Thursday, July 31, 2014

When Setbacks Happen

Genesis 29:13-28
Our community has suffered a very tragic set back this week.  No doubt you have heard, it’s been all over the news.  A 22 year old young man took the life of his mother on Wild Rose Road.  This is heartbreaking and dreadful and a real set back to our community.   I’ve come to understand the Orange community as a tightly knit town who genuinely cares for one another and comes together in times of distress.  And now this.  While you may not have known this family personally, you have to agree that something like this plays with your psyche.  Murder and Orange in the same sentence just don’t compute.

Set backs happen. We know that.  In the global community, in the local community and in our lives we can be assured that when we think we have boarded the train for New York City we wake from our catnap and find ourselves in Rochester.  That’s the nature of life and that’s what we’ve got to work with.  We thought we were a bucolic community outside of crime-ridden New Haven and while we are outside of New Haven, we are crime ridden too and it is a set back because we now need to rethink things as we go forward.

We are still reflecting upon the epic narratives of Jacob who has been exiled and in Haran.  Remember last week he had this dream of angels and a ladder to heaven and a visit from God letting him know that all will be well, all manner of things will be well and that he was going to be the father of many nations.  Remember also that throughout all of these stories we have delved into this summer, God has been faithful all along the way.  With Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and now Jacob, their son.

It seems that Jacob is just getting his life back on track.  He makes it to Haran and by chance meets some of his kin once again at a well.  Here he also meets the love of his life, Rachel, Laban’s daughter…Laban being his uncle.  He has reached his destination.  Let us here today’s word of God from the NIV, the book of Genesis the 29th chapter….

As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. Then Laban said to him, “You are my own flesh and blood.”

After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month, Laban said to him, “Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.”

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.  Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”

Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.  Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”

So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her. And Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter as her attendant.

When morning came, there was Leah!  So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?”
Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.”

And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife.

Ouch!  I suppose you could say, “What goes around comes around” or “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”  Pick your favorite idiom!  Jacob coerces Esau out of his birthright and then, with the help of his mother Rebekah he deceives his father Isaac for the blessing.  Guess there is some proof for interfamilial conflict and actions that repeat themselves. 

Deceit is in the lifeblood and DNA of this family and now Jacob; his own Uncle Laban deceives the master of deceit!  He asks for Rachel, he gets Leah.  He gains two wives in one week and has to work as an indentured servant for seven more years for a total of 14 years.  Don’t think this is what he bargained for, do you?   And yet he does it, in what seems to be in his estimation, a heartbeat.  Polygamy back then was not unusual and it still exits today in some cultures.

But we see that in all of this dysfunctional and crude behavior God is steadfast to the promises made so very long ago, that Jacob would be the father of many nations.  Leah gives birth to Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulan and one daughter Dinah.  Zilpah, Leah’s handmaiden gives birth to Gad and Asher, Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaiden gives birth to Dan and Naphtali, and finally Jacob’s most beloved Rachel births Joseph.  Thus completing the twelve tribes of Israel and God’s promise.  You guessed it, Jacob was a busy man and not to mention a fertile one.

But that deception lurks in the background.  Deception always destroys.  In fact it has ruined friendships and shattered marriages because it chips away at your trust in someone who before you may have risked your very life.  It was Sir Walter Scott who once said, “Oh what tangled webs we weave, when we practice to deceive.”  Lie upon lie upon lie, the web of deceit grows and Jacob is now the one caught.   He can’t move forward, in fact he is set back 7 years.

I think that we often find ourselves in a situation that is similar to Jacob’s.  You’ve had some vision or awakening, you’re on the path into your future and BAM, something happens.  A set back occurs. Could be of your own making or not, that doesn’t matter.  A tree falls in front of your path and it’s going to take you longer to get to your destination, if that is even the destination where you are supposed to be.

You get down to a week before graduation only to find out you are missing three credits.  A relationship that you thought was rock solid disintegrates before your very eyes.  Life is full of setbacks, there is just no way around it and you might just commiserate with Jacob, you’ve worked hard for something then something else happens and you have to work even harder to find some relief.

