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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"
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 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)
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.
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 2004
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.


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