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. 

Liturgy, Prayer

The wrong we have done

All-knowing God,

We do not want you to know what we do.

When we say we do what we hate
what we mean is this:
we do exactly what we want
and we expect that no one will know,
or no one will stop us. 

The good we want is hard,
or it is painful,
or it requires discipline or honesty
or self-reflection,
and we do not do it.

The evil we do is easy
or attractive
or tempting
or so commonplace
it can be hard to believe it is wrong.

Help us to look at ourselves and see
how things really are,
not the fairy tale versions who do no wrong,
but our actual selves, 
in all our brokenness.

Help us to take an honest look
and not despair
or resort to defensiveness.

Help us to face the wrong we have done,
and the things our ancestors have done
and left undone before us.

From our stories and yours
help us to learn a better way,
to begin to live in wholeness
as the people you made us to be. We ask it in the holy name of Jesus. Amen. 

I wrote this prayer in response to Romans 7:15-25a. You’re welcome to use it, or the image below, in any way that would be useful this week.

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


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.