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Isaac’s servant tying the bracelet on Rebecca’s arm by Benjamin West c. 1775

July 5, 2020 is Pentecost 5A, Proper 9A, Ordinary 14A

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 – Isaac’s servant meets Rebekah at the well/spring, and takes her back to meet, and marry Isaac.
Zechariah 9:9-12 – 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.

Psalm 45:10-17 – For the Director of Music, a wedding song. Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention: Forget your people and your father’s house. Let the king be enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for he is your lord… In embroidered garments she is led to the king; her virgin companions follow her—those brought to be with her. Led in with joy and gladness, they enter the palace of the king.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13  – My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, 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 turtledove is heard in our land.

Psalm 145:8-14 – The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

Romans 7:15-25a – I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 – REPENTANCE AND COMFORT. 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 vindicated by her deeds.’

Prayer of the Day
You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Blessed are you, Lord of | heav’n and earth;
you have revealed these | things to infants. Alleluia. (Matt. 11:25)

Zechariah – Prisoners of Hope

I simply can’t resist these exilic texts these days. So much of the pandemic feels like a kind of exile. So this first part of the post is dedicated to the Zechariah reading. And yet I also am drawn to the Rebekah passage from Genesis 24. Since this is the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in our church, I have been reading about women of the Bible, and working on intentionally lifting up their voices in my sermons. Then in Romans 7 Paul struggles with the battle going on inside of him. The good I want to do, I cannot seem to do. And the evil I don’t want to do I find myself doing… And finally there is the Matthew text where Jesus is taking heat from the religious leaders. So let us dive in…

The last two weeks, one of our options for the Old Testament reading has been Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a Southern Kingdom (Judah) prophet who announced the coming invasion of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the Babylonian Exile. Later, he announced that after several generations, Jerusalem’s people would be freed from slavery in Babylon and allow to return home and rebuild the city. His life may have spanned 650-570- BC and his ministry from 626 (the thirteenth year of King Josiah) to shortly after the fall of Jerusalem (587 BC).

One of the options for this coming Sunday’s Old Testament reading is Zechariah 9:9-12. Zechariah’s prophecies took place during the reign of the Persian King Darius (522-486 BC). Babylon (Iraq) had conquered Judah in 587 BC, but in 539 BC Persia (Iran), under the leadership of King Cyrus, conquered Babylon. There’s always a bigger fish.

Cyrus the Great ruled Persia from 559-530 BCE. The Hebrew Bible calls him “King of Kings” and God’s messiah (Isaiah 45:1) because he allowed those captive in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. This Edict of Cyrus is mentioned three times in the Hebrew Bible (2 Chron. 36:22-23; Ezra chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, 6; and Isaiah 44:28, 45:1, 13) . The only physical evidence of this is the Cyrus Cylinder, discovered in 1879, that dates to 539 BC. In Akkadian cuneiform script, it praises and gives the genealogy of Cyrus, King of Kings, who reigns over the first massive empire in history. The cylinder announces the repatriation of deported peoples and the restoration of cult sanctuaries. There is no mention of Judah or Jerusalem, however. Only Mesopotamian people.

Pastor Don Carlson, who researched some of this post, fills in some information for us: Cyrus died a few years after conquering Babylon and was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who ruled for 8 years. Cambyses II was succeeded by his brother, Bardia, who only ruled for several months, and then was succeeded by Darius I, who ruled from 522-486 BCE. Darius was on the throne of Persia during the time of Zechariah. (1:1)

If Zechariah’s prophecies begin in 520 BC, during the second year of King Darius, this is 100 years after Jeremiah, and close to 20 years after Cyrus told the people they could return to Jerusalem.  Many of the people have yet to leave Babylon.

After much apocalyptic visioning in Zechariah 1-8 (apocalyptic literature may be of Babylonian influence), there is encouragement in 9-14 to “Return to your stronghold (Jerusalem) you prisoners of hope.”

9Rejoice 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. 10He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse 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. 11As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

After years of kings that fell short of the mark, there is a post-exilic yearning for a new kind of king. This king will not show up on a war horse, but on a humble donkey, a sign of peace. He will draw back the military machinery of the day, chariots and bows, and “command peace to all nations.” There is a clear yearning for peace and stability. Perhaps Cyrus gave them a taste for this.

It is natural that Christian interpreters saw in Jesus the fulfillment of this messianic hope. In fact, it’s hard to find Christian interpretations of this text without reference to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey Palm Sunday. For followers of Christ, Jesus is that Prince of Peace foretold by the prophets, even if the church has been negligent in living fully into Jesus’ way of the cross.

Today if we consider this pandemic our exile, we are not yet ready to return to life as it was, as if nothing happened. In fact, when we do return, we are likely to find our “stronghold” somewhat changed. Life after the exile will be different than before. Many would yearn for this to be so. Life before exile was less than perfect. What have we learned in exile?