It is in this very spot that you feel alone and helpless and that God is simply not responding to you.  It’s here that your faith might be at one of its lowest points because our spiritual lives and our emotional lives are twined together.

But it is here in these moments and disappointments also that we remember the words of Paul in his epistle to the Romans…..

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. ‘The Spirit’ does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our…condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.  ‘The Message” Romans 8: 26-28

Deepless sighs that is what will pull you through when a major setback, a life-altering event happens to you.  Because with the deepless sigh, ruah, the Spirit of God intercedes and set you on your way once again.  It’s just different than you expected!

Understanding God’s call for you to head into a different future than you had anticipated may be difficult and you may go into it kicking and screaming.  It will take time and effort. But it will turn out because you are a beloved child of God, and God’s got you covered.

When setbacks happen accept and embrace them.  Jacob didn’t turn around a run home to mommy and daddy; he didn’t take revenge or become an embittered man.  He took it in stride and walked faithfully into a future of blessing.  And you will too.

As one theologian prayed, “Help me see the good and the bad, O God, as equal opportunities to lean closer into your loving embrace.”[i]  Let that be our prayer for today.


[i] From  Week of July 23-27

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rock Solid

Genesis 28: 10-19
I have a collection of rocks that grows with each trip I take.  They are not pretty rocks per se.  And I don’t try to balance them or stack them like Bill Dan out in Sausalito, California who balances all sorts of rocks on top of one another in an amazing feat.  In fact quite the opposite, I have them in small bowls and trays.  They are not rocks with turquoise ribbing or rocks that are studded with garnets.  Most of them are everyday pebbles that you’d usually just walk by or over. 

I collect them because I want to remember a particular place that I am in and so to take one home is to take that very special place with me.  I’ve even asked friends to collect a rock or two for me from places they are going.  Recently a friend brought back pebbles from the Iona Community in Scotland.  They are so smooth and beautiful I love holding them; I feel peace. 
I’m sure many of you have bent over to pick up a stone just because it called to you or it glistened in the water or maybe it was a memento of some very special moment or place in your life.

The fact is rocks (I’m not talking about crystals and healing stuff) are significant in many, if not most cultures and in many ways. Unfortunately they can be used to harm others or they are used in positive ways like memorials, or directional devices, maybe even as makers to indicate that someone has had an experience with the divine, which we will see in today’s scripture because Jacob uses stones for that very purpose.

We are continuing the Ancestral history of the founding mothers and fathers of Israel as recorded in Genesis 12-50.  They are great epics and sagas that are beautifully stitched together like a family’s heirloom patchwork quilt. 

Today’s scripture is purely about Jacob.  There are no other people, just him and as we will see, his dream and his God.

