Photo credit: Sydney Troxwell
Readings: Genesis 24:1-28, Secrets of Heaven #1712:2-3 (see below)
Welcome back, dear friends, to our new church year. This is a transitional time: perhaps we are going back to school, or back to work after a summer schedule or attitude. At the very least, we enter into a time of seasonal change, anticipating cooler weather, fall colors and the holidays.
So for our text today, we consider another transitional time, a story from the book of Genesis, when Abraham searches for a wife for his son Isaac. We recall that Abraham had been called out of his homeland by God to journey to a new land, and had been promised by God that he would father a great nation. It took a long time, but Abraham and his wife Sarah were granted a son, Isaac. And as Abraham entered into his final years, he wanted to secure his son’s future happiness by finding him a wife. But two things were important to Abraham: that a wife be found from among his own people and at the same time, that his son Isaac not return to where Abraham was born but continue God’s call in the new land. So Abraham sends his faithful servant on a mission, and the servant finds Rebekah.
This servant prayed: Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. (v12).
As we begin a new church year, a new school year, a new season, there is much on the horizon. Much to be excited about and perhaps much to be nervous about. And so we too might pray as the servant prayed: God make me successful, make my children successful, make our church successful, make my company successful. We have goals, we have wishes, we have strategies, we have plans. And praise be to God for the life that allows us to formulate and execute such plans, for minds and hearts and bodies that can dream and strive and work. And in the midst of this new season, as we stand on the precipice of what-could-be and what-we-would-like-to-bring-into-being…I believe it might be useful to consider what the difference is between success and faithfulness.
Mother Teresa once said: I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful. In saying this, she wisely pointed out that success and faithfulness are not necessarily the same things. Our success does not necessarily indicate anything about our faithfulness, and neither does faithfulness guarantee success.
We all receive cultural training in the mindset of worldly success. Whether it is in the workplace or in school or in our families, we come to understand that the goal above all goals is to be successful, in the way that the world defines success. Many times this involves forward and upward mobility, increasing our resources, increasing our power and agency, delivering quantifiable achievements that are recognizable by our peers. Often without even realizing it, we are molded to be linear, driven, goal-oriented, relentless, sometimes even to the detriment of our mental health.
Conversely, what do we think of when we consider faithfulness? What kind of cultural training do we receive in this idea? Many times faithfulness is mistaken for loyalty, or perhaps determination and resilience. But true faithfulness is not so much dogged attachment to a group or an idea, but rather it is a mindset of attentiveness, showing up to our life as it is and not what we are told it should be. Faithfulness in inter-connected, not always looking forward but looking around, knowing that God shows up where least expected. Faithfulness is humble, not always forging ahead but also listening and being led.
Now, for the sake of clarity, I’ve separated these two ideas for a moment. But I think we all recognize that success and faithfulness cannot really be separated in such an artificial way; it is not that simple. It is not an either/or. Success isn’t bad and faithfulness good just because we happen to be talking about them in church. These two things are actually inter-twined.
For it is a fallacy that if we are truly faithful, we will relinquish any desire to be successful, that if we are truly faithful, we will be detached from earthly outcomes, totally at peace with whatever happens. Humanity is an active species. Our minds derive satisfaction from setting goals and working to achieve them. We are designed to value success. We require at least some sense of effectiveness in order to feel the realness of our existence in this world, to feel the realness of our decisions and how those decisions build our selfhood. Faithfulness is not the opposite of effectiveness. Faithfulness does not call us to never strive or set goals or work to move forward on our journey. Rather, as we move forward in our journey toward success in life, whatever that might look like, faithfulness might just call us to do things a little differently.
We recall from our Swedenborg reading:
…the proper method is for us to do good as if on our own. We should not throw up our hands thinking, "If I can't do any good on my own, I ought to wait for direct inspiration; till then I should lie passive." This too is wrong. Instead we should do good as if we were doing it on our own, but when we reflect on the good we are doing (or have done), we ought to think, acknowledge, and believe that the Lord working in us is actually doing the good…If we abandon all effort because of the kind of thinking mentioned, the Lord cannot work in us. (Secrets of Heaven #1712)
The problem with success is that it might fool us into owning and meriting the success we achieve. Acting with faithfulness is about remembering that God infills and inspires any success that we might have, and about entertaining the idea that God’s infinity-view might define success differently than we do.
If you’ll bear with me for a moment, I’ve been thinking that the difference between success and faithfulness is sort of like the difference between chocolate cake and lentils. Now with this example, I’m not trying to characterize faithfulness as distasteful. Lentils are actually one of my favorite healthy foods; I really love them. If lentils aren’t your thing, feel free to substitute some other vegetable or fruit that you adore.
You see, chocolate cake is not inherently bad. There is nothing wrong with eating beautiful and delicious foods. The cacao in cocoa powder has a lot of health benefits, and the communal celebrations that accompany cake-eating are socially cohesive in a wonderful way. But here is what is also true about chocolate cake: it is highly processed. You follow a particular recipe, with specific ways of doing things or it won’t work. It involves a lot of precise technique and delivers very intense flavor and a lot of calories. Would we want this for every meal? Would it be good for us if we did?
Conversely, this is what is true about lentils: They are much less processed than cake, closer to their natural state, closer to the earth. We could eat them for every meal and be healthy, for they provide fiber and a multitude of nutrients. They are the opposite of empty calories. They are humble, easy to prepare and are often a supporting player. Does this perhaps make them easy to dismiss? Are we fooled into thinking they are boring?
