I Will Go
Sermon given at
the Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership
Hood River, Oregon
Sunday 6 July 2014
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
by Rev. David D. M. King
It seems like this day has been a long time coming. My appointment here was announced way back in February, and it’s seemed like a lot of waiting around until now when I’m actually here. I want to thank you for welcoming me and my family here. We are very excited to be in Hood River and to be a part of the life of this church.
The lectionary passage we have from Genesis this morning picks up in the middle of the 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 the Canaan, a new land that God was promising. Abraham and Sarah have many adventures on their 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 minute, 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 didn’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 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 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 on 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, at least 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 face to face yet. You placed your trust in the District Superintendent, Lowell Greathouse, and in the bishop, Grant Hagiya, to look at all the possibilities and to make the best possible match. And I did the same. And when I received news that the Bishop Hagiya wanted to send me here to Hood River, 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.
But marriage isn’t just a good metaphor for the relationship between congregation and pastor, it’s also a good metaphor for the peculiar reality of this church: one congregation with two denominations. Unlike with you and I, though, or with Rebekah and Isaac, the partnership that you have formed here between Lutheran and Methodist is not an arranged marriage. No, the Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership is a love match. It is not a relationship one would normally expect. One might even call it scandalous. When I tell people that I’m pastoring a Lutheran-Methodist cooperative parish, by far the most common response is, “So, how does that work?” accompanied by a puzzled facial expression. Denominations don’t usually play well with others. Oh, it’s fine to plan the Good Friday service together or to serve together at the community meal. That’s just neighborly. But what happens when we talk about getting closer than just neighbors? Make no mistake, what we have here, this Methodist-Lutheran partnership—to many people it seems like forbidden love. “I know you feel like you love each other now,” they will advise us, “but how are you going to raise the kids? Whose traditions are you going to follow at the holidays? You’ve got to think about these things before you make such a big commitment. I just don’t want you to jump into something that you’re going to regret later.”
When people look at me with that quizzical expression and ask, “So, how does that work?” I think what they are really trying to ask is whether or not there is a pre-nuptial agreement. It’s fine to say you’re going to worship together for a while, but what happens when money and property get involved? Who keeps the family checkbook? If there is a divorce, who gets to keep the house?
Now, I know this process hasn’t been all roses and romantic walks on the beach. Bringing these two congregations together and forming a new one, it’s been hard. It’s been painful at times. There have been struggles and compromises and hurt feelings. And it’s not all just about Lutherans and Methodists. Some of it is about change, or unmet expectations, or words that were said and cannot be taken back. Many of you are convinced that this partnership is a good thing, that it is God working in this place to do a new thing. Even so, there are still wounds. There are doubts. There is uncertainty. And like any good married couple, we will have to face those things together. We will have to make our apologies, to bind up each other’s wounds, to keep walking forward even when we are not sure where we are going or whether we can make it, trusting that whatever we will do, we will do together.
What you have done already is no small accomplishment. I am awestruck whenever I think of the Methodists among you who chose to leave behind a building that had been the center of Methodist ministry in this community for more than a century, to leave behind the sanctuary where you were married, where your children were baptized, where your loved ones were memorialized, and to hear the call of God and say, like Rebekah, “I will go. I am walking.” That is an act of faith. And I am equally impressed by the Lutherans among you who chose to open your doors and to welcome in a new people, a people who might well want to do things differently than they have been done in this place before. That is an act of faith. I am impressed with a congregation who could probably use some more space for worship or classrooms, but who chose instead to set aside land and raise money to build an ecumenical food bank. You chose to defer your own needs in order to prioritize reaching out to the least and the last and the lost. That is a most excellent act of faith.
And all of this is God’s work among you. Time and again, God has called to you, has asked you to leave behind the things you know and to take a chance on something new. And time and again, you, like Rebekah, like Abraham, like Moses and Miriam, like Peter and Mary, time and again you have met God’s challenge. Time and again you have responded to God’s call. Time and again you have said, “We will go. We are walking.” People of God, we have been called and we are walking. May God give us the strength to keep on walking, and to go forward to wherever it is that Christ might lead us. Thanks be to God. Amen.