Text: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-51, 58-67
You have heard from me on a number of occasions that my father was a teller of corny jokes. All were squeaky clean. None contained profanity. None were even remotely sexy. Many were told repeatedly and some were even funny. Now that my dad is gone, we all regret that we didn’t write them down. He especially loved church jokes, so I will begin this morning with one of Daddy’s favorites:
When he stepped into the pulpit to deliver his sermon one Sunday, a Baptist preacher noticed several strangers in the pews. He offered his typical fiery, repent-and-be-saved sermon, but in the back of his mind he was wondering who the newcomers were. As he stood at the door after the service, one of the visitors asked if the group could speak to him when he finished greeting the departing worshippers. So when the last person was gone, the preacher ushered the five men into a side room, where they identified themselves as a “pulpit committee” from a large Baptist church in another city. They had come to invite him to become their next pastor at a salary significantly higher than he was currently receiving.
The preacher politely thanked the group for coming and expressed his humble appreciation for their gracious invitation. He assured them that he would make their offer the subject of serious consideration and intense prayer. Then he rushed home to tell his wife, instructing her with this: “Honey, while I go into my study to pray for God’s will, why don’t you start packing?”
The story of choosing Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife is our text for today. It’s the last biblical tale in which Abraham has a role. His faithful servant Eliezer plays a central part in a drama that serves as a transition to the next generation as Isaac replaces Abraham as the keeper of God’s promises.
When the drama begins, Eliezer has been commissioned by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac. He’s a servant, but one with seniority whom Abraham obviously trusts. In assigning this critical task, Abraham insists that Isaac’s wife must come from their kin who were left behind when the family journeyed to Canaan in response to God’s call. So accompanied by his human and animal entourage, Eliezer heads back home, devising a plan to secure the proper mate for Isaac as he goes. The planning is bracketed with sincere prayer that God’s desire for Isaac, which is also Abraham’s desire, will be fulfilled.
The strategy for finding the right woman is a simple one and Eliezer requests divine approval for it. He asks, “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,’ and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’ – let her be the woman whom God has appointed for my master’s son.” Before he has even finished voicing his prayer, Rebekah appears. She does exactly as Eliezer had hoped by offering water not only to him but also to the camels. So far so good with the first candidate for the job. The next question is: “Whose daughter are you? “As it turns out, she is a member of Abraham’s family. It is thought that her father is Isaac’s first cousin. So the second criterion is met. He’s batting two for two with this woman, so Eliezer stops to give thanks to God who, in his words, “led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son.”
Of course, Eliezer has to ask the men in Rebekah’s family for permission to marry her to Isaac. Believing the faithful servant’s story, her father and brother agree. Eliezer is anxious to take her to Abraham immediately to share the good news without waiting through the ritual multi-night visit. So they finally seek Rebekah’s permission, asking “Will you go with this man?” And she says, “I will.” Thus begins the complex story of Rebekah, Isaac, and their twins Jacob and Esau, the flawed human beings who serve as keepers of God’s promise of a constant presence and a hopeful future.
By now you are probably wondering, “What does the story of Eliezer’s selection of Rebekah for Isaac have to do with a preacher who prays while his wife packs?!” My friends, they are both about discernment. For the preacher, a bigger church and more money made the decision-making quick and simple, but that’s probably not real spiritual discernment. In Eliezer’s case, he sets up a test and the right candidate makes an A. Not a bad plan, I guess, but it almost never works that way – at least not in my experience. These tales reflect just a few of the multiple challenges of real discernment. So how can we learn to do it well and faithfully? How do we make decisions that are good for us and good for the world?
First, a couple of ideas about what discernment is and is not. The term comes from the Latin word discernere, meaning “separate.” Discernment separates what’s important or true from what is not. It’s the process of making careful distinctions in our thinking about truth; the act of exhibiting keen insight and good judgment; the ability to see and understand clearly and intelligently. I especially like this definition: discernment is the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure. Discernment is not the common practice of making a choice and then praying that God will like it. It’s not decision-making outside of a thoughtful, prayerful process of doing one’s best to determine what is loving and just for ourselves and for others. The hard part is when what feels just to others doesn’t feel right for us – or vice versa. True discernment is a spiritual practice and it’s hard. Very hard. But I believe the selection of Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife offers us some lessons about discernment. So let me tell you what I learned from this story and you can judge for yourself.
