Sunday, February 5, 2006

Sermon (Evensong) -- 5 February 2006

5th Sunday after the Epiphany — 5 February 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — Evensong — 5:00 p.m.
Fifth Evening: Pss 27, 28, 29 Gen 24:50-67 2Tim 2:14-21

The Super Bowl has started! Why are you here?

The Scripture readings this evening sort of come out of nowhere, at least the New Testament reading (and also the Gospel reading at Matins this morning). Well, actually, not “nowhere,” there is a certain coherence to the system, but explaining it would take a lot more time than it’s worth. The Old Testament Lesson, as I mentioned last fall, continues the same course reading we are in during the week, which currently has us in the middle of the patriarchal saga from Genesis. But if you haven’t been keeping up, then this reading from Genesis may seem a lot like when you tune across one of those drama series that has an ongoing story arc, or, heaven forfend, an episode of a soap opera, and you say, “What’s going on here? Who are these people? (And why do I care?)” Laban? Bethúel?

(When I was in seminary we had a homiletics exercise in which we were assigned a Bible verse and had to write a sermon on that text right there on the spot. Obviously luck played a role in this project! After all, one might have drawn “My brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a smooth man,” a verse which shows up a little later in this patriarchal saga. Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines.)

(Is there any score in the football game yet?) (Any good commercials yet?)

(I remember the old days at Diocesan Convention in Des Moines when Father Bob would be sitting there in the Saturday afternoon session, his face rapt with attention. Of course he had a transistor radio earpiece in his ear and he was listening to the Hawkeye game.)

Anyway, Abraham’s son Isaac has grown up (we’ve already had Sarah laughing, and the Binding of Isaac, and several other wonderful chapters in this rich and complex ancestral saga), and it’s time to get him married. But Abraham does not want him to marry one of the local Canaanite girls, because he is very conscious of his vocation from the Lord God who had called him and his family out from Ur in Chaldea (in Mesopotamia) and then subsequently had called him further to leave Haran in northeastern Syria where they had settled and to move on south into Canaan, where he would become the father of many nations. So Abraham sends his chief of staff (possibly Eliezer of Damascus, of whom we heard briefly earlier in the story, although the story never actually names him) and tells him to go back to what had become the family home in the district of Haran, across the River Euphrates in northeastern Syria, and find a wife for Isaac among his kinsfolk there. And so Abraham’s servant does, and that’s what the first part of the 24th chapter of Genesis is all about. Eliezer (let’s go ahead and call him that) meets Rebekah at the well (wells are the venue for a lot of important meetings in the Bible, as well they might be, so to speak! if you lived in that part of the world) and he introduces himself, and Rebekah runs to get her brother Laban and her father Bethuel, who invite Eliezer to stay with them, and Eliezer tells them all the news of Abraham, whom they haven’t seen for lo these many years, and the bottom line, of course, is that Abraham is looking for a wife for his son Isaac. And that’s about where the reading this evening picks up.

And so Rebekah goes south with Eliezer and marries Isaac. She becomes the mother of Jacob and Esau, and the saga continues.

A couple of interesting things in this story. First, the fact that Abraham sends back to the old country (least the medium-old country, if not exactly the old old country) to get a wife for Isaac. Suggesting that when you have been called out into a new land (literally or figuratively) to do a new thing, it is important to keep in touch with your spiritual roots.

Second, when Abraham sends Eliezer back up to Haran, he makes rather a big deal of the fact that he is not to take Isaac along with him. There may be a temptation just to settle and stay in the old country. The vocation of Abraham and his descendants is to become a new nation. You must value that from which you came, but you must be committed to that to which you have been called. (And a generation later, when Jacob goes back himself to Haran to find a wife, he ends up getting stuck there for years -- his uncle Laban is pretty crafty -- and he finally has to sneak out in the middle of the night in order to go home to Canaan. But that's another story for another time.)

It has been pointed out that in a sense, Rebekah is the next generation’s parallel to Abraham himself. Just as Abraham left behind all his relatives to respond to God’s call to be the agent of God’s purpose (ultimately for the redemption and restoration of the whole human race), so also Rebekah leaves her home in faith to accept her role in this early, adventurous chapter of God’s universal drama of salvation.

The tension between tradition and new creation is not an easy one, as we have been discovering anew in the church in the last generation (not just the last couple of years). It’s not a new tension. I think it’s one of the things Jesus himself warns us about in the parable of the talents. We are called to be a new people, to share with God in building a new world. But we must also remember whence we came.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

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