Sermon Seeds: A Love that Makes Neighbors
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9)
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:10-17 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13 or
Zechariah 9:9-12 with Psalm 145:8-14
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Worship resources for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9) are at Worship Ways
Special resources for ministry during the Coronavirus Pandemic:
Digital Pastoral Care & Grief:
Living psalms are here, scroll down:
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Additional reflection on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
A Love that Makes Neighbors
by Kathryn Matthews
On a given Sunday, many preachers choose to focus on the Gospel passage from the lectionary readings, but our focus text this week provides some interesting challenges for reflection. This may even be a text we will have to wrestle with, and walk away from the struggle with large questions remaining.
At first, it just seems like an edited little story about a family matter between Abraham and his relatives back home in Haran, where he has sent his longtime, trusted assistant, his right-hand man, so to speak, to fetch a bride for his beloved son, Isaac.
An amazing gift
We remember Isaac, of course, as the very special and amazing late-in-life gift of God to ensure that Abraham’s line would go on and multiply, “as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17). We also remember that these descendants would both occupy the land that God had given Abraham and be a blessing to all the families of the earth as well (12:3).
A sweeping promise that sounds and feels global, universal–and even everlasting: a promise of blessing that extends to us, far away in both time and place.
God at work in Abraham’s life
God has been very involved, quite busy, in Abraham’s life throughout the past twelve chapters of Genesis, speaking directly with him (and others on his behalf); making covenants with him; providing children, guidance, and great wealth; and perhaps most famously, staying Abraham’s hand from killing his son Isaac in a test, the story tells us, that had come directly from God.
However, this week’s text is very different: we don’t hear God’s voice speaking directly to anyone, in fact, we mostly overhear the servant’s thought-processes and silent prayer, and then we listen in on his conversations with Abraham’s relatives.
How do we read the signs?
Still, God is at work in this little story, and it invites us to reflect on a question with which many faithful folks often struggle: God’s providence, and God’s will, in our everyday lives, even though we don’t hear God’s voice addressing us directly.
How, then, we ask, do we read the signs around us, and know what God wants us to do? How much of what happens is something God wills to happen, and what is our role in it all?
What about providence?
Scholars put the question of providence in this “little” story in the larger and grander context of “the patriarchal stories,” as Gene Tucker notes, and “the promise of land, progeny, and blessing to all the world–and the constant threat to its fulfillment” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
And while commentators consider providence an important theological theme in this passage, Sidney Greidanus seems to caution us against generalizing from this story, which simply and specifically addresses Israel’s need for a new mother now that Sarah has died (Genesis 23), to our need for guidance, for example, about our next move in life (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
Final words from Abraham
Greidanus observes that Abraham’s instructions to his servant are his last recorded words in the Bible, and there is a sense that the torch must be passed to a new generation so that those innumerable descendants will be able to inherit the land promised to them.
To make sure the plan unfolds as it should, says Greidanus, the trusted servant will take off on a four-hundred mile journey with “ten thirsty camels” and a treasure worthy of a new wife for the heir of the “super-rich” Abraham (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
It’s important that this wife come from the same family and not from the Canaanites, the text emphasizes; Holly Hearon notes that this insistence “anticipates future tensions around marriage with women outside the kinship group” (New Proclamation Year A 2008), an issue that will arise again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures.
What happened “between the lines” we read?
In addition to theological themes, there is the question of lectionary editing: at first glance, we’re tempted to think that omitting certain verses simply serves to shorten a longer story, as there appears to be repetition in the storytelling (an aid to memory in an oral culture).
A closer and longer look, however, prompts other questions and leads us onto additional paths of reflection that is not always comfortable.
Not “yes” or “no” but “when”?
What is left out actually changes the story in a significant way, for our passage reads as if the servant’s request for Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife leads her father and brother to ask for her to consent, for her to choose whether to journey from home and family to marry a stranger, and perhaps never see her family again.
