Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 AND Psalm 45:10-17 OR Song of Solomon 2:8-12, Zechariah 9:9-12 AND Psalm 145:8-14, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

One of the images running through scripture is that of a marriage, a love affair, between God and God’s people. That’s the way people most frequently read the Song of Solomon. It is certainly a sensuous rendering of a torrid romance. It may just be a celebration of such relationships tucked into the pages of scriptures. After all, we believe in a God who works in the middle of, and blesses, the everyday realities of human existence, even took on human form to dwell in our midst. It’s not surprising then that many take the Song of Solomon as some sort of allegory about God’s relationship to and with us.

In either case, it calls us to embrace the exuberance of the relationship. The beloved “comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills . . . like a gazelle or a young stag . . . the time of singing has come.” (Song of Solomon 2:8-9, 12) It is a time to abandon constraints and come away with one’s love, almost the suggestion of an elopement. (vss. 10 & 13)

Such is the nature of romantic love. It is wonderful when one is overcome by it, but is it enough to sustain a relationship over time? The reading from Zechariah picks up the same enthusiasm as the beloved king comes to be crowned and joined to his people. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!” (Zechariah 9:9) But there is another element now, a covenant. (vs. 11) A commitment has been made. One is faithful, in part, because of the commitments made, the covenant to which God, and we, and a marriage partner, are faithful as life moves on through thick and thin.

Both themes can be found in the two readings from the Psalms. Psalm 45 depicts the coming away as the bride, according to custom, leaves her father’s house. (Psalm 45:1) The princess is decked out “in many-colored robes,” “led along” “with joy and gladness.” (vss. 13-14) There is the promise that the results will endure for generations. “I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations; therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.” (vs. 17)

Psalm 145 can perhaps even be read as the highest expression of faithful love found in all these readings. It speaks of a Lord who abounds “in steadfast love . . . is good to all” and filled with “compassion.” (Psalm 145:8-9) He is “faithful in all his words and gracious in all his deeds.” (vs. 13)

Most, if not all, marriages in the Bible were arranged according to time-honored traditions. We tend to think of modern approaches to the formation of marriages as much freer---and that is most undoubtedly the case for many. At the same time, how free are those steps toward marriage? How much are they still limited by the circles of relationships to which we are exposed, the groups to which we belong, even the hidden (or not-so-hidden) workings of parents? And does one approach assure a fuller, more faithful and loving and caring, relationship than another?

Our reading from Genesis gives us the story of an arranged marriage. Abraham sends a servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac, 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.” (Genesis 24:34-38) Right away, we could get into the long history which has stood in the way of those who sought to cross forbidden boundaries in marriage. Does anyone want to go back to the days when racial intermarriage was illegal? Do we want to continue to place barriers in the way of same-sex couples who wish to marry?

We would also be put off by the marriage to “kindred,” although that’s been much more common than we might wish to admit, especially among royalty. I have difficulty making my electronic family tree program work at points because cousin marriages cause loops that are problematic.

Abraham’s servant prays for a sign, an interesting sign indeed! It is the young woman who responds to his request for a drink of water who will be the one. (vss, 42-44) How often are we told that giving a drink of water to one who is thirsty is a sign of love? God works through such simple acts. It is often the seeming little things that bode well for the future of a relationship.

In this case, the young woman is Rebekah, who offers even to water his camels. (vss. 45-46) There’s lots more to the story, but she consents to go with the servant, eventually meeting Isaac who has come part way. (vss. 58-65) We won’t get into the economic exchanges involved, although every marriage, perhaps every relationship, has economic aspects and implications.) The story lacks the apparent passion of Song of Solomon but ends with the words, “ . . . and she became his wife; and he loved her.” (vs. 67),

Need we say any more? Well, of course, we should go on to define love. After all, that’s partly what is at stake here. Is romance what defines love? Or is it a matter of committed caring? Maybe we can have both. I’m not going to get into the sticky business of such definitions in this blog entry, but I believe the readings invite each of us to consider the nature of the relationships of love we enter into with one another.

And what do we do with the Epistle and Gospel readings?

For me, the provocative reading from Romans is always a reminder of the mixed emotions and motives that are underneath all my actions and commitments. Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind . . .” (Romans 7:15-23) Human love, marriage, relationships, are not pure. They are full of confusion. Paul finds hope only in the experience that underneath them all, for those who pay attention, is God’s Love shown to us in Jesus. (vs. 25a)

The Gospel lesson begins with a poignant little parable about children at play. People’s response to Jesus is like children who criticize those who are unable to celebrate enough and those who celebrate too much. (Matthew 11:16-19) It’s a little bit like the contrast between an exuberant romantic love and a structured love of mutual commitment and covenant.

Jesus doesn’t resolve the issue saying, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (vs. 25) He ends, however, with words of strength and comfort repeated every week, in worship, by our pastor. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for you souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (vss. 28-30)

I’ve never thought of it this way, but suppose those verses were applied to marriage and relationships of love. Nobody said that marriages and relationships were all going to be totally smooth sailing. My wife and I have been married 24 years. We’ve gone through a lot of things together, good days and bad days. That’s part of what love is. It’s how love grows. We’re currently facing some tough health issues. Our yoke being easy doesn’t mean an absence of stress or problems. To know that we are connected, human to human, human to divine, though, means that our lives are woven together with a fabric of love and hope that endures with faithfulness, even joy, to the end.

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