Rev. Rebecca Heilman – Campbell

The first time I watched the Disney movie, Up, I was with my parents. My star trek loving, action movie fanatic Dad was grumbling in the background, wondering why we had to watch a cartoon. Regardless of his grumbles, we start the movie. It opens as if it was an old black and white film playing in the movie theater. A news anchor is updating the country on a new waterfall, never before seen by humankind. The camera pulls out from the screen and on to a young boy, named Carl, wearing an old flying cap and goggles.  The little boy pulls them over his eyes as the famous explorer yells out, “Adventure if out there!”[1] The little boy runs out of the theater pretending to zoom around Mt. Everest, Mt. Rushmore, you name it, when he hears a little girl yelling out and pretending a similar adventure in an abandon house. The boy climbs the rickety stairs to find Ellie, a toothless, loud, and as adventurous as he is little girl and who will soon be his best friend. They create a club, share in an adventure book and say together, “When we get big, we’re going to move to South America at Paradise Falls, build our club house and explore. Adventure is out there!”[2] Ellie skips off and turns around to say to Carl, “You know, I like you.”[3] The scene skips forwards 10, 15 years to their wedding day and the next 5 mins are sweetest minutes you’ll ever see from Hollywood. There’s no dialogue, just clip after clip of their adult life together with a gentle and sweet melody in the background. The creators take us through their new life together -– purchasing and fixing up a house, enjoying a picnic, infertility concerns, saving coins in a jar for a big adventure to Paradise Falls, then using the coins for an emergency flat tire or a repairment on the house. The movie goes from scene to scene of them making the most of their life together, without children, without a big adventure, simply living a humble, loving, full of ups and downs life. The final scenes are of their elderly age, climbing a hill to their picnic spot, Carl is on top of the hill, encouraging Ellie to make it a few more steps, she falls and is hospitalized. Carl buries her with all the love and sorrow he has always carried for her and then walks into their home alone. Of course, at this point my mom, sister and I are weeping and we look over to our before-grumbling-Dad and he’s as moved to tears as the rest of us, telling us that’s the most beautiful and honest love story he’s ever seen. He then kisses my mom on the head as he tries to pull himself together while also showing my sister and I the love he and my mom share together.  Like I said, it’s the sweetest 10 mins Hollywood has ever gifted to us, reminding us that a humble life of picnics, painting, dreaming, saving money, grief, hope, accidents, love is enough whether that’s with a partner or with our best friend.

And in an odd way, we’re gifted this reminder in our Scripture today about Rebekah and Isaac. Of all the arranged marriages, friendships, partnerships among the first stories of the Torah, theirs is the first to be characterized with the word, hesed, the Hebrew word for love. According to Wilda Gafney, a womanist theologian, “no previous character in Scriptures is described as loving or being loved.” Let’s remember this when we dive into Rebekah’s story since we so often condemn her because of one act she later partakes in of tricking Isaac. Although we won’t be talking about that story today, Rebekah is shadowed by that one decision. It has hung over her integrity, her character for thousands upon thousands of years. Both Christians and Jews alike have condemned her, shamed her, and have taken that one act to define who she must be. Our story today will hopefully shine some light on Rebekah, redeem that one mistake, that we’ve all been known to do, and allow us to look at who Rebekah is before that time. Hopefully, we will give some depth to her character.

For whatever reason, that very few commentators can answer, Isaac did not have a voice in deciding who he would marry. That was left to the responsibility of Abraham’s servant. God bless him for that job. Abraham sent his servant to Mesopotamia, a land where his close relatives live. It’s important to Abraham and the rest of his relatives to marry in the family.  We’re just going to name that, acknowledging it’s not what we practice, nor want to practice today. And so, the unnamed servant packs up 10 camels and all of Abraham’s best provisions and makes the long and dangerous journey. He stops by a well outside of his intended city, knowing culturally this is where women will come to carry water for their family. The servant prays, “Lord, God of my master Abraham,” when a young woman both hands me a jar a water and then offers some to my camels, she is the one. And before the servant could finish his prayer, Rebekah walks into the scene. The servant eagerly asks for a drink and Rebekah gives it to him and without being asked, she then offers some water to his camels, pulling up bucket after bucket for 10 large thirsty camels. She’s supposedly the one and he showers her with gifts of praise and a promise of marriage. So it’s not a love at first sight story. It’s not the sweetest, most beautiful story the Bible could gift us, but for Rebekah, this is good news, actually great news. While for our modern ear, this story might horrify us at how quickly the family was willing to give their daughter away,  for Rebekah and her family, it’s a relief. They knew she would be going to a safe, fairly well off, loyal family.