In this way, of course, Rebekah is a lot like Abraham, but that doesn’t seem to be the storyteller’s main point. And yet Rebekah is not asked “yes” or “no,” just “when” she will do what her male relatives have arranged.
Important things happen at the well
Our lectionary passage begins after, and recounts, important things that have happened back at the well between Abraham’s servant and Rebekah, who had come to draw water. Wells, Richard Pervo observes, “served as a kind of ‘singles bar’ in ancient villages,” presumably a good place to find a prospective bride (New Proclamation Year A 2011).
But there is deeper symbolism here that suggests the connection between motherhood and water (a connection I often mentioned when giving a tour of the Amistad Chapel and pausing by the beautiful baptismal font at its entrance): Susan Niditch notes the “ancient intuitive acknowledgments of our watery origins on earth and in mother, and of the source of life upon which we continue to depend” (The Women’s Bible Commentary).
Ask God for a sign
Now, Abraham’s servant feels the need for some help in his mission, and asks God for a sign so he’ll know he’s on the right track in choosing a candidate to bring back to his master’s son; I’m puzzled that Walter Brueggemann writes, “There has been no sign or signal. There has been no seeking after or requesting guidance, but only the willing acknowledgment after the fact” (Genesis, Interpretation).
In any case, Rebekah appears to be that excellent prospect: the Hebrew word translated as “virgin” (betulah), according to W. Sibley Towner, also means “a marriageable young woman.” She is not just young and marriageable but also chaste and beautiful, and very kind and solicitous as well; her “courtesy even exceeds what was stipulated,” Towner writes, for “she calls the servant ‘My lord'” (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion).
Questions and gifts
As we listen to the servant later telling Rebekah’s brother Laban about what had happened at the well, we encounter our first problem. A careful–and closer–reading of the entire chapter will note that the servant makes some significant changes to the story: for example, he says that he asked her whose daughter she was before he gave her the expensive jewelry, “a serious gift,” Towner calls it, and “probably the bride-price” (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion).
Back in verses 22-23, however, we read that he first showers her with gold rings and bracelets and then asks her whose daughter she is. In a way, it is quite a leap of faith to give the “bride-price” to someone if you don’t even know that she’s a member of the family that you’re seeking. Once he hears that Rebekah is Abraham’s relative, he thanks God for leading him to the right person.
Back to her mother’s house
It’s also interesting that, when he asks her if there’s room in her “father’s house” for him to spend the night, she identifies herself not only by her father’s name but also her grandmother Milcah’s. Towner notes that this is unusual: “Perhaps Milcah was a woman of legendary virtue” (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion).
Then, Rebekah runs back, the text says, and tells “her mother’s household about these things.” Still, it’s the men–her brother Laban, and then her father, Bethuel, who take over from there.
Who is God in this story?
Before hearing them claim that this match is obviously God’s will (as Gene Tucker puts it, a match “made in heaven”; Preaching through the Christian Year A), we note that scholars are not quite in agreement about who “God” is to these relatives. Holly Hearon says that Rebekah “as yet, has not met the God of Abraham” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
Terence Fretheim acknowledges that the brother’s speech “invites speculation; certainly the narrator understands that the Yahwistic faith was established within Abraham’s family before Abraham left for Canaan (see 31:53). Such faith apparently continues outside of Abraham’s family and the specific promises that undergirded his relationship with God” (Genesis, New Interpreter’s Bible).
Finding humor in the story
Perhaps the fullest and most entertaining perspective on this question comes from Walter Brueggemann, who observes that “Laban speaks here as a Yahwistic believer, not only knowing the name, but conceding everything to him,” although he has also “just seen the rings, bracelets, and camels,” and “may not be a true believer, but he is no fool, either!”
