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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 10 - Proper 5 - Year A
Hosea 5:15-6:6; Psalm 50:7-15; Roman 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13,18-26
"Keeping Bad Company"
"And as he reclined at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners." Once upon a time, a minister was traveling through a remote part of the State of Washington when he came across a flock of sheep crossing the road. He stopped his car to wait and soon the shepherd of the flock came by on horseback. Being a preacher, the man simply couldn't resist approaching the shepherd. "You know," he said. "You're the first real, live shepherd I've ever met. Do you mind me asking what you think of when you hear the expressions 'The Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd'? The answer was more than he ever could have expected. The old shepherd said, "You know, springtime is a tough time for sheep and shepherds. It's lambing time. It's a time of tragedy. When many ewes are giving birth, the shepherd must often deal with problems. Sometimes a lamb dies at birth, sometimes a ewe, giving birth. And here is the scene: Over here is a mother sheep that has lost her baby. Over there is a lamb that has lost its mother. But sheep are difficult animals. A sheep will not take a lamb that is not its own. And so, we have the situation of a mother full of the milk that will not nourish her baby because she has no baby to feed. And we have a lamb, hungry for life-giving nourishment and no mother to feed it. In short order, the motherless baby will starve to death. It is a scene of abundance and scarcity - all at once. And this is what the good shepherd must do. Now, this is going to be a bit graphic, preacher, but it's the truth. To reconcile this moment of tragedy, the shepherd takes the lamb that has died and slits its throat. Then he washes the motherless lamb in the blood of the lamb that has died. Only then will the mother accept and feed the motherless lamb as her own. That is what I know about 'The Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd'," said the shepherd. (With thanks to Harlan Bemis, for sharing the story) + Of course, sheep are not the only creatures who can be difficult; and that is the point of this week's gospel and old testament lesson. According to the author of the first gospel of the new testament, one day Jesus saw a man sitting at his desk and told him to get up and start following him; and the man got up and started following right then and there. The man wasn't just anybody. His name was Matthew or Levi, if you happen to believe Luke, and he was sitting in the local tax office because he was the local tax collector in that area. It was not a salaried position. It was a contract Matthew was carrying out on behalf of the occupying legions of Rome. He was there on behalf of Israel's enemies, acting with their authority to tax his own people for virtually everything they used or laid their hands on. As much as people like Matthew bled people for all he could get, not all of what he gathered went back to Rome. He had discretionary power to line his own pockets - which meant it was a system ripe for corruption. Not surprisingly, Rome hired the most ruthless cutthroats it could find. Not surprisingly, too, people like Matthew were despised more than most. They were not allowed in the synagogue; for they were regarded as the crooks and traitors they were. This was the man who got up and followed Jesus that day; and neither Matthew nor Luke tell us why he did it. Put down his pen, didn't even finish the form he was working on, pushed back his chair, got up and just started heading for the door without once looking back over his shoulder. Just like a lot of the decisions we make that end up changing our lives for good or bad one way or the other. He got up and left behind everything he had been doing, everything that had given his life meaning up to that point, and started following this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth who had suddenly walked into his life and said that he wanted him with him. We preach sermons, tell children's stories, sing hymns about it, unless I badly miss my guess, more to emphasize the beauty of the moment, the nostalgia of it, the sentimentality, Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling - Calling for you and for me; Patiently Jesus is waiting and watching - Watching for you and for me! and stop right there; because it is easier to see that moment through rose-coloured glasses than it is to see it the way both Matthew and Luke want us to see it. Because what happens next is what puts this dynamic moment in perspective. It is the point of the whole episode. Jesus didn't just call Matthew because he felt sorry for him. He called him because he liked him and liked the crowd Matthew hung around with. For what Matthew says next is that Jesus is sitting, which in those days meant 'reclining', at dinner in a house where there were many tax collectors. He is hangin' out with a bad bunch. Luke sharpens the point (Lk. 5.27-32) by telling us that it wasn't just any house. It was Matthew's. And Jesus didn't just happen to be there. He was the honoured guest; for Matthew, his new-found disciple and former extortioner, had thrown "a great banquet for" Jesus. He was "The Man" as far as this bad bunch is concerned. This is what sticks in the craw of those Pharisees: not merely that Jesus was associating with toll collectors, but that he was enjoying time with them and, along with them, other 'known' sinners, in other words, people whose life-style and reputation those who did attend synagogue disapproved of and had excluded from respectable company. Jesus simply had bad taste or, worse, no taste as far as his religious contemporaries were concerned. He