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Sermon and Reflections For 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"
Barry Robinson

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 fernstone@fernstone.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)
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved. Please do not copy.
FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551
E-mail: fernstone@fernstone.org

copyright - Barry Robinson 2002, 2005
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 2002 - 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.


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