Proper 9A

June 30, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Genesis 24:34-67

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments and Observations

    At one time or another, some of us have perhaps been tempted to pray for “a sign.” Maybe a few of us have been not just tempted to pray for a sign but we have petitioned God to show us something tangible that will help us make some big decision.

    “Oh, Lord, if she really is the right one for me, then let her call me in the next fifteen minutes!”

    “Dear God, if you want me to take this job, then give me some kind of sign so I’ll know–give me a thunderclap, a beam of sunshine, something to show me the way!”

    Mostly it doesn’t work like that, of course. We’re even a bit suspicious of people who claim that God talks directly to them just about every morning at breakfast. Even if some ostensible sign is claimed by someone, we’re more likely to chalk it up to coincidence than direct divine intervention.

    “I was sitting in my car asking God for a sign and, suddenly, the light turned green! See!”

    Well, no, most of us wouldn’t see much in that.

    Surely very few, if any, of us have ever recommended that people seek God’s will for their lives by letting a Bible fall open, plunking down an index finger, and taking a cue from whatever verse you happen to find. It is said that once there was a person who wanted to know God’s will and so he flipped open the Bible, blindly jabbed his finger at the text, and then read the verse, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” Since that didn’t seem to provide quite the direction he was looking for, he tried again, this time plunking down on the verse, “Go and do likewise”! All in all, not a very spiritually mature way to operate!

    Of course, there are Bible stories that seem to lend credence to the idea that God operates through the doling out of special revelatory signs. Gideon had his fleece. Abraham saw a flaming torch once. Moses had the burning bush, and in Genesis 24 we see even a lowly servant receive a sign. Such things do happen, at least in the Bible.

    And so on one level you could look at the story in Genesis 24 and conclude that this is another one of those “special” Bible stories that shows how God used to work in the lives of key biblical characters, even though he mostly doesn’t work that way for us anymore. Of course God provided a sign to this servant: we’re talking about Isaac here. The future of the whole covenant depends on the family line of Abraham. You expect things to fall into place like this for such an important figure in salvation history. The rest of us, however, are a bit more on our own, left to puzzle out the will of God without such obvious heavenly help.

    As I said, it would be easy to think that way about this story, but I want to suggest this is a wrong way to approach this text.  It may have more to do with us in the here-and-now than we think.

    This story is straightforward.   Sarah has died recently and Abraham appears to be perhaps on his own deathbed as Genesis 24 opens. Before Abraham closes out his earthly journey of faith, he wants to make sure that the covenantal promises will go forward through Isaac. Hence, getting Isaac a wife with whom to have a family is a simple and logical necessity. But Abraham does not want Isaac hooking up with a local girl but instead insists that for now the covenant stay in the family. So Abraham sends his servant back to the old country to select a wife for Isaac from among his distant cousins there.

    So the servant leaves with an entire entourage of other servants, camels, and quite a few costly gifts as well. Once they arrive in the old country, the servant prays for a sign and swiftly receives it when Rebekah comes to the spring and does indeed exude a kind generosity toward this total stranger. Before she knows what has hit her, she is decked out in heavy gold rings and bracelets even as this servant launches into a full-throated rendition of the doxology in praise of Yahweh for leading him to just this girl.

    Her father, Bethuel and brother Laban take one look at the small fortune in gold the girl is wearing and suddenly become very interested in this stranger at the spring! Commentators note that it is quite probable that this family had not heard of the God Yahweh. Abraham, after all, had been gone for decades with no known contact with his extended family. But no sooner does the family see the trinkets with which Rebekah has been showered and they get very religious very quickly! Verse 30 says that the first thing Laban noticed was all the gold–his eyes sparkled at the wealth of it all. Rebekah then mentions what the stranger had said, including his song of praise to some God named “Yahweh.” Laban then replies, “Yahweh, did you say? Well, then, praise Yahweh! Invite this fellow into the house!”

    When opportunity knocks, you open the door!

    Genesis 24 is one of the most leisurely, detailed narratives in the Bible’s opening book, and it is a curiosity to wonder why.   The Lectionary skips around a lot but the fact is that there is a lot of detail here, a lot of review of what had come earlier in the Abraham cycle of stories.   Why?

    Maybe because God himself is in the details.