Brueggemann finds humor in the scene where this “Yahweh’s prosperity is quite an earthy matter: (a) proper genealogy, (b) good looks, (c) many camels, (d) a virgin (how could he know?).” While the theme of blessing runs through this story, Brueggemann notes that “[t]he blessings of heaven come packaged for earth” (Genesis, Interpretation).
Prosperity and blessing
Now, about those blessings, and all those expensive gifts: “prosperity” is prominent in this passage, especially in those negotiations and even in the way the servant introduces himself: while he makes it clear that Abraham’s wealth is a blessing straight from God, he is nevertheless making it quite clear how excellent a marriage prospect Isaac is, as the heir to all those blessings.
It’s only natural that we might ask that age-old question about wealth being a sign of blessing, or not. Terence Fretheim basically says that sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t: “The author does not claim that wealth and success are always due to the blessing work of God.” Like so many things in life, the origin of our wealth as blessing is something we humans have to discern (Genesis, New Interpreter’s Bible).
Trouble even when there’s plenty
In the case of Abraham, it is clearly so. However, when Brueggemann says that Abraham’s whole family, Abraham’s whole world, is so “richly blessed” that “[t]here is no need for conflict. Everything is right and good” (Genesis, Interpretation), he must be referring specifically to this particular story.
We remember, after all, back in Chapter 13, when Abraham, then called Abram, could not live in peace with his nephew Lot because “the land could not support both of them living together; for their possessions were so great that they could not live together, and there was strife between the herders of Abram’s livestock and the herders of Lot’s livestock” (13:6-7).
Everything is not always right and good in the presence of great material wealth, a lesson that we seem to need to learn anew in each generation.
Vehicles for blessing
Another significant point that can be made about this God and the question of blessing is back at the beginning of the story, although we might pass over it because we’re so used to hearing these words, when Abraham speaks of “the God of heaven and earth” (24:3). Terence Fretheim reminds us that the theme of blessing throughout this story illustrates God’s track record with blessing Abraham, which “involves creation,” although here, “in and through the ordinary, everyday workings of this family rather than in miraculous or extraordinary events.”
Thus, Abraham’s extended family, and all of his descendants today, including us, are to be “crucial vehicles for the leading and blessing work of God in daily affairs” (Genesis, New Interpreter’s Bible). What a powerful way to think of our vocation as people of faith: to be “vehicles” for God’s blessing and creative work in the world!
Is God behind the scenes here?
There are at least two more points for reflection here: first, the question of God’s guidance, which the servant receives at the well, along with the providence of God that makes it possible for the promise to be fulfilled through the marriage of Isaac and and his kinswoman Rebekah. Second, there is the question of Rebekah’s consent.
On the first question, we can reflect on the role of God behind the scenes in this story, working through events and people if not explicitly appearing as a character in the story. Sidney Greidanus sees God at work, leading the servant and “gently [molding] the hearts of Rebekah and her family” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
Looking backward and forward
Walter Brueggemann notes the “high theology” of this passage, and claims that it “offers a world-view in which there are no parts of experience which lie beyond the purpose of God,” under whose “watchful presence” all things unfold.
However, Brueggemann also notes that this “faithfulness of God” is something we often see better after the fact rather than “anticipating” it beforehand (Genesis, Interpretation). It sounds to me like we can more readily see God at work better in the rear-view mirror of experience than on the unknown road ahead.
Not a trivial matter
I know folks who believe that God leads them to good parking spaces (okay, I admit that I think that sometimes as well; I like to think that it’s one way to live a life of gratitude), or specifically puts them in one place or another that proves to be beneficial.
However, Richard Pervo cautions us just a bit about the risk of a faith that is “selfish and oriented to trivia. Belief in providence means that no person or situation is utterly beyond redemption” (New Proclamation Year A 2011).
Pervo also recognizes that this Sunday falls near an important holiday weekend in the United States, and offers this perspective for connecting the text with our historical setting, in a richly blessed country that nevertheless “is not the beneficiary of peculiar and particular promises.” (This claim flies in the face of the notion of American exceptionalism.)