hung around with 'the wrong crowd of people' and it was too bad his parents hadn't raised him differently! But notice where the criticism is directed. It is not against Jesus but against his disciples - a code word in most of the gospels for 'the church'. What both Matthew and Luke were concerned about were the attacks made against the early church for its inclusive table fellowship where all were treated equally. The church was a place where full acceptance of the other was practiced because Jesus had practiced the same in his own life and ministry. Both caused problems. Both created hostility; for there were some people who would simply not accept some people as their own. Jesus' response to this criticism, both in his own ministry and, no doubt, in the life of the early church, is striking in its clarity and inescapable in its demand. Jesus refers his critics to a passage at the very heart of their tradition. Go and learn what this text means, 'I desire steadfast mercy, not sacrifice.' - Hosea 6.6 This passage from Hosea was a favourite verse for Israel, particularly during their time of exile; for it was a reminder of that steadfast love and loyalty of God. Jesus was merely practicing what his own people preached. He lets the fact that his critics did not embody the generous love of God to members of their own community become a form of self-indictment. There are no insiders and no outsiders in God's domain. All are included because it is the very nature of God's love to do so. + I'm not sure what it is that makes people like you and me remarkably like that ewe that has lost its own lamb in this week's opening story. I simply know that it happens. In our deep grief, hurt, loss and maybe just plain fear of really being all that we can be for each other, we begin to grow blind - pure and simple. Blind to the reality of human need around us. Blind to those who need us as much as we have ever needed those whom we have loved and lost. Blind to the fact that that person over there "with his or her problems" is not really seperate from us at all. As if we can go on with our own little lives as if they did not matter. Not enough to become concerned about. Not enough to do anything about. And so we go on withholding all that we have it in us to give and that others need from us, as much as rain was meant to fall from clouds that can barely contain it and as much as the parched earth below would be grateful for a single drop. We stubbornly refuse to open our eyes to the reality of it - even when it stands there bleating before us. And what does it take to get us to open our eyes and recognize the ones who need us? More than likely, one who is prepared to risk our scorn and whatever else we choose to punish him with for reminding us of something at the very heart of things, something that we seem bent on forgetting - that unless we live for and in and through each other, we cannot really live humanly at all: that love means keeping bad company simply because it is the only way we get to see and enjoy those who are, in truth, if not to our liking, our very own. --------- Hosea 5:15-6:6 - 'Hesed' is the word the Old Testament most often uses to describe God, God's relationship with Israel and what is expected of Israel in return. It is an extraordinarily rich and significant term meaning steadfast love, righteousness, loyalty, mercy. Hosea 6.6 became a favourite verse for Israel in exile and away from the sacrificial system of the temple. It continued to be important for the synagogue and its leaders, the Pharisees, especially after the fall of Jerusalem. 1. Have you ever experienced 'exile' or abandonment, desolation? Describe the experience or that of someone who has? 2. What is the greatest temptation during such an experience? 3. What is 'the good news' for exiles in this week's text? When and how have you experienced this good news in the midst of your own experience of exile? Romans 4:13-25 - Of all the Old Testament figures who informed Paul's understanding of faith, Abraham was the most formative and influential. Abraham's faith antedated the giving of the law at Sinai and, therefore, was not dependent on circumcision or obedience to the Law. Abraham's faith took the form of an implicit trust in the God who promised to make the dead come alive and to create something new out of nothing. 1. Why would Abraham be so important for Paul's position on acceptance of the Gentiles? 2. In what sense is Abraham's and a Christian's faith 'foolish'? 3. When have you had to trust God implicitly? Matthew 9:9-13,18-26 - We refer you to July 2, 2000 (Year B) for a treatment of the story of verses 18-26, as Mark records it and have instead focused on verses 9-13, since it comes only once in the Lectionary cycle. What is important to notice is not just 'the call of Matthew', but the effect that that call has both on Matthew, Jesus and the disciples in terms of the reaction of those who disapprove. What does the character of God require of us in response to those whom we regard as 'tainted'? 1. Why do you think Matthew followed Jesus and threw a great feast for him? 2. What would be the reaction in your church if a notorious reprobate or crook suddenly 'got religion'? Why? 3. What is it about 'tainted' people that makes some people distance themselves from them? 4. What is it about some people that makes them blind to those who need them? 5. When has the drama of this week's gospel 'happened' within your community? 6. If it hasn't happened, why hasn't it? A PRAYER FOR INSIDERS - Lord, save us from the arrogance that thinks, "There but for the grace of God go I" and from the blindness that simply fails to see the common humanity that unites and was meant to nourish us all. Amen. HYMN 567 Will You Come and Follow Me (Voices United)
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