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards 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.
Marc Chagall
Jacob is now in Haran, the land from which Abraham and Sarah, his grandparents migrated.  Why did he go back there?  Because he’s on the run!  Why is he one the run?  Because Jacob cons Esau into selling his birthright to him for a measly bowl of lentil stew.  That doesn’t make for good family relations and then the family runs into hard times because there was a famine in the land and so Isaac, Jacob’s father, goes to Gerer in the land of the Philistines ruled by King Abimelech! 
But Isaac turns that around and farms the land and becomes a very wealthy man but the King wasn’t so happy so Isaac and his family leave that place and go to Beersheba.  It is here that the human art of deception rears its ugly head once again. 
Jacob is not an exemplar by any stroke of the imagination.  He tricked Esau out of his birthright and on top of that Jacob and Rebekah trick Isaac into giving Jacob his final blessing another big deal like the birthright.  Twice duped out of a birthright and a blessing Esau is, understandably so, angry, and angry enough to kill his brother.
So Jacob flees as an alien to the land that he will soon be inheriting.  It is funny how, at this clear-cut moment in time God chooses to come to Jacob and confirm his status, not condemn his actions.  God knows that Jacob is the one to bear Israel’s name in spite of Jacob’s less than honorable actions. 
My how God works through the most unlikely people.  Like a two year old child trying desperately to gain independence, or an adult with dementia trying to tell you what’s on his mind, or a 12 year old dog who unconditionally loves and accepts love, God is present and real and works really hard to make God’s self known through all sorts of people and situations.  God goes into overdrive to show us this amazing love that is for our taking.  But there is more. 
Jacob up until now knows nothing of God’s presence.  He can’t hear God, feel God, see God or even notice God in his life until now.  And after dreaming about angels climbing up and down a ladder to heaven he awakes from his dream and knows for sure that he has been visited by the one and only God of Isaac and Rebekah, of Abraham and Sarah and now him.  He went from unknowing to knowing, from blindness to sighted, from ignorant to aware.   
Let’s not ‘psychologize’ and try to interpret his dream in today’s parlance.  Let’s understand that the dream was divine communication.  God came to him in his dream in this place of exile, this place where he was alone and probably very frightened since there was a bounty on his head.  God came to him even though he had unforgivingly twice tricked his brother and father to further his status in the clan’s family tree.  
He was never alone, not for a minute.  And he places a rock in the sand and anoints the rock with oil because God was surely in that place and now he knows it.  And he calls that place Beth-el which means, House of God because God sought him out and still loved him after all that he had done and then God made promises to Jacob for an abundant future.  
Now that’s my kind of God!  Two thumbs up, if I were on Facebook at the moment.  I think all of us can relate to Jacob’s story in some way – think back to a time in your life when you felt exiled and removed from everything familiar, when you woke up and thought how did I enter this scary drama where I don’t know the characters or when it’s all going to end.  Or perhaps at some point in your life you made a serious mistake that hurt yourself or someone that you dearly love. You feel unloved, and dispensable, maybe you even feel unforgiveable and despicable.

But please think again.  Our God is a compassionate, forgiving and loving God and we learn from Jacob’s story that God will seek you out when you least expect it and in the most unlikely of places.  Like Jacob, you are beloved.  

The rock structures, carin’s left around the landscapes of this world can attest to those individuals who have known and have experienced the presence of divine grace no matter where they happen to be in this awesome world or in their own little world; no matter how much luggage they carry with them.    

God loves.  God forgives.  God is present.  God is here.

 Jacob's Dream in the ancient city of Jaffa, Israel


Saturday, July 19, 2014

With a Heavy Heart

Genesis 25: 19-34
It was early November of 2007 and the sun had set; it was dark.  I had just come back to my apartment from a long walk on a blustery, Jerusalem afternoon.  My lights were on which indicated that I was home and I heard a knock on my door.  I thought it was unusual since I knew all of three people in Jerusalem having just moved there in October.  So I carefully opened the door, just a crack.  A young man dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans with a very official looking clip board looked at me and said “Shalom.”

Then he said something to me in Hebrew.  It was undecipherable.  Now I had taken conversational Hebrew for an entire year at the synagogue in Fairfield but, somehow it just didn’t prepare me to really speak the language.  “Ahh, Anglit??” I asked. English?  “Yafo, OK.” he said.  We both looked at one another.  Then he said, “I’ve come to take your gas mask.” 

Now, I heard him as plain as could be but transcribed it very quickly in my mind to, I’ve come to read your gas meter.  Then I realized, rega (wait a minute), my apartment is electric, not gas and there was no meter for him to read.   I thought he was mistaken and asked him again what he said.

“Your gas mask,” he repeated, “from the war.”  I just looked at him.  Then I said that I had only lived in Jerusalem for a month and had the apartment.  I’m not sure what that had to do with the situation but it was the only thing that I could think of and compute…in English! 

He then asked me how long I had been in Israel to which I replied, “only a month.”  And somehow we surmised together that I didn’t have a gas mask to turn over to him.  I shut the door and then realized, this is ISRAEL.  And this was where I had chosen to live for a year.