Pervo compares Abraham to our founding fathers and our tendency to idealize both: “Do we endorse all that they did? Certainly not! From their faith and vision we gather inspiration and hope” (New Proclamation Year A 2011). In fact, we get into a lot of trouble when we endorse, and even try to codify, all that founding fathers–in any faith or nation–are reported to have said and done.
What did she agree to?
Finally, there is the thorny question of Rebekah’s consent to marry Isaac. Even though scholars see Laban and Bethuel as simply recognizing the will of God in the appearance of Rebekah and her offer just as the servant had asked (that is, as a sign from God), the reality is that Rebekah’s male relatives were the ones who said (and needed to say, for the transaction to occur), “Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken” (24:51).
Several scholars seem to miss something very important here, and one even speaks of “a famously uncommon solicitude for the desire of their daughter” (Sibley Towner, Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion), while another, James Newsome, claims that “[t]he men’s view that ‘the thing that comes from Yahweh’ may seem to steal the issue, yet Rebekah is nonetheless allowed to speak for herself” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
Who really decided here?
Newsome also claims that it is “a commentary on the text’s high regard for women that unlike brides in some societies, both ancient and modern, Rebekah cannot be coerced.” And Gene Tucker says that Rebekah “immediately accepts the request to go with the servant to a strange land and become the wife of a man she never met” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
Perhaps it would be closer to the story to move the word “immediately” right after the word “go,” for that’s the only time I can see Rebekah being asked to consent to anything: she agrees to go sooner rather than later, but the going itself was decided by her father and brother, not by her.
A precious commodity is still a commodity
My own resistance to the views of these several scholars was confirmed by two other sources (in addition to a close reading of the entire story). Susan Niditch’s commentary reminds us that the men make the decisions here (although they are “mediated by the women”), that the women are “extremely valuable commodities as precious as the water with which they are associated, but commodities nevertheless” [emphasis added].
Niditch seems to have read the same commentaries as I have, and agrees with me that Rebekah’s agreement is limited to the timing of her departure, not the fact of it (The Women’s Bible Commentary).
I also remember a conversation I had about this text with the then-General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, the Reverend Geoffrey Black. He would often talk with me about preaching, so he was immediately engaged when I brought up this troubling text that I was working on. He felt the same way about Rebekah’s consent, and the irony of anyone thinking that this was a journey she chose freely.
Women who pay the price
Today, countless women in many cultures (including our own) have little choice whether (or even when) to go or to stay, and even those who appear to have a choice often find themselves, for example, trapped in violent relationships that they cannot escape without endangering others, or without suffering desperate poverty. One of the hidden costs of the present pandemic is the violence suffered by women who cannot leave homes that are the scene of domestic violence.
Part of the anguish before our nation as it strives to withdraw troops from places of combat (or decides to send them back again), is the awareness of the price that may be paid by women who experienced hope instead of despair because of the promise of freedom and a degree of self-determination offered by American intervention, at least some of the time.
A complex struggle
The struggle for peace is a complex one, we remind ourselves even as we celebrate and give thanks for our freedom and re-affirm our hope that all people in all places will enjoy that same human right. In particular, this is a story that leads to reflection on the experience of women in all cultures and times, even in cultures that call themselves Christian and consider themselves “advanced.”
No culture can claim either title, if the women and children are not considered fully human, and do not enjoy the same rights as men. Perhaps a sermon on this Sunday might hear this text purely from the perspective of women, not just those in the story, or in the Bible, but today as well.
Like people in all times and places, we long not only to receive blessings, but to be a blessing as well, to become “thousands of myriads” of blessings, like Abraham, yes, but also like the women – Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, and their many daughters, who have made it possible for the “countless” descendants of Abraham to inherit and enjoy the promises of God, and to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth, just as God has said it should be.
