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Arranged Marriages

Gen 24: 34, 37-42,45-46,48-58, 61-67 
Jennifer Browne, University UMC

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I saw Bishop Sharon Rader at a memorial service last Sunday. Many of you know, of course, that Rev. Rader was pastor here at University UMC from 1986 to 1989. After the service, she shared with me some stories of her time here. 

On her first Sunday, she meant to open her sermon with: it’s not easy being new. But what came out of her mouth was “It’s not easy being green.” Now, in almost every other church in America this sentence would conjure images of Kermit the Frog, singing about why it’s hard to be a different color. But here in the land of green and white, it had a different meaning altogether. 

It’s not easy being green. I don’t know what the Rader family collegiate allegiance was before they moved to East Lansing, but – in the spirit of full disclosure – I should share with you right from the start that it may take some time for our family to adapt to the green and white. My husband, Greg Martin, was Chaplain and Director of the Wesley Foundation in Ann Arbor for four years. Our two daughters attended the public schools there. The older one, Katie, will be starting her 2nd year at the University of Michigan Law School in September. It may take us a little time to feel easy being green! 

It’s not easy being new, either. We have a new home, filled with cardboard boxes. Our younger daughter, Lexie, has a new high school, filled with unfamiliar faces. We have a new church…with no front entrance.

And, of course, we have the joyful anticipation of hundreds of new relationships with the members and friends of UUMC/WF. It’s exciting being new! But it’s not easy. This is true for you, too. You have two new pastors, one of them with a new job description that combines service to the church and the Wesley Foundation. Other parts of the staff are changing, too. Soon – we hope – we will have a new Children’s Ministry Director and a new Youth Director on board. All this change can be more than a little anxiety-producing. It may be easy to be green, but it’s not easy being new. 

If you are a lifelong Methodist you may have gotten used to the comings and goings of pastors. But if you have come here from another denomination or from no church background at all, this moving of pastors from one church to another can seem antiquated. Who is this bishop and who does he think he is moving pastors around like chess pieces? 

Isn’t this the 21st century? Isn’t this America? Shouldn’t we have some say in who it is we have to listen to each Sunday? This is little better than an arranged marriage! 

Without going into great detail – yes, you do have some say, primarily through your SPRC members. Pastor Bill Chu and I had some say in this arrangement, as well. But this process of pastoral appointments is quite different from that of most other Protestant churches, in which more than one candidate is interviewed and re-interviewed, references are checked, candidating sermons are heard and votes are taken.

We United Methodist pastors are appointed. It is, in fact, something like an arranged 
marriage. 

Arranged marriages were the way things worked in ancient days – still today, in some places. Preferably within one’s extended clan or family. Rebekah is the daughter of Isaac's first cousin Bethuel. What seems to us as a violation of the right of the individual to make choices for him/herself was, for them, an essential part of preserving the life and health of the community. Of course marriages were arranged, they were part of what kept the fabric of life whole. 

So it was that the servant of Abraham set out to find an appropriate wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. When we first meet the man, he is weary from the long journey back Abraham’s home country where his extended family still lives. God had promised Abraham and Sarah that their future and the future of their descendents lay in the new land of Canaan. Abraham was determined that his son Isaac would remain in this Promised Land. So he sent not Isaac, but a servant, to find the right woman and bring her back to Canaan. 

We never learn the servant’s name. Much of the narrative from this chapter is from his perspective and told through his words, but he remains nameless. It’s possible that this is Eliezer of Damascus. Before Isaac was born to Sarah and Abraham in their old age, Eliezer was Abraham’s heir. But if this is the case, we never hear a word of complaint or resentment in the servant’s voice. His focus is on others, and on doing his job well so that 
God’s promised future will come to be. 

Arriving at his destination, the servant meets Rebekah at a well. Wells are the site of many an important meeting in the Bible. Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah, meets his future wife, Rachel, at a well. Moses meets the seven daughters of Jethro, including his future wife Zipporah (after whom Pastor Bill’s daughter is named) at a well. But here, Rebekah encounters no future husband, only a thirsty matchmaker in need of lodging. Rebekah is nothing if not determined, industrious, and ambitious. Recognizing an opportunity when she sees one, she draws water from the well for the man with the camels and the gold. Then she takes the initiative, and invites him to spend the night with her family. 

