhere. 

Claimed, changed, saved. For this, we give God our thanks and praise. Amen.

Preached July 23, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Power Struggle

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the elder shall serve the younger.”
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.  Genesis 19:25-34 (NRSV)

Who of you grew up in a family with more than one child or had more than one of your own children? Then you have, I would suspect, experienced something called sibling rivalry. I can see by your faces that you’re familiar with this!

I am, too. I was the youngest of three children in our family. My older sister and brother were a little over 2 years older than I was. The two of them were born ten (10) months apart. (My mom used to talk about that time and what it was like to have three children in diapers!)

My sister was the oldest. My brother was next. And, because of the way that their birthdays fell, they ended up being placed in the same grade all throughout elementary, middle and high schools. Because he was the only boy in our family and was my dad’s helper on our ranch, he was given responsibility earlier and at much greater levels than my older sister. Even though she was older than he.

He got his driver’s license earlier than she did. He got his own car sooner than she did. And, then, to make things even more challenging, he was incredibly smart and athletic. An “A” student without even really trying. And All-American in football. In contrast, my sister, although she was incredibly smart in her own way, was a “B” student and not nearly as athletic, although she could sprint.

You can imagine the difficulty this caused in our family. The rivalry that existed between them. They always seemed to be at odds with each other over something. And, although, sibling rivalry existed between all three of us, it was at a much higher level between the two of them.

Sibling rivalry. It’s a power struggle. A struggle between sisters and brothers to decide who is better? Who is smarter? Who is stronger? And on and on.

That’s what we have in our story today of Jacob and Esau. 

At the opening of our story, Abraham is dead at age 175. We learn in preceding verses that, after Sarah died, he married another wife. A woman named Ketura. He had six more children with her. Before his death, he gave “everything he owned to Isaac.” Everything. And to his sons with Keturah? Well, he gave them gifts and then sent them away to live in the east. Away from Isaac. Does that sound familiar? Remember Ishmael?
As we heard last week, Isaac married Rebekah at age 40. For twenty years, she was barren, unable to conceive. How difficult that must have been for her! And, yet, on her behalf, Isaac prayed to God. And his prayers were immediately answered. Rebekah become pregnant.

This wasn’t an easy pregnancy. Unknown to her, she had twins. The fetuses pushed against each other inside of her, causing her great discomfort. So much discomfort that she regretted getting pregnant and even questioned why she should go on living? How difficult this must have been.

So, she, like Isaac, went to inquire of God. To search out God and to find out what was going on. God responded in an oracle through which she learned she had twins. She also learned that each twin would be the leader of two nations. That two different peoples would emerge from her pregnant body. And, even more, that the younger would be stronger than the older, and that the older would serve the younger. 

This is some serious sibling rivalry. 

At the end of her pregnancy, Rebekah delivered and discovered she had fraternal twins. The first and oldest was ruddy--a healthy red--and also full of hair. Rebekah called him Esau, which means red. The second-born twin came out immediately and was holding onto Esau’s heel. His mother named him Jacob, which shares the same root as the word that means heel. It can also mean to cheat.

As they become young men, our story tells us that Esau became an outdoorsman, who knew how to hunt. Rough and ready, who loved the open country.

Jacob? Well he was more of a momma’s boy. Our text says he stayed at home, that he liked to cook. It also says he was quiet. A better translation of this, though, is that he was “whole” or “complete.” A person of integrity. 

One can only imagine the rivalry between these two, very different, brothers. To make matters worse, our story tells us that Isaac and Rebekah each played favorites. Isaac loved Esau. Rebekah loved Jacob. 

Besides the sibling rivalry that added to the family drama, in this time period, having twins introduced another special situation. At the time, the firstborn--the oldest--was eligible for the birthright. This meant that the inheritance Esau would receive would be twice as much as Isaac’s. In addition, in this particular family, there was the blessing of Abraham to consider. This blessing from God (You remember it, don’t you? That Abraham would be a great nation, on his own land, and that he would be blessed so that he could be a blessing to others?). This blessing from God had been passed down to Isaac and would be passed down to Isaac’s oldest son.

So, in this family, not only was Esau up for a double share of the inheritance, it was also expected that he would receive God’s blessing, mediated through the blessing of his father, Isaac.

And yet we know, if nothing else from the stories of Abraham we have already heard over these past weeks, that God operates in a way that is anything but ordinary. It’s almost as if Jacob was so obsessed with obtaining both Esau’s birthright and God’s blessing that he will stop at nothing to obtain it.