    Unlike other narratives earlier in Genesis, God nowhere speaks in Genesis 24. The servant does not receive a heavenly vision, is not told by God where to go. Likewise God’s Spirit does not tip off Bethuel, Laban, and Rebekah by telling them to be on the lookout for a certain stranger who will soon be coming their way. As Walter Brueggemann notes, with the exception of the servant’s brief prayer in verses 12-15, this story is “secular” in the sense of being the report of some very ordinary-sounding events. God is not reported as saying or doing anything in particular, and yet throughout this chapter you have the feeling that God is directing everything.

    In retrospect the servant can see how this has all come together just so. Even before he prayed his prayer at the spring, God had already brought him to just the right place. Maybe that’s why he takes the time so lovingly and thoughtfully to recount every last detail to Rebekah’s family over dinner. Maybe that is why the author of Genesis likewise takes care to write it all out again. After all, would you have batted an eye or sensed that something was missing from Genesis 24 if in verse 34, instead of recounting the whole long story all over again, the text had said, “And so the servant then told Bethuel and Laban the story of his journey.”

    It could have been left at that.  As a reader, you don’t need to review the whole thing. You might even get impatient. Suppose you are reading a novel some evening in which chapter 3 is the story of the main character’s trip to Chicago one weekend. You read about what hotel he stayed at, where he went out for dinner, the stores he shopped at, the particular display he saw at the Chicago Art Institute. It might all be very interesting, but what would you think if you then went on to chapter 4 only to find that this chapter was about how this same character came back home to Grand Rapids and then told his roommate about the whole weekend, once again repeating every last hotel, museum, and restaurant detail you had just read in the previous chapter? You might get rather frustrated with this book. “Why doesn’t this author just get on with it?” you might say to yourself.

    But the author of Genesis is making a vital point: even ordinary-sounding stories such as the one the servant so carefully re-tells can be, and often are, full of God. But if we rarefy this story, make it about just what happens when someone important like Isaac is taking center stage, then we may miss that. This is about us, too.

    Because listen: if you want to be a “spiritual person,” then that spirituality is going to be active not just on those rare mountaintop moments of life but in and through the very mundane details of your day-to-day life.  St. Teresa of Avila once noted that “Christ dwells among the pots and pans.” It was Teresa’s way of saying that if we don’t bump into Jesus in the run of a typical day, we maybe won’t run into him much at all.

    Thomas Merton once tried to make a similar point when he observed that a spiritual life is first and foremost just a life. If you want to be a holy or spiritual person, you need to be a person first, and what’s more you need to be the very specific person God already created you to be. The “spiritual” part of being a Christian is not way out there somewhere beyond the horizon waiting for you to arrive. It’s here, it’s now.

    Sometimes we’d all like a sign we could see, discern, figure out right on the spot. And sometimes those signs come, too. But even when there is nothing else to which one can point, the sign of the cross remains. If God could be, and indeed was, active in that most terrible of moments, then we are assured all over again that there is no moment in also our lives when God cannot be active. Add that to Jesus’ promise never to leave us and suddenly the details of life shine with new meaning. In the face of that, what can we do but join Abraham’s servant in singing the doxology!

    Illustration Idea

    I once heard a pastor say that once upon a time she lamented all of the “distractions” that would come to her in the course of the average week. She was trying to write sermons, prepare catechism lessons, and do other obviously “spiritual” work but the phone kept ringing with people who had a question or a comment on this or that. Someone was at the door, emails cried out to be answered, and so forth and so on. But then one day she realized: these so-called “distractions” were themselves a big part of ministry. If she couldn’t be spiritual in and through those times, then when would she be spiritual?

    Indeed, we’ve all realized sometimes that the best work we did for God on a given day was not what we set out to do but what we did when something unforeseen cropped up. One day recently I had several things I was determined to get written that day–stuff I believed to be important and holy work. But that evening I realized that the most important thing I’d written all day (and just maybe the most important thing I’d written in a long while) was not what I had planned to do but a long email reply I sent to someone who was wrestling with some key questions about faith and life. It was only after this person wrote me back to say how her tears were flowing at the goodness of God that came to her in that email that I realized what had happened.

    God is in the details.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 145:8-14

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 7:15-23a

    Author: Stan Mast