Lesson 1: Others can’t do it for you, but they can help. When I read today’s text, what drew me to this topic is that the kind of discernment done by Eliezer seems too simple and even contrived. It feels like, “Let the first job I see in today’s postings be the right one for me” or “Let the next person who walks into the party be my heart’s desire.” It feels like the sincere Christian in another of my dad’s jokes. As a way of receiving “a word from the Lord,” the man opened his King James Bible randomly and pointed to a verse of scripture. His finger landed on Matthew 27:5 which ends, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” Oops. Thinking maybe he did something wrong, he closed his bible and opened it to another place. This time his finger touched Luke 10:37, which says, “Go and do thou likewise.” Finding this not to be the inspiring exercise he had in mind, the earnest gentleman closed the bible and tried one more time. This time his finger pointed to John 13:27: “That thou doest, do quickly.” So much for forced inspiration. I would advise him to try the Hebrew Scriptures next time.
Others can’t do it for you, but they can help. What I mean is that as educated, middle class Americans we have a tremendous amount of freedom to make choices. Regrettably, in most cases, there won’t be an Eliezer there to narrow our options for us. We get to choose over and over again the kind of life we want to lead and the kind of person we want to be. The task of good parents (and good churches) is to teach our young people how to do thoughtful, spiritual discernment. It’s more than weighing the pros and cons or, as they say in corporate-speak, considering the pluses and the deltas. It is deep soul searching for what is not only good, but best; not only for me, but for others; not only for humans, but for the planet. This work is ours alone to do. But others can help, which is why surrounding ourselves with wise, thoughtful people is itself a wise decision.
In our home, Lizzy is often the one who offers a blessing at meals. Sometimes we get one in Spanish, but typically it’s a combination of two of the old faithful mealtime prayers she’s said since she was very young: “God is great, God is good, let us thank God (not “him”) for our food. Bless us to thy loving service and make us ever mindful of the needs of others.” It’s very traditional, but it grounds us in what life is about before we eat what others are literally starving for. A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that part of that blessing could be rearranged. Instead of “make us ever mindful of the needs of others” we could also say “make us ever needful of the minds of others.” We need the minds of wise others if we want to do real discernment. We are fortunate indeed if we have at least one person in our lives who can do this for and with us when we face difficult dilemmas. Isaac and Rebekah had Eliezer, however hokey his process was. We often need help as well.
Lesson 2: Sources of wisdom often surprise us. In discussing our text for today, I said that Isaac replaced Abraham as the keeper of God’s promises. Yet one could argue that Rebekah, rather than her husband-to-be, is the one who parallels Abraham. She is the one who leaves home and family in order to further God’s purposes AND she receives a blessing as Abraham did. Although Eliezer seeks her father and her brother to gain permission for Rebekah to marry Isaac, eventually she is consulted and she says, “Yes.” Her response is not a foregone conclusion. In earlier verses Eddie didn’t read, Eliezer asks Abraham what he should do if the woman doesn’t say yes. Neither man is certain that their choice for Isaac’s wife will agree. But as a woman with little power or control of her life, she is eventually given the opportunity to choose. It is through her that the heirs of the promise continue. Even the involvement of a servant like Eliezer in the selection of the mother of Abraham’s grandchildren is a surprise. Throughout scripture, powerless, humble, seemingly inconsequential people are among the wisest. Wisdom come from unexpected places that often surprise us.
Lesson 3: God’s creativity is on-going. It may even be that sometimes God follows our lead. Rather than the unmovable mover, the unchanging controller of the universe, it often seems that God dances through our lives, responding to both the good and not-so-good things we do. In our story there is no record of a conversation with God before Abraham sends his most senior servant to find his daughter-in-law-to-be. It appears that Abraham devises a plan, which allows Eliezer to devise a plan, and then God works with it. As biblical scholar Terence Fretheim explains, God “works as creator in and through the ordinary, everyday workings of this family rather than in miraculous extraordinary events.”