In our story today we heard that he essentially bribed Esau to gain his birthright. And in the next few chapters, we learn that Jacob, led by Rebekah, tricks Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of Esau.

It seems unfair, doesn’t it? That Jacob should gain both the birthright and the blessing from Esau through such trickery and cheating. 

And, yet, Esau isn’t as innocent as we’d like to make him out. Esau wasn’t dying of starvation. He’d been out hunting and came home hungry. And, in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup, Esau sold his birthright. For a bowl of soup. Our story reads that he ate, drank, got up, and left. Showing just how little he thought of his birthright. 

There is really nothing in the behavior of either one of them that deserves God’s favor, is there? Neither one seems deserving of anything in the midst of their rivalry and dysfunction.  

It’s important to remember that this story is not just the story of two brothers. But, it is the story of two nations. Two nations that would be in conflict with each other for over a millenia. Two nations that would be in a power struggle with each other over generations, just as Jacob and Esau struggled with each other. No nation or brother who was really deserving of God’s favor.

Yet, God is generous to both brothers. Both would become ancestors of a multitude. Both would be blessed with abundance to care for the needs of each family. And, in their final reunion, Jacob would recognize the “face of God” in the face of his brother, Esau, because of the gracious way in which Esau would greet him. Eventually, the story of both would end with reconciliation and blessing.  

This is a message for us, too. That, in the midst of our family dysfunction.  In the midst of our dysfunction in the church. Or in our community. Or our nation. Or the world. In that conflict that just never seems to end, God is there. Right there. 

In the midst of our dysfunction in the church, especially as we stand in this 500 anniversary year of the Reformation, an event that tore the universal, catholic (small”c”) church apart and that pitted Roman Catholics and Lutherans against each other until just these last few decades, God has been there.  

Just as God broke in and upended the world through the gracious act of our Savior, Jesus Christ, God continues to be present. Right here and right now. In the midst of all of the messiness. In the conflicts between individuals and families and countries and churches. In our struggles with each other and with God, God continues to be present. Working. Involved. Never giving up. 

And showering mercy upon mercy and extending blessing upon blessing to us and to all people. Everywhere.

Let the people of God say, “Amen.”

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Quenching Our Thirst

So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’

“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also”—let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’

“Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.”

And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,

“May you, our sister, become
    thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
    of the gates of their foes.”
Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.

Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.  Genesis 24:34–38, 42–49, 58–67 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I have to admit to you that, since I’ve moved to Kentucky, I’ve been a little intrigued by the bourbon culture here in this state. I don’t know if it’s only because of great marketing or what, but from the start, it has fascinated me.

So, a few months ago, when a member (who shall remain nameless) invited me to go and see the Evan-Williams Experience in downtown Louisville, I jumped at the chance. If you haven’t been there, it’s kind of a cross between a Disney-type history experience and a technical lecture of both the history of Louisville and the history and process of bourbon-making here in Kentucky.  I learned a lot and, to top it off, at the end, we participated in a bourbon tasting which, in itself, was quite educational.

One important fact that I found really interesting had to do with the limestone deposits in this area. Over 50% of the rock in Kentucky is limestone. It has a high pH, which promotes fermentation. Important for bourbon-making. It also filters out impurities, most importantly, iron, which gives liquor a bad taste. So, the presence of so much limestone in this area was perfect for the early distillers who developed bourbon. It also explains why the industry is centered here.

In the same way that limestone is commonly found here in Kentucky, it is also found in abundance in Canaan, the setting for our story today--our next chapter in the epic stories of Abraham and his family. And, just as it is here in Kentucky, where there was limestone in Canaan, there was also pure, good-tasting water. Wells were often cut out of solid limestone, sometimes with steps to descend down into them. Around the well, itself would be a brim or low wall, so nothing could fall into it, including people. And, often, near the well, were troughs, made of wood or stone, that were used to water animals.

Wells were central to life in Canaan. In a land that was arid and desert-like, they were critical to life and one’s existence. They served as a place of rest and refreshment in a dry land. Wells that were just outside a city or a village often served as a meeting place for local women, who were the ones who usually collected water for their families. It was often a stopping place for travelers who would share news. In Scripture, a number of important meetings take place at a well. 

Wells also played a significant role as images of God’s provision. A well and its water were symbols of God’s promise and God’s care. Writers in the Bible often compared the water of spring-fed wells to God’s gift of salvation for God’s people. 

It is around such a well that the action of today’s story is centered. 

But, before, we move to that action, there’s a little catch-up for us to do. 

