Thursday, September 21, 2017

What love can do

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
July 9, 2017
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

I told Isaac after the service last week that a more fitting lyric for his sermon, in contrast to the Chance the Rapper line, “the praises go up/the blessings come down,” would have been a line from “Wait For It” from Hamilton: “Love doesn’t discriminate/between the sinners and the saints/it takes and it takes and it takes….” Thus you might guess that I bring a hint of skepticism to this story about the supposed blessings God is about to bestow on God’s people in Genesis 24. In comparison to last week’s message from Genesis 22, which is confusing is plenty of ways, I find this one more clearly focused on the idea of blessings and promises fulfilled.

The narrative goes like this: Abraham’s servant has been tasked with finding a wife for his son, Isaac. But not just any woman will do; Abraham insists she cannot be a Canaanite woman. So the servant travels, as promised, to Abraham’s country of origin in search of a partner for Isaac. Upon his arrival, he devises a plan, a series of actions and phrases by which God might reveal the right woman. He will wait for the right “sign” from God that he’s found The One.

In the section of the text we heard today, he is relaying the story of his interaction with Rebekah to her brother, Laban and father, Bethuel. That is to say, he’s telling the men in charge of her fate about God’s “blessed” plan, which is now known to him because she drew water for him, and for his camels, and comes from the right family. In some of the verses left out by the lectionary, the men respond simply, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything good or bad. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the lord has spoken.” (v. 50-51) Note the trend here: Abraham sends his servant to his homeland, the servant devises a plan, the brother and father respond. The movement of this passage is driven by men, not by God.

In the most basic sense, this passage is about an arranged marriage, but not only that, it’s specifically concerned with bloodlines, with lineage. And yet, I remember my college bible professor describing this chapter as one of the few moments of “romance” in the bible: “He took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her.”

ROMANCE? Isaac’s dad’s servant brought this barely consenting woman, Rebekah, to him and “took her to his mother’s tent.” This is not romance, this is going home with your first match on a JDate profile that your parents set up for you, and staying. For the rest of your life.

We can laugh about the absurdity of it, but so much of this story has been integrated into the way that people, religious and nonreligious, talk about love as if it’s a promise fulfilled, a reward – though for what, I’m not exactly sure at times. My professor isn’t the only one to describe the text as an instance of romance, either. There’s a prevalent belief that love is a blessing God will bestow upon the worthy, the faithful, the particularly lovable people who are just somehow “right” for each other and whose union is needed for some divine purpose. And, simply put, “right” for each other is limited, for far too many white Christians, not only to man and woman but white man and white woman, for the purpose of procreation, which is to say, the continuation of white heteronormative power. The language of family values is rarely anything other than a thinly veiled fear of losing that power. And when we talk about love, we cannot escape questions of power, of control. Certainly, Rebekah has little control in this story.

“Who were you taught you could love?” an ethics professor asked me a decade ago. I looked at the friend next to me, an out lesbian. “White boys,” I said. “Not women,” she said. “Other Christians,” we both nodded. It was the first time I really considered that love is political. Years later I would remember this conversation when my boyfriend at the time, a culturally Muslim agnostic slash honestly probably more of an atheist international student, from Pakistan, asked me what my very conservative parents would think of him. I resisted the urge to sugarcoat it. But the fact of the matter was that even his more liberal family, while he seemed to think they would have liked and respected me, had certain expectations that I would not have been able to live up to, either. It was a somber conversation, the meaning of our relationship somehow beyond our control.

I joked earlier about JDate, which is a dating site specifically for Jewish singles. There’s a Mennonite equivalent called MennoMeet which describes itself as “The community for singles who identify with Mennonite faith, culture or tradition. Like a potluck, but you don’t have to bring a dish…” The emphasis is strong, even among our supposedly justice minded group, on pairing off with the “right” kind of person, lest we think this is only the evangelicals. There are certain boundaries love is expected not to transgress.

Suffice it to say that the God-ordained romance take on this text has been and is badly applied. Walter Brueggemann argues that in many respects the story, as told by Abraham’s servant, is tongue in cheek, facetious even. This man is so sure this is God’s will, God’s promise — but how does he know? What makes him so sure? All this woman did was water his camels. A perfectly reasonable thing to do. All that has really happened is that the servant has found a woman with the right credentials, so he brings her back and she marries Isaac, the story fitting into the prescribed narrative of blessing, of love. Where is God in these actions, these men’s efforts to bring God’s promise to fulfillment?

Don’t we, in different ways from our different lives and situations, know this isn’t always how love works? That love is not always a blessing. That love does not conquer all. That sometimes love takes more than it gives, and that trying to earn someone’s affections, or expecting another to deserve yours, is a recipe for all kinds of disaster.

Thinking of Rebekah, and how little agency she has in this story, I think of people who are stuck, now. How many women stay with men who hurt them because, they say, “but he loves me” or “I love him”? How many women tell themselves, “he’ll stop hitting me if I stop doing this thing that makes him angry”? It’s not just women, of course, nor is violence always overt or physical, though it is also women who are most often taught to sacrifice, especially for love, taught in so many ways that they must earn love through pain – it’s all there in Genesis 3, isn’t it?

All this emphasis on love is for naught, if what you need is to let go of a dangerous love, a coercive love, a love that expects you to suffer in order earn it, a love that is a blessing bestowed only upon the deserving by the powerful.

Perhaps then the bit of hope I pull from this text is that God somehow works through this frail bond between Isaac and Rebekah, through Rebekah’ small “Yes,” through fragile human relationships of all kinds, including but not limited to the marital ones. It’s as unstable a foundation as I can think of, frankly, and the rest of Genesis attests to the wobbly nature of human relationships. Later on Isaac lies about his wife, putting her in danger; both Isaac and Rebekah play favorites with their sons; Rebekah and Jacob conspire to deceive Isaac; Esau vows to kill his brother Jacob – all of this just in the next two chapters.

“We laugh and we cry/and we break/and we make our mistakes,” to pick back up the lyrics from Hamilton. “Love” gets thrown around like it’s the answer, but perhaps it is rather the question we try to answer daily. If love truly has some revolutionary, transformative power, it is in “Yes” as well as “No,” in transgressing all the many lines that have been drawn around not only who we can love but how. This love is creating something new. And isn’t that in some sense what so much of Genesis is about? God creating something new.

God is quiet in Genesis 24. That things turn out well in the end reflects the author’s conviction that everything, every outcome, is ultimately under God’s care, regardless of how visible or vocal God may have been. Unlike Genesis 22, when God told Abraham what to do in no uncertain terms, here the people interpret in retrospect. “We do not always know the gifts of God in advance,” Brueggemann writes. But we see them, looking back. Instead of searching for mystical signs from God of what is “meant to be,” expecting clear directions, in embracing lives of love we would do well to resist both romanticism on one hand, and cynicism on the other – toward God, certainly, but also toward each other and ourselves. Who knows what we might create then; who knows what love can do?