The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 9
5th Sunday After Pentecost
9 July 2017
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
There is an interesting tension this weekend, between our celebrations of our independence as a nation this past Tuesday, and our readings, which remind us that while we may be characterized by our fierce independence, by our personal autonomy, self-sufficiency, and our ability to make it on our own, we are also characterized by the interdependence that leaves us vulnerable, yearning for intimacy, for relationship, and for understanding as relational beings created in the image of our relational God.
In our first reading, we are drawn into the space of navigating relationships, as Abraham’s oldest servant seeks a wife for Isaac. Filling in some of the gaps we skipped in the text today, the servant was sent by Abraham under an oath to find a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s own people rather than from his Canaanite neighbors. The servant voices his concern both about finding the right person and about her willingness to come back with him, but Abraham assures him that God will lead him to the right person. Abraham concedes that if she refuses to go with him, he is free of the oath he has sworn to Abraham. He goes to the land of Abraham’s brother, and upon coming to the well at the hour when the city’s young women come out to draw water for the evening, he asks God for a sign, to confirm God’s blessing by the generous hospitality of the girl God had chosen for Isaac. Rebecca is said to be very fair to look upon, and with the uncertainty, anticipation, prayer, and hope with which many of us have approached strangers with whom we hope to enter into relationship, Abraham’s servant entreats her for a drink, which she answers with the generous hospitality that the servant has prayed for. Confident that God has brought him to the one he has been sent to find, he adorns her with gifts and asks her if there is room in her household for him to stay the night. Again she greets his request with generous hospitality, and she rushes home to tell her family what has happened. Seeing the gifts and hearing his sister’s story, Laban, rushes back to the well to greet his uncle’s servant and welcomes him into his father’s household. The servant joyously recounts the circumstances that have brought him to Rebecca, the blessing he perceives from God in their meeting, and asks to know if Laban perceives the same blessing, if he will recognize God’s calling together of Isaac and Rebecca, and if he will allow her to go with him. Both her brother, Laban, and their father, Bethuel give their blessing, but ask the servant to remain for ten days time before taking Rebecca. Abraham’s servant asks them not to delay his return, and upon asking Rebecca, she agrees to go with him the following day, meets her husband-to-be, and with what seems like passionate haste, is joined with him in marriage.
We don’t know much more about how Rebecca feels, but we do know that Isaac finds love, companionship, and comfort. What we do know of Rebecca is that she is intensely vulnerable at several key moments in this story. She responds with hospitality to a strange man at the well, who responds basically by claiming her for his master’s household. She responds, again, with hospitality when he asks if he can stay at her place that night, not yet fully knowing what his intentions might have been or who he was. Perhaps feeling the intensity of her vulnerability, she runs home and tells her family about the encounter. Next, on this stranger’s own word, Rebecca consents to forgoing the traditional period of waiting and preparation that might have served to protect her from a deception that could have led to her death or dishonor. And finally, the very day she first lays eyes on Isaac, she and he are united carnally in marriage. If this were any of our daughters, we might likely want to lock her up out of fear for her safety! And yet, out of the uncertainty, trepidation, longing, and intense vulnerability and fear that might characterize this story, it is a story of faith that ultimately seeks to demonstrate fidelity, trust in God, and relational fulfillment in companionship, love, and union.
In the beautiful imagery of the Song of Songs, we see this strikingly intimate model reflected poetically back on God’s own passionate desire for relationship and intimacy with us. The words we hear this week come from our own perspective, as the one to whom the beloved calls. With passion and powerful grace, the calling comes as the beloved runs to us, peers at us from beyond the walls of security we’ve erected between us, and beckons to us, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Long before we became so uncomfortable with God’s intimate desire for us, the love poems of the Song of Songs were seen as a beautiful and poetic retelling of the courtship between God and humankind that have been told and retold through the story of creation, though the prophets, through the Incarnation in Christ, and through the early Church of the Apostles. In this short reading today, we are being called in words of passion, longing, and anticipation to step out from the safety of our alienating walls and to embrace God in the lavish richness of our desire for one another.
Paul picks up on this same thread of alienation, and calling to relationship in the portion of his letter to the Romans we read this morning. Speaking from the other side of the divide, Paul groans in heavy anguish of the reality of human vulnerability. In alienation and darkness, cut off from God, we yearn for release, for rescue, for peace, we seek toward the good, but find ourselves cut off from the very thing we desire most. Paul speaks here, not necessarily for himself, but for all of humankind who seek fulfillment of our deepest yearning yet can’t find it in any pursuit or any effort of our own undertaking. He describes here the alienating reality of embodied experience. We are self-referrential, precisely because we see, hear, taste, and touch from the center of our concrete and physical bodies. We tend toward self-centeredness simply by the reality of being self-referential beings. At the same time, we are fundamentally relational beings. We cannot exist in complete alienation from others or the world around us, and the fulfillment of our yearning, of our desire for relationship, of our divine need to relate and be related to can only be met outside of ourselves, which necessarily and apprehensively makes us vulnerable. Drawn outside of ourselves, we find relationship to others and to God, but in vulnerability, we seek safety in trying to keep relationships on our own terms.
Paul echoes our own frustrations in those moments in our lives when we cry out, “Why can’t I fix my relationships?” He voices the struggle, the conflict of seeking by our own power, on our own terms, and through our own autonomy for something that we cannot achieve without facing our vulnerability in relational interdependence with others. Why can’t I fix my relationships?