This is not a perfect analogy of course. But does it help us illuminate the role that success and/or faithfulness might hold in our lives. It helps illuminate how beautiful but also how seductive success can be, how important it is that we pay attention to what actually supports our energy and our thriving, and not just our desires.
Because when we look at a lentil, or perhaps anything from our summer garden, it is a little bit easier to see God in it. The mystery is a little closer; it embodies the miracle of energy from the sun being captured and turned into matter, into shape. Certainly it was farmed, certainly we cooked it with intention, people partnered with nature to bring it to the table, but it remains only degrees removed from the mystery of life and creation.
With the chocolate cake, it is a little easier to pretend that we made it. The mystery is a little further away. And certainly, chocolate cake *is* a product of human ingenuity: we collectively milled grains of wheat into flour, evaporated sugar from the cane, gathered cocoa pods from a tree, processed them and shipped them halfway across the world; developed a working recipe, conceived its decoration. We, as the cook, have worked hard and it shows. It is an explosion of flavor and satisfaction. And God recedes a little further into the background, a little further from our acknowledgment, and our own prowess takes the stage.
And so it is with success and faithfulness. When we lean into success without faithfulness, we convince ourselves that we are the center, that it is all about us, that our own goals are paramount and are therefore inherently good. When we lean into faithfulness without thinking about success and effectiveness, we rebuff God’s desire that we work in partnership with us, God’s gift of the power to make a consistence difference in the life of the world.
When we return to our Genesis text, we remember that Abraham was active. He went looking for a wife of Isaac, didn’t just wait for an eligible woman to come around. But in his search, two things remained important: Isaac should stay true to God’s call in the new land, and his wife should come from his father’s homeland. Like Abraham’s wish for his son, so it is with us. We should embrace the power that God has called us into, but at the same time not forget where the power came from. Isaac was not to marry a daughter of the Canaanites, a representation of worldly affections that are incompatible with divine truth (SH 3022). For there is plenty that will tempt us within success, plenty that will dazzle us with giddy intensity, plenty that will capture us within practiced anxiety, that will blind us to the service and the love that we owe to each other. We cannot allow ourselves to get caught up, to marry ourselves to ambition or greed or superiority or jealousy, or even simply fear. For all these things can and do drive our desire for success.
Rather, we should try to marry our desires with that which serves. When the servant found Rebekah, he watched her for a little while. What was she doing? She was watering his camels. The text does not reflect what a super-human task this really was. There were ten camels, and each camel can drink many gallons of water. By returning to the well over and over, refilling her jug and then emptying it again so many times, Rebekah was the picture of faithful service, and it was this that became the measure of the servant’s success, not her beauty, or her reputation or her wealth.
And so we too, in faithfulness can return to the well of living water, whatever that looks like for us, infilling our vessel of daily work, our earthen jug of strategy, planning, striving with that which sustains and refreshes. We remain on the path to the new land, we look forward, we practice being hopeful, and we work hard. But we also enact a return, perhaps a daily, weekly, monthly, or even momentary return, that reminds us what success is for: that God’s love might be known and felt by all people.
And here we are, our little church, on the precipice of what I believe will be a fantastic year. We have goals and we are reaching for them. May we be successful. And also: may we be faithful. May we be willing to stretch, grow and evolve. May we be willing to take risks, and try things out. May we be willing to be mindful, grounded and giving. May we return to God, our selves, our faith, and each other, our own wells of living water. May we do the work of church: showing up to what-is without fear and dreaming of what-could-be with hope.
1 Abraham was now very old, and the LORD had blessed him in every way. 2 He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. 3 I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, 4 but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.” 5 The servant asked him, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?” 6 “Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” Abraham said. 7 “The LORD, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. 8 If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” 9 So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter. 10 Then the servant left, taking with him ten of his master’s camels loaded with all kinds of good things from his master. He set out for Aram Naharaim and made his way to the town of Nahor. 11 He had the camels kneel down near the well outside the town; it was toward evening, the time the women go out to draw water. 12 Then he prayed, “LORD, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13 See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.” 15 Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor. 16 She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again. 17 The servant hurried to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water from your jar.” 18 “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink. 19 After she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have had enough to drink.” 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels. 21 Without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful. 23 Then he asked, “Whose daughter are you? Please tell me, is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” 24 She answered him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milkah bore to Nahor.” 25 And she added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.” 26 Then the man bowed down and worshiped the LORD, 27 saying, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.” 28 The young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things.
Secrets of Heaven 1712
…the proper method is for us to do good as if on our own. We should not throw up our hands thinking, "If I can't do any good on my own, I ought to wait for direct inspiration; till then I should lie passive." This too is wrong. Instead we should do good as if we were doing it on our own, but when we reflect on the good we are doing (or have done), we ought to think, acknowledge, and believe that the Lord working in us is actually doing the good.
 If we abandon all effort because of the kind of thinking mentioned, the Lord cannot work in us. He cannot act on those who rid themselves of every capacity for receiving the power to do good. It is like saying that you refuse to learn anything unless it comes to you as revelation. Or like saying that you refuse to teach anything unless the words are planted in your mouth. Or like refusing to try anything unless you can be propelled like an automaton. If this did happen, you would be still more resentful for feeling like an inanimate object. The reality is that what the Lord animates in us is that which seems to be ours…it is an eternal truth that life is not ours; but if it did not seem to be, we would have no life at all.