I had the privilege of being with the good people of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Randolph, Nebraska on Saturday October 2nd and Sunday October 3rd. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from of a sermon that was based on Genesis 24:28-67, the appointed focus text for the congregation’s Sunday School curriculum from “Holy Moly.” The congregation has embarked on an experiment of using the Sunday School text and story as also the worship text for the same week. Thank you again to the whole congregation for the warm welcome and to Pastor Trudy Powell for the invitation.
Grace and peace from God in Christ, who is with you, for you, and who loves you. Amen.
Good evening/morning St. John’s! It’s great to be with you today. Thank you Pastor Trudy for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings from Bishop Brian Maas and from your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Kristen Van Stee, as well as from your 90,000+ siblings in Christ who with you, are the Nebraska Synod.
I’m excited to be with you and to spend some time dwelling in God’s story for us, as well as to wonder with you about where we might find ourselves now as part of God’s on-going story, and as disciples and stewards of God’s love today. I’m also grateful to be with you today, to share some about all that you do as part of God’s work in the world, and to be able to say thank you. So again, thank you for the invitation and welcome. Let’s dig in.
Setting the Scene of God’s Story for us
Now, our story picks up about a third of the way through Genesis chapter 24. We’re told that “Now Abraham was old,” but I think we already knew that. Sarah was so famously old when she laughed, like we remembered in last week’s story. Sarah and Abraham were old when Ishmael and Isaac came into the world. But here we are, a bit further into their lives. Abraham has nearly sacrificed Isaac years earlier, only to find God’s provision of a ram. And years later after this, we hear that Sarah has now died, and Abraham is only getting older. Yet he knows and believes God’s promises are true, especially those of the covenant that God made with him so many years before. Abraham is wealthy and has been provided for abundantly out of God’s deep and abundant love. But the part that has not quite come to pass yet, is the promise that God made to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars.
Isaac does not have a bride nor any children of his own. Thus, Abraham is short on grandkids if you will. And if you are a grandparent or are waiting to become one, or if you are a 20-40 something, you might well know the pressure that comes with extended families wanting newborns and the next generation. Add to this the fact that Abraham’s wife has died, and Isaac’s mom has died… I think we can all relate to that longing for love and family.
It’s not like Abraham is not trusting God, he is. He is doing exactly as what God has instructed. He sends his servant to go to the land of Abraham’s ancestors, to find Isaac a match just as he described. And that is where our story begins.
Digging into God’s Story for Us
As we dig into this, we should remember that contexts of the Biblical narrative and our own are different. It’s kind of like a cross-cultural experience to open up a story in Genesis. Where people like Abraham live to the age of 175. Where one has servants and slaves, and sends them across communities to other regions to go and invite back another’s daughter to be spouse to their own son. Welcoming Rebekah to be part of the family and part of the line of Abraham. There’s plenty that could and perhaps should be said about this. Thankfully, our world is different than this.
After meeting Rebekah, and receiving her gracious provision of water from the well for himself, his camels, and those with him, the servant knows that this is the one whom Abraham has described. Now the question is, what will Rebekah do?
The servant recounts his instructions from Abraham. He says, “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master… and Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has… My 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; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.” Now, whether or not the one whom he finds says yes, that will have no bearing on the servant. He has done his task. The decision will now rest with Rebekah’s father, family, and even surprisingly in such a patriarchal culture and society, her own self.
The sight and presence of Rebekah was quite literally the answer to Abraham’s longing, but even more so, literally the prayer that the servant was praying in his heart. Before he had even finished it, there she was. She provided the water, just as had been described. And the servant asked her, “Whose daughter are you?” To which she said “The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.” To this, the servant did something which most of us would understandably think is far too forward and presumptuous, but he put “a ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms.” I am hopeful that Rebekah was able to stand on her own two feet here, but in reading a story like this, it sure sounds like she wasn’t given much of a voice in the matter. Either way, the servant then fell down and worshiped God and gave thanks.
Laban, Rebekah’s brother, and Bethuel, her father, in hearing that this all “comes from the Lord,” declare that they can’t speak “bad or good,” and are convinced it seems without much argument, that Rebekah is to go to be the wife of Abraham’s son, Isaac. Gifts were exchanged, like in older customs dowries perhaps, but based on what was brought and gifted, this may have been well beyond normal customs.