Abraham’s servant testifies to Rebekah’s brother and father of God’s hand in this arrangement, and they give their consent. “This thing comes from the Lord,” they agree, and so they are willing to be part of making it happen. Ever the decisive one, Rebekah agrees to go with the servant to marry his master’s son. As Abraham had done before her, Rebekah ventures by faith far from her homeland and family. And like her father-in-law, she will have a multitude of descendants, the blessing that God had promised. 

This is not the story of a single hero, taking big, bold steps counter to the expectations of the surrounding culture, to change the course of history. There are stories like that in the Bible – we will hear some of them this summer as we work through the Book of Genesis and into Exodus – but this one is different. This is the story of several ordinary people, making less-dramatic, more ordinary decisions, decisions that allowed God to work through them…to shape the course of history.

A servant acts not only out of obedience to his master, but also out of loyalty to God’s larger cause. A family recognizes the presence of God in the testimony of a stranger and decides to be a part of God’s intentions. A young woman uses the courage and decisiveness God gave her to step out into an unknown future. All of the figures in this narrative are aware that they are part of something bigger than just themselves. All of them recognize that they are part of a bigger story through which the Spirit of God is moving. The marriage of Isaac and Rebekah was arranged by their fathers, but it was also a marriage through which God moved, in which God acted, and by which God brought about a people of faith. 

I come to East Lansing from the west side of state, where Calvinism and an emphasis on predestination, are part of the air. You can’t help but inhale it. But we Methodists claim John Wesley as our ecclesial forefather. Wesley was in many ways a Calvinist, but he rejected the doctrine of predestination outright. God does not arrange us or our lives as if we were helpless puppets. What we do, how we act and react, can and does change things. God chooses to move, act and bring about change through us, which requires our participation. 

Last weekend I performed my last act as a pastor at First UMC, Grand Rapids. I officiated at a wedding of two wonderful young adults. It was not an arranged marriage. At least, it wasn’t arranged by their parents (although their parents were delighted with their children’s decision). But one can certainly say that God, working through the church, had more than a little to do with this marriage. The bride and groom met at a summer mission work camp (much like the one from which our UUMC youth group recently returned). Both of them attended Albion College, a United Methodist institution. Both of them take their faith seriously and are committed to including both his Catholic tradition and her Methodist tradition in their marriage. 

Many pastors dislike doing weddings. There’s lots of money involved, and lots of family issues that emerge in interesting ways. There is much cultural baggage that can get in the way of helping people to remember that a wedding is actually a worship service, not a fashion show. Despite all that, I love doing weddings, especially weddings where both bride and groom have an awareness of God’s work in their lives.

I love those weddings because -- when I tell the bride and groom that the purpose of their marriage is not happiness or comfort or even love, but to allow God one more place in which to dwell – I know that there is a chance that they are paying attention. You are part of something bigger than yourselves, I tell them. Together you can do and be much more than either one of you could do or be individually, because in your union, God has a home. God dwells in and through you, which means your relationship much like a sacrament – a visible means of a divine, invisible grace. 

Last weekend’s wedding was also a special joy because it included a sacrament -- Holy Communion. Not just for the bride and groom, not just for the Protestants - all of us in the sanctuary. Including the groom’s mother, a staunch, faithful Roman Catholic. Including the Roman Catholic priest who offered a blessing for the couple, and whose name I will not mention so that he won’t get in trouble for his act of generous ecumenism. We all shared in a meal around the Lord’s Table because we all knew that we were part of something bigger than we were, bigger even than our different churches are. 

Now we do the same. We who are new to this relationship that we share as pastors and congregation. We whose relationship has been arranged by a bishop and a group of district superintendents. We who do not know each other well and have much to learn about each other. But the purpose of church is not, first of all, happiness or comfort or even love – it is to allow God one more place in which to dwell. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. Together we can do and be much more than any one of us could do or be individually. Because in our union, God has a home. 

References

Esther M. Menn. “Commentary on Alternate First Reading” at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=7/6/2008&tab=2