Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
So he said, ‘I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. 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.”
‘I came today to the spring, and said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; 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 the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”
‘Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, “Please let me drink.” She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, “Drink, and I will also water your camels.” So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, “Whose daughter are you?” She said, “The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.” So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.’ And they called Rebekah, and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will.’ So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
‘May you, our sister, become
thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
of the gates of their foes.’
Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.
Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, ‘Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?’ The servant said, ‘It is my master.’ So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
I Will. Genesis 24: 34-38, 42-49, 58-67
One of the perks of going to the United Church of Christ General Synod is that I get to listen to some great preachers and worship leaders. Upon returning home and beginning my preparations for this week's service at our church, the reading from Genesis reminded me of a story that the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the newly elected executive minister of the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries, shared on Friday afternoon during worship. Now, she was preaching on a different text than ours today, but it's a good story and I think it has some interesting connections with the story of brave and strong Rebekah's decision to leave home and marry Isaac. I'd like to share it with you to see if you can feel those connections, too. The story Rev. Blackmon shared began on June 30, 1859, 158 years to the day before her sermon. It was the day a man named Charles Blondin would attempt to be the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope.
Monsieur Blondin, whose given name was Jean François Gravelet, was a French acrobat. He had been waiting for months for the weather to be amenable for attempting such a dangerous feat. According to one article I read, he never used a net, believing that, and I quote, "that preparing for disaster only made one more likely to occur." Honestly, that sounds like a terrible way to go through life to me, but, I am not a daredevil. What do I know? It was just going to be him and 1300 feet of 2 inch diameter rope crossing the falls. The day he planned to walk, 25,000 people showed up to watch, many of whom assumed that they would be seeing him fall to his death. Remember, this was a very tumultous time in American history... only two years before the Civil War. Tension was high. I bet a lot of folks were looking for something to distract themselves from the greater conflicts at hand. And, as we all know, people show up to watch a disaster. I mean, isn't that why some people like NASCAR? They just want to see the crashes?
The US and Canadian sides of the falls quickly developed a fairground atmosphere, with bookies traveling around taking bets on Blondin's likelihood of success, vendors selling lemonade and whiskey, and journalists coming to record the spectacle for posterity. Blondin began his precarious journey wearing spangled pink tights and fancy, soft-soled leather shoes, carrying a 50 pound balancing staff. One witness stated that he looked like a rooster strutting across a barnyard. Halfway through, he stopped and hauled up a bottle of wine from the Maid of the Mist tourist boat that was anchored nearly 200 feet below him. He drank some wine and finished his walk across the falls with a flourish, greeted on the far side by a band playing a song called, "Home, Sweet Home."
What drew Rev. Blackmon to this story, and the reason I share it with you today, is that this one incredible traverse is not actually the end of Blondin's story. He walked back out across the tightrope a second time, this time carrying one of those giant daguerreotype cameras. He stopped partway through, pulled the heavy camera off his back, took a picture of the American side, hauled it back onto his back, and finished a second traverse. Then, he announced that he would do this all again in just a few days on July 4th. On the fourth, he, and the crowds returned and he walked back and forth across the tightrope again, this time walking part of the time backwards and, once, covering his whole head with a sack so he could not see. Then, on July 15th, he returned again to the falls, walking over to Canada and then returning to the US, this time with a wheelbarrow he pushed across the tightrope!
According to Rev. Blackmon, this is where the story gets interesting. Upon seeing Blondin safely crossing yet again, this time with a wheelbarrow in tow, the crowd roared with applause. Blondin called out to the crowd, "Do you believe that I could carry a person across the falls in this wheelbarrow?" The crowd responded back, "Yes! Of course! You are the greatest tightrope walker of all time! We believe!" Blondin turned and looked at the crowd and said, "Ok then... who wants to get in the wheelbarrow?" With the mist from the falls clinging to their faces and roar of the water roiling at their feet, the whole crowd, to a person, came to the same decision. Not one of them was going to get in that wheelbarrow. Sure, the trek would have been glorious, but that kind of glory is terrifying and totally not worth the risk. "Nope," they said, "We are just going to stay here on the solid ground thank-you-very-much." Blondin never ended up taking anybody with him in that wheelbarrow.
