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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 14 - Proper 9 - Year A
Genesis 24:1-67, Psalm 45:10-17, Romans 7:15-25, Matthew 11:16-19,25-30
The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the way to the house of my master's kin." Those of us who believe in God are no different than anybody else when it comes to one of the most popular of human pastimes, which is to wish for the best or hope for the best or to assume that the best will happen no matter what is really going on at any given moment. It's just that a lot of people who believe like to think they're different - to think that they know what is really going on when, of course, they really don't. For, whatever is going on down there, far beneath the surface of things, the truth of it is that most of us live our lives on the surface of things, much like a dog sniffing his way down the street. We follow hunches, impulses and changes of mood. The decisions we think we make on the spur of the moment have been years in the making. The plans we suddenly change had been abandoned long ago. We respond to whatever comes up. We follow the tracks, check the scents and do the best we can, hoping for the best to happen. And it has never been any different... ... which is why you would do well to listen to what the Bible has to say with your tongue firmly stuck in your cheek most of the time, if not with a good dose of salt. Take the story of Rebecca's betrothal to Isaac, for instance. It is one of those stories that almost pleads with us to roll our eyes. We are asked to believe that God made things happen every step of the way. + Apparently, Abraham got to feeling so old one day that he thought he was going to die; so he gave a special mission to one of his servants: to find a wife for his and Sarah's favourite son Isaac. Not just any wife, however; for they were living in the land of Canaan at the time - among foreigners - along way from home and from their own kin. Nothing less than one of "their own kind" would do for "Laughter" son of "the promise" because, of course, it was what Abraham believed God wanted. The story never says who the servant was who was commissioned for such an important task; but you can bet it was Abraham's most trusted one. Before the man took off, Abraham made him swear to get the job done by having him stick his hand under the old man's thigh. It was the way pledges were made in those days, man to man, private parts to private parts. The story says so. The wishful part for Abraham was in assuring his servant that God would be with him every step of the way, that he would even send an angel along for the ride just to make sure things went according to plan. As for the servant, well, who was he to second-guess his master who had now grown as wealthy and powerful as any Mid-Eastern potentate. But, just in case God needed a little help to accomplish his purposes, Abraham added a little security of his own: he sent along with his servant a small entourage of ten camels loaded down with enough sorted trinkets and treasures to let anybody with eyes in their head see that they were dealing with someone who would definitely be able to make cooperation worth their while. The old servant went just as Abraham had bade him, trusting the Lord to guide him; and, in order to be certain that he would find the right woman, asked the Lord to give him a sign. The sign the servant asked for was this: when he came to a spring near the city of Abraham's kin, he would ask a woman to draw him a jar of water to drink from. If the woman did what he asked for and offered water for his camels as well, he would know that she was the woman the Lord had chosen - just like that. Well, lo and behold, the first woman he met did; and Rebekah turned out to be that woman, although it's hard on the surface to imagine God or anybody else, for that matter, getting Rebekah to do anything she didn't want to do in the first place. For Rebekah was the kind of woman who always managed to get things done her way. If, for instance, the servant Abraham had sent had looked like nobody special, it's not hard at all to imagine Rebekah telling him to get his own water, thank you very much, and, while he was at it, to get those camels right out of there before they started mucking the whole place up. But, that's not what she said. Eye-balling those ten camels behind him and all that expensive-looking baggage the stranger had stowed, Rebekah was as polite as she could be. Poured the servant a drink straightaway, then offered to water all his camels - just as nice as she could be. It was the very sign from heaven the old servant had been looking for. As soon as she finished her chores, he told Rebekah he had traveled many miles to find a woman just like her for his master's son. He told her she was surely the woman. She told him that, if that were the case, on a matter as serious as this she would have to consult her father and brother. It is not hard at all to imagine crafty little Rebekah saying something like that. If it was the Lord's will, well and good, but she was certainly going to do what she could to make it worth her while in the bargain. As it turned out, Rebekah's brother was a man named Laban, no slouch himself when it came to smelling