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For Your Camels Also

04 Nov

(A sermon for November 4, 2012, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Genesis 24:10-25)

Have you ever had someone do something for you that was well “above and beyond” what you ever expected; someone who so willingly went “the extra mile” for you that you were left overwhelmed by the sheer generosity of it?

I’m remembering one Easter when our children were very young – as I recall, things were extremely busy at the church that year; the kids were, as always, bouncing us in every possible direction, and as a family we had our own holiday to plan for: and what happens, but Lisa catches the flu and was laid out flat!  So suddenly, Dad’s in charge – which was always a risky proposition at best, but right then a recipe for disaster!  But thanks be to God, word got around the church and soon there were babysitters in abundance, helpers at every service, and somehow we got through it.

But then, after church on Easter morning, when I’m plopping on the couch and deciding that McDonald’s was a perfectly viable option for Easter dinner (!), I look out the window to discover a literal parade of church folk arriving at the parsonage, bearing gifts of ham and sweet potatoes, casseroles and more desserts than I, at least,should be allowed to have!  It was an absolute feast – and the best thing about it was that all these women of the church, most of whom were already way too busy preparing their own big meals, had gone the extra mile to make dinner for us, and that meant more than we could ever begin to express.

You see, someone going “above and beyond” like that has a way of not only making you feel very loved, it also lifts your spirit; and it does change things for you, in that by virtue of the kindness, suddenly the possibilities for life and living greatly multiply, and things are better than they were before.  It also has a way of growing, exponentially, and in ways you might not expect – in other words, because you’ve been lifted up, the people around you also begin to change for the better.  Some call it “paying it forward,” but it comes down to a basic truth that the rewards of generosity do tend to overflow and touch the lives of others as it does – and the best thing is that God is glorified in the abundance!

Well, that’s what our scripture reading this morning is all about.  It’s a small portion of the Old Testament story of Rebekah, a woman whose simple generosity not only brings her directly into God’s great plan, it sets the standard for you and me as well.  Now, the back-story here is that Abraham, who is now very old and widowed, is seeking to find a wife for his son Isaac, who himself is about 40 years old.  It was customary in those days for the father to arrange the marriages of their children – but because of his advanced age, Abraham doesn’t do this himself; he sends a servant to go and do the job.  And so this servant sets out on a 500 mile journey, outfitted with ten camels piled high with gifts and supplies, all to find the perfect woman and convince her (not to mention her family) to come back with him to marry Isaac.  Folks, this was most assuredly not e-harmony dot com!

It’s no small task, and in fact, the further the servant travels, the less certain he is of the eventual outcome of his journey – and as he enters the village of Nahor, he prays that God will give him a sign so that he’ll know the woman that God has chosen.  We’re told that even “before he had finished praying,” he sees “a beautiful young woman of unimpeachable integrity” on the way to the well.  It’s Rebekah, and here’s what happens; when the servant asks her for a drink, Rebekah immediately takes the jar of water down from her shoulder to give him that drink, and says “I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.”  Without any hesitation at all, Rebekah goes to work bringing up jugs of water from the well for the camels – and immediately, the servant knows beyond any doubt that this is the girl!

Now, by today’s standards, “watering the camels” may not seem like the defining criteria for the perfect wife, but in fact it was a huge gesture on Rebekah’s part!  Consider the fact that one camel will drink between 20 and 30 gallons of water, and there were ten camels here!  So do the math: ten camels times 20 or 30 gallons, which equals about two or three hundred gallons of water; and oh, by the way …Rebekah was bringing this water up from the well one jug at a time, with the jug only holding, at most, five gallons of water each trip!  So “what seemed like a simple offer of kindness would have taken Rebekah two hours [or more] to fulfill!”

Now Rebekah would have been considered a very kind person if she had just smiled sweetly and given this man his drink of water; nobody asked her to draw water for the camels; she could have done the sufficient act of kindness and go home, but Rebekah did more than what was required or expected, and did so with an open, generous spirit.  Surely she must have had some inkling about the time, effort and sacrifice that this task required of her – but the point is that she did it anyway, and kept on doing it, trudging back and forth, again and again, from the well to the camels.  Rebekah simply was a person who lived unto the notion that “I’ll do what you asked me to do, and then I’m going to do something more,” and as a result of that, her life changed forever.  But the point is that she could not have known that this simple act of generosity would lead her to a husband, a fortune, a legacy and a place in history; as far as Rebekah was concerned, she did what she did not just because it was the right thing to do, but also because it was the righteous thing to do!

If only we could learn that kind of generosity in our own walk of faith.

John Maxwell has written that in this story Rebekah’s “generosity stands in stark contrast to the prevailing attitudes today… [even in] the lives and thoughts of many people of faith,” he says, there are “few individuals who desire to do more than they must. Everywhere you look you see an attitude of minimum effort for maximum payment.”  This may be true, and that’s a shame, because true righteousness before the Lord requires more than a teaspoon of spirit and generosity!  Blessing is the by-product of a generous spirit that is ready and willing to be parceled out for everything that God would have us do – and more!

Can you imagine what our lives could be, yours and mine, and what the effect of those lives would be, with the generosity of a Rebekah?  The Rev. Victor Pentz, one of my favorite preachers, says it well:  “Do you want to change the world?  Be a Rebekah.  Would you like to make your faith so irresistible that people follow you to church like bugs to a floodlight?  Be a Rebekah.  Would you like people to smile and thank God that they know you and that you’re a friend of theirs?  Be a Rebekah.”  We can either live our lives in a careful and measured fashion; giving of ourselves to God and one another in a way that seems to us to be safe and reasonable, or we can respond to God’s Spirit with the generosity of a Rebekah, and say “I will bring you water, and for your camels also.”

Granted, this kind of generosity requires from us both commitment and real effort, not to mention the willingness to take a risk at times.  Because, yes, it’s very tempting, especially in these times, to succumb to the idea that to step back is the prudent way to go; safer for us to stay at the place and level where we’re comfortable, to just do what’s “good enough” and go no further; in the hope that maybe somebody else will come along to do the rest of what needs to be done.

But you know the problem with an attitude like that?  Nothing wonderful ever happens – no one ever gets to experience that incredible feeling about what God is doing through his people who are giving and doing “above and beyond” what’s expected.  Children don’t get to hear about the love of Jesus with the kind of unbridled wonder that only comes from people who truly know the experience of that wonder first hand.  People will never discover the utter joy that comes in the experience of true and godly worship – because they’ve never been extended the invitation.  And that person who’s come into this sanctuary for the first time won’t ever get the reassurance that they’re not totally alone after all, but that there is a perfect love in Jesus Christ that casts out all fear; all because the one who knew differently never seized the moment to reach out.

My point is that when there’s a generosity of Spirit in and through you and me, in this wonderful church and in the ministry we share – those who see us cannot help but be overwhelmed by what God can do! How can we ever presume to step back from that?  How can “good enough” ever be good enough?

This is about stewardship, friends, something we should be taking seriously about now; but even more than this, this is about considering the sheer magnitude of what God has done for us, and letting that knowledge inspire us to true generosity.  Friends, right now you and I are called to bring forth that good spiritual water that we’ve drunk in abundance – the only question now is how much of that water are we willing to share?

Just something to think about as we come to feast at the Lord’s Table today.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2012  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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