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Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 AND Psalm 45:10-17 OR Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Zechariah 9:9-12 AND Psalm 145:8-14, Romans 7:15-23a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Why do we human beings dwell so much on family stories? I would suggest it is, in large part, because how we feel and how we express ourselves are deeply tied up with our experience of family. We have strong feelings, positive and negative, about what has happened to us in family. We tell the stories in an attempt to understand, build upon, and perhaps heal from, those experiences. Family stories help define who we are.

In Genesis, among other places, family stories predominate for the same reasons, but are also part of the telling of the story of God’s covenant with God’s people. God tells Abraham to “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:5) In Deuteronomy 7:9, God’s covenant is unto “a thousand generations.” These stories of marriages and births are signs that God is being faithful to the covenant. “The generations are still going on. The promise is being fulfilled.”

As we look at the various lectionary texts before us, let me suggest another reason family stories are important.. Family relationships, love in the family (at its best), give us insight into the nature of God, the loving relationships in the divine family. Biblically, marriage and the relationship between lovers is often seen as a metaphor. We are married to God. We are God’s spouse, a deep and passionate love binding us.

The reading from Genesis is a touching human story. It may be difficult for us to get beyond some of the customs of the day which we now have difficulty understanding and even reject: arranged marriages, finding a spouse among relatives, paying a price for the bride, patriarchal dominance, etc. Beyond those things, it is a timeless story of two people falling in love.

In the story, Abraham’s servant goes to Abraham’s “kindred” to “get a wife for my son.” (Genesis 24:34-38) The son is Isaac. By prearranged sign the servant meets a young woman (Rebekah) at the well. (vss. 43-47) Instead of a ring on her finger, he puts one “on her nose” and “bracelets on her arms,” and is led off in “the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son.” (vss. 47-48) Strange as those customs seem, notice that Rebekah is not without voice. “Will you go with this man?” she is asked, and she responds, “I will.” (vs. 58) We are told elsewhere that the servant took “all kinds of choice gifts from his master.” (vs. 10) In verse 53, it says, “ . . . the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments.”

Meanwhile Isaac is awaiting the results of all this. (vs. 62) Finally he looks up and sees camels coming. (vs. 63) From afar, Rebekah sees him, slips “quickly from the camel, and asks who it is." (vss. 64-65) Despite all the following of custom which doesn’t seem particularly romantic to us, it appears almost to be love at first sight. Isaac takes Rebekah home, she becomes his wife, and, it says, “he loved her.” (vs. 67) We could get into an extended discussion of what love meant here. We could puzzle over the addendum, “So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” A wife to replace a mother?

The overall point is that this is more than a property exchange. Rebekah is no more Isaac’s property than we are God’s property. She gave willing assent, as we are invited to do in response to God’s love. Whatever the process Rebekah became Isaac’s beloved. It is love that is to define relationships that count.

Psalm 45 pictures a daughter “decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes” being “led to the king . . . with joy and gladness.” (vss. 10-15) Again, it is a celebration of the covenant, of sons being born, of the extension of the family “in all generations.” (vss. 16-17)

Song of Solomon is a passionate poem with two lovers trysting and declaring their love for one another. “The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills . . . My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Solomon 2:8-10, with the call repeated in verse 13)

Interpreters over the years, unable to face the overt eroticism of the Song of Solomon (sometimes just called “The Song of Songs”), have suggested it is in scripture simply as a metaphor for our relationship with God. An erotic relationship with God is somehow more acceptable than one between two human beings?

I believe it is sufficient to read this and other stories of passionate human love as a simple lifting up of an important dimension of human experience. We don’t need to resort to metaphor to justify the inclusion of such stories. Today, however, I am calling us to consider the possibility that God intends our relationship with the divine, with the living and loving cosmos, to be as passionate and celebrative as these portrayals of human love and passion.

We note in passing that the reading from Zechariah also includes a “daughter,” this time the entire people of God, names here are “Zion” or “Jerusalem,” meeting her king who is coming. (Zechariah 9:9) Whether or not this is another wedding procession is unclear. It is used in the New Testament as a prophecy about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. (vs. 10) Whatever the occasions, it is again a celebration of covenant and liberation (vs. 11), as is the second Psalm reading (Psalm 145:8-14).

The reading from Romans reminds us that spontaneous passionate living as the people of God runs into obstacles. Paul speaks as a human being who falls short, who fights his demons. The reality is that the love and passion we want to express doesn’t always make it. Paul says, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” and “I do not understand my own actions.” (Romans 7:15) Do any of us live up to the full potential for good that we know is within us? Do we sometimes do hurtful things? Remember the old saying about hurting most the ones we love?

Paul attributes this shortcoming to sin (vss. 17 & 20) and sees Jesus as the way out (vs. 25a). The context is his discussion of law and grace. One could easily despair when burdened with the feelings Paul describes. What a weight of judgment one might feel. Instead, Paul looks to Jesus and sees that he is loved unconditionally. It doesn’t change the fact that he is human and falls short. It doesn’t make him perfect. It does free him to keep on paying attention to the power of the love that is at work within him. Jesus is working with him to release it, to make him more spontaneous in the expression of the good that is within. May it be so for us as well!

Finally, the Gospel lesson speaks to a lightness as we walk with our lover/Jesus/God. Jesus notes that people were critical of John, the baptizer, when he came with a sober, austere, approach to religion (Matthew 11:18). Now they are critical of him (Jesus) when he comes “eating and drinking.” “Look,” they say, “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (vs. 19) Jesus compares them with children arguing pettily, refusing to respond to the mood of the moment. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” (vs. 17) The tone I read into all this is, “Lighten up. Don’t be so uptight and critical. Let your feelings show when you’re playing with those you love, when you’re in the presence of the one who embodies Love.” That tone is underlined, I believe, in the familar words from vss. 28-30 that have comforted us on more than one occasion: “Come to me, all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” We often focus on the first part—about heavy burdens—and place less emphasis and importance on the last part. Jesus—this one who draws us into a passionate relationship of love-is “gentle and humble in heart.” Whatever burdens we are carrying, when we walk in the presence of this kind of love, it is a time of ease and lightness. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In all circumstances, unconditional love has the power to draw out of us spontaneous passion and celebration and service.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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