In the period since our story from last week--the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac--much time has passed. In the preceding chapter, we learn that Sarah is dead at age 127. Abraham was distraught. Verse 2 reads that Abraham “cried out in grief and wept” at her death. As time passed and as he began to move out of his grief, our story says that he “became older.” Perhaps it was that he was aging. Perhaps it was the loss of Sarah. Whatever it was, Abraham began to think about the next generation. In particular, he began to think of finding a wife for his son, Isaac.

He called for his oldest servant. We know that this was his most trusted servant because our story tells us that he was in charge of everything Abraham owned, which by this time was substantial, a result of God’s blessing. 

Abraham called this servant and asked him to swear an oath--to promise that a wife for Isaac would not be chosen from among the Canaanite women, but that the servant would go back to the land God had called Abraham from. The land of his father and his father’s household. Abraham wanted Isaac’s wife to come from his family, from his own clan.

When the servant expressed some hesitation, especially whether any woman would leave her family to come to Canaan, Abraham assured him that God would be faithful. That God would send a messenger ahead tp ensure that Abraham’s servant would find a wife there. Abraham also told him that if the woman refused to return, the servant would be off the hook. That he would be free of this promise.

And, so, Abraham’s servant agreed. He swore the oath by “the Lord, the God of heaven and earth.” By the God of the covenant and the creator.

The servant gathered together ten camels--only part of the herd--along with the best provisions and set out for the land of Abraham’s kin. When he got there, he went to the well outside the city where Abraham’s brother lived. 

Now, it wasn’t an accident that he ended up at a well. It had been a long, hot journey. He was thirsty. His camels, too. It was no accident he was there. It was also no accident that he arrived in the evening. Because it was in the evening that women from the city would come out to draw water. 

So, he had the camels kneel down. Kneel down and wait for women. And, then, he prayed. He prayed that God would be faithful once again with his master, Abraham. That God would once again show steadfast love and faithfulness to Abraham. And that God would guide him, Abraham’s servant, and make it happen in front of him. And in his prayer, he lays out his shrewd character test for Isaac’s potential wife. He will test her sense of hospitality--that key trait that would determine her fitness to marry into the family led by Abraham, so known for his hospitality. 

It’s a tough test, too. Because it will take much more than simple hospitality to volunteer to water ten thirsty camels, as each camel alone can drink and store up to 20-30 gallons of water.  

Even before he finished speaking his prayer to God, a young woman--our text says the was very beautiful, of marrying age, and still a virgin--appeared at the well with a jar on her shoulder. This young woman--Rebekah--then went down into the well, filled the jar, and came back up. When she returned, Abraham’s servant politely asked for a little sip, which she graciously gave. And then, even before he can ask, Rebekah empties the rest of her jar it into the watering trough. And she runs back down to the well and brings up another to continue watering the camels--a task that likely required 30 trips up and down the stairs of the well. 

All the time she was doing this, the servant stood watching, waiting, and wondering if God had answered his prayers, if this kind and hospitable and beautiful young woman would be Abraham’s kin.

The answer? Yes! She was Rebekah--granddaughter of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. A member of Abraham’s clan.

Our story continues with the return of the servant to the house of Rebekah’s mother, where the scene at the well is retold, the big question is asked, a marriage is negotiated, and, eventually, Rebekah leaves with the servant to return to Canaan. The last verses of our story tell us that, when she saw Isaac, Rebekah, literally, fell off the camel. Isaac had a similar response. He brought her to Sarah’s tent, placing her into the position as family matriarch. They were married. And our story tells us that “he loved her” and “was comforted after his mother’s death.

Faithfulness. This is the message of the story of the servant and Rebekah at the well. It is there, at the well, in the quenching of thirsts that God provides Rebekah. A new matriarch. A new wife for Isaac. A new generation in Abraham’s line. Life. Salvation.

It is the same message for us, too. Just as the well and its water were symbols of God’s promise and God’s care in Abraham’s time, so, too the water of baptism--the living water of baptism--is a symbol for us of God’s faithfulness, of God’s provision, of God’s promise. God’s covenant promise of life. Quenching our thirst through the living water that is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and joining us in baptism to his death and resurrection.

Life. Salvation. Thirst that is quenched. All through the faithful love of our God, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac. 

May we praise God forever and ever! Amen.

Preached July 9, 2017 at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
5th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 24:34–38, 42–49, 58–67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Passing the Test

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:1-14 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

We continue this week with the legends of Abraham. These stories from Genesis that teach us about the beginnings of Israel, God’s chosen people. A people, founded by Abraham--that patriarch of the faith--whom God called and through whom God promised that all the nations of the world would be blessed.

