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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 18 - Proper 13 - Year A
Genesis 32:1-32, 33:1-11; Psalm 17:1-7,15; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
"Jake and Easy"
Esau said, "What do you mean by all this company that I met?" Jacob answered, "To find favour with my lord." But Esau said, "I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself." Jacob said, "No, please; if I find favour with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God...." There was once an honest man who established a very successful business in a tough part of town. Having run it for forty-five years, he wanted to retire and turn it over to his sons, Jake and Easy. So he called them into his office one day to give them the news. Jake came in nattily dressed in a Versace suit and alligator leather shoes, hair slicked down and his skin a golden brown from his recent holiday in the Cayman Islands. Easy showed up late wearing well-worn sneakers, jeans and an army surplus jacket. "It's time for you two to take things over," the old man said. "You're old enough. What do you say?" "Sure, Dad," said Jake with a smile that slid across the room. "I don't think so," said Easy. "Getting rich ain't my bag." "But, Easy," said the old man, "the people in the neighbourhood need us. Other stores around here bleed people dry with their prices. We've always treated people fairly and been more than generous when people need it. It's not that we need to get rich. It's that people need us to have a heart." "I've got heart," said Easy, "and that's why I'm not interested. There are other ways to help." So, with a weary heart, the father handed the keys over to Jake. "Don't worry, Dad," cooed Jake. "I've got heart enough for both of us." "Such a heart," the old man said under his breath as he watched them leave, "a marble statue should have!" In no time Jake bought Easy's share of the business and started running things his way, selling a cheaper line of furniture at double the price of the line they used to stock, repossessing from those who failed to make their payments within ten days, sometimes selling the same furniture over and over until it literally fell apart. He was out for the fast buck and it started coming in faster than he had imagined. Meanwhile, Easy had used his share from the business to buy a big old house in the neighbourhood where he set up beds for the homeless and started running a soup kitchen. When neighbours had trouble with their landlords, Easy went with them to City Hall. When young couples starting out needed a mortgage, Easy would front for them with the bank. And when the summer riots began, it was Easy who dragged Jake's "accounts payable" out into the alley and set fire to them. + I'm not exactly sure why the church insists on doing it, but every third year when we get around to remembering the story of Jacob, it's what gets left out that seems to say more than what's said, the people we never seem to have time for, the people we assume are unimportant. The story of Jacob at the river Jabbok, for instance. We just assume that it's a story about Jacob and what happens to him on that strange night when he wrestled with a man who seemed like God himself. Nothing more. Nothing less. But we cannot seriously hear what this story is saying, or more importantly, what the author of this sophisticated tale is trying to tell us if we don't pay attention to everything he says about what happened. Jacob's famous struggle at the place he ended up calling Peniel because of the wound he encountered there was not meant to be heard in isolation from what comes before it and, certainly not from what comes afterward. Furthermore, it may not even be the most important part of the story even though it has received all of the attention. After twenty, long-suffering years trying to get a wife for himself from his uncle Laban, Jacob is on his way back to the land of his ancestors, back to the land his father had given him, back to the land God had promised him. More importantly, he is on his way back to everything he had stolen from his big brother Esau. The last time he had seen Esau, his brother wanted to kill him pure and simple. Kill him for stealing the birthright and the family blessing, kill him for the sleazy way he had gone about it. Whatever Esau didn't have going for him, at least he knew a liar and a cheat when he saw one and wasn't afraid to say how he felt about it. Jacob had been everything that disappoints a family's integrity in spades; and what is more he had gotten away with it. He had even profited from being a fugitive. While working for Laban wasn't exactly something he'd recommend as a way to get started in life, by the time he had put one over on his uncle as well, he had clearly made a bundle that was nothing to sneeze at. He had left home on the run with nothing but the shirt on his back. He came back like a prosperous tribal chief, with wives, children, servants and livestock as big as a small army. It was an impressive sight and Jacob was clearly counting on that, counting on impressing his good, old, "easy-to-take" brother Esau. Problem is, he sees Esau coming to meet him with four hundred armed men! - and that is when he has his famous experience with the strange night visitor. A lot of ink has flowed and sermons been preached about that dark, troubling encounter. Was it a man Jacob struggled with or an angel? Was it God himself? What kind of blessing did Jacob want from the man? And how did it change him? We are left to wonder about much of it - especially if we do not remember it in the context of what happens next. For the very next day Jacob finally gets to