We are, in many ways, imprisoned by this virus. We are also imprisoned by our history of racism which is alive and well in our culture, our society and its laws. We are inconvenienced by having to wear masks to protect others, and by having to avoid crowds where the virus can spread to hundreds rather than a few. Even more, those who are on the lower end of the economic ladder are suffering the most. Wage earners must work, or they don’t get paid. In July the eviction moratorium comes to an end as well as many federal unemployment benefits. The poor are heading toward a cliff.

Zechariah would encourage us, who are still in many ways imprisoned by this, to have hope. We are prisoners of hope. The difficulties of this time will give way to a future with hope, to borrow from Jeremiah. Let us pray for an awakening that leads to new horizons, new awareness and new policies by the Cyruses of our day.

Genesis 24: Rebekah

About half way through Genesis we learn about Rebekah. This year I have been reading books on women of the Bible. Emerging from patriarchal cultures, the Bible focuses on the stories of men, as the politicians, religious leaders and principal actors in written history. According to Alice Connor, author of Fierce: Women of the Bible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation, 170 of 3000 names that appear in the Bible, about 5.6% are women. Calculating duplication, 137 of 1700 distinct personal names are women. Around 8%. 93 of these women have spoken words recorded, of which 49 are named. All women were under the authority of a man, except the zonah, usually a prostitute, dangerous and threatening for her freedom, and yet alluring.

Rebekah appears in Genesis chapters 24-27. The Revised Common Lectionary only gives us two readings from this section of Genesis: This Sunday Pentecost 5A and the following Sunday, Pentecost 6A (Genesis 25:19-34). We will not hear about Rebekah in the RCL again until three years from now.

Rebekah appears as a wife for Isaac, a 40-year-old bachelor. Abraham sent a servant to his hometown of Haran to find him a good hometown wife, because that’s how you did it back in the day. Here is our text. To avoid a long reading, we get selections from Genesis 24, still an exceptionally long reading. Since we don’t have canon law, the preacher may choose an even further redacted portion, but if preaching this text, it would be wise to prepare by reading all of chapters 24-27. Here is this coming Sunday’s text:

So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. 35The 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. 36And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. 37My 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; 38but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son…’

  42I 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! 43I 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,” 44and 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.45Before 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.’ 46She 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. 47Then 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.48Then I bowed my head and worshiped 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.49Now 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…”

58And they called Rebekah, and said to her, Will you go with this man?” She said, I will.” 59So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60And 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.” 61Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.

62Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. 63Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming.64And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, 65and 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. 66And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done.67Then 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.

In Preaching Women of the Old Testament: Who They Were and Why They Matter, Lynn Japinga summarizes what we learn about Rebekah in Genesis 24-27: She is Isaac’s wife. She is barren. She has a difficult pregnancy. She engineers the sale of Esau’s birthright and Jacob’s blessing from his blind father.

The bulk of today’s text is about a servant named Eliezer of Damascus, going to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer decides the right person will be the one at the well (where so many matches are made in the Bible) who, when he asks for water, also offers to water his camels. Along comes Rebekah, who indeed offers to water the camels. Eliezer gives her expensive bracelets and a nose ring, which she shows to her mother. The family invites Eliezer over for dinner and it is decided that Rebekah will go with him and marry Isaac. Does she have any agency in this decision? We don’t know.

What we do know is that Rebekah travelled 500 miles to marry a stranger. Isaac “took her into his tent and loved her.” Japinga points out the text does not tell us if she loved him. He was comforted in the death of his mother. She had trouble conceiving, but after Isaac prayed, she conceived. She then had a difficult pregnancy. She complained to God, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” The two children in her, God explained, were two nations that would be at enmity with each other. When the twins were born, they vied for first place. Esau won, emerging from the womb first, but Isaac had Esau by the heel, as if trying to pull him back into the womb, and into second place.

Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob. In later chapters we will see how this plays out.

Preaching this text, one might ask how people decide to marry the person they marry? Are camels involved? Wells? How are big life decisions made? Do we listen to trusted voices? Is prayer involved?

Whether she chose to travel 500 miles to marry a stranger, or whether the men in her family made this decision, she was clearly a strong woman, who endured a difficult pregnancy and difficult decisions with her sons.

The Tomb of Rebekah 1

Genesis 49:29-33 tells us she was buried in a cave at Machpelah, near Mamre, in the land of Canaan, a plot of land Abraham bought as a burial site. I visited this grave in Hebron, West Bank, now known as the Cave of the Patriarchs (or the Sanctuary of Abraham among Muslims). There is a mosque over the cave. There Rebekah rests from her labors, along with Sarah and Abraham, Isaac her husband and Jacob and Leah.

Romans 7 – I don’t understand myself

At camp we used to call this “the do-do passage.”

15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but 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. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Paul uses the word “do” sixteen times in this short passage (though in his Greek prose he alternates between three different words which we translate “do:” κατεργάζομαι, πράσσω and ποιέω.)