Precisely because I can’t fix we without you! Relationships are a community endeavor. This same experience of human relationship extends to our relationship with God who Song of Songs reminds us yearns for us and desires us as passionately as we yearn for and desire the release and fulfillment that we can only find through union with God and others around us. Despite our fierce independence and desire to claim our autonomy, we simply cannot exist as islands of self- sufficiency. It is a humbling, and jeopardizing realization, but it is also the model Christ lived, and for which Paul gives thanks today.
Jesus picks up on this last thread in today’s gospel as he describes the “children of this generation” as being like the children in the marketplace who expect relationship on their terms. Like my seven year old and eight-and-a-half year old, they want to direct the action and guide the rules of the game to match their own expectations. As Jesus explains, these expectations were frustrated when John wouldn’t dance with them, and when Jesus wouldn’t mourn with them. These are the wise and intelligent Jesus refers to, the religious authorities whose expectations were the long tradition of teaching and understanding that both John and Jesus undermined, threatened, and ultimately turned on its head. The infants, in contrast, are those who came seeking understanding, seeking relationship with God, seeking in costly vulnerability what John and Jesus both offered in very different ways. These are those to whom Jesus calls, the seekers who yearn for closeness with God despite being wounded in human relationships. Come to me. Rest in me. Find your yearning fulfilled. Let go of the reins that demand relationship on your own terms, let down your guard and you will find a relationship of a very different and unexpected kind. Now you work in wounded alienation, you struggle in labor without fulfillment, your souls are wearied by trying to make it on your own. Let me show you a new way. Come out from behind the walls you’ve erected between us; “arise my love, my fair one, and come away.”
The work will, of course, continue. As the past few week’s Gospel readings from the previous chapter in Matthew have demonstrated, it is not the work itself that will be easy, but that the burden of our wounded alienation, of trying to make it alone, of trying to fulfill the yearning of our lives and labors on our own terms is lifted.
I ended last week’s sermon with the affirmation that sometimes life, relationships, and faith are hard. Despite the call in today’s readings to risk, to make ourselves vulnerable to God and to others, and to reach out in relationship, we also wound and are wounded in relationships. Paul speaks with anguish from the conflict that we each experience as we struggle between our need for safety, bodily and psychological integrity, and the intense vulnerability that we experience when we open ourselves up to another, including God, particularly when we have experienced the crushing wounds of betrayal, failure, abuse, and loss that accompany intimate vulnerability in human relationships. Yet, in a world of broken relationships, Christ calls us to trust, to open ourselves, to love, and to wholeness despite the wounds that mark us as survivors.
When Marie was Luke’s age, she reveled in discovering for the first time and revealing what she found to be a shocking and scandalous fact about her parents. “Did you know that Papa dated other girls before Mama!? And Mama used to kiss other boys than Papa!” And while I love the trust and innocence behind her shock, it is true that before we found one another both of us experienced the confusing, demoralizing, and wounding defeat of failed relationships. We both came into our relationship with considerable emotional baggage not just from traumatic childhoods and failed romantic relationships but also from controlling and manipulative friendships that it took immense courage to break away from. Courage we only found in one another. For both of us, it was the first time we had had enough courage to simply be ourselves without apology. Without trying to be what we thought someone else wanted us to be. Without secrets. It helps that we fell in love when we were both on staff for the Episcopal summer camp at the Bishop’s Ranch in Healdsburg, which, like the Happening retreat I described some time ago, was for many a healing escape from the normal politics of relationship. It was a remarkable community of love and acceptance where one could courageously leave the masks behind for a week and just be in relationship with honesty, integrity, and openness. Bringing this same spirit to the staff training a month before camp, Jane and I saw each other for the first time in six years. We had met when Jane was a participant at Happening 1995, and again when she and I were both on staff at the same retreat a year later. We had both gone through college, complete with more scarring relationships, and I had just taken my first job in the church, in the department of youth and young adult ministries for the diocese of California. We both remembered each other and depending on whom you ask, we will both claim to have started the innocent flirting that led to many long and heartfelt conversations over phone and email before camp started a month later. When we were married a year later at that same retreat center in the Napa Valley Hills, it was only after having confronted the two most controlling, toxic, and manipulative relationships in our lives, our so-called best friends who ultimately wanted to keep us for themselves at any cost to our own happiness and psychological health. For us, there were no truer words ever spoken than those in our wedding vows, “in you I have found the greatest courage. In you I have found love.”
The calling of the beloved, “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away!” is one that many of us have heard and heeded in our lives and hearts as we have loved and been loved by other humans. Today we are called on to hear this voice from the desiring and expectant lips of the divine who seeks a relationship of passion, fidelity, trust, mutual desire, and intimacy with us that for many of us makes us feel vulnerable, awkward, or even afraid. It will take courage to open our hearts to an understanding of the divine that is closer than arms length, that may draw us into a life- changing embrace that may just fulfill the ageless longing and yearning of our hearts. And for those of us who can muster up the courage to accept the invitation, to step out from our walls of security, to let down our guard, and to risk again the wounding of our already wounded hearts, the One who has never left us and has never stopped loving us since before the ages were born offers peace, healing, rest, a lifting of our burdens, and a community of love and abundance that makes any work a labor of love.
May we, Christ’s walking wounded, find the courage to allow ourselves to be healed, and may our passions for love and relationship with God and one another be rekindled as we hear and live out the call of the beloved in this world, yearning for release from the burden of alienation.