I was alarmed to realize that the government needed to give out gas masks to its residents in case of attacks.  Then, I was comforted that, if in fact there was a war, I’d have a gas mask.  Then, I was panicked that, the gas mask which I didn’t possess, had to be given back.  What if I needed it, what if another war broke out tomorrow while I’m here?  Will they bring me a gas mask in time?  How do you work those things anyway?  Do they have instructions? English? 

The reality is, living in Israel, the HOLY land is, at best, tenuous and as we can see violence and conflict has once again flared up between Gaza and Israel. No doubt you have seen and heard many reports of the very recent uprising. 

And so I come today to you with a very heavy heart because of this beloved place that I called home for a year. But conflict is not new in this part of the world and we see that from the beginning even the ancestral stories of our faith have been fraught with discord and difference.

The story of Jacob and Esau that we will examine today is one of conflict and strife from the womb, and about sibling rivalry and the ways in which family can become distorted and dysfunctional.  Today’s scripture is one of sibling rivalry at its very worst. This is a portrait of a family divided, and an archetypal story that has repeated itself many times.  Yet it consistently tells of a God at work with the human race and condition.

Last week we heard the endearing story of how Isaac met Rebekah.  One of Abraham’s servants dutifully went to the well in the middle of Nahor, not in the land of Canaan but in the land of Abraham’s ancestors to find a suitable wife for Isaac.  By now they have been married for many a long year and here is where we pick up our story.       

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;
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. Afterwards 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 skilful 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.

Who, in their right mind would make their brother sell their birthright for a measly bowl of lentil stew?  On the other hand, who in their right mind would sell their birthright for a measly bowl of lentil stew?  Enter the sordid and tragic twin brothers Jacob and Esau and a birthright that would grant the inheritor an extra special portion of daddy’s estate - the sovereignty and priesthood of the entire clan.  A big deal.  How many families have you seen fall apart when it came time to the reading of the will?  So this isn’t so far fetched that there is contention over a birthright.

And not far behind, or perhaps the instigator of all of this disharmony was their mother Rebekah.   Yes, that meek and lovely, covering her face with a veil Rebekah. That beautiful bride that Isaac fell madly in love with many years before.

You see motherhood came late in life for Rebekah and even later for Isaac.  Aging out at 40 he needed progeny so that the Abrahamic covenant could be fulfilled, that is to become a great nation, and to be given some very special land to call home and to be blessed in it all. 

So far so good but when the birth of their twins became a reality, Rebekah drastically changed and we begin to see a much different face of Rebekah and not one that is very pretty.   She was now mother to two very different boys, different in temperament, aspirations, occupation, in just about every way, these boys were  polar opposites.  Esau the elder was a wonderer, and was daring, and a hunter, Jacob was a tentbody, introverted with epicurean instincts.   And sadly, what Rebekah couldn’t do was to love them equally and neither could Isaac.

Esau could care less about his birthright and what it meant.  To Esau it was worth only a spoonful of stew. To Jacob the birthright was of sacred significance.   Jacob was more attentive to God than Esau and we see from later scripture that Jacob was the Lord’s preference for becoming a nation.  But both of them act in ignorance of God’s work at hand.

Now there is much more to the story that we will fill in over the next few weeks as I continue these stories.  But today we will focus on divisiveness and conflict and how we understand it in light of the Biblical text, the current uprising in the Holy Land, and our lives as a Christian body gathered.   

I have come to understand from living in the Holy Land that peace over there is something far from which you and I can envision.  Peace will not be people living equally and free together according to our American democratic ideals.  So it is not fair to judge by our standards and what we see in the media.  This is a more complex situation than that and what gets reported is distorted on both sides. 

There are multiple layers of historical significance which contribute to this very old conflict and compounds the intense feelings that the Palestinians and Israeli’s have for this very minute piece of real estate in the world.

Even in time of ceasefire getting from East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem is a nightmare. 

