Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Song of Solomon 2: 8-13
In hindsight, it was probably inevitable I’d choose the readings about marriage for this Sunday. We’re in wedding crush around here these days. Jillian and Michael are on their Amtrak honeymoon to the National Parks after a beautiful Quaker wedding here in the Sanctuary a few weeks ago. And next Saturday, Alnardo and Anthony will be married here — the first legal gay marriage performed in the Sanctuary at Old First.
I believe Mike has a friend with him today, half a couple he’s going to introduce me to, because they are looking for someone to officiate at their wedding. Eric, really, this sermon isn’t me candidating for the job!
I spoke with a wedding couple last Monday night, referred to me by my friends at the UCC church in Garden City, NY.
And there’s some guy named Jesus who keeps calling me from Doylestown, and says he and his fiancee were referred to me.
And Melody and Greg who I need to schedule, but never seem to be available.
I think I have a wedding a month scheduled for this fall (though mostly off-site)…
I laugh at my gay friends sometimes, needling them, saying, “Just because we can get married legally now doesn’t mean all of us have to!”
But, it seems like there’s a run on the heterosexual folks getting married too…
It’s interesting, when you think about it:
…more people live together without the benefit of marriage these days.
And divorces are more frequent, despite their inevitable heartache, so as to be commonplace, hardly to surprise anyone.
But marriage– people seem to keep trying nonetheless…
* * * * * *
When I told Betty, who writes the intros. for the readings each week,
which texts I was using, she pointed out
that I’d used the exact same texts when they came up 3 years ago.
Church, think how much has changed in that three years —
it hardly feels like a struggle anymore to recognize all families equally, offering everyone the right to marry.
I was reading recently, it took 34 states overturning the ban on interracial marriage, before the Supreme Court stepped in and made it the law of the land.
We’re at 17 states and other jurisdictions, so if history bears itself out, we’re half-way there.
I went back and read the sermon from 3 years ago.
It was titled “A Biblical Picture of Family and Marriage.”
And, the first bit of good news, I liked it. (There’s nothing worse as a pastor than coming across an old sermon, and rereading your stomach drops or your heart stops as you think,
“How in the world could I have preached that!”)
The sermon sketched a basic, but important and often unrecognized biblical reality:
Despite the claims that conservative Christians get louder and louder making —
that Christian faith only allows a very narrow understanding of family —
you know their battle cry “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
I remember making a pastoral call once, on family of a parishioner, and how they told me a story of how they have had to keep moving from church to church. I sympathized, “That’s difficult. Why haven’t you been able to settle in one church?” The woman answers eagerly, “Well, you know, we’re Adam and Eve Christians, so an Adam and Steve church will never work for us.” “I see,” said the gay pastor making the visit…
But the biblical witness offers a much greater variety of different, sometimes contradicting pictures. Hardly any of them look like exactly like the prescription conservatives say is the sina qua non.
In fact, the variety of biblical descriptions of marriage and family look about as much as like the conservatives wishful thinking as do most of our families!
* * * * * * *
So, why tackle these texts again?
Well, in part, because they are difficult and beautiful.
And maybe if I use them in worship one or two of you might go home and read the whole stories.
Both the Song of Solomon and the story of Rebekah’s marriage to Isaac are the kinds of biblical stories that even if we wrestle with them faithfully, are going to leave us walking away with large questions remaining. Which, Beloved, may be the way it should be when humans approach a sacred text. Open questions are certainly more helpful for faith than easy or quick answers. Without some struggle, without something difficult and troubling and mysterious, we’ll probably never make it past what we know and on to what we can only believe…
So I’m going to ask you to consider two impossible things this morning and then leaving you with a challenge.
First, God has been busy in Abraham’s affairs up to this point.
For the last 12 chapters in Genesis, you might say,
God has been up in Abraham’s face the whole time.
Talking directly to him.
And speaking to others on his behalf.
Making covenants with him.
Providing children, guidance and great wealth.
God has shown up in that way that makes us moderns feel that if God were present like God is for the patriarchs in the Bible, believing would be a lot easier.
But all of a sudden, at this point, God gets in Abraham’s story, more like God is in our lives. There, but not so obvious. At least not in anyway that our text attributes to the Divine.
No overt conversations. No words from on high. No God sightings. Just some “signs” that could be some pretty sweet coincidences, a human’s wishful thinking, or be God’s hand at work, behind the scenes. (The Message even translates the end of the 14th verse, where the servant is looking for a young woman to offer him a drink of water as “Then I’ll know that you’re working graciously behind the scenes for my master.”) God as an actor or protagonist isn’t even mentioned. There is in the narrative of such a culture an assumption that God is around, but much more like I believe God is always with me — though that’s faith more than demonstrable act.
Not in the Song of Solomon either is God mentioned by the way. Instead it reads like a steamy romance novel, driven more by the young couple’s passion than any great spiritual motive.
I always imagine if the Song of Songs were published today,
it’d be a pulp fiction, romance novel and the cover would depict
a dashing shirtless man taking a beautiful woman stormily into his embrace, about to kiss!)
In oue In the beginning story of Abraham’s servant sent to find a wife for his son–
it feels less like some great chapter in God’s fierce fights for salvation history
and more about negotiating a business deal.