The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Photo of the baptismal font at Amistad Chapel by the Rev. Tricia Gilbert superimposed over a photo by Sue Powers McKeon. We are grateful for their generous sharing.
For further reflection:
Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 7: 1966-1974, 20th century
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Coco Chanel, 20th century
“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“The greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.”
John Steinbeck, 20th century
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 19th century
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Nora Ephron, 20th century
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 20th century
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
“When we lose one blessing, another is often most unexpectedly given in its place.”
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
“The unthankful heart discovers no mercies; but the thankful heart will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings.’
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
“Wonderfully secured by a mighty power, we await with confidence whatever may come. God is with us–in the evening, in the morning, and entirely certain on each new day.”
Maya Angelou, 21st century
“Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”
Additional reflection on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30:
by Kathryn Matthews
Last week, Jesus closed his instructions to his disciples, before sending them out on mission, with words of blessing for anyone who welcomed them with even that simplest of gestures, a cold cup of water. As we move into Chapter 11, today’s lection omits important parts of the story that might help us to understand it a little better.
By this time in the story, Jesus has tasted the bitter cup of rejection rather than welcome. After sending out his disciples, he himself went out on a mission to “their cities,” teaching and proclaiming his message by healing the sick, raising the dead, and bringing good news to the poor. And yet, those cities, we know from the edited verses (11:20-24), closed their hearts and minds to him.
What does the good news look like?
The approach of Jesus to mission is still a good model for us today if we too want to “evangelize”–to “bring the good news,” which, according to Jesus, has to do with healing, new life and justice. That’s how you’ll know “the good news” when you hear, or see, or perhaps “experience” it: Jesus points this out to the disciples of John the Baptist who come to check him out on behalf of their teacher.
Today we might ask if our own ministry would identify us in the same way. Can people “hear and see” the good news in the way we live as much as in the words we say or the identity we claim as followers of Jesus?
Will we recognize the Reign of God?
Just before today’s passage, Jesus speaks of signs and prophets and the coming of the reign of God and our seeming inability to recognize or accept it. Perhaps, in our own turn, we are “this generation,” too.
We’re like children who can’t make up our minds about what we want or need, or even how we feel, whether to mourn or to dance. Holly Hearon’s words apply to our generation just as much as to that ancient one: “In neither case is ‘this generation’ satisfied with what they are hearing and seeing. Perhaps they want something in between” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
Omitting the “woe”?
However, Jesus isn’t ever “something in between,” and many people found it hard to accept him, even in person, even after witnessing his “deeds of power.” Hearon observes that “we can become so locked into this kind of negative response that we miss the real thing…” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
Jesus: not something-in-between, but “the real thing.” And the cities he visited, where he had worked “most of his deeds of power,” were among those locked in a negative response. The lectionary omits these “woe” verses in the middle of today’s passage, but they’re key to getting a sense of what is happening here.
How wise are we, really?
There are plenty of people in the Gospels who probably considered themselves learned and even wise. But Jesus’ view of that kind of wisdom as an impediment to faith is no anti-intellectual defense of ignorance, but an impatience with closed hearts and minds.
In contrast, Thomas Long’s beautiful commentary on the Gospel of Matthew describes a world profoundly changed by the coming of Jesus, made new, shining in the light of God (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). Still, we humans have free will to shut our hearts and minds to such newness.
Refusing to see “the real thing”
In that bright light of a new day, however, it’s not always easy to recognize “the real thing,” even in Jesus himself. The categories and things that people were used to (“the way we’ve always done it”?), the customs and traditions and even the expectations had hardened and grown heavy, and had become a burden to the people of God.
And yet the people always have to live in hope; otherwise, how could we bear our existence in a world of suffering? “Every generation,” Long writes, “wants something good for itself. The problem is the packaging: John and Jesus do not look like saviors…the wrong diet, the wrong music, the wrong companions, the wrong words. ‘This generation,’ like all generations, is scanning the screen of history, looking for hope, searching for salvation. But they cannot commit to either John or Jesus….”