If God’s creativity isn’t on-going, then it seems God’s work with us would end the first time we make a poor choice. God would seem more like an employer who fires us the first time we don’t do what the boss wants us to do. It would end the relationship. But we know that’s not the case. The Sacred Presence is often most deeply experienced when we do, in fact, choose poorly or less thoughtfully than we might. I have this vision of God, the Cosmic Mover, watching me and thinking, “Hmmmm. Well, Cathy, that’s not exactly what I had in mind for you. Not at all. I wouldn’t have picked this path for you. But I know you and understand why you did it. So…well…I think can work with it. Yes, I see possibilities. Together we can work with this.” Regardless of the choices we make or how things are working out, God hangs in with us, using divine creativity to foster wholeness for us and for the world through us.
And Lesson 4: Worship and prayer are integral parts of spiritual discernment. If you read the entire 24th chapter of Genesis, you would see that on multiple occasions, Eliezer stops to worship, pray or thank God. His scheme for finding Isaac’s wife is cast in the context of a prayerful, grateful life. It is probably for this reason that Abraham gave so important a task to a servant. He knew the character of the man. He trusted that Eliezer would seek divine guidance as he sought the woman who would bear the next generation of keepers of the covenant with God.
Just a few weeks ago we progressive Baptists lost one of our saints in Anne Thomas Neil. Anne was a voice for women and women’s leadership in the early days of the Alliance of Baptists. She served more than 25 years as a missionary in Nigeria and Ghana where she learned from the African people how bereft we Americans typically are in our understanding and practice of a real community. She mentored dozens of women in ministry and was a deeply spiritual person. In speaking of Anne at her memorial service, Mahan Siler, our former pastor, said that Anne chose to live as if God exists and felt God’s spirit in every relationship that pulled toward mercy and justice. Unlike few I have known, Anne possessed the gift of discernment. Many of us are beneficiaries of her willingness to do the deep spiritual work it requires.
Folks, we live in a day when true discernment is rarely exercised in the public sphere and seldom even in churches. Lots of decisions are made, but there’s not much discernment in the way I am using the term. For one thing, our instant access to so much information has lured us into believing we can think our way through life. Not so. David Gushee, ethics professor at McAfee School of Theology, spoke here last week about torture. Among other important things he said, Dr. Gushee revealed with astonishment that he had actually participated in a debate with several evangelical theologians about whether torturing human beings is OK based on Christian teachings. “What is there to debate?” he asked. On this weekend when we celebrate the 238th anniversary of the founding of our nation, which is supposed to stand for “liberty and justice for all,” what is there to debate about torturing people?
The morning after we returned from our recent ten-day trip to the Republic of Georgia, Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry was the guest speaker at our monthly Congregations for Social Justice meeting at 8:30 AM at Temple Beth Or. Knowing that he is an inspiring speaker, I dragged myself out of bed to hear him preach – not speak, but preach – about how hard our current leaders in the General Assembly have worked to re-package laws that punish the poor so these “Christians” and their supporters won’t feel guilty. He said it’s like they have created for themselves a moral claim to be harsh with people. Yes, real spiritual discernment is in short supply in the public sphere. But perhaps this is because it must be undergirded by the ability to do deep discernment in one’s own personal life.
The most gifted person I know in assisting others with discernment says that for her this work begins with the question, “What is God’s invitation here?” Others have asked it this way: “What is the call of God in this situation?” Or, if you find it more helpful, “What is the call of love in this situation?” Whatever way you choose to frame it; whatever process or questions or meditative practice you use to look past the surface to the depths of your soul; whatever puts you in touch with the holy, do it. Do it often. Do it faithfully because many invitations come our way from all kinds of sources. But not all of them are from a holy place. Not all of them are good for us or for others. Not all of them should send us packing.