Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Who works for us?

So he said, "I am Abraham's servant." 
(Genesis 24:34, NRSV)

As Revised Common Lectionary preachers continue to work through the multi-generational family history of Genesis, this week we meet an unnamed servant of Abraham who is tasked with a dynasty-making errand, to find a bride for Isaac. I’ve read this story many times, and my reflections on it in the past were more familial and less political. We can see the fairy tale element in it. The “right” young woman is at the well, and in the end, she will marry a man who loves her and who, though not a literal prince, is the heir to our faith heritage. And they lived happily ever after… (until next Sunday). I am also influenced by my friend and colleague the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney‘s reading of the story in Womanist Midrash, particularly her description of Rebekah’s strong character nurtured in a matrilineal culture. Her family sends her with Abraham’s servant only after she consents to go. (v. 58)

We find systems of social status in this long ago story that still exist. The meeting at the well with Rebekah is told twice, once as it happens and then in this retelling by the servant. The segments of chapter 24 chosen by the lectionary minimize Rebekah’s experience and focus instead on a negotiation promoting the profile of the father of the potential groom by highlighting his wealth. The rich man’s son doesn’t have to travel and be put at risk. A servant will bargain for his bride.

Isaac is a son of privilege.

Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing protests against racial injustice point us toward interrogating privilege, both Isaac’s and ours. Who works for us? Whose work supports us and our way of living? Who goes out into the world and risks life and health so that we have what we want? This angle will feel different if you have essential workers in your congregation. They are like the servant who travels to get what his master wants. 

Next week this system of privilege will come to us again in the struggle between Jacob and Esau. I am having a staycation and won’t be writing text reflections for July 12, but I encourage you to read those texts, too, with our current times in mind. The struggle between the two brothers is the same conflict at the root of our sin of racism. Where there is jealousy and competition there is a fear that there will not be enough to go around and a belief that we must win at all costs. This theology of scarcity fuels White Supremacy. We are all captive to it until we are all free from it. 

Genesis 22:1-14, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Testing

After these things God tested Abraham.
(Genesis 22:1a, NRSV)

Let me tell you some of the ways I have approached the story of the binding of Isaac. I have triangulated with the congregation against the text. I have rejected the notion of tests from God. I have preached it as a horror story, identifying with Isaac, not quite sure whether the villain should be Abraham for saying yes or God for demanding this sacrifice. 

The story makes me uneasy, but so do my previous attempts to interpret it. I continue to react against the idea that God would test Abraham this way, even if God planned to disrupt the events with a ram in the thicket. This demand from God is a violent swerve away from the path set out for Abraham and his descendants. How can they be like stars in the sky if his son will be sacrificed? (And why allow Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away if this was going to happen?)

If I were preaching this week, I would name the discomfort of the story and try to bring the listeners into sympathy with Abraham’s position if not his decision. Think how we might struggle if asked to do something that not only went against our hopes for the future but upended our understandings of, and with, God. 

Look how we are struggling right now.

The brief text from the gospel this week concludes the instructions of Jesus to the disciples as he sends them out to represent him. He has warned them that they will not be universally well-received, that his message will set family members against one another, that they must lose their lives in order to find them. They are bringing a counter-cultural message, and we can’t help but remember that the reward most prophets receive is persecution, not popularity. 

The test before us is multi-layered. It goes against our hopes for the future and our past understandings of who God wants us to be. We cannot count on our usual practices to carry us through a time of grief and uncertainty. We’re reconfiguring, adapting, and reinventing. We cannot rest on our comfortable assumptions that politics and the church have nothing to do with each other. We are learning what our power is, and what it is not, and also where it may be used for God’s good purposes and where it has been used in the past against that purpose. We must examine the texts (see Romans) handed down to us and interrogate our use of words that do not mean the same thing today — or the same thing to everyone who hears them. 

The test the church is facing in our time is like the test God set for Abraham. It is like the test Jesus set for the disciples. Are we willing to risk our lives and our legacy to be faithful to God? 

The answer must lie not solely in our personal piety but in our collective commitments. 

Reflectionary

Whose side is God on?

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?
Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 
(Matthew 10:29)

Last week, in my home town in Virginia, protestors pulled down the statues on a Confederate monument just a few blocks from my childhood home. Chris Green, a Black man, tried to keep others safe; he suffered a terrible head injury when a statue fell on him, and he is in a coma. In Philadelphia, in my new home state, Dominique Rem’mie Fells, a Black transgender woman, was horribly murdered. In Palmdale, California, a young Black man, Robert Fuller was found hanged in a public square, and I cannot believe it was anything but lynching. I’m sitting with these stories and more like them and asking myself one question as I hold them alongside the scripture texts for this week:

Whose side is God on?

On Twitter this week, my friend and co-author Rachel Hackenberg offered this.

That’s a very apt and uncomfortable take on the Genesis passage for this week. It’s too easy to say God had a plan for Hagar and dismiss the desires of Sarah and the complicity of Abraham as they cast out the mother of Abraham’s first-born son. We have probably heard many different ways to understand what happens to Hagar, but in this moment, we need to stretch ourselves not just to empathize with her position but to understand where we are in the narrative. 

Who do we align with when we read this story? 

I’m particularly taken this week with the psalm read alongside Hagar’s story and the words of Jesus.

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
    for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
    save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
    for to you do I cry all day long.
(Psalm 86:1-3)

We want the psalms to be about us. When we read the lament of a person who is oppressed, we look for the ways our stories connect, and we ask for God’s help in their words. If they are in danger, we must be, too. If they are needy, and God helps them, won’t God help us? 

We read Jesus’ words about the sparrows and take comfort because we deploy the gospel words in a manner that serves us. He is warning his followers of persecution to come and division from their friends and families because they believe in him. 

This is a crucial moment for the church. If your congregation is like the ones I’ve served, there is a high level of resistance to seeing ourselves as the persecutors, the powerful, or the privileged. We don’t want to think of ourselves as the ones who are causing harm and bringing sorrow. We don’t want to see ourselves as the ones who injure the helpless and do violence to the vulnerable. When those thoughts cross our minds, we react defensively and shut down, or we close them off and pack them away, or we wallow in them, paralyzed by the guilt we feel.

It’s time for us to repent of the compartmentalizing and the navel-gazing. It’s past time.

When we know whose side God is on, when we can admit it to ourselves, we will be changed.

We can’t honor God by telling the old stories the way we always knew them. Those interpretations are not just outdated but untrue. It’s time to write a new story with our lives. It’s past time to write a new story with actions that glorify God’s holy name.