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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 15 - Year A
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13:1-23
"Get A Grip"
"For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that 'seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.' With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: 'You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn - and I would heal them." A man once came to Buddha with an offering of flowers in his hands. Buddha looked up at him and said, "Drop it!' The man couldn't believe he was being asked to drop the flowers. Then it occurred to him that perhaps Buddha was asking him to drop the flowers that he had in his left hand, since to offer something with one's left hand was considered inauspicious and impolite. So he dropped the flowers that his left hand held. And Buddha said to him, "Drop it!" This time, the man was so unnerved by Buddha's request that he simply dropped all the flowers and stood before Buddha empty-handed. And Buddha smiled and said to him, "Drop it!" Perplexed, the man asked, "Buddha, what is it that I am supposed to drop?" "Not the flowers, my son," said Buddha, "but the one who brought them." + If you get the point of such a story, you might have had a chance of getting the parable of the sower when Jesus first told it. Might have but probably not. It is a story that most scholars agree can be fairly identified as something very close to what Jesus actually said, as opposed to many of the things he is presented as saying but that are so encrusted over with editorial comments and interpretations of those who eventually wrote the gospels that it's hard to tell what was left of his original words. Moreover, the story of the sower who went out to sow is regarded as a kind of watershed in the gospels because it seems to be the first time Jesus attempted to teach people by using that unique kind of story with which we attribute him. We call them 'parables' and they refer to the short, pithy little stories he told that often had a twist on the end. The kind of stories he told and probably never explained. Not the way, in other words, that he is presented as explaining it in this week's passage. Verses 18-23, that rather convoluted interpretation of the story that we are given - and that doesn't help much at all as far as making anything clearer - is probably Matthew's editorial comment, not Jesus'. Jesus was, apparently, the kind of teacher who would just stand up in a crowd or wherever he happened to be and who started saying something like: there was once a farmer who started scattering seeds. Some fell on the road, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and some on good ground. The seeds that fell on good ground did amazingly well. The seeds that fell elsewhere didn't. End of story. Then, he probably walked away. You know. The way the preacher walks to the back of the church after the sermon and waits for people to come by with their comments. My bet is that if you and I had been there that day in that crowd of people, we would have been scratching our heads and saying something like, "What was that all about?" Obviously, not about agriculture or efficient gardening practices, to be sure. Jesus is telling people a story in order to talk about something else. Problem is: he doesn't tell us what that something else is. Apparently, according to Matthew and others, he meant to do precisely that - meant to make it difficult; because this particular story of the sower who went out to sow was not just a parable, which comes from a Greek word meaning to "set side by side" or "compare", but a mashal, which is the Hebrew word for something called enigmatic speech. In other words, a story whose meaning is not immediately apparent, something like a riddle, intended to tease the mind into insight. Something like Buddha saying, "Drop it!" Drop what!? And to reinforce that this was his intention, Matthew has Jesus saying some things after he tells his little story that are more puzzling and even a little startling. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. Are you beginning to see what I mean about the likelihood of being just a little confused by Jesus the Preacher if you had been there that day? Because what he is saying sounds like the old divine double-cross: giving us what we don't deserve and taking away what we do. Forget for a moment all those edifying sermons you have heard or preached yourself about this very familiar story about the sower and his seed, with all their neat, logical explanations of what really happened to all those seeds. What if Jesus meant something a lot simpler, something a lot pithier and something a lot more pointed, such as, perhaps, "Get A Grip!" A sower went out to sow, he said, and this is what happened to his seeds. If you grasp that that is the way the kingdom works - mysteriously, just like that, then that grip will give you even more understanding. But, if you don't grasp that, well, then even what you think you understand will be taken away from you. People look and look but never see, he says to us. They listen and listen but never understand - lest they should turn again and be forgiven. "Yeah," says Jesus, "old Isaiah really had it right. What does it take to get through to some people? What does it take before they get a grip on it?" + Back in my university days when I was thinking about entering the ministry, the pastor of our congregation, Ben Hodder, preached a sermon one day that no one forgot. He was one of the best preachers I have ever known and people would always come out of church after one of his sermons with