meet Esau and things somehow seem easier to understand in the clear light of day. He wakes up and joins his family and it is then that he sees Esau coming to him. This time, instead of playing the coward, instead of hiding behind his wives and children, he tells them all to stand back while he goes on himself to meet Esau - alone and defenseless. It is probably the gutsiest thing Jacob ever did - the only time he tried to do anything when he didn't know for certain whether there was something in it for himself. He just went on his own to face the brother he had cheated and betrayed - not knowing what would happen next. It is here that the storyteller turns the lens away from Jacob and focuses it squarely on his estranged brother Esau. What will the rugged, manly, impulsive Esau do now that Jacob gives him the chance, especially after he has had twenty years to think about it. One thing you can be sure of is that both of them had given what Esau might do some very serious thought. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept, the story says. Needless to say, it was probably the last thing Jacob was expecting, the thing he probably never even dared to hope for: that the brother he had treated so despicably might not only forgive him but do it with such heartfelt tenderness. It is what the story says Esau did. Old Red, the brother with more appetite than brains, the macho-man who could have crushed his brother's skull with his bare hands, the shlemozzle who couldn't see things coming until after they had hit him over the head - gives old Jake the Snake precisely more than he deserves once again, only this time, not because he is too stupid not to but because he simply wants to. My money says that this is high-point of the story, of which that famous struggle of Jacob's the night before is only the anti-climax. If Jacob or any one of us wondered whether the one Jacob had encountered at the Jabbok was God, here Jacob has no doubts. When Esau asks Jacob why he has sent half of his property as a gift to him, Jacob replies, "... for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God." In other words, whatever blessing Jacob may have received at the river Jabbok for the asking, he saw in the tear-drenched face of his long-lost brother Esau a blessing that was his only because it was given. The love of God and love of a long-estranged brother belong together. We can no more separate them than we can stand apart from the person every one of us is meant to be. It is, in the end, a story of that incredible grace that we can never anticipate and with which we must struggle, probably, to the end of our days - or at least until we learn that we can never find what we really need until we find it in the faces of all those from whom we have been estranged. --------- Genesis 32:1-32; 33:1-11 - The story of Jacob at the river Jabbok cannot and was probably never meant to be understood in isolation from its context. It may not even be the most important part of the story at all. We have deliberately rounded out this famous story this year in an effort to avoid the isolating trap of the Lectionary. It is a story of two meetings, not one - one with the holy God and one with an estranged brother. What is ambiguous about one becomes clear as a result of the other. The blessing we seek, the deepest need our hearts long for, is one that both cripples us and unites us. 1. What does this week's extended telling of the story do to help you understand it more fully? 2. How were both Jacob and Esau changed/blessed by what happened? 3. In what ways have you been both wounded and blessed by a difficult relationship? Romans 9:1-5 - Today's passage, in which Paul agonizes over the fact that his own people, Israel, rejected Jesus and his teaching, needs to be understood in the light of the long discourse that takes place through chapter 11. How does Israel fit into God's plan to include everyone? What does it mean to be a chosen people? Who are the chosen? The fact that we are asked to consider Paul's emotional struggle over the fact that Jesus was rejected by his own people serves as a salient reminder to us about the ever-present struggle that seems to exist between the richness of tradition and the in-breaking newness of God's revelation. 1. Describe the kind of conflicting allegiances Paul seems to feel? 2. When have you felt torn between your "heritage" and the immediate sense that God was calling you to do and be something different? 3. How did/do you cope with such a struggle? Matthew 14:13-21 - Matthew places the story of Jesus feeding five thousand men, as well as their families, in a very political context, namely the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas. The story of John's fate is told in hindsight to remind us that Herod viewed Jesus as the same kind of political threat. Which may be a clue that, in addition to the obvious supernatural quality of the story, the only miracle recorded by all four gospel writers, the feeding of the five thousand needs to be understood politically rather than spiritually. Palestine was a poor nation and hunger and poverty were widespread. "Daily bread" not religion was what Jesus represented to people, in other words, a new kind of economy, a moral one in which everyone was fed and everyone had enough. 1. With that understanding, what new light does such a story shed on the petition: "Give us this day our daily bread"? 2. What does Jesus seem to be saying to his followers about how this petition should be carried out? 3. In what way does your religious community reflect this "moral economy" of Jesus? HYMN 372 Though I May Speak (Voices United)
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