Year A — The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9)

Commentary for July 3, 2011
Click here for today’s texts

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
An evocative story, on several levels. Poor old Isaac and his story so often get short shrift when compared with the other “patriarchs” of Genesis! Even in today’s text, he is almost secondary — an adornment to the text, which focuses on the faithfulness of Abraham’s servant and the willingness of Rebekah. But, I digress…

Since we read last week’s text concerning God’s testing of Abraham, the years have passed, Isaac has grown to marriageable age, and “the LORD has greatly blessed” Abraham. Unlike Tevye (of Fiddler on the Roof fame,) he IS a wealthy man!

Just one more detail needs to be managed: a proper wife for Abraham’s heir. The arrangement between the servant and Abraham is both intimate and intricate — 24:1-4 indicates the servant (most likely Eliezer, who has been Abraham’s house steward for many years, cf. 15:2) was asked to place his hand “under Abraham’s thigh.” 

That’s about as intimate as it gets, don’t you think? It is highly likely that this involved grasping Abraham’s genitals, as if to say to the servant, “Look, this is my entire future family we’re talking about here…this is IMPORTANT!” 

Certainly, the servant took his commission seriously. The almost painful repetition of the story word-for-word at each telling of his assignment serves to drive home the point that he did NOT want to mess this up. And, he doesn’t. The servant even prays to the “God of my master Abraham” for guidance. He is faithful in every detail.

Thus, the story positions Rebekah as divinely destined to fill her role as wife to Isaac, and bearer of the continuing line of covenant-bearers (after a little folderol with pottage and birthrights and such…more on that later.)

I love the line in v.64: “When she saw Issac, she slipped quickly from the camel…” The Hebrew word is napal, which usually means “to fall, or to cast (as in cast lots).” She fell off her camel when she saw young Isaac! Theirs is an actual love story (see the conclusion in v.67.) 

Those are so rare in these harsh times; maybe I’m overly romantic and I’m just stretching the interpretation a bit here, but indulge me, will ya’? There’ll be plenty of time for drama later.

Psalm 45:10-17
Psalm 45 matches nicely with the Rebekah/Isaac story. “Forget your people and your father’s house, for the king will desire your beauty…. [You] will have sons, and [God] will make them princes in all the earth.”

These primal stories were important for the Hebrew people as they looked back and saw the faithfulness, not only of their ancestors, but of God in keeping God’s covenant promises.

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Where do you find better love poetry (to celebrate a love story) than in the Song of Songs? Gotta love the eternal optimism of youth in this paean to the power of love: “the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come….”

Zechariah 9:9-12
The prophet’s words echo the singing of the “daughters of Zion and Jerusalem” — and remind us that God’s purpose has often been ushered in on the backs of lowly animals like camels and donkeys. All God’s creatures got a place in the choir! (a pretty cool video of this song can be found here)

Psalm 145:8-14
Nationwide Insurance has made their impression on the American psyche with their trademark slogan, “Nationwide is on your side.” They’ll be there for us in times of trouble, right?

The psalmist predates Nationwide by several thousand years with his assertion that “The LORD upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.” That’s who’s on your side!

Romans 7:15-25a
I’ve always considered this stretch of Romans 7 to be one of the Bible’s most honest moments. The Apostle, prone to bluster and braggadocio so much of the time, here identifies the most human of frustrations: “I don’t understand my own actions.” 

Sin is a powerful force in our lives, even after our acceptance of Christ and commitment to walk in his ways. It’s kind of the ultimate inconvenient truth that is outlined here — “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Don’t you hate it when that happens?

There is help– and, ultimately, victory — in Christ. But it’s a grind sometimes.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Christ’s words to close this section of the gospel reading are the perfect prescription for the woeful misery described by Paul in Romans (see above.)

“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.”

Lord, let me take up your yoke just one more day — today.

Always a bit of a dilemma for the preacher when Sunday falls astride a major patriotic holiday. Dr. Chilton resolves this tension nicely in this week’s sermon from Romans 7.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

For many people, Independence Day is simply an excuse for a long weekend in the middle of summer; a chance to take a little trip, to get into a summertime sort of mood. Go to the beach or the mountains or the lake, grill out and chill out.

A few years ago, a writer in the Nashville paper complained that churches don’t celebrate Patriotic Holidays anymore, by which he meant, I presume, the playing of patriotic music, etc.

A pastor wrote back saying that the church has a higher agenda than a secular holiday, that the church is obligated to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ above all else.