something to think about. You know what I mean. The kind of comments that you hear people make after a particularly uplifting or challenging or enlightening or entertaining sermon. "By gosh, preacher, you sure gave us something to think about today, yes siree, Bob. I'm going home to think about that! What a wonderful sermon! So comforting! I really enjoyed that!" Well, on that particular Sunday, Ben got up to preach and just told a story about a farmer who went out to sow his seed. "Some seed fell on the road, he said, and got all trampled underfoot. Some fell on rocky ground and grew up too quickly and withered in the sun. Some fell among thorns and got the life strangled out of them. Some seed fell on good soil and produced an amazing harvest. Those of you with two good ears," he said, "had better listen up!" Then he sat down and the organist started to play the next hymn. People were looking at each other from that moment on right through the rest of the service and for quite a while afterwards. "Well, what was that all about? What was he talking about? What was he getting at? Are we supposed to know what he meant?" was the way most of the comments went. A lot of people went away scratching their heads. As far as I know, they may still be scratching them, while others went away pondering what Ben's words might have meant and why he said them just the way he did, eventually coming up with answers that seemed to fit... ... such as, what are we all doing here if we don't eventually get serious about this stuff called loving our enemies and forgiving those who need it... such as, what's the point of my being here or any preacher being here Sunday after Sunday, year after year, if, as a church, we don't become the kind of community in which people who find themselves on the outside of things find a way in... such as, what's the point of all this talk about kindness and talk about justice and talk about love of God, if we don't actually get down to the often dirty, daily business of being kind to those who are not kind to us and making sure justice is done to those who have been taken advantage of and loving each other the way God loves us... such as, what's the point of sitting in church year after year and knowing your Bible from front to back if living this business called Jesus' Way of doing things is something you just pretend to do. Yeah, old Ben had it right. It takes two good ears to sit in church: one to listen to what is being said and the other to do it as if your life depended on it, which it does, of course, that life of yours and mine that has the chance of coming alive only when we finally get a grip on what God needs us to do today for that world that is coming to pass. That world where people finally learn to drop what they're doing purely for themselves and, instead, to do what the person standing in front of them needs them to do. Those of you with two good ears had best listen up! --------- Genesis 25:19-34 - The story of Isaac and Rebekah, Esau and Jacob is an honest depiction of what happens to people when they choose to live a certain way. It is the Bible's way of talking about judgment, the inevitable kind of judgment we bring down upon ourselves and often others as a result of our actions. I suggest that you resist the modern temptation to find an easy moral in such a story and simply let it tell itself and point to whatever it suggests. 1. With whom do you most identify? Why? 2. What has the church taught you about judgment? 3. When have you experienced judgment? 4. Where was God in the experience? Romans 8:1-11 - Paul is in a celebratory (for Paul!) mood, talking about the freedom of new life in Christ. He uses two words in this passage, "flesh" and "spirit", to talk about two ways of living in the world. "Flesh" does not mean exclusively, or even primarily, our physical bodies, but rather an orientation to the world centred on oneself. When that is the case human relationships remain fractured. "Spirit" means that new way of being in the world made possible by Christ and which is evidenced by the presence of the Spirit in the church. The church is the place where that new creation of healed and healing relationships - which is to be fulfilled for everyone - can now be experienced. 1. Why was this passage particularly important for new Christians? 2. When have you been "dead in your tracks" because your entire focus was on your self? 3. When have you seen the life in the Spirit Paul talks about here evident in your relationships with others? Matthew 13:1-23 - The Lectionary's choice to exclude verses 10-17 does a disservice to this most famous of Jesus' mashals. The point of the story is not allegorical but transformative. It is intended not to explain things but to provoke insight. "This is what happens when God does things in the world," Jesus seems to be saying. "Get it?" 1. When have you seen the sharp point of this parable played out in your church, in your family, in the way people respond to the truth about anything? 2. How receptive would you grade yourself to the Good News as a child, an adolescent, the intervening years, now? A PRAYER FOR THE SAINTS - God, empty us of the angry judgments and aching disappointments and anxious trying. Breathe into us something like quietness and confidence, until the lion and the lamb within us learn to lie down together, and be led by a trust, as straightforward as a child. Catch our pride off guard, at least for a moment, long enough to sense your strong presence in the wind, and to be surprised by joy, and to be awakened by hope. Amen HYMN 584 Through the Heart of Every City (Voices United)
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