Paul has evaluated Roman religion and Jewish religion and found them wanting. He has made it clear that the minimal standards of the law will not get humanity where it needs to go. There are simply too many loopholes. He encourages his listeners to be bound by what he calls “the law of Christ,” and be led by the Spirit, not by the flesh. These two are at war with each other. Those who are led by the Spirit are no longer under Torah (Galatians 6:2). James Tabor in Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, says only those led by the Spirit are no longer under the law. Those led by the flesh probably still need it. He says the law of Christ is not a set of rules, but rather for Paul may be synonymous with walking with the Spirit.

The flesh and spirit contend daily. Herein lies the dilemma. You may be living in the spirit, but life in the body continues. This is our existential situation. We may want to do good, but for some reason we cannot get there. Paul finds this exasperating. “I do not understand myself!” he cries. In fact, when he tries to do good, evil lies particularly close at hand. One is reminded of God’s words to Cain in Genesis 4:7:  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.

Paul admits he is a slave to sin in his flesh, even if his mind is a slave to God. There is no solution to this, except for shedding this mortal flesh at the resurrection. Meanwhile, we are left to resist sin.

Sin is defined, as we said above, as being turned in upon ourselves. Self-centeredness, as opposed to being centered on God and neighbor, is our malady. In Romans 7, Paul describes his humanity in a way that people really hang onto: I want to do good, but I can’t. And the bad stuff I don’t want to do, I find myself doing.

…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.

Paul describes what we all experience. I want to be generous, but somewhere within me, greed rises up. I want to say “no” to sin, but urges arise within my flesh that I cannot seem to quell. It is as if there is spiritual warfare going on inside of me. The law is of no use in dealing with this problem. It is powerless. The only thing that seems to have any effect is faith in Christ, being bound up in the love of Christ.

Putting our faith in Christ, following in the footsteps of the one who lived in love of God and neighbor, stranger and enemy – this is my only hope. Paul addresses the self-centeredness of nationalism, militarism, greed and corporate sin with the antidotes of faith, hope and love. If we think a religion of laws will get us where we need to go, we are sorely mistaken. Who will deliver us from this body of death? Only faith in Christ and the faith of Christ.

Matthew – What do you people want?

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 vindicated by her deeds.”

What do we hear in Jesus’ words? Maybe something akin to this,

You people are liking whining children. The Baptist came and his bed was too hard for you. The Son of Man comes and his bed’s too soft. John fasted and you didn’t like him. I don’t, and you’re giving me grief. Now tell me, in your fairy tale religious world, what vision of the kingdom will be just right for you? What are you looking for, anyway? What exactly do you want from God?

We piped for you, but you would not dance.

John came as an ascetic, and he was rejected by the religious leaders. Then, along came Jesus, who bent the rules, ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners. Him, they called a glutton and a drunkard. You can’t win.

The Fourth of July weekend, there will be – whether spoken or not – the hope that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “God Bless America” will somehow work their way into the service. Rather than avoid it, I think the texts are an opportunity to address those latent apocalyptic hopes and dreams head on.

Without getting into the “under God,” pledge debate, or the, “Should we have ‘In God We Trust’ on our currency?” debate, consider that almost everyone – nations included – trusts in God. The real question is, “In what kind of god do you trust?”

The Taliban believes they live life “under God.” The Sunnis and the Shiites – the Israelis and the Palestinians – everyone intones the name of God. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the leaders in Iran, both Cortez and Montezuma, the Christian crusaders that “killed Turks for Jesus,” Reverend Phelps who proclaimed that “God Hates Fags”, both George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull, the anti-abortionist who murdered a doctor because life is sacred – the list could go on and on, but all trusted or trust in their god.

No matter what the currency says, everyone says “In God We Trust.” Almost every person believes that they are “under God” and every nation believes that they are the “one nation under God”.  But the real issue is: In what god do you put your trust? And: What do you trust God to do? It’s not necessarily even about which god; it’s about what kind of god. Different views of the same God have different kinds of agendas – different kinds of “royal agendas”.  The question for us is, “Is the God we have in mind in sync with the mind of Christ?” In Jesus we meet a humble and compassionate king on a donkey who challenges the royal ways of the world.

The possibility of compassion is basic to the heart of God. But the possibility of compassion is precisely what the royal wants to eradicate. Compassion is the ability and willingness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel. It is the enemy of the royal life. Royal economics is designed to keep people satisfied so that they do not notice. Royal politics is intended to block out the cries of the denied ones. Royal religion is to be an opiate so that no one discerns the misery that is alive in the heart of God. ~ [Quote source unknown.]

These are weighty words to consider as we struggle with this pandemic and with the racial disparities in the US, especially as it impacts the poorest among us.

Personal, ecclesiastical, and nationalistic incurvatus in se (being turned in upon ourselves) is what these texts address. It is “the kingdom of heaven” against the “royal agendas” of the world; agendas in which we are all entangled and complicit. What’s our agenda? Ought we be the center of the world?

Humanity used to believe that our world was the center of the universe; that everything revolved around us.  Maybe, despite all our scientific knowledge, we have not come all that far. What is our hope? Who is our hope?