Sunday, July 4, 2021 – Pastor Beckie Sweet
Genesis 24 (selected verses)
From Eugene Peterson’s expression of the scripture, titled The Message, we hear a small portion of the story of Rebekah’s journey to a new land and a new family. These selected verses of the story come from the 24th chapter of Genesis. Prior to the beginning of today’s reading, Abraham, who had followed God’s lead to live in a foreign land, decided that before he died, he needed to find a wife for his son, Isaac, from among his own kin. Abraham equips a servant with provisions and gifts, and sends him off to the city of Nahor. On the outskirts of the city, the servant stops at a spring to water the camels, and prays to God for things to go smoothly.
When the words of that prayer were barely out of the servant’s mouth, Rebekah arrives to draw water at the spring. She generously draws water for the man and all of the camels, after which, the servant presents Rebekah with the gifts, in hopes that she will agree to be Isaac’s wife. This account begins with the servant explaining to Rebekah’s family why he has come to Nahor.
The servant said, “I am the servant of Abraham. God has blessed my master — he’s a great man; God has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, servants and maidservants, camels and donkeys. And then to top it off, Sarah, my master’s wife, gave him a son in her old age and he has passed everything on to his son. My master made me a promise, ‘Don’t get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose land I live. No, go to my father’s home, back to my family, and get a wife for my son there.’ I said to my master, ‘But what if the woman won’t come with me?’ He said, ‘God, before whom I’ve walked faithfully, will send an angel with you and the angel will make things work out so that you’ll bring back a wife for my son from my family, from the house of my father. . . .
The servant goes on to recount the story of his arrival at the spring and God’s answer to prayer by sending Rebekah. He also reports that he asked of Rebekah’s family line, and when, upon learning that Rebekah was a member of Abraham’s extended family, asks if she will become Isaac’s wife. After hearing the story, Rebekah’s family wants to hear of her decision directly.
They called Rebekah and asked her, “Do you want to go with this man?” She said, “I am ready to go.” So they sent them off, their sister Rebekah with her nurse, and Abraham’s servant with his men. And they blessed Rebekah saying, “You’re our sister — live bountifully! And your children, triumphantly!”
Rebekah and her young maids mounted the camels and followed the man. The servant took Rebekah and set off for home.
One of Jesus’ most familiar promises to us is found in Matthew’s 11th chapter, in verses 28-30. I will read this first from the New Revised Standard Version and then from Peterson’s The Message.
[Jesus said,] “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 of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
[Jesus said,] “Are you tired? Worn out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God!
“Children, Go Where I Send Thee”
When was the last time you heard, or thought about an arranged marriage? Honestly, the only time I think about arranged marriages is when I watch “Fiddler on the Roof”! But recently, I heard a report about arranged marriages on NPR news. The reporter was comparing the “success rate” of arranged marriages in less advanced countries with the “success rate” of marriages in the United States and other countries where people are allowed more choice in following the longings of their hearts. “Success” was measured by lack of divorce, or, in the case of the death of one partner, a second marriage with longevity of 30 years or more. According to the statistics reported, arranged marriages in the past 60 years are 62% more likely to succeed than non-arranged marriages!! Does that surprise you? Yes, that surprised me, too!
This morning’s Old Testament reading is a classic example of a God-led arranged marriage. For, as the scripture story tells us, an angel of the Lord led Abraham’s servant to the homeland of Mesopotamia in search of a wife for Isaac. That angel led Abraham’s servant right to the spring outside of the city of Nahor, where the servant stopped for rest, refreshment, and time to pray, — seeking guidance for finding a suitable and willing spouse for the master’s son. The servant had hardly finished his prayer when Rebekah arrived on the scene, offered hospitality to the stranger AND his camels, and was thus identified as God’s choice for Isaac’s bride. This is a wonderful story! I encourage you to read the entire 24th chapter of Genesis to capture all of the details!
This amazing story conveys to us God’s abiding interest in OUR personal lives – in every one’s personal life. God understands our needs and desires and wants to guide us to abundant living. In this story, as well as in the stories of our own lives, we see that God knows our needs before we are able to articulate them ourselves. And God is there to offer guidance, counsel, and strength for the journey, when we open ourselves to that divine inspiration.
I was drawn to this story today, not only because it involves Rebekah, with whom I have an obvious connection, but also because it conveys the important truths concerning Christian discipleship, and pastoral ministry in particular. Like Rebekah of old, I, as a UM pastor, have been led by God to go into a foreign land, adopt a new family, and make a new life, trusting that God has great plans for that life and ministry in this new place. Typically, this type of God-led marriage of congregation and pastor takes place in the midst of an appointment change initiated by the bishop. But there were times when God has spoken to me directly (rather than through the bishop), and led me on a new path for ministry and disciple-making, such as when I served as Program Director at Sky Lake Camp and Retreat Center.
As I reflected on this passage about God’s guidance in arranging the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, I began to realize how similar that was to the United Methodist itinerant system!! The way in which pastors are deployed to the churches within the Upper New York Conference is the closest thing we have to an arranged marriage! John Wesley first modeled this system as the Methodist Church was being birthed in order to send trained leadership to the centers of gathered worshipers (often class meetings in those days), offering that leadership as the need for pastoral services became evident. It was a way of sharing the responsibilities of pastoral leadership within the connection of those early Methodists.
As churches of various sizes were developed in England and the young United States, it became clear that some churches were of the size that warranted a pastor’s full attention, while others could function effectively under lay leadership, with the occasional presence of a pastor for the more priestly duties. Hence, the “Circuit Rider” was deployed. As regional Conferences were organized under the leadership of bishops, the practice was adopted of bishops appointing pastors to serve in specific areas for short periods of time in order for the pastor to share their gifts in a specific area before being moved to another area in need of those gifts. That is the itinerant system. And that is the system in which each ordained clergyperson in the UMC covenants to participate.
Pastors, trusting in God’s desire to be personally involved in their lives and ministries, as well as the ministries of each unique local church, are willing to leave behind the familiar, and begin a new partnership of Christ’s service. Just two short weeks ago, you said farewell to Pastor Teressa, who had led you for the past three years. And now, you have welcomed me into your midst. Yes, another Rebekah. Because I trust God’s leading, I am ready to begin a new earthly assignment with a heavenly mission, maintaining the covenant of an itinerant ministry established with my ordination. I have chosen to follow the call of God to move to a less familiar community (a foreign land), ready to become a part of new families, eager to share in making disciples of Jesus Christ. And I hope we are all excited and trusting as we see how God’s plan will be revealed in and through partnership ministries.
These “marriages” of pastor and congregation may have been “arranged,” but, speaking for myself, I am honored to shepherd this flock of God’s faithful ones.
In the words of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Come unto 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.”
While this transition from one spiritual leader to a new, yet-to-be-loved pastor may seem like a burden, be assured that Christ bears this with us, to lighten the load with the joy of new adventures in ministry and the opportunity to enhance and enlarge the Christian family of the St. Paul’s U.M.C.
May God’s work in and through the ministries of this congregation be a blessing for all who receive Christ’s loving care offered through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. Amen.