Both sides have made mistakes and caused harm to the other. Yet we are looking at legitimate claims on both sides and outside of extremists on both sides, people like you and me who just want to live and love and grow their children.  Israel has a right to exist, to defend themselves and to continue to develop this land that God has entrusted to them.  But being chosen does not mean that you are free to act without regard to any consequences.  The Palestinians have a right to establish themselves as a nation but without terrorist intervention and intimidation.  Peace, at best, will be carving out borders of this blessed and ordained land that will moderately satisfy, and those words are used loosely, both Palestinians and Israelis.  To compromise will be a necessity but that will take courage and strength.

We learn from the story of Jacob and Esau that there will be strife, dissension, and discord when two brothers dwell in such a small space and that the decisions we make today can drastically affect our future.  We also learn from their complex and difficult journey that God is present in all of this.  God’s doing the best that God can given us humans that God has to work with. 

And that is the point.  It is God’s abiding love that will bring resolution out of conflict eventually, when and whereas we cannot not envision it.  And this is the faith and the hope that we need to always believe and rely on. 

That when we ourselves cannot see the good, envision an end or see the light of day, God can.

We can’t rewrite holy history of a land or of our lives but we can look back and choose to see the work of our benevolent God and then carry that knowledge with us into the future.  There in lies God’s totality and wholeness, which is my friend, Shalom.

Baruch atah Adonai Elohein melech ha-olam.
Blessed are you O Lord, our God, sovereign of the Universe.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Risking for the Greater Good

Genesis 24 selected verses
Who can forget the words, “Matchmaker matchmaker make me a match, find me a find, catch me a catch…. matchmaker matchmaker look through your book, and make me a perfect match”?  Those words from “Fiddler on the Roof”, are what Tzeitel crooned as Yente, the town’s matchmaker, came to find her a suitable husband.  You see she was in love with Motel, the tailor but Yente had arranged for her to marry Lazar, the wealthy butcher.  Not good!
 Naples Players
Folks will do anything (almost) to find a spouse.  Someone with whom you can grow old with, enjoy life with, kick back and feel the ocean breezes with.  Perhaps you used a matchmaker like Tzeitel, or used, or Speed dating, or even the old fashioned ‘blind date’ to find your lover and friend.  Maybe your marriage was an arranged marriage, which still happens in some cultures. It’s always interesting and intriguing to me to hear how people meet because people meet in all ways.  Some meet by happenstance and some work very hard to capture the heart of someone else. 

Today’s scripture is just that, the story of how Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, and Rebekah came to be husband and wife.  Each generation has to discover God’s faithfulness and promise anew and now it is Isaac’s turn.

We are following the Ancestral Stories of Abraham and Sarah in the Book of Genesis that will continue through Exodus.  Last week we heard about Sarah and her unlikely pregnancy at a very advanced age.  She laughs at the idea, I would too, but God delivers her a beautiful son Isaac, who is Abraham’s heir to the covenant. 

Now Isaac is all grown up, about forty years old scholars estimate and it is time for him to be a marryin’!  The $64,000 question is, ‘where do I get a wife’?  And that is what the entirety of Chapter 24 is about in the Book of Genesis.   FYI, Chapter 24 is the longest chapter in the Book of Genesis, that’s for free!! 

Abraham was old and richly blessed - read - rich.  He commands his servant to get a wife for Isaac, his 40 year old bachelor son, NOT from the land of Canaan, a foreign land but a wife from their homeland, the home of his ‘peeps’ in the 21st century vernacular.  There was some negotiating between Abraham and the servant and the servant takes off confident that if he could not deliver a wife under Abraham’s condition he wouldn’t be held responsible. Fair enough! That was a good deal.  It was also promised that an angel would accompany him.   And so the servant set out with camels, riches and lots of gifts and some heavenly guidance.

