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In Ordinary Times
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
July 5, 2020
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
A Reading from the Book of Genesis
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 worshiped 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.
On Friday the 13th of March, a bunch of the UPC staff were sitting in around the table in my office, facing a series of very unimaginable implications. That morning, news had broken of the first positive COVID test in Austin, and already we had determined that most of our normal in-person activities at the church would be shut down immediately, including Sunday worship. We went through the calendar of the next few weeks, trying to identify who needed to be alerted, and what needed to be preemptively canceled, and what needed to be tabled, if only for the weekend. And then we talked about Sunday worship — Sunday worship online — our only experience with this having been a service two and a half years prior on the weekend that Hurricane Harvey swept through Texas. We tried to remember some of those lessons. We did just a bit of planning. And then we made the same decision that was being made in offices all around the country at the exact same moment: we got ourselves a nice big business sized UPC Zoom account.
Now as you know, because you’re here, Zoom would quickly become the common soil of our Sunday worship. And as you know, because you’re here, like any common soil, we’ve gotten to know its quirks. We know that sometimes mute works and sometimes it doesn’t. We know that sometimes the screen shares easily and sometimes it doesn’t. But of course, one of the things about Zoom is that we also now know things about each other, too, that we didn’t know before. You now know that I preach here in the corner of my living room, where I can get the best light in the house — which means you can see the perennial stack of books and board games behind me, and you could see a whole bunch of mess if I would move the camera, which I’m not gonna do. The thing about Zoom worship is that it has bound us up in all these very ordinary spaces, in kitchens and dining rooms and backyards and with kids and dogs and cats running in the background. It’s a very different thing. It’s not getting up on Sunday and putting on your best Sunday outfit and making the long trip into west campus and carving out this whole separate experience. It’s on your couch, in the very ordinariness of your couch, in the very messiness of your couch, surrounded by all the pets who live on your couch. It’s worship made of very ordinary stuff.
And then course, worship isn’t the only thing happening on Zoom. On March 13, when we invested in our own Zoom account, of course, we weren’t the only ones — every organization around trying to figure out how to work remotely and also made the same decision. Zoom’s stock price went up 39 percent in one month. But of course, now four months later, it now feels to me like most of the life I used to live has now been fully replicated on Zoom. I go to meetings on Zoom. Sarah goes to meetings on Zoom. Charlie used to go to school on Zoom. Now Charlie goes to camp on Zoom. But it’s not even just that. I get together with colleagues over Zoom. I go to community gatherings over Zoom. I see long-lost friends over Zoom. We had a family reunion on Zoom. I know pastors who have done weddings over Zoom. I know pastors who have done funerals over Zoom. And of course, the challenge is that we used to have all these different spaces. You walk into the church library and you’re going to a meeting. You walk into the sanctuary and you’re going to worship. But now it’s all sort of one thing. Now everything happens in one identical black box. It’s the whole of our lives, all in the same ordinary place.
Maybe it’s a bit like a well. This summer we are preaching our way through these family stories in Genesis, and today Rebekah makes her appearance, of course, at a well. It’s such a common trope that you’d be forgiven for not quite remembering which well story this is and how does this one go and just how many of these well stories are there in the first place. And of course, that’s because that’s what a well was. It was this ordinary place where everything happened. Of course you meet people at the well. Meetings happen at the well. Gatherings happen at the well. Business happens at the well. Family reunions. Weddings. Funerals. Any and all of them could have happened at the well, because the well was where things happened. It was where you went all the time. It was where you had to go all the time. It was one of the only places you could go, and so of course it’s where you’d go, all the time. And so, it shouldn’t surprise us that this servant of Abraham’s, sent from far away to find Isaac a wife, would go, first, to the well. And it shouldn’t surprise us that Rebekah would be there too. And it shouldn’t surprise us that this whole romantic interlude would start at the well. Because every story starts at the well.
But this story is, even more, a very ordinary story. The tone of Genesis has shifted something profound. It used to be creation shaped from the formless void, and flood waters covering the earth, and towers to the heavens. This is not that movie any more, and today’s story is much more romantic comedy than it is apocalyptic creation saga. Abraham wants Isaac to have a wife. He sends a servant to faraway village. He goes to the well. He says a little prayer, ‘O Lord, if you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by this spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw — let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.” Rebekah comes, and sure enough. They go meet the family, and sure enough. We don’t quite get the long story in the lectionary, which includes the family falling over backwards when they see the size of the jewelry that the servant has brought for Rebekah. And we don’t get quite the gist of the translation at the end when Rebekah finally sees Isaac in person and the Hebrew says that she got knocked off her camel. But the point is that the whole story is profoundly human. It’s your classic boy-meets-girl-through-the-intermediate-servant-of-his-father’s-household. It’s a very ordinary story, and it starts at a very ordinary place.
