Year A: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (July 6, 2014)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Huston Smith is a Methodist who has long been an authority on world religions.  He was one of many people of many faiths and many countries who were asked to contribute an essay to a book called “How Can I Find God?”  In his essay, Smith told this Hindu story.

The disciple said to the master, “How can I find God?”  Instead of answering the question, the master led the student down to the river.  After staring out over the water a few minutes, the master grabbed the student and pushed his head under the water, holding him there for several minutes while the student struggled to get free.  Finally the master let him go and the student emerged from the water sputtering and gasping for air.

After a few minutes, the master smiled and said, “So how did it feel down there?”  The student stared angrily at the master and replied. “It was awful. I thought I was going to die.”  The Master smiled again and said, “When you want God as much as you wanted air, when you feel like you cannot live without God in your life; then you will find God.  Or rather, then you will realize God has already found you.”

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Jesus’ point in this text is simple – people aren’t really serious about finding God, so they avoid God by complaining about the messengers.  The ones complaining about both John and Jesus purport to be serious seekers after God, but what they are really looking for is a God made in their own image, not the God in whose image they were made.  They are seeking a religious experience that will fit appropriately into their lifestyle, a religious experience that they can control and regularize.  Jesus would agree with the master, when people want a relationship with God as much as a drowning man wants air; when people believe they will die without God, then the pettiness will cease and people will look around and discover God and holiness all around them.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in his book “Living Jesus,” points out that in Matthew, the character of Jesus is drawn in sharp contrast to the scribes and Pharisees and their way of approaching God.  They have transformed the Torah, the teaching from God, the revealed will of God, from a living and exciting invitation to holy living into a heavy burden on the people.  They have expended it into law after law, long lists of that which is clean and unclean, exact formulas for ritual observance that one must follow to a T.

They have turned God’s word of steadfast love into a word of perpetual judgment and duty.  The yoke of the Law, of working in the Kingdom of God, has become an albatross around their necks, weighing them down and holding them back.

The ancient Jews, the scribes and Pharisees were not unique in this attempt to corral and control God; the effort to bring some sort of order into the wildness and chaos of God’s ways with the world.  Down through the years, we have habitually sought to create systems by which we can assure ourselves we are all right, all right with each other and with God.  And none of it ever works, really.

At some point all our systems fail, because we fail.  No matter how cleverly we put the system together, there is a flaw in it.  And the flaw is us.

Paul gives clear voice to this flaw in what is now a classic description of what the basic Lutheran prayer of confession refers to as our “bondage to sin.”  The problem with all the human ideas about how to be religious is not that they are failures of logic or are inconsistent systems of ethics or that they even ask to much of us.  The problem is, as the comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”

When 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.” and again “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it;” we are all forced to nod with sad and rueful recognition.  Our behaviors big and small are very seldom completely consistent with our better selves and we, like Paul, long to know not only why but how, how will we ever get off this endless cycle of failure and guilt?

The promise of the gospel is that Jesus has come to rescue us from ourselves. In verses 25-30 of our Gospel, Jesus he proclaims:

“Come to me, all 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.”

In the midst of our confusion and despair, God comes to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  God comes to us and reminds us that the divine/human encounter is controlled not by us, but by God. We do not find God through wisdom and intelligence; God finds us and reveals God’s self to us when, helpless as a baby, we need and want God the way we need and want air to breathe.

Jesus invites us to lay our burden down and take up the yoke of the Gospel with him. I wonder what burden each of us might need to put down in order to take up the yoke of Jesus, the cross of Christ?  What sin of our past haunts our present?  What doubt in our mind troubles our spirit?  What feeling of inadequacy or unworthiness keeps us from offering ourselves as a fellow laborer with Jesus in the Kingdom of God?  Whatever it is; Jesus invites us to put it down, lay it aside, kick it to the curb, leave it behind as we accept his offer to share in the work of the Kingdom, the work of telling the world of God’s goodness and love.

Take a deep breath, feel the air fill your lungs.  Now, take another breathe and breath God in, let God fill your lungs with forgiveness and love and holiness.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 

Amen and amen.

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