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By Rev. Joan Kessler

Genesis 24: 34-38; 42-49; 58-67

We are so fortunate to be celebrating a 100th birthday with Joyce and her family today. It is an amazing celebration of life well-lived, and it also presents an opportunity for all of us to reflect on what this milestone means. Joyce today will be entering her second century and we hope and pray for many more birthdays to come to mark more years of healthy and peaceful living. You might be interested to know that centenarians are the fasted growing age group with more than half a million people worldwide having met this milestone. We look to your wisdom and your experiences, Joyce, to share your secret of living a long life and we hope as you reflect on your 100 years, you will be filled with many memories of family and friends, of choices you have made and the course those decisions set for your life and how they have brought you to this moment. Today’s is also a day I invite us to consider our ancestry and what we know about our family trees. Do you have family that reached 100th birthdays? Is this milestone perhaps in your DNA also as you look back to your ancestors and what you know about those who came before you.

I discovered this past week that if each one of us were to trace back our family lineages 10 generations we would have 1024 relatives on both our collective maternal and paternal sides of the family. And while I may be only aware of the life histories of those three generations back, it is an awesome thing to consider those other hundreds of relatives and what they were like, the things they did. Were they good people or not good people? I suspect there would have been both. I only knew of my great grandparents through the stories shared by my parents. And growing up, there was a noticeable absence in the stories around my great grandma Diemert, my Dad’s grandmother. At my Dad’s funeral a few years ago now, I asked my aunts why nobody ever talked about her and was told that nobody was close with this grandma. There were difficult things about her that made her hard to be with. She also died relatively young. I believe from what I have learned of her that she was very fearful and superstitious, perhaps being attributed to her Irish and Catholic upbringing. But I wonder about her, the one I know so little about. Am I like her in some ways? What of her have I inherited that is in my genes? I have seen a picture of her and wonder if maybe I resemble her. But what other things about me are like her? It’s a question of longing for connection and I have to accept that I will not likely know the answers to my questions but does that really matter? She is part of me regardless of how others saw her and experienced life with her. Because the ancestors who were less cherished and kept out of the family story-telling, did the best they could with what they had. Our ancestors have much to teach us about choices, about paths we take towards liberation and healing, even those stories we would prefer to abandon.

I had the opportunity to meet with Joyce this past week and talk with her about what it meant to be turning 100 today. And she shared with me that her mother lived to be 101 and her grandmother lived to be over 100 also. So, she said, she wasn’t really surprised that she herself should be seeing this milestone. It is really incredible when you consider how living to those ages in decades past must have been. Three hundred years between these three women puts into perspective the whole passage of time and human accomplishments. To be born in 1923, Joyce came through the Depression, World War II, the baby boom of the 50s and 60s, Medi-Care, recessions, internet, Facebook. The list is a long and impressive one of human accomplishments. You are sitting together at tables this morning… just do a quick add up of the number of years of living that are gathered round. Within those years, think of families and descendants. We consider the stories of our distant past, from the times before we were born, and how they have shaped our present and the stories we hope to tell in the future.

Today we hear the story of one of our biblical ancestors, who lived some 18 centuries before the time of Christ. You may recall two weeks ago, we heard Sarah’s laugh reverberate through time at the promise that in her old age, she at 90 and Abraham 100, would have a son, Isaac. And this morning we are introduced to Rebekah who is kind and generous and shows hospitality to Abraham’s steward. In this showing of her true self and the things she valued, Rebekah is offered an opportunity to begin a new and different life and join Abraham and Sarah’s family as Isaac’s partner. The choice was hers… to stay with her family or go with Eliezer to a new land. Rebekah’s family breaks from the cultural norms of the day and asks her to make a choice about marrying Isaac. She answers, “I will.” And the rest is history we could say. Rebekah and Isaac go on to have a family of their own, they experience the all too familiar challenges of parenting and the difficulties of sibling rivalry and parental favorites. But the story goes onward. It isn’t a perfect happy family picture but this is some comfort to us many centuries later. We build on the stories of our ancestors and learn from their experiences, their triumphs, and their failings. They are constantly teaching us, and we can heal from past wrongs and work to make things right and we can continue to heal those past hurts. This is true, I believe of our biblical ancestors, our biological ancestors and our social movement ancestors.

During our time together these past three and half years, you have blessed, challenged and afforded me opportunities to explore my understanding of God, and I hope I have offered the same to you all in return. And in conversation with one of you this week, I was reminded of the things I am sure of and the things I don’t understand. And I am good with this. My understanding of how God works, what God is and isn’t, what is and always will be unknowable, has been shaped and stretched in my time as your minister. We have explored and grappled with challenging things. COVID-19 shaped much of our relationship and caused us to examine what life in community really means. The pandemic produced some very difficult questions and decision-making that challenged us and stretched us as a people. And we are still here, through the other side. We made difficult decisions about public health and safety. We were and continue to be good ancestors-in-the-making.

The particulars of this story we heard about Rebekah may be challenging to relate to in 2023. But we all know the experience of making a choice that can change the course of our life’s story. And those decisions bring blessing and challenges and opportunities. This is what it means to live in Grace. I define Grace as I live my life as a good and compassionate person and I try hard to be this and where I fall short, God covers the rest…and this happens in all kinds of ways… the goodness of God just shows up. This does not make me immune from suffering or heartbreak or disappointment. We cannot guarantee every outcome in life, but we can choose to live in relationship with an ever-present abiding, indwelling sense of God and goodness. We can journey forward into the future letting our consciences be our guides…. this was always my Mum’s advice for living to us kids growing up and as adults… along with don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today.

We can look to our ancestors to find inspiration and learn from past mistakes and missteps. By looking back, we look ahead. We ask good questions about what it the right thing to do in any particular decision. May we lean into the collective wisdom and experience at our tables this day as we share in Joyce’s celebration of a century of kind and compassionate living. May these too be our first choices and ground all our big and small decisions… this day and always. Amen.

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