You see for women, in a culture of arranged marriages, they were often expected to heal clan or tribe conflicts by marrying into other clans or tribes. They could be the peacemakers, but if there is conflict, how much of the conflict can truly be resolved by a marriage? There’s always the risk of what kind of household that woman is entering – violence? Poverty? Impossible relationships? Who knows? Even more so, you see, for an unmarried woman, young or elderly, in a culture dominated by men, there’s always a risk for women and their economic status. Marriage was almost crucial for survival. We know this from our beloved story of Ruth and Naomi who glean for their food on the side of crops and who would do anything to seek security for their future. Marriage was a security for women in the Ancient Near East. It personally gave them the structure of support, but more importantly, women enhanced group survival and societal flourishment.  As the author and historian, Carol Meyers writes in her book on Ancient Near East women, “The phrase “only a wife and mother” would have been incomprehensible to Israelite agrarians.” Meyers continues to tell us that women were primarily responsible for the “’basic tasks of daily life that regulate and stabilize’ the life of the household and its community. Household maintenance means more than meeting the physical needs of its members through the provision of food and clothing; it also involves care of the young and the ailing, the socialization and education of children, the organization of household space, the fostering of linkages with kin and neighbors, and the performance of household rituals. And this list is not necessarily exhaustive—other tasks depend on women. Group survival depends on all these activities.”[4] Group survival depends on women. That worked then and it’s how their economy sustained itself.

Less and less of our modern world is agrarian, even in the most rural of areas.  And so marriage as a security for survival and economic sustainability is less important today. Today, the security is education. As simple as that. And we Presbyterians LOVE education. Thank goodness for that!

We’ve heard these reports for years. Investing in girls’ and women’s education transforms communities, countries, even the world. UNICEF states it beautifully, “Girls [and women] who receive an education are less likely to marry young and more likely to lead healthy, productive lives. They earn higher incomes, participate in the decisions that most affect them, and build better futures for themselves and their families.”[5] Educating young girls and women strengthens the economy. It stabilizes and secures the economy. Studies have shown that when we invest in girls’ secondary education, “child mortality rates fall, maternal mortality rates fall, and national growth rates rise.”[6] We often think about this on the international level, of the young girls in a far-off impoverished land who live in huts with babies on their sides. And that’s true, I’ve seen it firsthand.

I’m also talking about children here in the United States. Children just up the road from us. The children we support at Nations Ford Elementary School. Just last year, we supported five Nation Ford families experiencing homelessness. I imagine some days those students were in school and other days they were not. Especially during the height of the pandemic, the Nations Ford social worker, mentioned to a member and I about how difficult it was to track down families and students when a child hasn’t been in school for days on end, whether it’s due to homelessness, an illness, a family incarceration, abuse, deportation, or an abrupt move. Douglas, my newly betrothed, tells me stories of students, especially at the high school he taught at in Virginia, where students wouldn’t come for weeks and girls who became pregnant would drop out almost immediately. According to our national Department of Health, in 2015-16, over seven million students missed 15 or more days of school. [7] And that’s not to mention the school-to-prison pipeline where many of our youth who are Black, Brown, have disabilities, or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect are funneled out of school for behavior and into juvenile and criminal legal systems instead of providing them with the support systems and resources they need. [8] They are isolated, punished, forgotten, and pushed out, lacking any access to more education and are then on the path of more punishments, arrests, and prison time.[9] There are layers and other factors at play. And education is only the beginning. When we invest in education and resources of support for security, poverty percentage lowers, percentage of pregnant teenagers lower, there are less arrests, less imprisonment.  When we invest in education, hunger rates lower, life can flourish, and communities, that are deeply hurting from this cycle, can be transformed.

While our economy is nothing like the economy Rebekah lived in, we are still to this day learning what maintains it, who has a place it, how do we live in it with security and sustainability so all might live a good, safe, and humble life?  For Rebekah, group survival depended on her responsibilities of maintaining a household. And so Rebekah went willingly, knowing the impact this would have for her family, her future, and her future family. When she and the servant arrived back to their house, the servant repeats the story of what had just happened to Rebekah’s brother and father. And it gets a little strange here, Laban, her brother, and Bethuel, her father, tell the servant to take Rebekah immediately. But it’s Rebekah’s mother (and a brother. We’re unsure if that’s Laban or another brother), who tell the servant the next day, to “let the young woman stay with us no more than ten days, and after that she may go.” The servant pushes to not be delayed, so Rebekah’s mother says, “Summon the young woman, and let’s ask her opinion.” Rebekah’s mother suddenly gives back her daughter’s voice knowing the importance of this life decision. And Rebekah agrees without hesitation, almost immediately.

And so my question for you this morning isn’t about marriage, it’s would you, could you do something that could sustain and secure your community without hesitation? My question to you this morning isn’t about modern marriage laws and customs, it’s do we want our communities to be transformed from high percentage of school-to-prison pipelines or lack of school attendance to communities that nurture and care for each other, where hunger and the next paycheck are not a concern? We know the impact education has on a community.

We keep pulling people out of the stream, feeding them, housing them, those are all important and good things that must not stop. Immediate needs are necessary for survival. But if we look up stream, what’s causing the homelessness, the poverty, the abuse, the hunger? What’s the reason? And what’s one answer that could help? What could transform communities so people aren’t only surviving but striving? Do we dare look up stream? Do we dare reach out and address what’s causing people to be take down stream through the mess and cycles of oppression? Do we dare try and transform our community? Well, do we?

Pray with me. Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.

[1] Up, directed by Pete Doctor (Walt Disney Pictures, 2009), 1:46:00,

[2] Up, 6:00.00.

[3] Up, 7:08:00.

[4] Meyers, Carol. Rediscovering Eve (p. 126). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.