Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
Sunday 5 July 2020
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9A
It has been a strange journey to get here. On the afternoon of Thursday, March 12, I got a call from my district superintendent, Rev. Erin Martin, telling me that the Bishop and the cabinet had a new appointment in mind for me, and that another district superintendent would be calling me soon. But I didn’t get another call for a while. The next call I got was a recorded message from the Hood River County School District, telling us that in-person classes would be suspended because of the risk of COVID-19. It was not until after that that I got the call from Rev. Tim Overton-Harris telling me that the appointment the Bishop had in mind for me was Forest Grove United Methodist Church. The next day, we got the news that in-person worship would be suspended. At the time, we thought we’d be back to school and back to worship within a couple of weeks. As we know, that’s not how things worked out. And so for me, the time of preparing to come here as your pastor and the time COVID quarantine have overlapped perfectly. I have never had one without the other. All of the meetings we have had have been over Zoom. I’ve met a handful of you in person, from a safe distance, with masks on. But on the whole, it’s all been working through a screen, a kind of veil, that obscures the person beyond it.
The lectionary passage we have from Genesis this morning picks up in the middle of a story. Abraham, as you may remember, was called by God to leave his home in Ur, not far from Nasiriyah, Iraq, and go to Haran, near the border of Turkey and Syria. From there, he was called again to go to Canaan, a new land that God was promising. Abraham and Sarah have many adventures on their way to Canaan, and then to Egypt, and back to Canaan. They are promised an heir, who doesn’t come and doesn’t come, until finally Isaac is born when Abraham is in his hundreds and Sarah is in her nineties. Even after Isaac is born, Abraham is asked to sacrifice him, until, at the last moment, God changes his mind and allows Isaac to live.
When it comes time for Abraham and Sarah’s beloved son to be married, they aren’t taking any chances. They don’t want to find him a wife from among the local women, of whom they are very suspicious. Instead, they send a servant back to their family in Haran to find a suitable match for Isaac. It seems they don’t approve of dating outside the family.
In any case, the servant gets sent. He travels the several hundred miles from Canaan to Haran. When he gets there, he tries to make a deal with God. He says that if God really wants this mission to go successfully, it would be in God’s best interest to follow some simple instructions. When the servant sees a woman coming to the well, and when he asks her for a drink of water, if she gives him a drink of water and also draws water for his camels without being asked, then God should make sure that that is the woman who is supposed to marry Isaac.
And sure enough, God and Rebekah follow the script. Rebekah comes to the well, the servant asks for a drink, and she draws water for him and for his camels. The servant puts gold bracelets on her arms and a gold ring in her nose and asks if he can spend the night at her family’s house. She takes him home and the negotiations begin.
The family agrees right away that Rebekah can be wedded to the heir of such a prosperous man as Abraham, and the servant showers them with expensive gifts: the bride price. But there is a sticking point. The family wants Rebekah to stay at home for ten more days so everyone can say a proper goodbye, but Abraham’s servant wants to leave with her right away. So they agree to do something they had never thought to do before: ask Rebekah what she thinks. Her family is no doubt sure that Rebekah will want to stay at home as long as possible before she is dragged off to a land she has never visited to be married to a man she has never met. But Rebekah surprises them. She speaks just one word in Hebrew—ēlēk—which is usually translated “I will go.” Literally, it means “I’m walking.” She will leave her family, her home, and everything that she has known because God has intervened and called her to go. I’m walking.
It strikes me that the process of betrothal and marriage is not a bad metaphor for what we are going through today. You are getting a new pastor, I am getting a new church—it is a partnership that we are entering into. And, in the United Methodist system, it is always an arranged marriage. Just like Isaac and Rebekah, you and I have been brought together with the aid of a matchmaker. We’ve been told quite a bit about each other. We have been assured that this is a good match. But we haven’t had much chance to get to know each other directly. You placed your trust in the district superintendent and in the bishop to look at all the possibilities and to make the best possible match. And I did the same. And when I received news that Bishop Stanovsky wanted to send me here to Forest Grove, I responded, like Rebekah, and like any Methodist pastor who knows what’s good for them: “I will go.”
But I’m not just here because the Bishop sent me and I feel obliged to obey. I really do think a good match has been made here. I am excited for the ministry that we will do together in this place. Like any good marriage, we’ll have to work at it. We are bound to have disagreements and misunderstandings. And when those disagreements come, we will have to work to fulfill our covenant to each other, to listen with love, to seek understanding, to find consensus. The same things that make for a good marriage relationship also make for a good relationship between pastor and congregation: communication, honesty, patience, forgiveness, love.
In the old days, the bride and groom never saw each other before the marriage. When the veil was lifted from the bride’s face, that was literally the first time that they would have seen each other.
But here we are on the wedding day, the start of it all, and it feels like the veil is still there. This should be the day that we are all gathered together in the sanctuary, that we get our first sight of each other, that we shake hands and share hugs and offer greetings to one another. This should be the day that we begin to hear each other’s stories, that we get to feel what it’s like to be in the same room together. And we can’t. The veil is still there. And it is very frustrating.
Everything about this health crisis is frustrating. According to my count, it has been 115 days since we went into lockdown. That’s 115 days without in-person worship or meetings, 115 days without working in the office or the classroom, 115 days without going out to eat, 115 days without visiting with family, 115 days without any kinds of gatherings. It’s really frustrating.
Of course, now things are starting to open up again. But that doesn’t mean that things are actually getting better. In fact, in the US and in Oregon, things are worse now than they have ever been. New COVID cases are now exceeding 50,000 per day and rising quickly. More than 132,000 Americans have died of COVID. That’s 44 times the number who died in the 9/11 attacks, 72 times the number who died in Hurricane Katrina, 30 times the number of Americans killed in the Iraq War. The stakes are even higher than they were back in March and April, but we have grown weary, and we seem to lack the organization that has allowed other countries to contain and control the spread of the virus.
I would very much like for it all to be over. I would like to be preaching to you here in person and not trying to speak to you through the lens of a camera. I would like to be meeting all of you and shaking your hands. But that’s not where we are now. And, as frustrating as it is, we may not be there for a good long time.
And so we do what we can with the resources God has given us. I want to thank all of you who have welcomed us so warmly despite the restrictions, those of you who have sent cards and letters and brought by flowers and food and gift certificates. I want to thank all of you who have been praying for us in our transition here. It’s hard. These are strange times, and your expressions of welcome mean a lot.
And we don’t stop doing ministry just because the world has changed. When the world changes, we find new ways. We learn new techniques. Like Rebekah, agreeing to travel to a strange land, many of us are doing things we would never have thought of doing before. We are using technology that was unfamiliar only months or weeks ago. We are connecting with those who are near to us because those who are far away are inaccessible. We are finding small ways to help out and look after those who are most vulnerable. We are offering care and hospitality in whatever ways we can. We are answering God’s call to serve. And sometimes the best way we can serve others right now is by staying home when we can, keeping a safe distance, and wearing a mask.
I’m glad to be here with you in Forest Grove. My family is excited to be here. And we thank you all for being flexible and creative as we seek to be the church in this unusual time. When God asks us to take up new ways, let us answer with the courage of Rebekah. When God calls us, let us say, “Yes, I will do it.” Thanks be to God.