And yet God is very much in it. In some ways it’s such a different God than we’ve seen in Genesis so far. It doesn’t feel like the God who orders all creation, or the God who walks through the garden. It doesn’t feel quite like the God who visits Abraham and Sarah or the one who will still yet come and wrestle with Jacob. This isn’t a God who lives in spectacular transcendent revelation. This isn’t a God who shows up with rainbows or lightning. This is such a less extraordinary God. “O Lord, 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 — let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.” I have prayed versions of that prayer. In such ordinary moments. O Lord. I am standing outside this interview. O Lord. I am about to go in for this test. O Lord. I could really use a good parking place. O Lord, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! But this is precisely the God who permeates every word of this story. It’s not a God of grand entrances and apocalyptic visions. It’s a God of everyday things. It’s a God of everyday stories. A God of ordinary places. And a God of ordinary stuff. It’s a God of ordinary time.
Pastor John introduced me to a resource that we have now passed around the church office a few different times, a book called Every Moment Holy by a writer and liturgist named Douglas McKelvey. McKelvey is an author and a lyricist and also something of a liturgical theologian, and he has put together a collection of prayers and devotionals to accompany Christians through all of the extraordinarily ordinary beats of modern life. They’re not long. They’re very simple. They’re very accessible. A liturgy for the preparation of a meal. A liturgy for the changing of diapers. A liturgy for the paying of bills. A liturgy for waiting in line. In fact we have adorned a few key spots at the church building with some of these; if we could be in the Fellowship Hall this morning, you could see McKelvey’s words hanging above the serving tables: A liturgy for the ritual of morning coffee. But of course, we’re not there. We’re not in the sanctuary with its holy decoration. We won’t dismiss to the courtyard with its beloved canopy. We just have this one black box that we use for everything. So what we need, of course, is a liturgy for getting onto a Zoom call.
And perhaps especially today. Because of course, today we are not only met on Zoom to worship, but also to do the hard work set before this congregation this afternoon. That meeting, of course, should be in the sanctuary. We should have those simple reminders all around us of the holiness of every moment of time. We should have those simple reminders of the sacredness of the call that binds us together and the call that holds us together. It should not be the case that we have to gather to do work like this in something so impersonal, or distant, or ordinary as a Zoom call. And yet we worship a God of ordinary things. We worship a God who shows up in ordinary moments. We worship a God who joins us in the most ordinary times. We worship a God who needs no high-walled sanctuary to create holiness. We worship a God of everyday encounters, of paying the bills and waiting in line and making the morning coffee. We worship a God of ordinary stuff, who blew life into the dust, who led people through the water, who took bread and wine and transformed it into a foretaste of the Kingdom itself.
And if God can do that, then I think we can have a liturgy for getting on a Zoom call. Friends, will you pray with me?
It feels like the world we knew has been stripped away,
Chipped away, piece by piece.
Gone are the casual cups of coffee together.
Gone are the weekend getaways with friends.
Gone are the meals shared in good company.
Gone is the body gathered together in the normal places of worship and fellowship
All of it replaced with little black boxes on a screen.
And yet we know, God, that the Spirit moves in ways beyond our imagining.
And yet we know, God, that you can bind us together across any distance.
And yet we know, God, that you can take the most ordinary things and make them sacred.
We know, God, in dust, and water, and bread, and wine,
We know that there is nothing so ordinary that you cannot call it for your redemptive purposes.
So bless us today, even as we gather over Zoom.
Bless us in our living rooms and our kitchens and our backyards.
Bless us on our couches and our recliners and at our tables and desks.
Bless those who have found good lighting and those who have not.
Bless those with cats and dogs and kids running through the background.
Bless those who gather from places of isolation.
Bless those who feel totally equipped for the technology of the moment.
Bless those who are running to catch up.
Bless all of us who gather in these little black boxes by your grace.
Make them holy. Make them sacred. Fit them for your purposes.
Fit us for your purposes.
By your power. And with your love. Amen.
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