Last week, we heard the triangular story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. 

Today, our story opens with these words: “After these things God tested Abraham.” Really? Do you ever think, “Wow, God, do you really doubt his faith? Abraham’s faith?” Because the “these things” that have happened before, the nature of God’s call to Abraham have consisted of all of “these things”: 

  • God’s call to Abraham to pick up and move away from his entire family and go to a land he has never seen.
  • God’s promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation and, then, the long years of Sarah’s barrenness and the real question of how this “great nation” was actually going to happen..
  • The birth of Ishmael and, at long last, the seemingly impossible birth of Isaac, that boy they called “laughter.” 
  • Then, as we heard last week, Abraham’s casting out--his divorcing of Hagar and his first son, Ishmael, with great distress.

And, now, this? Don’t you just want to say, “Really, God? Do you really need to do this?” 

Abraham’s response? Well, when once again God called his name, all he simply said was, “Here I am.” Here I am. (I’m not so sure I would have answered in the same way.)

After he answered, then God laid out for him the nature of the test.

I have to admit to you up front that I have a love-hate relationship with this story. I love the faithful obedience of Abraham. How he doesn’t question God. How he simply packs up the things he will need on this journey, including his one remaining son, and just moves forward, doing what God asks him to do. I love this aspect of the story.

But the part I dislike, the part I honestly hate, is the very same faithful obedience of Abraham. Why didn’t he challenge God’s need to test him after everything that had happened? And, especially, why didn’t he challenge God’s command to sacrifice his only child, or any child, for that matter? What kind of god is it that says you will be made into a great nation through this one son and then tells you to take that very son and sacrifice him?

Can you tell, that I really struggle with this text. Do you, too?

I struggle with two things. First, I struggle with the very idea that God tests Abraham, particularly, after everything he has been through. Why? Does God need to be sure? Does God need to impose this one-time test of Abraham because God has risked everything on this one man? Does God just need to know that Abraham will be faithful? Does God, perhaps, test us, too? Trying to find out if we are faithful. If we have put God first in our lives, above everything--our possessions, our family, our country? If we really do believe and follow that first commandment--You shall have no other gods.

And, then, secondly, I struggle with the nature of the test God is commanding of Abraham, of child sacrifice. A prevalent practice at the time which we know God did reject. I struggle with this because it seems so contrary to the New Testament God I know.  A God who actually did sacrifice a son. Who must have been just as torn up inside about it as I imagine Abraham was. Who must have suffered as deeply as Abraham did at the thought of giving up an only son. And for what? For us? For us and for the whole world, all of us mired in sin? Who frequently sacrifice our own children. Who are complicit in the deaths of children for poverty or for lack of decent healthcare, or because they die attempting to cross borders to get away from violence and civil war and are turned back, or because they die as a result of us sending them off to war. 

I struggle with this. And I don’t have any answers. No good response.

Perhaps the only response is to simply weep. To weep at the tragedy and misery in our communities, our nation, our world. To weep at the tragedy in our own lives and those we love. To weep at the horrible choices we have no other choice but to make. 

To weep. And to trust. Like Abraham, to simply trust that God is present and that God will provide.

There’s an interesting word play in our story today. It’s perhaps helpful for us in understanding the steady trust of Abraham. 

At the beginning of our story, God tells Abraham to take Isaac to the land of Moriah. There is no land known by this name. The Hebrew word used for this land, Moriah, occurs only one other place in the Hebrew scriptures. In 2nd Chronicles. Here, it is used to identify the mountain in Jerusalem where the temple would be built. Mount Moriah.The place where, for the Jews, God was present. Where God came down to be present among God’s people. 

The meaning of this word in Hebrew--the word Moriah--is “God will provide” or “God will see.” It’s the same thing Abraham spoke to Isaac when Isaac asked Abraham where the lamb would come for the burnt offering. “God will provide,” Abraham said to Isaac.

“God is present and God will provide.” This is the full meaning of Abraham’s words to his son. It is what he believes. It is the basis for his trust. That, after these things. After all these things God has called Abraham to do and has brought him through, Abraham has been witness to God’s faithful presence and God’s faithful providence.

It’s the same message for us, these thousands of years later. When we don’t have the answers. When we struggle with all that is going on in our world. When we are afraid and don’t know what or where God is calling us to, or when it feels as though we are being put to the test. We can can rely upon the same faithful God as Abraham. And that God will be present and that God will provide. It is what we believe. It is the basis for our faith.

May God grant it. Amen.