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Big Bracelets and Bad Beer

July 5, 2011

“Big Bracelets and Bad Beer” Genesis 24:1-27, 50-67; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 © 7/3/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In his book Cosmos, the late scientist Carl Sagan tells of the ancient Assyrian belief that a certain worm caused toothaches. The incantation against the creature begins, of all places, with the creation of the universe. Only after recounting that history can the healer recite the tale of how toothaches came into being. But then, if that were not strange enough, having chanted the story, the practitioner is to mix cheap beer and some oil, then say the incantation three times. After that he applies the medicine to the affected tooth.

An odd combination, isn’t it—bad beer and a creation story?! But what could one expect from some pagan culture that did not worship the true God? Surely the Bible contains no such foolishness! We encounter there a God who works his will when and where and how he pleases, in great events and through powerful miracles, in the decisions of anointed kings and the preaching of inspired prophets. Our scriptures would never be so crass as to connect something so earthy and trivial as beer, of whatever quality, with the mystery of creation, the movements of God.

True enough, if we are talking about the passages that have deeply influenced Christian thought and practice. But there are other parts of our tradition, ignored, nearly unknown, neglected, dismissed as irrelevant, that connect the working of God with the stuff of human life, the most ordinary of concerns. Birth. Death. Marriage. Physical attraction and sex. Eating and drinking. The customs, even the prejudice, of a community. Thirsty camels. Big gold bracelets. Nose rings.

This is a viewpoint that finds nothing odd in the servant’s prayer that the woman meant for Isaac would be the one to offer his camels water. God is expected to work in, with, by, under, and through the practices and customs of a culture and the circumstances of everyday life. Nor is the tradition behind today’s story embarrassed that as much as loyalty and faithfulness, greed for expensive gifts influences the decision of Rebekah and her family about the offer of marriage. There is no condemnation of custom or even what we would consider a rather virulent xenophobia, the fear of strangers and foreigners. It’s accepted and expected that Abraham would not want a wife for his son from among the idolatrous Canaanites, but from “his kind of people.” The line had to be kept pure, ethnically and spiritually, which in that day were the same thing.

Later, of course, the gospel word would insist that all are included in God’s kingdom. Xenophobia, suspicion, and parochialism are beneath those who name the name of Christ. And paying for a bride is an abhorrent custom that hearkens back to the day when women were property, to be transferred from father to husband like a piece of land or a herd of camels. But this is baby and bathwater time. Our rejection of such customs and ideas should not blind us to the point the author is making, namely, that human existence is shot through with blessing. In the smallest of occurrences, there is God, at work to give grace. Every moment, every serendipitous meeting, even the most routine activity, holds great possibilities for changing our lives, even for transforming the world.

In the scientific field called complexity or chaos theory this notion is called “the butterfly effect.” On this view, everything everywhere is so intimately connected that the fluttering of wings of a butterfly in Central America can set forces in motion which result in a typhoon in the South China Sea. Ridiculous? Impossible? Maybe. But don’t we know from our own experience that every moment is precious, every event the possible prelude to something marvelous?

My own life as it is now certainly depends on the events of one day in one little corner of the Pacific theater in World War II. The man who would eventually be my wife’s dad, Neal Smith, flew as a radioman on various bombers, ferrying war wearies home and bringing out the new planes from California to Hawaii for arming and deployment. He told many stories about his experiences before Alzheimer’s took his mind, some them funny, a few chilling. Among the latter was the tale of how he had flown two back-to-back missions and was ordered to go right away on a third. Another man who needed some flight hours pitched a fit and got Neal bumped from the flight. The plane was jumped by enemy fighters and shot down over the ocean, with no survivors. If Neal had gotten on that bomber, he would not have lived to become a father or to do the excellent work he did in his job or to have such a positive influence on so many in church and family. Dozens and dozens, even hundreds, of lives that touch others would have been changed, including mine. I would not have had the wonderful wife I have nor the privilege of having known Neal. I wouldn’t have been aware of the difference, of course, nor would anyone else except Elaine Smith, whom Neal married just as the war started, and Neal’s brothers and sisters. But the world would have been different, and not for the better, I think.

Consider God’s gracious action through the small and seemingly insignificant events of your own life. Why is it, how is it, that we just “happen” to see someone who has been on our mind, at a certain time, and she or he says: “I’m so glad we ran into each other. I need somebody to talk to about a problem.” Or that an off-hand remark can spark our imaginations and lead us to see a new approach to a puzzle in business or life. For example, the author Frederick Buechner tells of how an ad lib addition to a sermon by the great preacher George Buttrick triggered Buechner’s conversion to Christ. The minister had added at the last minute the words “and great laughter,” which were not found in the printed version. Buechner says “on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that…hang the destinies of us all” (The Sacred Journey: 109).

And what about developments on the world stage? Is it luck or coincidence that the great movements of the last century which brought down apartheid in South Africa and communist governments in Eastern Europe, Germany, and Russia all began about the same time? Or that the longing of people for freedom in Tunisia spilled over into other Arab lands in what has been dubbed “the Arab spring,” a struggle that’s still going on? Is it happenstance that two people a continent apart can be drawn together by a series of events, a kind of human instance of quantum entanglement?

