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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at email@example.com to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Sixth Sunday of Easter - Year A
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-24
"Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." "It was the trip of a lifetime!" said our dear friend Marie as we sipped coffee over the dinner table. She and Doug were recounting their recent cruise through the Mediterranean, down through the Red Sea, and around the Horn of Africa. "I have always wanted to see Egypt and the pyramids," she said, "ever since I saw pictures of them in Sunday School." And indeed they did see that fabled land and other places they had spent a lifetime reading about, from the teeming streets of Cairo to the mysterious ravines of the Valley of the Kings. It had been a trip to cherish both in the sense of a dream come true and in a sense neither of them had anticipated. "Everywhere we went," said Doug, "we saw people by the thousands with no home of their own." From the squalid Egyptian slums to the dusty banks of the Nile, where farmers still tilled the land with primitive tools and power, to the equally crowded streets of Kenya and the wandering people of the Masai, driving their cattle from one barren plain to the next. Everywhere they went, great masses of people without any place to call home, forced to wander and beg and scratch the earth to survive, living in the shadow of enormous wealth and power, which, of course, they also saw everywhere they went as well. Not the kind of "dream" vacation you and I are tempted to salivate over in the travel section of the newspaper, perhaps, although our friends were well-cared for every step of the way. But their comfort did not blind them to the sobering reality in which most of the people in the lands they visited are forced to live: a reality called homelessness. + It is the unspoken pain of this week's gospel. We are still in that upper room where we were last week. Jesus is giving last instructions to his friends; and, whether John intended it or not, it is somehow fitting, I think, that, in these almost to last words of his, Jesus addresses this deepest of all human longings. John's chronology of the passion takes place as part of the Last Supper discourse between Jesus and his followers; but it is presented to us after Easter instead of before because the church has also believed that it might well have been a conversation between Jesus and his friends after the resurrection and before his final departure. In another sense, it might just as well have been a conversation between Jesus and John's struggling congregation or between Jesus and us, for that matter, meaning: a conversation between the Living Lord of the church and anyone anywhere who has ever tried to follow him in this world. Because there is a real sense in which anyone who has ever found themselves in the same position as those people he first left behind - people who wondered where on earth they would go from here on in - have been people who realized that they were losing or had already lost whatever it was that "home" meant for them. For the disciples, both before and after Easter, of course, home meant being with the one who made them feel most at home inside their own skins - their beloved Master and Lord. The one for whom they had left everything just to be with, so warm and winsome and full of life he had been for them, a human magnet the like of which they had never experienced before and would never know again. To be with him was to know the strongest and truest place they had ever experienced, a fortress of sanity in a dark and decidedly dangerous world. In spite of everything that had happened along the way, everything they knew would happen or had happened to him, and maybe even everything they knew was going to happen to them as well, home was where he was because it was the place where they felt most fully themselves. Jesus does a lot of talking in John's gospel, almost as if he is always trying to say it one more time to make sure they get it this time; and, of course, the disciples never do, partly because they were simple men and not thinkers and partly because they were just afraid, that's all, afraid that their fate was going to be not much better than his. "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world wilL no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also." And one can imagine those frightened, befuddled men scratching their beards and looking at one another with blank, dull looks. "What on earth is he talking about!?" So Jesus tries to say the same thing a different way. "On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." He's telling them that he's going where he needs to be and where they will be someday too, although they're not there yet. Then he looks around the room and sees the blank stares yet another time, and says, "They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them." Then Judas, the son of James, gets so frustrated that he blurts out, "What are you talking about!? How will we see you and nobody else?" And Jesus tries one last time to say what he means, to show them where home will be for them now. "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." Home, he tells them, is where people do what I do, are what I am. Do that and you will be where I am and where God is. My guess is that those first friends of his spent the rest of their lives trying to figure out what he meant and that most of us end up doing exactly the same. Where is home and how do any of us get there? + The illusion we live by is that some of us are home now; and by that I mean those of us with a two car garage and a swimming pool out in the suburbs or a modest place out in "the sticks" somewhere, but a place of our own, a place we can call