Sermon: “Test of Compassion”

July 9, 2017

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

It’s a curious thing, but my social life is one of those things that I don’t feel I should delegate to someone else. For better or for worse, I feel like I should be the one deciding about the person to whom I’m attracted and the person I’m not, and that I should be the one deciding whether there’s a potential for a long-term loving relationship with this person, and that other people really don’t have a great part to play in this.

Mind you, there are some fundamental flaws with this theory, even if you ignore the fact that I don’t seem to be all that good at it.

First, I’ve managed to ignore the other person in the relationship. They have at least as much to say about it as I do. I know this. As an adolescent, I knew this. In fact, I knew it so well that I tended to wait until a young lady exhibited some pretty clear interest before I’d say anything to her. I may not have had a good handle on relationships, but I definitely understood adolescent insecurities.

Second, it’s culturally specific. Contemporary Americans expect to make their own dates and choose their own mates. Nineteenth century Americans weren’t quite so sure of it. Sometimes parents would choose, sometimes family clans would choose, and frequently they would at least set limits on acceptable candidates. The matchmaker is a social position with a long history in many cultures.

And so, Abraham selected one to find a bride for his treasured son, Isaac.

He also limited the field for acceptable candidates. He sent his servant back to the place where he had come from, to his own family. The Hawaiian ali’i and the European royal families weren’t the only ones to believe that marriage was supposed to strengthen bloodlines from within. The servant still, however, has the difficult task of choosing the right young woman. And thus, he arrives at the well outside Nahor, and asks God to let him set a little test. His part is to ask for a drink of water (he gave himself the easy part). The young woman’s part is to offer to water his camels as well. And God’s part is to make sure that the young woman who does that is the right woman for Isaac.

And so it happens. Rebekah comes to the well. He asked his question (there’s the easy part), she watered his camels, and lo and behold: God came through. She was from the right family. In fact, she was Isaac’s second cousin once removed.

Happy ending.

There are plenty of strange issues to deal with here. The close kinship, the lack of choice given to Rebekah (which turns out to be a choice between “go now” or “go later,” the passive role played by Isaac in all this, the relationship muddle of replacing his recently deceased mother with a new wife, which pretty much anyone will tell you spells trouble for the bride.

But I’d like to stay with the servant’s test. His way of identifying a suitable wife for his employer’s beloved son.

He set a test of compassion.

I’ve mentioned a few times, or quite possibly frequently, the requirements of the Hospitality Code of ancient Israel. To be truthful, I’m pretty sure that anything I say about that is an educated guess, and when we’re talking about a thousand years of history, there could have been a lot of variation in that code. So I am not going to tell you that Rebekah was, or wasn’t, required to offer a drink of water to the stranger, or to his camels. The servant seems to assume that the camels, at least, were extra.

What I can say is that Rebekah passed with flying colors. She gave him a drink quickly. She quickly emptied her jar into the trough for the camels and ran again to the well to draw more. She may have been meeting an obligation, but she met it with kindness and with energy.

The test was first to see if she would respond to a basic human need: the need for water when the world is dry. Most people will pass that test. They’ll give the cup of water, or whatever it is, when asked.

In Baltimore last week, I saw many poor people panhandling on the streets, and there wasn’t much distance between my hotel and the convention center. They waited at street corners and sometimes they came out to clean windshields at stop lights.

As I was walking back one night with a colleague I’d just met, a woman came to us at the door to the hotel. She needed forty dollars, she said, to get a bed for the night. Both of us reached into our pockets without hesitation; I think we got her half way there. I do wonder what I’d have done if I’d been alone. If there hadn’t been someone to impress, would I have given her anything? And I have no idea whether that money got her a bed, or a harsher, less healthy kind of comfort for the night.

What I do know is that she asked, and we responded.

But the servant set a higher bar. He set her a test of compassion for creatures that are not human. Could she see the need of his camels?

Yes, she could.

Can we?

At General Synod last week, the delegates faced a number of difficult questions. Is it appropriate to provide people with active aid in dying, or does that put the lives of the disabled at too high a risk? Should children have an absolute right to their original birth certificates, or are there concerns of the birth parents that should be considered? Should children be held in military detention by an ally nation? How will we respond to new arrivals to our shores?

What I suggest is that this servant’s test provides us with a useful, if not entirely final, guide. In each question, what is the answer that exhibits the greatest compassion? Which choice, or course, or program sees the camels watered as well as the people? Have we chosen the way of peace for all Creation, or for the living beings of Creation, or for just we humans, or my group, or just myself?

Rebekah could see the need of the camels.

Can we?

At General Synod, General Minister and President the Rev. John C. Dorhauer announced that for the next two years, the United Church of Christ will engage in “Three Great Loves.” These flow from our love of God, and they are: Love of Neighbor. Love of Children. And Love of Creation.

The idea is pretty simple. There will be some big national projects we can join over these next two years, but mostly, this is about doing what we do to show love of neighbor, love of children, and love of creation, and sharing our stories. We might inspire a church leader in Maine. A church trustee in Minnesota might get a solution to a problem from something we’re doing, and a pastor in Florida might find something to celebrate. We might find ourselves helping one another’s projects in Hilo and in Hartford.

Right now, we’re looking deeply at how we can show Love of Neighbor together by considering Family Promise, and we’ve been active in outreach to houseless people through the Welcome baskets we filled at Easter. We’ve reached out to local keiki with our Slipper Project, and we work to make them understand the love of God week in and week out in our Sunday School. There’s some love of Children.

The love of Creation is that final level of the servant’s test, isn’t it? To care for those beyond the human species, to consider the needs of our planet as integral to our faith.

Rebekah could see the need of the camels.

Can we see the need of the planet?

You heard already this morning that General Synod delegates affirmed a resolution calling for the healing of the Earth. Bob read it to you. As delegate Marilyn Kendrix said, “The truth is under attack. It is up to us to reclaim truth.”

Rebekah could see the need of the camels. So could the Synod delegates.

I look forward to these next two years of the Three Great Loves, not because they’re particularly different from what the Church has been called to for centuries, but because the initiative highlights what we’re all about. We’re about love. We’re about compassion. We’re about seeing that children are fed and people are housed and the waters flow unpolluted to the sea. I’m a fan of the Three Great Loves.

Throughout these two years, and the years to come, let’s also remember the camels. Remember the camels, who can’t speak for themselves and whose caretaker has, for the moment, left them to our tender mercies.

Rebekah could see the need of the camels.

So. Can. We.


Photo is of the Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, during the 2017 General Synod. Photo by Eric Anderson.


Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , , | Posted on July 9, 2017

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