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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 11- Proper 6 - Year A
Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7); Psalm 116; Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:23
"Something Too Wonderful"
"Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old and my husband has grown old, shall I have pleasure?" The Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed have a child now that I am old?' Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son." But Sarah denied saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. He said, "Oh yes, you did laugh." Sarah was old when she overheard the news, while eavesdropping behind the door of their tent. It surprised her so badly she couldn't stifle herself and broke out into a guffaw that God himself heard. "Did I hear Sarah laugh?" said God. "Who me!?" said Sarah, trying to stuff her fist between her gums, bared wide in a fit of laughter. "Why would I laugh - a ninety-year old woman, childless since the day she was born, told she is going to have a baby! Squawk!!" "Don't lie to me!" said God. "You laughed!" It's a wonderful scene, really. An old codger ready for the geriatric ward trying to explain to God what's so funny. And we all know what was so funny. After all those years, after all that waiting and all that believing only to be told now at the very end of her life.... "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" God asked. "Yes!" Sarah laughed, but probably to herself this time. "There are some things just too wonderful even for the Lord!" + It is a laughter people like you and me know well - this laughter of dis-belief. If you are a teenager, there are times when you laugh because you think your parents will never understand you. If you are a parent, there are times when you laugh because you wonder if your kids will ever grow up. If you are married and desperately unhappy, there are times when you laugh because you wonder if you will ever find a way "out". If you are single and lonely, there are times when you laugh because you wonder if you will ever find a way "in". We laugh because we think we will never get out of debt, never get free from our past, never find someone to love us, never find a place to call home. We laugh Sarah's laugh, not because we have faith, but because we find it impossible to have it. That is the disturbing truth being held up before us in this week's story: that faith is not a reasonable act and that the promise of God is not just a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Abraham and Sarah laughed because they had reached a dead end in their lives and because they had adjusted to it. They had accepted their hopelessness just the way, if we are honest, we too accommodate ourselves to all those barren places in our lives where the call to believe in "a new thing that God will do" seems, quite frankly, nonsensical. And yet..., there is another kind of laughter to which the promise made in this story also points. A very different kind of laughter. The laughter, not of Sarah or Abraham, but of that One who keeps his own counsel and works his own will - whether or not we have the faith to see it. Sometimes we have to wait to share in that kind of laughter, just as Abraham and Sarah had to wait, too. + One Christmas season many years ago, I was deep into feeling sorry for myself. Susan and I had been invited to a party thrown every year by two friends of ours named Laurie and Joy. Laurie was a marriage and family therapist and his wife Joy was a child-therapist. They were a couple who loved each other immensely and the annual Christmas get- together was a way in which they shared the joy that filled their hearts. We were both looking forward to the party when, as it turned out, Sue ended up being scheduled to work that very evening. Reluctant to go by myself, I settled into a blue funk for the next couple of weeks and had decided to stay home when Sue suggested an alternate possibility: why didn't I crash the party in disguise. Sue and I had been fascinated with the art of clowning and mime during those years, had spent considerable time studying the art, practicing with other professionals and developing routines of our own in which we would show up unannounced to present "a gift" to an unsuspecting friend/victim. I was hesitant to follow Sue's advice, in spite of knowing Laurie and Joy well enough to feel comfortable planning such "a surprise" for them. Nevertheless, at the last minute a spirit of mischieviousness got the better of me and, before I knew it, there I was one wintry night, trudging through the drifts in my clown clothes and grease-paint, tooting my clown horn at the front door to announce my entrance and then whisking past the surprised faces of the assembled guests before anyone could think fast enough to slam the door in my face. The house was wall-to-wall "beautiful" people and Joy and Laurie were nowhere to be seen. So I decided to start a room-to-room search, playing with the guests as I went. With few exceptions, they were a cooperative lot, permitting me to "anoint" them gently with pieces of Christmas tinsel and to mime "BEAUTIFUL!' as I pretended to stand back and take their pictures. By the time I reached the dining room I had fifty people in tow, all of them wondering what I was going to do next... when Laurie suddenly spotted me from across the room and yelled, "What's THAT CLOWN doing at my party!?" I was in luck. He didn't recognize me; and after doing my schtick with him for a few moments, I pulled out two, small, gift-wrapped packages, one marked "Laurie" and the other marked "Joy", and mimed