He arrives at the city of Nahor and cleverly goes to the well in the middle of the city to water his camels because that is where the women went to gather water.   Reading from the Contemporary English Version:

The servant explained:

I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has been good to my master and has made him very rich. He has given him many sheep, goats, cattle, camels, and donkeys, as well as a lot of silver and gold, and many slaves. Sarah, my master’s wife, didn’t have any children until she was very old. Then she had a son, and my master has given him everything. I solemnly promised my master that I would do what he said. And he told me, “Don’t choose a wife for my son from the women in this land of Canaan. Instead, go back to the land where I was born and find a wife for my son from among my relatives.” 

The servant had a penchant for repeating himself….and interestingly enough this story is told from the servants perspective...and we’ll see that he is a man of faith.

When I came to the well today, I silently prayed, “You, Lord, are the God my master Abraham worships, so please lead me to a wife for his son while I am here at the well. When a young woman comes out to get water, I’ll ask her to give me a drink. If she gives me a drink and offers to get some water for my camels, I’ll know she is the one you have chosen.”

Even before I had finished praying, Rebekah came by with a water jar on her shoulder. When she had filled the jar, I asked her for a drink. She quickly lowered the jar from her shoulder and said, “Have a drink. Then I’ll get water for your camels.” So I drank, and after that she got some water for my camels. I asked her who her father was, and she answered, “My father is Bethuel (Be - tu - el') the son of Nahor and Milcah.” Right away I put the ring in her nose and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and gave thanks to the God my master Abraham worships. The Lord had led me straight to my master’s relatives, and I had found a wife for his son.

Rebekah then runs to her mother’s household and her brother and father appear.   The text repeats the entire story thus far.  This is often the case when a story from the oral tradition finally gets recorded on papyrus.  And the servant asks of her father and brother:

Now please tell me if you are willing to do the right thing for my master. Will you treat him fairly, or do I have to look for another young woman?

They called her and asked, “Are you willing to leave with this man right now?”

“Yes,” she answered.

So they agreed to let Rebekah and an old family servant woman leave immediately with Abraham’s servant and his men.

They gave Rebekah their blessing and said, “We pray that God will give you many children and grandchildren and that he will help them defeat their enemies.” Afterwards, Rebekah and the young women who were to travel with her prepared to leave. Then they got on camels and left with Abraham’s servant and his men.

At that time Isaac was living in the southern part of Canaan near a place called Be - er'   la - chai'  ro - ee', or “The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.” One evening he was walking out in the fields, when suddenly he saw a group of people approaching on camels. So he started toward them. Rebekah saw him coming; she got down from her camel, and asked, “Who is that man?”

“He is my master Isaac,” the servant answered. Then Rebekah covered her face with her veil.  The servant told Isaac everything that had happened.

Isaac took Rebekah into the tent where his mother had lived before she died, and Rebekah became his wife. He loved her and was comforted over the loss of his mother.

Eliezer and Rebekah by Chagall
Ahh, what a beautiful story.  If we were to stop here that would be enough!  Isaac finds a wife, his servant has done an extraordinary job of being faithful and obedient to his master’s word, and God’s covenant, and we could intuit that there would be enough progeny as there are stars in the magnificent sky. Because God keeps the promises the God makes. 

But beyond that, this is a story of taking risks and leaving home.  Isaac’s servant travels a distance to find the perfect bride, Rebekah offers extraordinary hospitality to a stranger.  They both take risks and they both leave home which is what I think our learning is for today.

Leaving home can be interpreted in different ways if literally taken.  A five year old leaves home and trot’s off to kindergarten.  A preteen goes on an overnight somewhere else for the very first time.  A high school graduate leaves home to seek his or her fortune at college and gets her own apartment.  All of these seem like natural and positive leave takings.

But I think it is so much more because what is home?  It is a place where we are comfortable.  A place that you don’t have to think to much about, a place where you can ‘scratch where it itches’ sort of place, a place where routine becomes carved in stone sometimes and we really don’t have to change.  But at times it is necessary to ‘leave home’ for the greater good and that takes a fare amount of risk.