Long, however, exhorts them–and us–to note the new and wonderful things that are happening because of the coming of the reign of God: healing, resurrection, and “the poor have finally heard some music they can kick up their heels to–and that is the essence of wisdom…” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
Open to the Good News
While we calculate and compare and weigh our options, the hearts of “infants,” of little ones, of insignificant ones, are open to the Good News that will change their lives (and ours). Meanwhile, how can “the poor” in our day hear music that they “can kick up their heels to”–and who is most in need of the wisdom to acknowledge the path to such a thing?
Do you feel that your heart holds such wisdom? What is the good news you most long to hear?
Let those who are weary come to Jesus
Once again, however, even this shortened passage is too much for one sermon. The most likely focus of most preaching this Sunday comes at the end of the reading, when Jesus invites all of us who are weary and bearing heavy burdens to find rest in him.
This is one of the most familiar and loved passages from Scripture, undoubtedly one of the most frequently quoted, painted, etched, and printed reassurances in the Bible, right up there with “Do not be afraid.” After four Sundays in a row of hearing about the challenges and costs of discipleship, a little talk of sacred rest is, perhaps, a good thing.
Up-ending our understanding
Jesus uses the “yoke” as a metaphor for discipleship, but today, most of us have never seen, let alone felt, a yoke. Still, we get the idea, that it’s something hard and heavy and burdensome, and Jesus is up-ending our understanding (as usual) by calling his yoke “easy,” and his burden “light.”
There’s an even more helpful way for us to hear his words: David Holwerda tells us that a yoke “both restrains and enables. It is simultaneously a burden and a possibility. The question confronting humanity is, whose yoke or what yoke does one put on? No one lives without a yoke…” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
It reminds me of the speaker who once said (and I’ll never forget how heartfelt her exhortation was), “Everyone gives their heart to something; be sure that what you give your heart to is worthy of it.”
Work that is actually freedom
Ironically, compared to the difficulty of fulfilling the demands of many laws and rules, this “work” of Jesus is more like “freedom,” according to Paul, Holwerda writes. He explains the beauty of this invitation that we think of as the two Great Commandments about loving God and our neighbor: “Love is a gentle yoke, not burdensome or wearying, but light, easy, pleasant,” but we also need “to learn from Jesus himself how to walk the ancient paths that lead to the peace and rest of the kingdom of God and to inheriting the earth” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
Do love of God, and love of neighbor, feel like a “gentle yoke” to you?
Perhaps we make things more complicated than they need to be, instead of accepting, like “infants” (or small ones, or insignificant ones), the great gifts of God. Charles Cousar speaks of our difficulty in trying to figure God out, but “God simply eludes the human grasp….”
However, “infants,” he says, “make no pretense of knowledge. Whatever they have is given them….[and they] let God be God on God’s own terms” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
We think we need to save ourselves
That’s not our way, unfortunately, and Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this text, admits that, like many of us, she has tried to figure out how to accomplish her own salvation on her own, like our childhood practice of earning “merit badges”: “I thought that the way to find rest for my soul was to finish my list of things to do and present it to God like a full book of savings stamps, but as it turned out that was not the ticket at all….”
How many of us, in the church and out of it, are busy filling up that book of stamps and collecting those merit badges? (That would be my own spiritual autobiography.) But we don’t prove anything by our stubborn resolve to make our own way.
Taylor says that these words of Jesus promise that the One who is so much stronger than any of us stands ready to help us bear any burden, any sorrow, and will never leave us to bear them alone (“The Open Yoke” in The Seeds of Heaven).
Burdens that are brought to church
There is a lot of burden-bearing that goes on in our own lives, our families, our communities, including the church. What are the burdens that the people of your congregation are carrying? When they come to church, what are they carrying with them into the pew?
