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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Faithful Ears For God - 07/05/2020

Maybe it is because of the challenges they present that we modern day people of Christian identity will sometimes avoid the Old Testament. In reality, this is not a “modern day” phenomenon. In the very first days of Christianity there were people who rejected these scriptures, arguing they were outdated texts about a different god of ancient Jewish people, a god who was not so inexplicably kind and generous as the God Jesus made known to us. Some even went so far as to say that Jesus was not born of Mary, but appeared a fully formed man to introduce something different, the one-true God. To say otherwise would make Jesus a Jew and a worshiper of that pretty okay, but not good enough god. A lot of this rhetoric was very anti-Jewish and therefore very sinful and the Christian tradition that was taking shape ultimately rejected these teachings. (See history on Marcion of Sinope in Rome)

Today we struggle, most of us, anyway, not because of anti-Jewish tendencies. Anti-Semitism does still exist, but for most of us it is more likely we struggle with the Old Testament because the God-creation relationship as described by the humans of that ancient time can be harder for us to connect with. It’s harder for us today to get past some of the alarming cultural practices, a task very plainly before us in today’s story about the way Father Abraham procured a spouse for his son Isaac as we continue this journey we are making through Genesis this summer.

Despite the difficulty, however, I think we are meant to struggle with these texts and make the effort to learn from them. They are holy to us. They are the stories and the law that formed our Savior’s human religious identity. They are the well from which he drew to unpack that God-creation relationship in a new way, a way that resulted in our other set of Holy Scriptures, the New Testament.

Jesus modeled for us that we are meant to engage in this gift of Holy Scriptures we have. His teaching encourage us “People of the Book,” as the children of Abraham are often named, to continually struggle with these texts. To see them in their fullness, often to address cultural barriers, and then, perhaps, to peel back the details and see what treasures lie beneath.

Like so many other things in this life …

 … like relationships with a family member or spouse …

… or the life-long pursuit in developing and honing an art or a skill …

… like the intense and fast-moving experience of parenting …

… or the winding paths of fits and starts we travel while trying to develop something like a new prayer discipline… the struggle, the investment of time and patience is worth it. And it is often gained only by putting in the time and the effort and the struggle.

There are some things to see honestly and address in today’s reading.

Sarah has died. After the near-sacrifice of her long-anticipated and only son Isaac, the elaborate and wide-ranging story of this complicated family kind of drops off a cliff. It seems like you can still hear the angel of the Lord saying “Abraham, Abraham! … 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.” (Gen. 22:11-12, para)

Those words are still hanging in the air when suddenly we hear Sarah is 126 years old at the time of her death.

Isaac, who is by this time 36 years old, is living far from his father in the Negev. It appears he had been living in that region with his mother. Perhaps he was at her deathbed.He is unmarried, apparently. And it feels like a lot of distance may have entered into the relationships between Abraham and Sarah, between Abraham and Isaac. It would not be a surprising rift in light of the experience on the mountaintop of “The Lord Will Provide.”

I think if I were Sarah, I’d be pretty upset with Abraham at his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. If I were Isaac, I think I might also move far away from my father, no matter how righteous God pronounced him to be.

Regardless of what transpired between the long-married couple or father and son, Abraham did mourn and weep for Sarah when she died. He buried her in a cave he bought from the people of Hebron where they lived as foreigners.

And when his time of mourning was over, Abraham’s thoughts turned once again to God’s promise of descendants more numerous than the grains of sand along Lake Superior … that and the unmarried, childless Isaac, living far from him, far from Ur where Abraham’s kin came from too.

This is what has set the wheels of the story we hear today in motion.

Now as I said, there are some things in this story that should create uneasiness for us. Abraham’s racism toward the Canaanites, as expected and unquestioned as it would have been in ancient times, is not something we would want to model in our time. It would not be in line with the way we would argue today that God’s calls us to be anti-racist.

And, of course, there is the whole idea of women being bought and sold as property. As a woman, it is not easy to get past this very strange, very uncomfortable situation in which a strange man is sent on behalf of another very wealthy man to obtain a spouse for his son. I’m very uncomfortable with the way Rachel was branded with a nose ring and then lavished with riches, marked like a designated parking spot or a prize foal. I struggle a lot with the idea of men and fathers and brothers negotiating the worth of a woman or any body. I know it was customary in that time and that probably many good people used this system of betrothal and marriage for the greatest benefit of those involved. I know that it sometimes even involved love or being in love, as perhaps was the case with Isaac and Rebekah … although like Sarah and Abraham, they would have their issues too, which we will hear about in the weeks to come.

Personally, for a long time as I have practiced struggling with these holy texts, I thought I needed to look for a way to provide an antidote or a cure for these kinds of stories. In recent years, however, I’ve come more to the conclusion that maybe we are just supposed to see them for what they are and acknowledge how uncomfortable they might make us feel. Because it is in that unease that we also come to realize just how much we have evolved in 4,000 years of being people of God. Over time, we have learned to push our own boundaries, our own inclusion of what it means that God love and blesses all of creation; that God loves each of us and everyone who has ever drawn breath at least as much as the little sparrow of the field.

And when it comes to God, that’s a lot of love

And, as it turns out, this approach helps us peel back the layers.

Here’s one thing that happens for me when I pull back the layers of Abraham’s prejudice and women as property, of branding and negotiating for a human life … when I start to pull that back I realize I am very attracted to and inspired by the strong sense of faith and obedience in God that Abraham’s nameless servant and Rebekah demonstrate in this story.

The servant is sent on a long journey, loaded up with treasure and a seemingly impossible task. The man has been with Abraham longer than any other of his servants. He was there when Abraham did as God said and left his father’s land and kin. He was there when the three strangers visited the tent at the Oaks of Mamre and said the old couple would indeed parent nations. This servant, like most people except Abraham and Sarah, worshiped many gods. Some were based on who their kin worshiped, some based on who those in power told them to worship. And yet the servant demonstrates a deep trust in Abraham’s God.

“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! …’ Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder,” the servant proclaimed.

And Rebekah, who has very little agency in this arrangement and who says hardly anything (don’t worry, she will say a lot more later), doesn’t hesitate in the least when she apparently detects it is this God of Abraham who is behind this betrothal and the marriage she willingly gives herself to, leaving all her familiars behind, just like Sarah had done decades before.

Actually, one treasure in this story we find when we struggle a bit, when we listen and respond like Rebekah and the servant of Abraham, when we take time to pull back some layers, is summed up well by one of the verses we skipped: “Then Laban and Bethuel (Rebekah’s brother and father) answered, ‘(This matter) comes from the Lord … what could we say good or bad? …we go the way of Abraham’s God.” (Gen. 24:50)

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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