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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 28 - Proper 23 - Year A
Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
"...you shall have no other gods before me." Let me state my position, for starters. The church's record in being a faithful witness of the message is abominable. The message, I take it, is that God loves each and every one of us with an absolutely tender and steadfast love that will never let go of us and that we are to love every last one of our brothers and sisters as Christ loved us. There will be those lawyers and bureaucrats among us who will want to amend that motion; but, if you had to say it in twenty-five words or less, if you wanted to represent what Jesus both taught and lived, that is as close as I know how to get to it. It's what we're here for. Why Jesus went to the trouble. Somehow to embody that kind of love. But over the years, the church has failed that basic test over and over again. Christians have fought over prestige, money, power and theology centuries in and centuries out. They beheaded and burnt people at the stake when they wouldn't submit, out of fear, to baptism. They slaughtered people of other faith traditions, men, women and children, until the blood ran knee deep in the streets. They equated women and children with idiots. They referred to anyone who disagreed with church doctrine as "the damned". It has only been in this century, 1900 years after the fact, for instance, that some parts of the church began to treat women as persons, even going so far as admitting them to pastoral orders. Still, the largest part of the church, defends for the most absurd reasons its prohibition of women priests. Meanwhile the most recent revelations of the physical and sexual abuse of the innocent at the hands of clergy, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, have rocked the church to a point of betrayal of the public trust from which it may never recover. It hasn't merely been the case that the ministry and the priesthood have had abusive men within its ranks. It's that church authorities lied about not knowing about it for decades. The late John Courtney Murray used to say of a prominent archbishop (and who that archbishop was varied from circumstance to circumstance), "He is an absolutely honest man. He would never tell a lie save for the good of the Church." Murray was joking, but not really; for we now know that bishops, pastors and church administrators of all denominations lied so often to their people about the most horrific kinds of abuses that were taking place that no one believes them anymore. They did it to save the church from being embarrassed, which means they did it to save the church money and prestige. Of course, it was for "the good of the Church"; so it was "OK". What has been important down through the tragic centuries, in other words, for far too many Christians has been the survival of the church as an ecclesiastical institution and not the proclamation of the Good News. The Good News that there now existed in the world a people prepared to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly" with their God at whatever the cost. In other words, far too many Christians who believed that the church was worth preserving even if it meant abandoning everything the church stood for in order to accomplish that. Which makes what the church too often has become nothing more than a graven image, an idol. No, the last of the golden calves was not the one Moses destroyed. + Here it is only one week after Moses laid down the law at Mount Sinai and Israel is caught red-handed whoring around with idols. Whoring. The word, in case any of you have forgotten, means to fornicate. It is the apt word for our purposes here. For seven long chapters, the Lord has been doing quite a lot of "spaking", to use the King James dignified way of referring to "divine speech". Israel has been a silent partner in this relationship, only speaking up to say, "We shall obey and do all that the Lord has said." (Exodus 24.7) But, now, they are facing a leadership vacuum with Moses off on a mountaintop retreat with the Lord for forty days! They don't know when he will be back or if he will be back; and suddenly their revered leader has become "This Moses... " indicating the considerable emotional distance that has developed between them. It is at this point that a politically savvy group of leaders among them approach Aaron, Moses' silver-tongued but light-brained brother, with a proposal. "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us;..." Fearful of the kind of mood people are in (and, no doubt, anxious about their positions), the leadership asks for a change of direction, a change of policy. They want something concrete and accessible, not necessarily a substitute for Yahweh, but the image of a divine messenger, something more permanent upon which to focus their attention, a visible, tangible element for the absence of Moses, something elevated to a status alongside Yahweh (and hence the plural designation, "gods"). It is a disastrous moment in the history of the relationship between God and Israel, one that neither of them would ever forget. At the very heart of the ten commandments, you recall, was the relationship between God and Israel. Everything else flowed from this: God would be their God and Israel would be his people, an intimate, passionate commitment to be faithful to one another. Think of it as a very monogamous marriage. But, here, now, only a short time after God has pledged his love to Israel and asked for that love back, the people have turned their back on God and are dallying with another god. Nothing could have hurt God or shamed Israel more. This deliberate action to make a golden calf out of the people's Egyptian gold, the status symbol of their deliverance, was a fundamental act of disloyalty to the God who had delivered them. Why does the author of Exodus want us to remember this story just a short time after the story of the giving of the ten commandments? Because time after time God's people have demonstrated a habit for doing the same kind of thing. By the time Matthew, for instance, gets around to writing his gospel, he includes that allegorical story about the king who invited everyone to a wedding feast. Nobody