our own, however luxurious or plain it may be, the illusion that some of us have found where we belong and some of us have not. The lucky ones and the unfortunate ones. The caregivers and the needy. The ones who get to stay in expensive hotels and the ones who get to drive their cattle and families from one place to another and scratch the earth. It is a comfortable illusion; for it allows those of us who are fortunate enough in a material sense to travel around in this world observing the sights, feeling thankful that we don't have to live the way most of the world does. "There but for the grace of God go I." A prayer of delusion. But that is not how our friends came home feeling from that trip of theirs. The stories they mostly wanted to tell were the ones about the little Masai boy wearing nothing but a loin cloth running in from the desert and off in another direction all by himself - from nowhere to nowhere - at least nowhere to call home, and of the lean and haunted, homeless faces of all those who stood on the opposite side of the street from the Nairobi Hilton, faces that will continue to haunt them, unless I badly miss my guess, to the end of their days. A trip of a lifetime. A lesson of a lifetime. For "homelessness" is not "an issue" we should be concerned about. It is a reality we all must live. That is the stark reality of the gospel. We may choose to live the illusion that we can skip lunch to feed a hungry child. Cut a deal with God and ease our conscience. But the deep homelessness, the one that none of us ever escapes - none of us, including those of us who live in relative comfort and security with roofs over our heads and money in the bank, is that until there is enough for everyone there is, quite simply, not enough, not enough to give any of us the truest sense of where we belong. That is what Jesus means by "being where I am". That is what he means by "abiding in my love". There is no other way to do it unless we do it until there is room enough for everybody. Room enough in our hearts, in our pockets, in our bank accounts, and in our national budgets so that no one needs to worry about where they are going to sleep at night, so that no one needs to wander from place to place just to find food. The illusion is that we can travel around this world and be shielded from the sights tour operators want to protect us from. The reality is that we will never know peace inside our own skins until there is peace and security for everyone not just for some. Not the lasting variety. Not as long as there is one person left on the outside. Why? Because that is who we are, quite simply: people who can never really be home until everyone is; for homelessness is not an issue of human responsibility. It is an issue of human identity. When we finally learn what it means to do what he did and become what he was, then God will come to us and make his home with us. Not before. --------- Acts 17:22-31 - What we have is a resume of an early Christian sermon from Paul to a sophisticated Greek audience of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, for whom intellectual inquiry and debate were the norm. Paul is attempting to speak to "strangers", giving them the benefit of the doubt and laying the basis for a common ground of belief before he shares with them the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ. 1. Compare Paul's message to the one he delivers in Acts 14.15-17. Account for the difference. 2. How do you and your church talk to "strangers", people with no church connection, no Christian memory and no inclination to hear the gospel? 3. What can you learn from Paul's approach? 1 Peter 3:13-22 - The point of doing good is that Christ did good, regardless of the consequences, the old saint named Peter is trying to say; and, to emphasize his point, he says an odd thing: that Jesus went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey. In the next chapter (4.5-6), he clarifies what he means by saying that the gospel was preached even to the dead. "He descended into hell," the Apostles Creed adds, suggesting that there is no limit to which God will not descend to try to bring us home again. 1. What consequences have you suffered for doing good? 2. How have you responded to such consequences? 3. What significance do you see for you in the suggestion that Christ descended into hell? John 14:15-24 - The unit begins with verse 15 and ends with verse 24, not verse 21, as suggested by the Lectionary; because its focus begins and ends with what it means to keep God's commands. The Spirit will dwell with and be within those who obey Jesus and keep his word. In response to the anxious trouble occasioned by Jesus' leave-taking and the threat of persecution, John has Jesus reminding his friends that love is something more than a feeling. It is the response to a command from one who is love. 1. How do you feel about the plight of most of the world's population? 2. When have you felt a sense of homelessness? How are the two connected? 3. How has this week's reflection about "home" changed the way you think and feel? 4. How will it change the way you act? FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - We are all homeless people seeking the place where there is room enough for everyone. The derelict, the unemployed person, the thousands who wander the face of the earth without land or shelter, regardless of what choices they or others have made. None of us will be home until all of us are home. A PRAYER FOR THE SAINTS - Faithful God, may this table be a sign of tomorrow's hope, already here, when, with the world which hungers for your justice and peace, we shall all come together, singing your name as our very own. - Father John Giuliani, The Benedictine Grange, West Redding, Connecticut HYMN 702 When a Poor One (Voices United)
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