Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67+Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Romans 7:15-25a+Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Our journey through the book of Genesis brings us a great story this morning. On the surface, it’s just about a man in search of a wife. But there are layers that bear exploring here, so we’re going to do just that.

You will remember that Sarah gave birth to Isaac late in life, that Hagar and Ishmael were sent away from the community, and that Abraham came very close to sacrificing Isaac at God’s command. All of the chapter preceding this one (23) deals with Sarah’s death and Abraham’s purchase of a cave in the field of Machpelah facing Mamre, what we know today as Hebron, for her burial place. The continuation of the story today begins with Abraham, now very old, worried about the continuation of his line of descendants through Isaac. At this point, he has only two sons, and we already know that the promise to Ishmael is something different than the one for Isaac. It is through Isaac that the covenant continues, and for that to happen, Isaac needs to marry.

The way this reading is broken up, we only get bits and pieces of what happened.  So, I’m going to fill in a few of the missing parts.

When we first encounter Abraham, called Abram, way back in Chapter 12, he lives along the fertile crescent in the land of Ur of the Chaldees, modern Iraq. He and his family set out from there and stop in a place called Haran, in northern Syria. Some of the family decides to settle there, but Abram, Sarai his wife, and his nephew Lot continue on to Canaan.

When it comes time for Isaac to marry, Abraham wants him to marry someone from home, not one of the Canaanites in whose land they now dwell. It was custom in this family and the region from which they came to intermarry. Sarah was actually Abraham’s half-sister. They had the same father (Genesis 20:12). So Abraham’s instruction to his most trusted servant to go “to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for Isaac” (Genesis 24:4) means that this tradition of intermarriage will continue. Rebekah is Isaac’s cousin, in fact, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

For whatever reason, Abraham insists that Isaac not go along to choose a wife. Maybe Abraham knew what kind of bargain might be necessary if he did, since his grandson Jacob did go and ended up having to work for his uncle for 20 years in order to marry Rachel…his cousin. Oh yes, this is biblical marriage.

So this servant goes and is weighed down with gifts to entice a bride for Isaac to return with him. He comes up with a plan for how he will know which woman is the right one: she must offer him water and water for his camels. Now, this is actually funny, because the text says he had ten camels, and if a camel can drink 20-30 gallons of water, this woman, whoever she was to be, had to be really buff.

Of course, Rebekah comes to the well and draws water, offering some for the man and his camels, and he knows she is the one. He presents her with gifts. And then an interesting thing happens that is easy to miss. He asks for her father, but Rebekah identifies her father as Bethuel son of Milcah, his mother, rather than son of Nahor, his father (and Abraham’s brother). And Rebekah invites the servant to stay. Apparently she has the agency or authority to do so without asking her father or anyone else. She is also given the choice to decide if she will return with the servant to the land of Canaan to be Isaac’s wife. It is extraordinary that a woman would have such rights, and it foreshadows the strength of Rebekah in assuring the continuation of the covenant through her second son, Jacob, rather than her first, Esau.

There are very few women in scripture who receive blessings, but Rebekah is one of them. Before she is sent off, her brother Laban and her mother say a blessing much like the promise to Abraham and to Hagar: “may you…become thousands of myriads, may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes” (24:60).

So Rebekah returns with Abraham’s servant and sees Isaac from far off. There is no mention of a marriage, but Isaac takes Rebekah to his mother’s tent – again, focusing on the matriarchal line – and he loved her. This is the first time in scripture that love between a man and a woman is mentioned. And who deserves this more than Isaac, the one almost put to death by his own father, an act which most assuredly hastened his mother’s death. Rebekah is a comfort to him.

This entire narrative of Abraham, Isaac, and soon to be Jacob, are foundational to our story. Yes, it is the story of the Hebrews, the people of Israel, and it’s the tradition in which Jesus was raised. Jesus knew his story. He knew where he came from and understood the law of Moses that governed Jewish life in the 1st century. At times, you can sense his frustration with those who, in is estimation, have forgotten who and whose they are.

In our reading from Matthew today, nothing Jesus does seems right. There are those who think he is too radical. There are those who think he is not radical enough. People are coming at him from all sides. And he’s like “chill.” Come to me. If you’re tired, if you’re weary, come to me. You’ll have rest like you could not imagine. Trust me. I am easy. The burden you carry will feel like nothing.

Jesus offers people freedom, and they’re just not sure what to make of that. They don’t trust. They aren’t sure. Maybe they are just too darn afraid of what this new life is about. It might make them change. It might upend their lives. Just as White America seems to live in fear of what it might mean to dismantle white supremacy, to ensure true equity for Black Americans. And our inability to address this is a burden too great for us to continue to bear.

But Jesus gives us all freedom from that plague of doing the things that do us harm even when we want to do good, of holding onto our heavy burdens when we could just lay them down. The Apostle Paul gets to the heart of this in the 7th chapter of Romans. We cannot, of ourselves, make ourselves do good. We are enslaved to sin. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).

This us our origin story. We don’t have to manipulate it, devising ways to make sure everything works out in our favor. We have seen how Abraham sometimes trusted God’s promises and sometimes tried to hedge his bets. That continues throughout the entire book of Genesis with Abraham’s descendants. It’s human nature.

And Paul is telling us the jig is up. And Jesus is telling us the jig is up.

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. (Matthew 11:28-29)

ASEPSermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas