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July 6, 2008
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Today’s New Testament lectionary readings are grounded in the interplay of ambivalence, confession, and grace. They invite us to embrace and affirm the totality of our lives as a means of discovering God’s vision. The passages from Genesis and the Psalms need to be handled with care by the preacher. Simplistic biblical interpretations of passages such as the quest for a wife for Isaac and royal marriage in Psalms are best avoided by preachers unless they can proclaim them in liberating, inclusive, and egalitarian ways.
Virtually every congregant can appreciate Paul’s description of his own, and presumably our own, experience. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do the thing I want, but the very thing I hate.” Each one of us is “legion” in the complexity of our experience and response to the events of our lives. While we might question the dualistic tendencies inherent in Paul’s language, he accurately describes the many forces that shape our experience from moment to moment. If, as Whitehead notes, the whole universe contributes to the emergence of each moment of experience, then in each moment we experience the impact of past experiences, both positive and negative, as well the impact of our moment by moment decisions.
The words of Romans 7 are a call to self-awareness or mindfulness. Grace is experienced not by the denial of the complexity of experience, but by radical acceptance of our lives as whole, including the movements toward health and wholeness. Each moment involves moving toward or away from God’s vision, or ideal, for the moment, and presents both God and ourselves with greater or lesser creative possibilities in the immediate future. Healing comes through embracing contrast in light of God’s lively movements of grace.
The words of Romans 7 are also a call to confession. Confession, in its most authentic forms, is not a litany of how depraved we are or, in contrast to Paul’s words in Romans 7, proclaiming our evil nature. The ability to confess at all implies a movement toward wholeness in our lives as well as the existence of an “original blessing” that is our deepest reality. We know we have “fallen short,” precisely because we cannot escape God’s eros toward healing, healthy self-affirmation, and care for others. To sing “just as I am,” as I once did at a Billy Graham revival is to claim both grace and ambivalence, and the good we have done and the wrong we have perpetuated, either by commission or omission.
Living with these words invites us to claim our whole experience realistically and, accordingly, discern the difference between appropriate and inappropriate guilt. How many times do pastors hear laypersons confess, “I shouldn’t feel this way” or “I feel guilty” for an act of simple self-affirmation or assertiveness? Accountability is essential for Christian growth, but Christians often focus minor issues to the neglect of truly important corporate and interpersonal problems.
Paul’s words join confession and affirmation, and ambivalence and grace. We can move from conflict to contrast, and shape a life of beauty embracing all our experience because God is seeking our salvation or wholeness in every moment of experience. To see the complexity of our lives in terms of contrasting colors or notes invites us to experience the divine artistry that “in all things works for good” and for beauty as the deepest reality of our lives. Then, with Paul, we can proclaim, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
In the context of the words of woe and judgment found in the gospel passage, Jesus promises God’s grace for the journey. God’s ultimate aim is healing, and not judgment. When we turn away from God’s wisdom, we experience alienation and woe. But, similar to Romans 7, grace is the final word. “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 in your souls.” We cannot avoid conflict and ambivalence, but Jesus promises peace, God’s shalom, for those who embrace his way of wisdom.
The Hebraic scriptures best be handled with care, should it be considered in today’s sermon. Genesis 24 continues the saga of the patriarchs and matriarchs. The quest for a spouse for Isaac describes a “marriage made in heaven.” Abraham’s servant is accompanied by an angel, who guides him to a synchronous encounter with Laban’s sister, Rebekah.
The story is a curious one which provides few points of contact with postmodern preachers and their congregations. Ironically, the narrative of the relationship of Rebekah and Isaac may best be used by the creative preacher as a way of exploring the radical distinction between today’s marriages and committed relationships and biblical marriage arrangements. This may be jarring to those who see our current committed relationships in all their wondrous diversity as a “fall” from some ancient and divinely ordained ideal. In the context of a lectio divina exercise, the perceptive pastor might ask her or his congregation to ponder what values are present in the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah and whether any contemporary Christian would really want such a “biblical marriage.”
In the wake of the recent California Supreme Court affirmation of same gender marriages and the quest for marriage equality in many of our denominations, today’s Christians need to reflect on the nature of committed relationships rather than adapting the patriarchal, polygamous, and heterosexual models of marriage, described in many of the biblical stories.
The perceptive, and courageous pastor, might ask her or his congregation, questions such as “What constitutes a truly committed relationship? What are the roles of partners in healthy committed relationships? Where have you experienced God in your own relationships? Is the church called to go beyond traditional heterosexual marriage in order to bless committed relationships in all their variety?”
Psalm 45 celebrates a royal marriage, but once more we need to question the idealization of biblical marriages in which counsel the bride to be, “bow down to him, for he is your lord.” These patriarchal images invite us to ponder and challenge any simplistic affirmation of “biblical family values” in the light of the affirmation of all persons as God’s beloved children, women and men, created in God’s rainbow-colored image.
In the context of courses in preaching, a seminarian is often asked “where is the gospel, or good news,” in their message? If we can find “gospel” in the Hebraic readings today, we might ponder the fidelity of Abraham’s servant in supporting Isaac’s quest for a loving relationship and the celebrative nature of the Psalm. Healthy committed relationships require the support, sacrifice, and celebrations of communities committed to enabling persons to live out their highest personal and relational values in every personal context.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.