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Sermon and Reflections For Ordinary 28 - Proper 23 - Year C
Jeremiah 29:1,3-7; Psalm 66:1-12; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
"Keeping The Faith in Babylon"
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
Ordinary 28 - Proper 23 - Year C
Jeremiah 29:1,3-7; Psalm 66:1-12; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
"Keeping The Faith in Babylon"
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile; and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. In 1956, William Stringfellow, the distinguished theologian and lawyer, took up residence in East Harlem, New York in order to begin a legal practice on behalf of the poor. The parish for which he would be working arranged for him to move into a tenement on 100th Street which, as the clergy reminded him, was typical of the housing in the neighbourhood. I had taken one precaution for my first inspection of the premises - I had a DDT bomb (of the sort that was used in the Army), which I had picked up at a military surplus store. I entered the apartment and looked around. I found a dead mouse in the toilet, which I disposed of. I opened a window, so as not to DDT myself, and then I released the bomb. I sat down on something for a moment to see what would happen. From everywhere - from every crack and corner, from the ceilings and walls and from underneath the linoleum, from out of the refrigerator and the stove, from in back of the sink and under the bathtub, from every place - came swarms of creeping, crawling vermin. I shuddered. I remember saying out loud to myself, "Stringfellow, you will never know here whether you have become an alcoholic." Who could tell, in such a place, whether or not he is having delirium tremens? As Stringfellow went about the laborious task of making his apartment fit to live and to engage life in the slums, he realized that he was trying to make a place to live in the most inhuman of environments - the kind of environment that people, most of whom with a lot less resources than he and a lot more challenges, were forced to live and raise families every day. It also required a special outlook on one's circumstances. ... a place to live was wrought, though I was promptly and aptly reminded that for me to make a place to live, in the midst of the Harlem slums, still meant something quite different from what it would be for someone - a Negro or a Puerto Rican - indigenous to these same slums. One symbol of that in my experience, is contained in a conversation I had with a Negro from the neighbourhood whom I had come to know and whom I bumped into on the street one morning. He stopped me and suggested that we have a cup of coffee, which we did. During the conversation he mentioned that he had noticed that I shined my shoes every day - a custom in which I had been indoctrinated five years before while serving with the Second Armoured Division of Germany. He said he knew that this represented the continuation, in my new life in Harlem, of the life that I formerly lived, and he added that he was glad of it, because it meant that I had remained myself and had not contrived to change, just because I had moved into a different environment. In order, in other words, as I heard him, to be a person in Harlem, in order that my life and work there should have integrity, I had to be and to remain whoever I had become as a person before coming there. To be accepted by others, I must first of all know myself and accept myself and be myself wherever I happen to be. In that way, others are also freed to be themselves. - William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy, 1964 + The challenge to be oneself, indeed, authentically to be oneself in an alien, hostile environment is precisely the theme of this week's old testament reading, an odd lesson from what we have come to expect of a prophet like Jeremiah. The very word 'Jeremiad' denotes a scathing, angry diatribe aimed precisely at the situation in which one finds oneself, which for Jeremiah, most of the time was a corrupt, sleeping nation and both religious and political leaders who were in denial about what had happened to them and what was going to happen. For most of his life Jeremiah tried to warn people about the coming judgment upon Israel and the impending invasion of the Babylonians. Nobody listened and, for the most part, told Jeremiah to shut up. Then, when the terrible thing happened, and most of the nation was cruelly uprooted from their home and carted off to Babylon where they were forced to live in labour camps, Jeremiah knew they still need a word from the Lord. Problem was, it was a different word they needed. The judgment had happened. Exile was a fact of life that, in all likelihood, was not going to change for at least another generation. There they were stuck in a strange land, forced to obey, for the most part, their Babylonian captors, with all of the old landmarks gone. The old patterns of faith and life were no more. How could they go on being themselves in such a circumstance? How could they remain a people now that they were cut off from everything they held dear? This part of the book of Jeremiah attempts to address that reality - "the experienced anxiety of a deported people" (Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home). What should they do in such oppressive circumstances? Raise the defiant hand of protest? Clench their fists, refuse to have anything to do with their alien environment, put up barriers between themselves and the dominant foreign population that surrounded them, keep to themselves, pretend that things would be different in the morning? Or, the opposite alternative: abandon everything they were and ever believed in, adapt, blend in and accept the fact that a Babylonian lifestyle was "as good as it's going to get"? Apparently, something like those kinds of alternatives was being preached in the small communities of exiles scattered around the great city - by would-be prophets and soothsayers who thought they knew the message people would accept. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. It was not the first time people had to be wary of preachers and it would not be the last. So, what did Jeremiah urge those resident aliens to do? Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; . . . He urged them to do the best they could, to be the best they could under the circumstances. Realize that you're in Babylon, that these aren't normal times, that you are "sojourners in a strange land", exiles, and do the best you can by go on being yourself. It was Jeremiah at his most pastoral. Find a place to live. Plant a garden. Make sure you have enough to eat, enough to survive. Raise a family. Help them to raise theirs. Do what you can to take care of things, even the strange new place in which you find yourself because you're going to need it to remain who you are. Remember the things you did before you were brought to this place, the things that made you distinctively who you are - the way you dress, eat, spend your money, spend your time. Do the best you can to go on being yourself rather than become something you're not. "For I will remember you," says the Lord, "if you remember me." It doesn't sound exactly like "unconditional" grace. In fact, it sounds a good deal "conditional", conditional on the fact that these displaced people needed to find out for themselves how much they valued being who they were. Sometimes that's the way it happens in a relationship that's a two-way street, where trust that's been shattered needs to be earned before it can become trust again. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord. Not the kind of thing we've come to expect to hear from the God who is "always coming" for us; but then, 'exile' is precisely the kind of experience when the usual "expectations" don't apply, when we are the ones who have to wait upon God, not the other way around. + It is God's word for people like you and me today. Not just for this week in the Lectionary cycle, but, I believe, God's word for people like you and me trying to live the life we have come to know in Jesus Christ at the beginning of a new millennium, a millennium which seems in many ways unlike anything we have ever experienced before, having to live in a world and sometimes a church that seems so foreign and hostile, so unlike and indifferent to everything we have ever been accustomed to, everything we have ever cherished that it is hard most days just to keep from DDT'ing ourselves in reaction to the strangeness and ugliness of it all. It is tempting most days just to hit back or give in. Instead, says Jeremiah, plant a garden, raise a family, pray for the place where you find yourself. Polish your shoes. Keep ahold of something from the life you knew before that keeps you human, keeps you yourself. Make the best of it by keeping faith with who you are in such an ambiguous, uncertain and even hostile world. That's what you can do. Just because the structures that gave your life meaning and purpose have been destroyed or are destroying themselves doesn't mean you have to self-destruct. The day will come when your exile will end, when the One you seem to have lost will let you find Him again, and will restore you to Herself, and will bring you home. In the meantime, keep the faith in Babylon. + Jeremiah 19:1,4-14 - The exiles in Babylon were being misled by self-appointed prophets and soothsayers who were saying that exile would soon be over. To counter the letter, Jeremiah sent a letter to the elders of the people urging them to make the best of their circumstances in Babylon while they waited for their time of exile to come to an end. It is Jeremiah at his most pastoral as he offers practical, heartfelt advice to his fellow citizens on how to survive as aliens in a strange land. 1. In what ways does it feel like you are living as 'exiles' in a strange land? 2. What is the hardest part? Why? 3. What kinds of ways do "preachers" today tend to mislead people about exile? 4. What does it mean for you to "keep the faith in Babylon"? 2 Timothy 2:8-15 - Is there anything that turns the church into something that is the antithesis of 'church' quicker than the way Christians argue with one another over words? This week's portion of the pastoral letter reminds us that 'suffering' is central to the experience of following Jesus and that sometimes that suffering takes place within the church itself at the hands of those who are both impious and profane. Timothy is urged to keep faith with the gospel, himself and the One who cannot be unfaithful to Himself. 1. When have you seen church wrangling tear a church apart? 2. What was needed to prevent it from happening? 3. How do you feel about the 'conditional' and 'unconditional' aspects of the early Christian 'hymn' (verses 11-13) included in the passage? Why? Luke 17:11-19 - What we have is a two part story in which (1) ten lepers are healed in the act of obedience to Jesus' word and (2) a foreigner is saved. It is one of Luke's favourite themes: the foreigner who is saved and who shows more faith than those who should. The story anticipates one of the central themes of Luke-Acts and is a reminder that religious duty can become privilege and God's favour can become blind familiarity. 1. Compare the passage with 2 Kings 5.1-14. What is the pattern being repeated? 2. Why is it often the stranger, the outsider and the outcast who often exhibit more faith than the faithful? 3. When has this story been played out in your church? Your life? FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - View the film Dead Poets' Society, starring Robin Williams and discuss the following: 1. In what ways can both the educational system and the church become 'velvet-gloved butchers of the spirit? 2. Why is it so important to learn how to "think for oneself" both in the educational system and in the church? HYMN: "Be Still, My Soul" (Voices United 652)
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