As I began to read today's scripture, I recognized something from Blondin's story. I realized that today's scripture is a story about someone choosing to get in the wheelbarrow. I mean, it's is not as glamorous a story as that of the acrobat's death-defying stunt, but it is just as surely a story of life-changing risk. Like the crowds on the edge of the falls, Rebekah stood on her own precipice and received her own wildly risky invitation. There seemed to be two options before her: on one side, a possibly glorious future in a land she did not know, with a family she did not know (but was supposedly related to), married to a man who she did not know and, on the other side, a more safe future at home in a land she knew, near her own family, married to a local boy with a family whom she actually knew and people her father trusted. Rebekah stood on the side of her falls, looking between an acrobat with wheelbarrow and crowd safe on dry land. Shockingly, she picked the wheelbarrow, and she stepped inside, certain that she would wind up somewhere worth being when she got to the other side.
We don't know much about Rebekah before she began her own tightrope trek, so it is difficult to know what gave her both the courage and the audacity to believe that she could survive taking such a risk. This story begins not with a recounting of her life, but with a command that Abraham gives one of his servants, an unnamed man who is charged with finding his son Isaac a daughter back in Syria, among Abraham's kinfolk. In fact, we know more about the servant's motivations for going on this trip than we do about Rebekah's. The servant was both loyal to Abraham and faithful to Abraham's God, praying that he would be able to find an appropriate wife for Isaac and that that woman would be willing to come back to Canaan with him.
I am intrigued by the criteria that the servant used to judge whether a woman was going to be suitable wife material. When he prayed for God's help in his task, he said, "Let the girl to whom I shall say, 'Please offer your jar that I may drink,' and who shall say, 'Drink and I will water your camels'- let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac." He understands a woman who values hospitality to strangers and care for the needy as the kind of person whom Isaac should marry. Remember, hospitality to strangers is at the center of Abraham and Sarah's faith. Hospitality to strangers will become a hallmark of their descendants' faith, too. We'll read more about it in later stories of Exodus, prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and into the parable of Jesus. This woman will need to value hospitality if she is to become part of this family. With her help, hospitality will become their greatest legacy.
Rebekah not only gave him water. She had the strength to draw up enough water for 10 camels, what would have amounted to 200-300 gallons of water. That is alot of hospitality. Surely this strong woman seemed like an answered prayer to the servant, who quickly asked her family for permission to take her to be Isaac's wife. To her family's credit, while they understood the servants story to be a sign of God's work in Rebekah's life and approved of the marriage, they asked her if she wanted to go with the servant, who wanted to leave quickly, rather than forcing her to go. Shockingly, she says yes, following the footsteps of a father-in-law whom she hadn't even met yet, into a land she does not know because she has decided to trust that God has something good waiting for her on the other side.
As I have already stated, I wish this story told a little more from Rebekah's side of the things. I wish I could hear from her what exactly gave her the courage to say yes. Maybe she recognized a set of values similar to her own at work in the faith of the servant. Maybe she was just ready to begin a new life, and the life that was possible with this family seemed as good a place as any to begin. Maybe she just had the same kind of foolhardy confidence that allowed Charles Blondin to believe he could cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. I don't know why Rebekah said yes, but I do think it's worth asking ourselves, as Rev. Blackmon asked us at Synod last week, what will it take us to say yes when we are invited into God's wheelbarrow? What will we need to believe to move forward with God? When our turn comes around, how can we be more like Rebekah, and less like the people who watched Blondin. Because, let's be clear, our turn in the wheelbarrow is coming... is probably here right now. What will help us say yes?
Sources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Many thanks to the Rev. Traci Blackmon whom I first heard share Mr. Blondin's story at General Synod during worship on June 30, 2017. Here's an article about her election to lead the UCC's justice ministry: http://www.ucc.org/news_gs_traci_blackmon_elected_overwhelmingly_to_lead_uccs_justice_ministry_07022017
Two articles about Charles Blondin:
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3281
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.