The servant had to leave home in order to fulfill Abraham’s request of him.  And he did.  Rebekah had to leave home in order to become Isaac’s wife.  And she did.  Both left home, their ‘happy places’ and what they knew, for what was yet to be.  And God blessed them both, indeed God was with them both as they set their course for the future.

But they had to take the first step.  Indeed Rebekah took a big step. She risked leaving her family and her surroundings because she had faith and because she believed that her life would be better and would fulfill the great good of God’s purposes. 

Sometimes risks need to be taken.  Now I don’t mean ‘Evil Kneval’ risks or risks that could bring harm or injury to yourself or another.  I mean risks that could show you a whole new horizon for your life.

I believe that God wants us to fulfill our highest potential; that is to dream big and go after it.  To have the courage and faith to chase after something that is just out of reach because you just never know how it may change your life and maybe even change the world and those you love. 

Believe with your heart that God will be with you during these times of transition and change.  And then go forward step by step if you have to, with God’s guidance and God’s presence.  There is not one place that you can go that God has not already been.  If you believe that God is everywhere then God has been to where you are headed.

Isaac and Rebekah marry and are blessed with many children, two of which we will hear about next week, all because she risked her present for her future.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Go Ahead, Laugh

Genesis 18: 1-15
You’ve got to love the supermarket tabloids.  Really.  Now I know that NONE of us buy them, neither do I, but I’m sure that a good fair share of us stand there and read the headlines as we wait for the cashier to do a price check for the shopper in front of us in line who picked up a can of peas or something else that most of us wouldn’t buy to begin with, with no price tag.  Thank goodness there is up to the minute news for us to check out as we wait, or entertainment as the case may be, for us to read brought to you by the local tabloids.

Check this out…a tabloid from Pascagoula, Mississippi reported, “73 year old Elvis allowed to fake his death so fans wouldn’t know he’d been jailed on drug charges.”  How about this one, “Santa’s elves - slaves from the planet Mars” so reported the Egg Harbor tabloid in New Jersey. What about this from the Weekly World News, “Man marries pet goldfish and takes it to Baltimore Aquarium for Honeymoon”, and a personal favorite of mine also from the Weekly World News, “Housewife experiences half-rapture and gets stuck in the dining room ceiling”.  Wow, so much for end of the world rapture theories.  We better make sure it is the real rapture that will take us completely through the ceiling before we get caught up in rapture theories.

Then there’s this one, “After visited by other worldly, ethereal like beings, woman pushing 100 years old gives birth”.  This one was reported by the Holy Bible, the 18th  chapter of Genesis. You have to admit; today’s scripture could actually make a very nice, very impressive, very enticing tabloid headline for tomorrow.  Surely it would sell thousands of papers.

Let us now hear the story of Sarah and Abraham as they hear the news of her pregnancy.

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.

Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
Sarah’s story is a very unbelievable story like most of the tabloid headlines.  They make you stop and think, could this really be, can this really have happened?  Who are they trying to kid?  Nope, never happened!  And yet, we read on!  What’s different about this story of Sarah’s impending motherhood is that it is true.  Unlike the splashy, exploitive headlines of the National Inquirer or the Weekly World News, where stories take advantage of our emotions and nurture our ability to dabble into the extremely inquisitive and strangely eccentric side of human nature, Sarah’s predicament, or rather prayers finally answered were divinely orchestrated.

But we know in life that unbelievable, far-fetched things happen.  Particularly, and especially, if you are a believer and a follower of God.  I think that we are open to a mirage of possibilities that might defy human understanding.  For as we know, all things are possible with the Creator no matter how weird and unfathomable it may seem at times.  There still are those times that are WOW moments.

Last week, we heard about Hagar and Ishmael, this week we are backing up a chapter or two in Genesis as we explore the ancestral stories or sagas of Abraham and his descendents.  Imagine if you were Sarah.  Well into the crone years of your life, your youthful beauty now only a shade of your former self, has experienced the cessation of her menses, and way beyond the energy level of a young expectant mother, she finds out that she, and her beloved husband Abraham, are going to parent a child together.  Unbelievable!  Incredulous!  And so tabloid-esque.