came. Then, when the king goes out and literally drags people in off the street, he finds somebody who didn't dress for the occasion. The meaning of the allegory? God wants to have a relationship with us. Indeed, God is so passionate about it that she will go to just about any lengths to have us as her own. But, if we are so determined to turn our backs on God, if we show that we are not worthy of such a love, then God will give her love to someone else. + Idolatry is what we do when we don't take God seriously. When we try to substitute something else for God. Of course, no intelligent believer would ever contemplate such a thing, you say, for it is impossible to make anything like God. But I am speaking of the practical order of our everyday lives. In theory, we are all perfectly willing to admit that our theology, our position on a host of issues, our particular lifestyle, our political allegiance, our approach to people are not at the centre of our religious commitment. But for all practical purposes, they are precisely because we spend so much of our time and effort living as though they are. These gods go "at the head of us". These gods preempt our emotional concerns. These gods demand all of our vital energies. These gods occupy most of our "religious time". Theoretically, we would argue, they are all quite relative. In reality, they have become absolute. One way to test ourselves about this is to ask how much of our "religious" conversation and activity is devoted to "such issues" and how much to the demands of God's love? And if the truth be told, most of us are perfectly at ease devoting most of our time and energy to the latest "relativity" in our lives. And, whether you are bothered by my opening position on the church or not, you cannot argue with history. Have Christians spent an incredible amount of time and energy defending their own theologies, fighting over their disparate visions of the church, attempting to intimidate others into agreeing with them, covering up the sins of the institution - or not? But when it comes to embodying the love of God and the task of loving all of our brothers and sisters, in particular the most vulnerable and oppressed among us, we stumble, become suddenly vague, express our doubts and bafflement before such a dilemma. In all likelihood, we say nothing at all, do nothing because, in reality, it becomes easier not to. We have been too busy, too accustomed to dealing with things that are really important, like maintaining our position and preserving the church even if it means turning a blind eye to the way that same church betrays and abandons the least of our brothers and sisters! The sins of Christians against other people would not have happened, or would not have happened as much, in other words, if we had not turned the church into a god "to go at the head of us". The stern reminder of this week's scriptures is that we can hide behind such ecclesiastical bull only for so long. Eventually, we must face the aroused love of God; for he is a God who will not tolerate being anything but first in our hearts. He wants us as his own and he will have us as his own one way or another, even if it means demolishing whatever golden bull we choose to make for ourselves, grinding it down, and making us drink it until our teeth turn gold. --------- Exodus 32:1-14 - Suddenly, it is Genesis 3 all over again. The garden has become a tangled mess. Harmony has turned into dissonance, gratitude into disobedience. In the absence of Moses the people take their future into their own hands - with disastrous consequences. In the first part of the story, we are reminded of a perennial problem for communities of faith, a problem that is underscored in this week's reflection. In the second part, Moses accomplishes a feat that rivals the parting of any sea - changing God's mind. We are reminded that the God we are dealing with in scripture is not the omniscient, ineffable, unchangeable absolute divinity of sophical theology, but an unabashedly passionate and dynamic God who demands to be taken seriously and is even open to debate! 1. Why is the story a reflection about you, me and any community of faith? 2. What do you find amusing and endearing about the conversation between Moses and Yahweh? 3. In what way is God pronouncing judgment on the way Christians have committed idolatry? Philippians 4:1-9 - This week's text consists of "last words", final reminders from Paul to his beloved readers. The tone of the passage is endearing and reassuring, yet filled with straight talk and clear directives. We are hearing Paul the father, pastor and teacher giving words of lasting advice. It is obvious, from Paul's remarks, that women played a prominent role in his ministry, working right along beside in the ministry of the gospel, a clear repudiation, if ever there was one, of the position that says that women have no place in the ministry of the church. It is also obvious that there was a need, from very early times, for Christians to stop their endless bickering and to get along, to stop being concerned about the things that divide them and to be more concerned about the things that unite them. 1. How is the text pertinent to how women have been treated in your church? 2. How is it pertinent to issues of disunity and strife? 3. How does Paul believe that we will experience the peace of God? Matthew 22:1-14 - The text is a parable or, more properly, an allegory of judgment with its focus on Christians. Matthew is using a simpler version (Luke 14.16-24, Thomas 64.1-12) to give meaning to historical events that have already happened: Israel's mistreatment of the prophets, Israel's rejection of early Christian missionaries, the destruction of Jerusalem and the movement of the church toward a Gentile constituency. Matthew is not being subtle at all. It is not simply whether one says yes or no to the invitation to God's domain; it is whether one is serious about the expectations of living in it. Matthew is addressing a church that may have lost the distinction between accepting all persons and condoning all behaviour. 1. In what ways is this an allegory about the church in our time? 2. What two things are required of believers, according to the allegory? HYMN Will You Come and Follow Me (Voices United)
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