Some human calculation.
And some good luck.
A chance that it might work out.
And maybe God’s behind it somewhere, in the sense that sometimes what we do coincides with what God meant all along.
But we don’t hear God saying anything.
Instead we’ re listening in on Abraham’s servants thoughts
and then his bartering and deal-making with the extended family.
What’s it mean, people, for us that our experience is often like that– our God is behind the scenes,
or even left out of our conscious deliberations?
We might get lucky and do something that is pleasing to God, but truth be told, that would be good fortune because God’s will happened to conform to our desires or plans.
In this case, the servant says that a woman offering him a drink will be a sign,
but he runs up to Rebekah and asks for a drink before she could offer.
Her graciousness is only a response to his request.
And here’s my question for you:
If you don’t hear God’s voice
or don’t see the hand of God pointing out your way,
when you wish you could feel God pushing you along, but you don’t,
does that mean you are left without God’s providence?
Can you help God along?
Or are you then free of asking after God’s will?
Sure, sometimes it’s easier to discern God’s will in our rearview mirrors–
in looking back on what has happened, we see what we couldn’t at the time.
But why wouldn’t God give us more clear guidance in the here and now?
I’m not sure. But I offer this wife-finding interlude as an example:
biblical characters who had to find their own way,
or find God’s way, but without so much overt help from God…
That might resonate with many of us…
The second thing I want you to consider is Rebekah’s agency
in what is happening to her.
What we heard Julie read this morning is the shortened version —
Did you notice that we only read certain verses?
I assume the picking and choosing is mostly to shorten a long story
and skip some of the repetition that worked well in oral traditions, but comes off repetitive to the modern, reading ear.
But the abridged way we heard the story,
it sounds as if Rebekah’s father Bethuel and brother Laban
are asking her consent,
“does she want to leave home and family for this arranged marriage
with a distant relative in a far-away land?” .
But if you read the whole passage, Rebekah’s given no choice about the marriage.
The servant says to the father and the brother what his errand is.
And they respond without question — they explain, because it is God’s will? — “Take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.”
Rebekah’s decision is not whether or not she wants to leave.
Hers is only the minor note, to decide to go sooner or later… when she is going to leave…
We know that there are still cultures where arranged marriages
are how people get together.
And I have a number of friends who have had arranged marriages,
and curiously, they seems to fare as well or better than our choice-dominated way of pairing.
That said, in the U.S., we hold the choice of the couple, and these days in particular the importance of choice in a women’s life, in high esteem.
And yet, there are certainly times when many of us,
in our marriages and families,
…times and situations when we feel as if or know we have little choice–
for all kinds of different reasons.
So. my second question today:
when you feel you have little choice in aspects of your experience…
perhaps because someone else is taking away your choice,
or maybe it’s your emotions or passion,
or just who God made you to be,
or family or social circumstances beyond your control,
sometimes it’s life itself…
When you don’t have much choice, much less agency,
could God still be in the chain of events?
Can God who makes us free, expect faithfulness of us, even when we don’t have much liberty?
Can God’s will be carried out when we feel compelled,
even against our own will?
I’m not sure, but it seems like a valid question from the the whole story before us….
* * * * * * *
My sermon today is titled “Love Is More Like Bread than a Stone.”
and I want to close and leave you with a challenge.
The title comes from a quote from the novelist Ursela Le Guin who said:
“Love doesn’t just sit there like a stone. it has to be made, like bread.”
You see, marriage is just a subset of the relations, one of the many different kinds of relations that are to be built on love. One could say, as Christians, ours is a life-long study in how to relate and serve lovingly. For those of us who are married, we need to be responsible to the love that makes our marriage. But just because you are single or widowed or whatever else, love is still the central issue of truly living our lives.
As married spouses. Or as single people. In a great big family or a crowded and crowding community. Or if you are solitary and alone.
It’s an issue as children of our parents.
And as parents to our children.
But also to our neighbors.
Maybe our struggle is figuring how to love our ex.
Or how to relate lovingly to someone you never chose to be in your life.
Or if we are listening to Jesus, all the way to our enemies.
What does love mean, and ask of us,
in all these varied and different situations and relations?
It’s THE question of our faith.
A big question.
An open question.
I certainly can’t claim to have all, or somedays any of the answers.
But there’s some wisdom in seeing that love as dynamic,
rather than lifeless and unchanging.
Love as a recipe of different parts. And if you can get the right mixture, something else takes over, a transformation…
A stone just sits there.
Sure you can stand on it. Even combine it with other stones and build something. Or you can throw it at someone and hurt them.
You can use it as a base.
But you either have it, or you don’t.
But bread is alive.
It involves bringing together different things God has given us.
Getting them in the right measure.
Working with the dough.
Caring for what you’ve made.
Something soft and delicate that needs to be treated a certain way.
Adding the magic ingredient, the yeast.
And watching in wonder as it rises.
It won’t happen without your effort,
your hands at work.
But it’s not of our doing.
We get it started, and then something beyond us takes over.
because bread, like love rises.
Bread, like love feeds.
Bread, like love nourishes.
Bread makes strangers into companions; so does love.
It It’s dynamic.
And bread needs to be made again every day.
A lot like this love that as Christians we are responsible for.