Food was eaten. Beverages were enjoyed. And rest came. I imagine this would be a gathering of celebration. Though perhaps with a bit of mystery, anxiety, and even sadness for Rebekah. Morning came on the next day, and the servant wanted to be off with his caravan. Would Rebekah go with him? That was the question. It was up to her at this point.
Her father and brother asked her, “Will you go with this man?” To this she said simply, “I will.” So she was sent away, but not alone. Her nurse also joined her, as well as her maids. On her way she was given a blessing or benediction of sorts. “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” After journeying awhile, they came across Isaac in the field in the distance. At this, Rebekah placed the veil on her head, and perhaps with this act that goes back even further in time, we would have a wedding tradition in scripture that continues to this day. Our story ends for now at least, it seems with good news. Rebekah and Isaac are together, wife and husband. Love abounds. And the son who is still mourning the loss of his mother is comforted with a wife, Rebekah.
God’s Promises and Our Invitation
As we prayed before the scripture reading, Rebekah did trust God’s plan, completely. We know the rest of the story to come. Rebekah, after years of hardship when it came to pregnancy herself like was the case with her mother-in-law Sarah, would give birth to Jacob and Esau. To two people who would fight, and not often see eye to eye. Who would be fathers of great peoples themselves. And whose line of course would continue to Jesus. That story you’ll pick up next week. But for today, our story ends with Isaac and Rebekah together.
Rebekah didn’t know what to expect. Her act of following Abraham’s servant was an act of trust in him and more so, in God. It was an act of following a call and invitation. An act where one gives up a sense of control, and takes on trust that God is at work. It was a transition to be sure. A transition from her known family, community, relationships, way of life, and very being. To a new reality. A new chapter. A new role. New people to meet and be in relationship with. New expectations. There was no doubt great uncertainty in it. Great anxiety possibly too.
If we’re honest, transitions are hard. When you go through them- whether it be a move to a new place, welcoming a new family member or worse saying goodbye to a loved one, going to a new school or starting a new job… transitions can be exciting. But they can be scary. They can be fun, sad, and hard, all at the same time. Especially in not knowing or being sure of what might be coming next. Trust as you prepare to say good bye to your Pastor Trudy and as she continues to follow God’s call and prepares for her next chapter, that God is with you. And also that your synod staff is walking with you.
Now regarding transitions, I’m speaking from experience here, friends. You see my wife Allison, herself a pastor, and I, obviously a deacon, moved a week after we got married from the Seattle area to seminary in Minnesota. That was 11 years ago. For the last 5 years, we have been here in Nebraska living in a village of 65 people called Fontanelle north of Fremont. It’s been the good life in a lot of ways. But it hasn’t ever gone as expected, and we certainly couldn’t have predicted what God has had in store. Yet here I am. Your partner in ministry for Mission, Innovation and Stewardship and a part of the Nebraska Synod with you.
I’m so grateful for that, and for the opportunity to walk with God’s people amid the joys and challenges of life. That’s the same hope and gift that every leader and rostered minister of our church is so privileged to experience with congregations like you, and the 240+ others of our synod.
In answering God’s call and invitation in your own life- whether to ministry, to a new job, to a new chapter in life, or a new way of doing something or even to hold a new or different perspective than you once did, it’s is a risk. It takes trust and faith like Rebekah. Rebekah trusted God. And God was at work. God’s plan and work was being done in a context very different than our own today. But what is true in both- is that God is present. God is at work. God’s love is real. And God’s promises are true, for all of God’s beloved people.
That truth, is also a promise and invitation for you and for me. To be followers of the way. To grow as disciples. To live as generous stewards of all that God entrusts. To be bearers of God’s love, for all of God’s beloved. This is our work. It’s our response to all that God has done, promises to do, and will do, for us. May we be as bold and faithful as Rebekah.
God’s Work in you, through you, with you, and for you
God made a promise with Abraham, and that promise carried forth with Rebekah and Isaac. God remembered God’s promises with the people of Israel through Moses, and led them from slavery in Egypt, through forty years of wandering in the wilderness ultimately to the promised land. And God not only remembered all of this, but wanted to fulfill it through love and relationship through the incarnation, and birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus- our Lord and Savior.