to Laurie, "Where's Joy?" Laurie played along as we searched the house, guests in tow until we found Joy talking with some friends in the front entrance hallway. There, with all the guests looking on, I maneuvered Joy and Laurie into position and bid them open their gifts - two, snazzy, black bow-ties, complete with flashing red-lights! Laurie obliged by putting one on under his collar, Joy by tying hers around her head. The six-foot designer Christmas tree in the living room was suddenly envious! Then I invited them to put their arms around one another as I pretended to take their picture and backed out the front door to make my getaway. Just before I closed the door behind me, Laurie realized who it was; and, with what I thought just might be a catch in his voice, I heard him say, "Thank you, my friend!" Four days later, Laurie called. I could tell as soon as he started that something was wrong. "I've tried phoning you half a dozen times," he said, his voice starting to crack, "but each time I started crying and hung up." My heart was in my mouth and I was too afraid to say anything. "You had no way of knowing, of course," Laurie went on; "but the night of the party Joy and I were in the midst of the biggest fight of our marriage. We had both made attempts to make up; but just couldn't get it together. By the time guests started arriving, we were doing our best to avoid each other. There was this huge wall between us. And then,... this clown shows up, dresses us up in fantastic bow ties, makes us hug each other and... (at this point I could hear him choking back the tears) and the wall suddenly came tumbling down." By then, I was in tears and for a few moments neither of us said a word. Then, just before he hung up, Laurie regained his composure just enough to blurt out, "Thank you, my friend, for one of the best Christmases of our lives! Christ, the Saviour, is born!" And when I got off the phone, I thought I heard the unmistakable echo of laughter coming from somewhere deep down at the very heart of things. + Most of the time, we are prepared for everything except the possibility that behind the great darkness in which we often live our lives there is a great light, prepared, says Jesus, to break our backs ploughing the same old field 'til the cows come home without seeing, until we stub our toes on it, a treasure beneath our feet big enough to buy Texas, prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains, but not for a God who gives as much for an hour's work as for a day's, prepared for everything to happen except that which will never happen by our own power and grace, but only by God's... until the day does come... and 'the something too wonderful' does happen... and the laughter of our despair is transformed into the laughter of sheer joy and a newness comes alive within us we never did believe possible. --------- Genesis 18:1-5 (21:1-7) - This pivotal old testament story, central to the meaning of faith for both Jews and Christians, shows what a scandal and difficulty faith is. Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. Embracing the promise of God involves shattering and discontinuity. Abraham and Sarah are asked to believe the impossible - that new life can and will happen out of barrenness and hopelessness. It is a story which reflects the radical freedom of faith. 1. Compare the circumstances of Abraham and Sarah to that of Israel during its time of exile? And to circumstances in your own life in which you felt helpless and hopeless? 2. When have you reacted to the call and promise of God the way Sarah does? Romans 5:1-8 - God has done something in Jesus Christ that we could not do for ourselves: he has set us free and made us his friends. Faith means knowing that and living in the freedom that flows from it. This is the kind of faith in which Abraham and Sarah, eventually, also lived. 1. Put what Paul is trying to say in this passage in your own words? Now say it in words that a child could understand. 2. What difference does it make to your life? Matthew 9:35-10:23 - It must have been a daunting task - to be Jesus and to attempt a re-ordering of human life in favour of all who were oppressed and neglected, to convince others of the urgency of this message in a society where most people accepted the way things were, and to see that only a few were really interested enough to follow. Matthew's passage, borrowing from Mark 6.34 is reminiscent of several old testament passages (1 Kings 22:17; Jeremiah 23:1-16; Ezekiel 34:1-10; Micah 5:2-4). God's people are portrayed as a flock without a shepherd and as a flock neglected by shepherds. It is a plea for compassion that comes out of God's heart. 1. In Matthew's day, false shepherds were a dime a dozen and faithful followers often paid a terrible price for their discipleship. Compare Matthew's situation to that of the church today. 2. List the tasks Jesus gives his disciples to do and compare them to the kind of activities your church does. 3. What single qualification seems required for the job? A PRAYER FOR THE SAINTS - Wondrous God, deep in our hearts, so deep most of the time we dare not repeat it even to ourselves, is a prayer for something we need to happen, something too wonderful for the likes of people like us to accomplish or even to imagine, but something that needs to happen for us and our world to be wholly what we are. Give us again the great hope that the day is coming when the impossible will become possible and the laughter of our despair will be turned into the laughter of greatest joy. In Jesus' name we ask it. Amen! HYMN 624 Give To Us Laughter (Voices United)
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