Sarah, an aged woman, advanced greatly in years, stooped over maybe with osteoporosis is going to give birth.  Imagine being Sarah, and at 102 or 103 you will be taking care of an energetic, determined and strong willed, well meaning and loveable two year old?  Oh those terrible two’s.  Or even more taxing yet being a 117 year old parent to a 16 year old.  Talk about generation gap, this is a generations gap.

And yet Sarah and Abraham, I’m sure after getting over the shock of it all, are elated and happy beyond belief.  It is a dream come true for them.  Finally after all these barren years, after all these years of wishin’ and hopin’ and dreamin’ and prayin’, they are going to have a baby. And they believe.  They trust that everything will be all right, because they have proof that, with God, everything does turn out ok. 

God told Abraham to leave his home in Ur and begin anew, and Abraham obeyed.  God told Abraham that he would inherit the land of Canaan, and it was so. God and Abraham are in a covenantal relationship that becomes the hallmark of their association and life together.  Abraham was not perfect and yet God tells Abraham that he will be the father of many nations.  As many stars in the sky, that’s how many children that Sarah and Abraham will beget.  This is God’s everlasting covenant and prayer.   

Where there is covenant there is relationship.  It cannot be any other way.  God’s covenant is not necessarily reciprocal like the kind that we make with one another.  I am your pastor and we covenant to walk together as the God’s faithful people as Orange Congregational Church.  We covenant with other Churches to do the work together of the United Church of Christ.  The UCC remains committed to being in relationship with other Church body denominations and to be the gathered Christian community. These covenants are built upon shared interest, a deep and abiding love for God, mutual admiration, respect, and human trust.

A covenant with God is different than other covenants though because it is made by human hearts in harmony with divine wisdom and love whom we call God.  God is the sovereign one and we are not.  Now God will never go back or turn away from the promises that are made no matter how irresponsible we may be.  No matter how many times we may forget our end of the covenant, or somehow blow it to pieces, God doesn’t renege or retract a promise made. I find that so reassuring that God will always be my partner in life and walk with me trough those narrow and dark passages of life, when I’m at odds with the world.  And for our part, all God asks for is a little obedience.  Not too difficult, right?

Wrong!  Obedience goes against every self-evolved, self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent muscle in our body.  God lays out the command, love me and love your neighbor as yourself and in return all God asks for is obedience to the command.  We often falter.  But that’s ok.  That’s what redemption is all about.  A covenant made, a covenant breached by the error of our human ways, a covenant renewed.  It is an ongoing, circuitous movement of relationship.  That is God’s love.

Obedience to God is to get out of the way of ourselves and to trust that God will get you to where you need to be.  Abraham was called out of his homeland to part unknown and he obeyed.  It wasn’t easy, he faltered yet he obeyed and God blessed him.  God will bless us too just like Sarah whose prayers were answered, in time, our will be too.

Recently I heard of one man who lost his job and yet each morning puts on his business suit, boards the train and off he goes.  Not to his office but to nowhere just so that people would not find out that he had been laid off from his job.  His dignity gone, his identity crushed, money running out, he lost his way and could not find the inner strength to believe and remember the covenantal relationship and promise of God.  Rather than lean on his friends and church during this time, he ran.  But God says, “Trust me, you will make it, you will find another way, you have neighbors who need you and you need them”.

Sarah and Abraham’s baby is born and they name him Isaac.  It wasn’t some tabloid headline but a real promise and delivery by God.

In time God made another additional covenant for us Gentiles,  who is Jesus Christ.  “Trust me”, God says, “my son is for you.  Jesus will show you the way in which you must go in your life.  He can help you chart out the path that you must take.  He can help you with that obedience ‘thing’.  He will show you a more perfect love, forgiveness and redemption.  Trust me”, God says, ‘follow him’.