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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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
Ordinary 9 - Proper 4 - Year A
Genesis 6, 7, 8; Psalm 46; Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-28; Matthew 7:21-29
"The Godward Side of Judgement"
"The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." In the Arthurian legend of Camelot, the moment of crisis arrives when King Arthur realizes that his favourite knight and bravest friend, Lancelot, and his wife, Queen Guinevere, have become lovers. The two have surrendered to their passion, had an affair and have sinned against Arthur "in thought, word and deed". As a husband, Arthur realizes that he has been betrayed by the two people he loves most in the world and is sorely tempted to indulge his anger. As king, and in particular a king who has prided himself on establishing a rule of justice in the land, symbolized by the legendary knights of the round table, he knows he cannot hold himself above the law. His wife and his friend must be tried for their adultery. As a man, who cannot help loving them both in spite of what they have done, his heart is torn in two. How can he see sentenced to die the very people who mean more to him than life itself? He is a man grieved to the very bottom of his soul. It is the moment everything changes in Camelot. It is the day the boy-king becomes a man; for love that is mature is love that is always mixed with both anger and sorrow for those we love. Such is the Godward side of judgement. + It is one of the darkest stories in the Bible, which is full of dark tales, a story which says that God came to a point early on in his relationship with humankind when he was ready to give the whole thing up. It is a story of God's terrible despair over what he saw happening to the human race, his sorrowful regret at having made us in the first place, and his decision to put an end to us all by visiting the earth with a great flood. Now, we need to stop right there and sit with this for a moment; for anybody who has ever heard this ancient story thinks he or she knows what it means: that God gets so angry with the world that he decides to punish it by sending a flood; and that if it hadn't been for good old Noah and his family, well,... we wouldn't be having this conversation. That the world would be doomed if it were up to God alone. That, generally speaking, people get just what they deserve; and that somehow that is the way things should be: that the good get rewarded and the bad get punished. It is the way things are. But, when we take time to listen to the story, really listen to what is being said, what we find here is not an angry tyrant who gives us what we deserve, but a troubled parent who grieves over what has gone wrong. What has happened is indeed wrong, as far as God is concerned, because the world has betrayed creation's intent. It is filled with violence and pain and unlove. Human beings have treated God shabbily, disgracefully and God takes such actions very seriously. It is the first thing to notice about this remarkable story; for, somehow, many of us have gotten the idea that God is timeless and immovable, which is to say immune from what goes on in the world and in our lives in particular. A kind of George Burns-Oh God! type of God, a kindly old man who doesn't have time for all the details! Or the kind of Victorian monarch who simple considers it beneath her dignity to be aroused by such petty concerns. A stoical God. An apathetic God. A God who is above such "mortal" matters. Nothing could be further from the God revealed here; for this is a God who cannot help what she feels, who is devastated, crushed, angered by what he sees. His anger has turned to deep sorrow, a sorrow that convinces him that the world would be better off without humankind, better off if there were no trace left that any of us were ever here. And yet, God cannot quite do it. God cannot quite give up on us entirely. Almost but not quite. It is the gospel of this ancient myth: that God cannot quite abandon the world he made so joyously, cannot quite stand back from it and say, "Bad idea!", cannot quite turn his back and say, "Never again!" Once again, we need to stop for a moment and consider seriously what is being said; for the popular understanding of this story is that the crisis of the flood put the world in jeopardy. That the future of the human race is what is at risk. But if you read the story carefully, it is the heart and person of God that are in crisis. The crisis is not whether the flood will destroy the world; but what the wickedness of humankind will do in the heart of God. And the story says God changes. Changes long before he sets the rainbow in the sky and vows never to destroy the earth again. Changes long before he tells Noah to collect his things and become the bravest sea captain ever to ride out a storm. Before all of that. The story says God changes in the very moment he considers staying with his tragic creation and to leave enough of us left to start all over again. That is the critical moment: the one where God decides whether to turn his back on us for good or to continue on loving us even in his terrible hurt and grief. So that when God finally says in this story, "Never again!" it is not because of any change that the flood has wrought in the world that has made him say it, not because the terrible devastation it has caused and that has forced him to take pity on us. It is not even for the sake of one good man named Noah and all his