a good deal a mile off; and no sooner had Abraham's servant followed Rebekah home than Laban was greeting him like a long-lost brother. "Come in and take a load off," he said to the astonished old man, "and bring your servants with you!" Never had Rebekah's family been ready to show any stranger such unsolicited hospitality! Once again, the old servant repeated his story and how Rebekah had turned up just at the right moment - a sure sign from heaven if there ever was one. Not surprisingly, just as soon as the camels were unpacked and the prizes divvied up, the betrothal was blessed and Rebekah was all but on her way back to the land of Canaan and her waiting bridegroom. As Abraham's old servant put it, "...The Lord has made my journey successful..." It is a delightful old tale, this 'Wooing of Rebekah', as Wolfgang Roth coins it, told with skill and good humour by an author who believed that God was in the way things took place, working things out for the best. Just how God was in them is the question. Just how is God in all the funny, crooked and scheming ways we follow to get from this point to the next? + If I sound just the slightest bit jaded about this whole notion of God's providence, which is one of the things this story means to say, I don't mean to be. It's just that what precisely God's providence means to me has changed over the years. That beneath the surface of your life and mine, no less than beneath the lives of friendly crooks like Abraham and his brood, there is a loving purposefulness working itself out in spite of us - I have no doubt. It's just that I pretend a lot less than I used to about how much I know about the details, that's all. This side of Paradise which one of us can say with absolute certainty we know precisely how God is working things out? For that matter, who can say anything that matters about anything with absolute certainty? Even Jesus on the cross asked that hardest of all questions. In the meantime, we do the best we can, hoping that the best will happen on our way from this town to the next in search of someone or something that just might fulfill someone's blessed wish. The best in the sense of letting us see the miracles that we can't help dreaming about and that go on speaking to us from a star-filled night whether we want them to or not. And, if we are betting people, well, we probably hedge the bets we place that those miracles might just come true a good deal of the time by packing our camels to make sure that others are more inclined to believe that we are good bets ourselves - good enough to trust us with their lives, good enough to believe that we mean them no harm and maybe even good enough that we mean them a good deal of good in the long run, too. My guess is that we could no more stop making such deals than we could stop such ancestral blood from flowing in our veins. Perhaps, the gentle, self-mocking truth of this week's tale is just that: a reminder that we are more like Abraham, Rebekah and Laban, people trying to make the best happen anyway they can - more than we care to admit - and that God not only doesn't hold it against us, he keeps on working beneath the surface of it all to make it happen too. For we are not the only ones who engage in wishful thinking. So does the one who keeps on nudging us to take chances, who keeps on prodding us to believe in the gifts strangers bring and who keeps on giving us the very dreams we wish will happen, until, perhaps, our very wishing gives them the wings they need to come true on. + Genesis 24.1-67 - The continuing saga of Abraham and his family arrives at a critical juncture: how to find a wife for the blessed son of the promise. It is a story of an arranged marriage told with humour and insight into the various characters whose scheming ways will continue long into the future. The question is: how is God present in the events that take place? 1. How do you think God's loving purpose was unfolding in this story? 2. How is this different from the kind of detailed, spectacular, almost magical way God's actions are often attested to in our day? 3. What does God's providence mean to you? Romans 7.15-25 - Paul, a man who could never forget his past (which one of us can!?), writes about the struggle that goes on inside each one of us. 1. Name a specific struggle that goes on inside of you. 2. Imaginatively visit a time when you behaved poorly in regard to that struggle. Then visit a time when you behaved admirably. 3. With the sensation that the latter experience provided fully present in you, go back to that other time and see yourself behaving in a more resourceful, freeing way. Imaginatively change the outcome for the better. Matthew 11.16-30 - Both Jesus and early Christian missionaries experienced rejection in their ministries. It is the manner in which this rejection takes places that seems to be the focus of Matthew's thought: 'this generation' refers to those who ignore the call of the gospel. 1. Whom would Jesus and Matthew accuse of ignoring the call of the gospel in "this generation" of ours? Why? 2. What would be an appropriate response to such rejection, in keeping with Jesus' message and ministry, not necessarily in keeping with the curse that is pronounced in this week's text?
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