What are you, as a preacher, bringing with you, bearing on your heart and shoulders and mind, as you approach the pulpit?
The gift of love and commitment
Love and commitment have the power to make a difficult task seem more bearable, perhaps even a joy. (Being in love, raising children, having a passion for our work remind us that this is true.) What are the deepest satisfactions and most profound comforts that the people of your congregation experience?
How might the “yoke” of which Jesus speaks be so satisfying to the human soul that it is experienced as light and easy, rather than heavy and burdensome?
Disbelief and limited imaginations
What kind of “rest” does Jesus promise, if we are disciples on a long journey, if we are carrying a cross? How do those two messages fit together? As you look around your congregation and at the world around you, who are the “infants,” the “little ones” who “get” the message of Jesus and the reign of God?
Ironically, a lot of learning and study can perhaps lead us to have a cynical edge, if education leads us down paths of disbelief or limited imagination. Have you ever had that experience? What do you think makes human beings get “set in our ways”–what is that about? What makes people unwilling to open their hearts and minds to the gospel?
What kind of leader will they welcome?
What are the characteristics and behavior that your congregation expects in a religious leader? Would that leader resemble Jesus, the guest at the feast, more or less than John the Baptist, the ascetic?
Why do you think people evaluate prophets and teachers by outward appearance and personal practices (“glutton and drunkard” and “has a demon”) more than by the heart of the message they preach?
What blocks you from opening your heart to the good news? When have you experienced those blocks being removed by grace, and your life transformed? When has that happened in the life of your congregation? What does it mean to have a soul truly at rest? When are those moments and times when God gives us a quiet space, a time of relief and rest?
For further reflection:
Nema Al-Araby, 21st century
“Make sure you don’t carry the burden of the whole world on your shoulders, just in case someone needed them to cry.”
François Fenelon, 17th century
“What then are we afraid of? Can we have too much of God? Is it a misfortune to be freed from the heavy yoke of the world, and to bear the light burden of Jesus Christ? Do we fear to be too happy, too much deliver from ourselves, from the caprices of pride, the violence of our passions, and the tyranny of this deceitful world?”
Rachel Held Evans, Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions, 21st century
“The yoke is hard because the teachings of Jesus are radical: enemy love, unconditional forgiveness, extreme generosity. The yoke is easy because it is accessible to all–the studied and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, the religious and the nonreligious.”
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, 21st century
“Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.”
Teresa of Avila, 16th century
“Love turns work into rest.”
Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 5th century
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
William Wordsworth, 19th century
“Rest and be thankful.”
Mark Buchanan, The Holy Wild: Trusting in the Character of God, 21st century
“Mindset of the man too busy: I am too busy BEING God to become LIKE God.”
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’
“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also” — let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’
“Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.”
And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
of the gates of their foes.”
Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.
Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
Hear, O daughter,
consider and incline your ear;
forget your people
and your parents’ house,
and the king will desire
Since he is your lord,
bow to him;
the people of Tyre will seek
your favor with gifts,
the richest of the people
with all kinds of wealth.
The princess is clothed
in her chamber
with gold-woven robes;
in many-colored robes
she is led to the king;
behind her the virgins,
With joy and gladness
they are led along
as they enter the palace
of the king.
In the place of ancestors you, O king,
shall have descendants;
you will make them nobles
in all the earth.
I will cause your name to be celebrated
in all generations;
therefore the peoples will praise you
forever and ever.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
God is gracious
slow to anger
in steadfast love.
God is good
and God’s compassion is over all
that God has made.
All your works shall give thanks
to you, O God,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory
of your dominion,
and tell of your power,
to make known
to all people
your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor
of your dominion.
Your reign is an everlasting reign,
and your dominion endures
throughout all generations.
God is faithful
in every word,
in every deed.
God upholds all
who are falling,
and raises up all
who are bowed down.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
[Jesus said:] “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places 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 indicated by her deeds.”
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
“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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”