I found myself agreeing with each of them. As the son of a man who served and suffered in Europe in WWII and as the nephew of a man who died in the Pacific at the age of 19 fighting the Japanese,

I too lament our turning a “Holy-Day” intended to show respect for the sacrifices of many that have secured and protected our Freedom, our Independence, into an excuse for a long weekend.

On the other hand, the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot take second place to any other agenda in the life of the church. And, I keep thinking about all Jesus’ words about being peacemakers and turning the other cheek and forgiving our enemies.

We have drawn the lines of discussion about this in such a way that it is difficult to keep God and country in right relationship. We have trouble talking about this subject in the church without either dishonoring the dead or glorifying war.

True story. Small Southern town. The Town Council asked a young architect and landscape artist to create a Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial out of a narrow vacant lot downtown.

He landscaped the lot into a grassy knoll with winding walkways, flower beds and park benches. He created a monument, moderately sized, out of local granite. On the two side panels were listed the locals who had served and died in Vietnam. In the center he designed an etching of one weary soldier carrying a wounded buddy on his shoulders. It was cruciform without being a cross. It was meant to evoke service and sacrifice and “no greater love”.

The Town Council approved everything but the center picture. They got a stone cutter at the quarry to etch in the scene of raising the flag at Iwo Jima instead. They even painted the Red, White and Blue on the Flag. Wrong symbol from the wrong war.

By replacing the cruciform symbol of service, sacrifice and suffering with one of victory and triumph, the town council demonstrated America’s ambiguous attitude toward the wars which our country has fought. On the one hand, we lament the loss of life, we honestly mourn those of our families and communities who died, we carry a deep sorrow for their pain and suffering. We mean it. We are not hypocrites.

But, on the other hand, we sometimes get carried away with our pride in America’s military might, with our “won-loss” record if you will.

As Christians, we must always shy away from the glorification of war.

War is mean, nasty and ugly. It is the result of the failure of humanity to settle issues of economics and ethnic tensions peacefully.

War is the eruption of our inherent sinfulness on a national and global scale.

War occurs when pride and materialism and greed and hatred of the other overwhelm within us the divine call to peace with justice.

For Christians, war comes when we forget that we are not of this world, but are sent into this world by the Prince of Peace, to spread the Gospel of Peace.

As Paul says in Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

One of my childhood pastor’s explained original sin this way:

“Original Sin means that there is something in us that just can’t wait to mess up a good thing.”

The longer I live, the more right he seems. At the beginning of the 20th Century, much was written about how the world was on the cusp of its greatest Golden Age. Science, technology, learning were leaping ahead at a record pace. The end of war and disease and poverty were practically in sight, or so it was thought.

A look back at the last 100 years shows a much different picture. We have seen two world wars, the rise of totalitarian governments, the use of weapons of mass destruction, new diseases and behavior related health problems. We are trying to destroy the earth and sea and all that is in them.

What happened? Well we did. We, the human race. We, all of us. Original sin erupted and continues to erupt in our persistent habit of messing up a good thing.

What we do on Independence Day is weep for those who lost their innocence and perhaps their lives in the service of their country.

Independence Day is an opportunity to prayerfully remember those who have suffered and died because of the world’s inability to live love and justice on an international scale.

My Daddy lived until he was 80. Until he went to the hospital a week or so before he died, he lived in the house he was born in.

The only time he spent any real time away from there was when he was in Europe in WWII.

He never told us much about it until the last year of his life, and then in bits and pieces.

Buddies who were there one minute and blown up the next, little French and German children stepping on mines or begging for food.

As I sat at that kitchen table, listening to him talk, coffee cup in one hand and cigarette in the other, I began to understand his years of staring into the distance, the emotional distance, the stoic devotion to duty.

Then he began to weep, his 80 year old shoulders going up and down, as he cried for someone named Willie from Oklahoma and I cried for Willie and Daddy and millions of others, American and English and French, Korean and Vietnamese and Iraqi and Afghan and all those caught up in the senselessness and pain.

Freedom is a gift and a responsibility and a burden. We are called to what one Ethics Textbook called “Responsible Freedom.”

With the gift of freedom comes the responsibility of respecting and protecting the freedom of others.

As Christians we must always celebrate our country’s efforts to live out that responsibility without turning a blind eye to our failures and imperfections.

Only God is perfect, and only Jesus was sinless and all the rest of us, as individuals and as countries, do our best and pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

And the Good News, God’s mercy is great, Jesus’ love is wide and our sins are forgiven. Thanks be to God.

Amen and amen

4 thoughts on “Year A — The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9)

  1. Well done, Delmer. You carefully and courageously walked a tightrope, honoring and remembering and calling to account, balancing the goodness and the sinfulness, God and country, and reminding us what Holy Days and Scripture mean to us.

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