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Family Stories


This is the season for family reunions. Perhaps your family has gathered this summer, or maybe there are plans for a gathering this year. In St. Louis a few weeks ago, the siblings of the Coleman family gathered to celebrate the 100th birthday of their sister, Ira Halbert, the eldest of eleven children, seven of whom are still living. The Coleman family made the news because their family set a new world record for the highest combined age of living siblings—as of August last year, it was 701 years and 302 days.[1] Life is worth of celebrating.


After our lives have been rearranged by a pandemic, we don’t take these gatherings for granted. Some families are still catching up on gatherings delayed by the pandemic, even funerals that were postponed for months and then years. Even long after a loved one has died, it is still a healing ritual to gather.


Anytime families get together, whether it’s a large reunion of extended family and distant relatives, or a small group around a dinner table, there will be stories. Maybe you have an uncle who tells terrific stories, or an aunt who keeps telling the same story over and over, or grandma who talks about when her children were babies, or a cousin who studied genealogy and knows the whole family tree and how everyone is related, or a great-uncle who can tell the stories from when your grandparents got married.


All of these stories of your ancestors tell you something about who you are, about where you’ve come from, about the people who helped you become who you are today. For good or ill, you’ve learned from your ancestors, whether their lives were worthy of emulating or whether you learned from their mistakes and chose different paths for yourself.


In a sense, every time we gather for worship, we’re getting the family together. And every time we open Scripture, we’re learning the stories of our distant ancestors, all of us connected in the family of God. There may be parts of Scripture that appear irrelevant, just boring lists of names and places. But these are our family stories. They tell us who we are as people of faith.


When we hear the stories of these distant ancestors, they come alive for us. We view them as young people with decisions to make, they are parents with kids to raise, they are faced with opportunities and challenging world events. Their choices changed the trajectory of history; it isn’t inevitable we would end up exactly here.


There are not a bunch of love stories in the Bible, but today we’ve heard one—Isaac and Rebekah. This is the story of how they met and fell in love, so that’s why the psalm response—those verses we chanted—in response to the Genesis story in the First Reading, came not from the book of psalms but from Song of Solomon (sometimes called Song of Songs). We don’t always chant the psalm during worship, but I just couldn’t skip it this week. Chanting a love song! “My beloved is like a gazelle!” If you’re ever writing a romantic love letter but you’re running low on inspiration, you really can search Song of Solomon and find some excellent poetry there.


So this summer, we’re tracing the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs in our faith, and today begins with Isaac, the son of—name his parents: Abraham and Sarah. Isaac is the one we heard about last week, who was bound and almost sacrificed by his own father. In today’s story, many years have passed, Isaac is forty years old, his mother has recently died, at age 127, and Abraham decides Isaac needs to get married and start a family. It’s a long story, and we didn’t even read the entire thing!


It’s kinda confusing and the story is repetitive but here’s the part that keeps getting repeated: Abraham has delegated his own servant to find a wife for Isaac. That’s a big job, and Abraham has some specific instructions: this wife must come from Abraham’s native land—remember, that’s the place Abraham left behind when he heard a call from God to get himself going to a new land that God would show him—neither Abraham nor Isaac would select this woman, only the servant, and if the lady refuses to leave with the servant to go to a faraway land to marry a man she never met (which is understandable, if you think about it), then the servant is released from this responsibility (which is good because otherwise this starts to sound like human trafficking). So the servant cannot kidnap a lady and bring her back to Isaac; the lady has to leave her home willingly.


Sounds like an impossible task, right? How is the servant supposed to even do this? Well, what the servant did was to pray—God, how am I supposed to know which lady in all this land? How about: the lady who is beautiful and comes to this well and gives me a drink and also offers to give water to my camels.


I don’t know a lot about drawing water from a well, but giving a drink of water to another person—seems polite, maybe it’s not that much work. But it’s a different story with camels. One camel can drink 20-30 gallons of water at a time, and Abraham’s servant—he isn’t traveling alone—has ten camels![2] So a beautiful lady who is also generous and exceptionally strong…and who will accept the gifts from the servant and who will willingly leave her home.


Like an answer to prayer, Rebekah is all of these things. Her father and brother also agree that Rebekah should embark upon this adventure to marry an unseen man in another land—who’s a distant relative also, even though they don’t really know each other. Seems important that a few people should agree this is a good idea—this is discernment.


This involves a lot of trusting: trusting people and their stories, and also trusting God to guide these people. Trust is not a given, and part of what develops trust is telling a consistent story. That’s what this servant does—keeps telling the same story, about his master Abraham and this quest to find a wife for Isaac and how God has guided the servant here and keeps answering the servant’s prayers.


These people didn’t know the story—they were living it, with their reasonable questions and doubts and fears. They’re not enslaved or forced to act in a certain way, they have choices to make, and they make their choices in freedom—significant especially for a woman to get her own voice and her own decision-making power.


Also they aren’t making these choices from an unquestioning obedience to God nor primarily from a sense of duty or loyalty to God. Their choices don’t lead them to dread but to joy.


Rebekah left her family and traveled with Abraham’s servant and his other servants, and when Rebekah first saw Isaac, she was so impressed, she fell off her camel![3] Then she asked who’s that?! And found out he’s the guy she’s to marry. And Isaac loved Rebekah too. And they married and had kids and they became part of our family of faith, full of stories of faithfulness.


We keep telling these stories to remember who we are and to remember who God is—a God who provides, who invites people into action that leads to joy. God is not a puppet, just giving people whatever they ask for, as Jesus so eloquently described: “We played the flute and you didn’t dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” like children complaining “we invited you to play and you wouldn’t play how we wanted you to play!” Or adults constantly judging each other’s actions, always suspicious: John the Baptist fasted in the desert, must be the work of a demon; Jesus shows up eating, and look at this glutton and drunkard. How’s an honest God supposed to win?


I don’t think winning is the most important thing, as far as God is concerned. Jesus didn’t call his disciples to “win souls” but to “follow me.” Come to me, Jesus said—I see your burdens, I sense your weariness, and let me give you rest. Let us build a relationship on a foundation of trust, not transactions.


That’s how God works. God’s not out there making tally marks of good deeds but delighting in relationship with you, and all the rest of the family. Tell the stories and learn the stories of your ancestors, the choices they faced and what they did. It’s okay to ask questions and wonder about your ancestors—we don’t have to agree with all the decisions they made. It’s all part of a holy conversation. What we’re learning is how to seek God’s will, how to discern God’s call, how to faithfully get yourself going in the direction God calls you.


So if you’re wondering why, during this summer, why are we reading all these old, old stories from Genesis—we’re learning the history of our family of faith, and tracing the ways God has built relationship with humanity. You will find your place in this history, too, because it belongs to you!


Amen.

Pastor Cheryl

[1] Aisha Sultan, St. Louis siblings set world record for highest combined age, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday, June 25, 2023. [2] This factoid was found in an article by Kathryn Schifferdecker: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-14/commentary-on-genesis-2434-38-42-49-58-67-4 [3] Highlighted in Kathryn Schifferdecker’s article also.


 



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A wonderful sermon. Yes, family - immediate to distant - is what ties us together and eventually joins the cord of other families. We are because of them. The sermon is a reminder of how important our heritage family and our Christian family are to each of us.

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