Because it deals with such questions of mysterious workings and unexpected linkages, I think Sleepless in Seattle is one of the finest theological films of the past thirty years. You may know the story. On Christmas Eve, a radio psychologist asks her audience to share their dreams and wishes. Eight-year-old Jonah from Seattle wants a new wife for his widowed dad, Sam. At that very moment, newspaper reporter Annie is driving to Washington, DC, and listening to the radio program just as Jonah and then Sam speak of their need. Though she is engaged to another man, and presumably is in love, Annie is drawn to Sam. We know the odds are against their ever meeting. They are a whole nation apart. They have no mutual friends. As Sam’s brother-in-law observes, it is more likely Sam will be attacked by terrorists than he will find another woman to love. And in one scene, the place where everything comes together is described pessimistically as “the Bermuda triangle.” Yet Sam and Annie do meet and fall in love. Is there a larger force at work in their lives, is there someone guiding them toward a destiny which they could neither conjure nor imagine?

We tend to think God works in spectacular ways and look for him only there. Maybe such expectations were also held by people in Jesus’ day. They had decided that if God did not play by their rules, they would not play at all. They didn’t care for John the Baptist, because he was too weird and smelly and barely in this world. But they didn’t like Jesus either, because he was always partying and eating and drinking and laughing a little too loudly. God surely was not with someone like that! So, invited to dance, they refused to rejoice; bidden to mourn, their hearts remained stony and closed. Nothing is satisfactory or ever will be for people who believe they have God figured out and put in a box. Certainly, they say, he can only act in big events like parting seas and raising the dead.

Oh, but for those who have eyes to see, whose hearts are open like children’s, what wonder there is in the world, down to the smallest detail! What reminders of the majesty and mercy of God! What beautifully engraved invitations to enter into life with more vigor and verve, to give into the urgings of the Spirit that woos us toward tomorrow!

Consider the ways simple everyday things and tasks bring us into the presence of God, remind us of what he does for us. A brief prayer, almost inarticulate, but powerful, whispered quietly, brings us peace as we hand our burdens to Jesus. The gentle touch of a friend or loved one reminds us that our Lord is gentle and lowly in heart. Washing hands or dishes, taking a shower, any encounter with water, is or can be a reminder of baptism. Going to the grocery store and buying food is a time to reflect on all the ways God provides for us, how he gives the heavenly bread and the pure milk of salvation we can’t buy anywhere. And of course, each and every meal with eat, especially with others, teaches us to share and is an anticipation of the Lord’s Table here and heavenly banquet in the hereafter.

One author observes: “The simple things around you at home, all are laden with wisdom at many different levels….[E]very commonplace ‘thing’ connects you to the universe. Everything is a ‘souvenir,’ a reminder of import” (Alice Howell, in Values and Visions, 24:3 [1993]: 5). I think that’s true. I’ve thought more than once, for example, how playing with my dog is a reminder of simple pleasures and most of all, the unconditional love, the entrance into life with abandon, that humans could very well imitate.

Of course, in our excited thinking about the possibilities of linkage with God in the everyday, we mustn’t forget that there is a downside. Some daily realities of human life may temporarily stand in the way of God’s good purposes. Human customs can be cruel and immoral. Xenophobia, the fear of strangers and foreigners, has been and is the impetus for all sorts of hatred and atrocities against those who are different. Beautiful objects may be sought after as a greedy obsession, and the relentless pursuit of them put us in deep debt. Even the qualities of love and loyalty can be twisted into excuses to do anything to protect the company, the nation, the church, the family. Our potential for being the bearers of treasure in earthen vessels, epiphanies in clay pots, is great. But so is the possibility that we and the structures we create will become instruments of evil.

But even the worst we can do cannot thwart what God intends. Whatever the situation, we can still trust in the operation of providence. Paul Tillich once wrote: “Providence does not mean the divine planning by which everything is predetermined, as in an efficient machine. Providence means that there is a creative and saving possibility in every situation that cannot be destroyed by any event. Providence means that demonic and destructive forces within ourselves and our world can never have an unbreakable grasp upon us, and that the bond which connects us with fulfilling love can never be disrupted.”

I don’t know if any of you will remember the 1990s TV show Providence. But it was one of those thoughtful dramas that occasionally addressed theological questions. I doubt the writers ever read Tillich, but their stories reflected the viewpoint I just shared. In the first episode, Dr. Sidney Hansen, played by Melina Kanakarides, is a successful plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, living in the fast lane. She returns to her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island to attend her sister Joanie’s wedding. But right in the middle of the service, her mother dies. Sidney intends to stay for just a while, but ends up remaining, working for a free clinic. She begins to see her dead mother in her dreams, and to work out things by conversations with her in that world. When asked what brought her to town, Sid replies with a smile: “Providence.” Does she mean the town and its charms? The family there? Or something even more, a force and a will beyond her own?

Sid Hansen found “saving possibility” in the stuff of her life. A servant long ago found it in the smile of a pretty girl who gave water to his animals. He believed God was at work in the giving of gifts of jewelry and clothes. And through it all, God brought love and children to a man in his grief over his mother’s death. For you and me today, who knows? You may find God while you eat your lunch today. I may discover him as I look out the window of my SUV on the way home. An acquaintance of mine even claimed to have seen God in the Dollar Tree. There are so many possibilities for blessing. Today, tomorrow, look for them, know that God is with you, inviting you to learn from our Lord, guiding and guarding all the way. And let your heart find rest and comfort and joy.

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