All of this God did out of deep and abiding love- for you, for me, and for all of God’s beloved. This is God’s work. The saving work which turned a cross, a vehicle of death, into one of life. This is God’s work- of bringing and restoring relationships with one another and with God. This is God’s work too that we know through the sacraments. Through the water and the Word where God says, “I see you. I know you by name. I claim you. You are mine. Beloved child of God.” And through the bread and wine where God says, “I am for you.”
All of this, God does because God loves you. We could never earn or deserve this. This is God’s work, and it is pure gift and grace. Given freely. The only thing we can do when faced with such a loving gift, is say thank you with full joy and gratitude. To share our thanks and praise because we know that God is good and that God’s love is real.
Siblings in Christ, you know this. You live this. St. John’s Lutheran here in Randolph has long been a sign and presence of God in Christ’s love, welcome, inclusion, and reconciliation. If this weren’t the case, your congregation would not be gearing up for such a great celebration in a year and a half. Yes, in one and a half years your congregation will celebrate its 125th anniversary. Just think, at that point you’ll only be 50 years away from when Abraham died. No, but in all seriousness, what a great jubilee that will be.
A reminder of God’s promises and faithfulness to you and your forebears. A reminder that God’s Word and promises are true, and that God’s love holds all, bears all, and is for all. No ifs, ands, or buts.
I wonder, as you continue in the planning and discernment of such a great feast and celebration to come, what is it that God might have in store for that time and for the next 125 years here in Randolph? Whatever it is, it is surely part of God’s larger story and on-going work in the world which you are all a part of.
You’re each a part of God’s mission to share God’s love with your neighbors, and God’s beloved and beautiful yet also broken world. That’s a wonderful thing. You are each part of God’s mission too through being a disciple. By growing in faith through opening the Word, wondering about what God might be up to like Rebekah surely must have done, and gathering together as God’s people here. You are each a part of God’s mission through being a steward. By sharing all that God entrusts you with so that you might live abundantly, but also so that your neighbors might too, and that through you, some of God’s work might be done.
Gratitude for you and the difference you make
St. John’s you embody this, whether you know it or not. Your congregation’s story is a rich one. Of raising up leaders of the faith- pastors and parish ministry associates. Of helping shape new ministry leaders. Of supporting your neighbors near and far. I know this most clearly through your congregation’s on-going participation in mission share. Mission share is the undesignated offering that you share with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA through which you do ministry that spans the globe and literally changes lives.
Through your mission share you raise up new leaders, pastors, deacons, and parish ministry associates who walk with God’s people and point to God’s promises and presence. Through it, you help youth and young adults know of God’s deep love for them- in part through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry and Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Camp Carol Joy Holling. Through your mission share you support new and renewing ministries right here at home all across the Big Red State, including new efforts like the synod’s Vitality Initiative for Congregations, as well as by supporting missionaries around the globe who spread Jesus’ Good News. And through your mission share you not only see your neighbors in need, you meet them where they are at and help be Christ’s hands and feet today- through our many serving arm partners in ministry like Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, Mosaic, and Lutheran Family Services just to name a few.
There is so much more that you are a part of and that you make possible. On behalf of your siblings all across Nebraska and around the world, it is my great joy and honor to say, thank you! Thank you for your discipleship. Thank you for your stewardship and generosity. And thank you for literally being Christ’s hands and feet in the world- living signs that we are all part of the One Body in Christ together, bearers of God’s redeeming, reconciling, and welcoming love for one and all. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Putting it Altogether
God’s love is abundant and real. There is no shortage of it. It’s not limited to just a few. Abraham knew this, and so he sent his servant to another people in search of a partner for Isaac. Rebekah knew this, because she had trust to follow the call to leave the only people and community she had ever known. And I think you all do too- by the way you show welcome and concern for one another and for your neighbors near and far. Amid all the ups and downs; good, bad, and ugly of life; God’s love is real.
We have the joy and privilege of being able to give thanks and praise for it. And we also have the invitation through stories like today’s and through the call to love our neighbors and spread the good news in the gospels, to join with God in some of God’s work today, as part of our grateful and joyful response. Thank you for all that you do. Thank you for being signs of God’s love here in Randolph in so many ways as part of our whole church together- as we grow disciples, walk together, and serve God’s world. And most of all, thanks be God who makes it all possible and- who is for you, with you, and who loves you. Always. Amen.