family. It is because God has decided to act in a new way toward us, and, in short, to indulge his own grief and trouble for the sake of loving us as his very own no matter what. + We live in a world of judgment. Family, work, church and state are quick to judge and condemn. It is not enough that things go wrong. Someone must be held accountable. Someone must pay. When someone victimizes us, our first instinct is to seek vengeance; and, as critical as we may be of Hollywood violence, writers and producers merely mirror what we spend most of our lives doing. Not surprisingly, many of us try fashioning a god to call our own in similar fashion: a god who settles scores in heaven, who evens out suffering, who judges and condemns with glee. How else could it be, we say? It is the only fair way things could be. But every once in a while, we come across someone who dares to question the way things are, who wonders out aloud if this really is the way things should be. In the entrancing film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for instance, a renowned martial-arts warrior suddenly announces his retirement by passing on his famous sword to a trusted friend. When his stunned protege and lover asks what has precipitated this momentous decision, he tells her that it came as a result of a prolonged period of meditation. "What happened?" asks his friend. "Deep into my journey I came to a place of brilliant light," he says. "Enlightenment?" she asks. "No," responds the great warrior. "Something different. Within the light was a deep sadness." Is it possible? Could it be true - that at the deepest centre of things, there is a heart filled with sadness for everything that has happened? A heart, deeply grieving, but that cannot let us go? For this is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed. (Isaiah 54.9-10) It is particularly important for people like you and me to remember that the story of Noah and the great flood was written at about the same time these words from Isaiah were also written - during a time of exile and deep abandonment for the people of Israel, a time when the world - filled with violence and hatred and little love - seemed to mirror the darkness in the heart of God. This ancient story was written as a reminder that it is not darkness that is in the heart of God but a deep sorrow, a sorrow born of that limitation God has placed upon himself not to indulge his anger for everything that we have done and, God knows, continue to do to one another and the good earth. It is a story about God's remarkable decision to remain steadfast in his love toward us in spite of everything. The good news, not that there was a Noah or a rainbow, but that there was a God who would not abandon us. The good news that God chose to wait for the deep change that happened in his own heart one day - to happen in all of our hearts. --------- Genesis 6, 7, 8 - Do the scriptures the honour and yourself a favour by reading the entire story of the flood and not just the excerpts suggested by the Lectionary. Read it from the point of view of people who have felt that God had abandoned them - as Israel most certainly felt during the time of the Babylonian exile, when this story was written. Try to imagine what it would have been like to have heard this story for the first time. 1. Why do we turn this story into a children's story, out of which we fashion children's toys and pieces of art that can only be described as "cute"? 2. What is the dark message of the story and why do we resist hearing it? 3. Compare the essential message of this story - as suggested by this week's reflection - with the message and ministry of Jesus. Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-28 - Both passages sum up the theme of Paul's letter: that God has acted in power to save all people, those under the law and those outside of it not because of human righteousness, but because of something about God. Faith in God is thus, not a matter of being obedient to the law or of being judged righteous, but of trusting in this incredible mercy and goodness of God. Paul is the first to mention that this has happened because of 'the atonement' of Christ's sacrifice. 1. What does it mean to "forbear" the sins of another (verse 25)? How does God do it? How do you do it? 2. If the good news is that God has decided to forbear our sins since the time of Noah, then why is any 'atonement' required? 3. If Christ's death was not an atonement, then what was it? Matthew 28:16-20 - The famous parable about the two houses is placed by Matthew in the context of "outstanding church leaders" (verse 21-22) who have indeed heard the words of Jesus but have failed to make these words the rule of their lives (v. 23). As a result, their reputation as eminent Christians is built on little more than shifting sand. 1. What 'downfalls' have you witnessed within your own Christian community? 2. Why did they happen? 3. What is 'the rock' upon which the life of faith is built? What is the evidence? FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - - If it is true that something changed in the heart of God, effecting a profound sorrow in the heart of God, as the story of the flood seems to suggest, then God is the One who is waiting for something to happen in the hearts of human beings. 1. How would you describe that 'something'? 2. When have you come close to it in your family or church life? 3. What has been the effect of that change in you upon others? HYMN 660 How Firm a Foundation (Voices United)
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