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 email@example.com 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
The 5th Sunday after Epiphany
Job 7.1-7, Psalm 147, 1 Corinthians 9.16-23, Mark 1.29-39
"Don't Make Me NO Hero!"
There is an old joke that goes something like this.
An elderly man who was quite ill said to his wife, "You know, Sarah, you’ve always been with me – through the good and the bad.
Like the time I lost my job – your were right there by my side. And when the war came and I enlisted – you became a nurse so that you could be with me. Then I was wounded and you were there, Sarah, right by my side. Then the Depression hit and we had nothing – but you were there with me.
And now here I am, sick as a dog, and, as always, you’re right beside me."
You know something, Sarah, you’re bad luck!"
There is a part of us, isn’t there, that is tempted to look for somebody to blame for all the things that go wrong in our lives or when things don’t go as we had hoped; and, more often than not, the people we choose to blame are the very people we once looked to as an answer to all our problems.
There is little doubt that what we have in this week’s gospel is an attempt by Mark to create a sort of composite day in the life of Jesus. Jesus is pictured as a very busy man with a seemingly never-ending stream of people coming to him with problems to be solved and afflictions to be cured. He is at the peak of his public popularity during the Galilean ministry. The entire countryside is at his feet. He could have asked for anything and, you get the feeling, people would have obliged. If he had proclaimed a holy war against the Romans, people would have taken up arms and started marching. If he had proclaimed himself as Messiah, the new king of Israel, the triumphant procession to Jerusalem would have begun right then and there. In other words, Jesus had people right where any political leader would want them – in the palm of his hand.
But, what does Jesus do in response to this marvelous opportunity? He sneaks off early in the morning before anyone is awake so that he can be alone by himself. Then, when his friends and disciples literally ‘track him down’(verse 36) in order to inform him that people are hanging upon his every word, what does he do in response? He says, "Let’s go someplace else so that I can do what I came to do."
What is it that Mark wants us to see about this characteristic behaviour of Jesus?
It is hard to be certain. G. K. Chesterton once bemused that Jesus went off by himself in order to laugh. In other words, when he couldn’t stand the kind of ridiculous expectations that his friends and followers kept making of him, eventually he went off to laugh just to keep his sanity. Well, maybe. Certainly, everybody seems to want a piece of him in this picture Mark paints. Maybe he went off by himself just to get some peace and quiet for a change. Who knows?
But, one thing is certain. Instead of cultivating the enormous popularity that his words and deeds had won him, Jesus seemed to be distinctly un-interested in the kind of success others people wanted for him. He was just not the kind of hero that eventually makes it to the White House or 24 Sussex Drive. He wouldn’t listen to the kind of instructions his handlers wanted to give him. He simply didn’t have the goal of making a big name for himself; or when he did get a big name, without trying to get one, he had no desire to cash in on it.
It’s hard not to hazard the guess that Jesus was just a little suspicious of such popularity. Even if he didn’t have a sneak preview of what was in store for him, you didn’t have to have a doctorate in psychology to figure out that this brief moment of popularity would rub off. At least, the gospel writers all seem to assume that Jesus knew what was going to happen. The cheering crowds would eventually become capricious. His star-struck disciples would, in the end, become totally frustrated and disillusioned. And Jesus would fall from being the golden-haired hometown kid who was going to make everything right for everybody to being a national disgrace and a public embarrassment. He would turn out not to be the kind of messiah, leader and hero people hoped he would be.
Knowing that, who knows what he went off to think about.
An old friend of mine and I were amusing ourselves over lunch the other day, trying to figure out why congregations seem to keep shooting themselves in the head whenever a new minister comes to town.
My friend is retired from ministry (and glad to be!!) after forty years, having served in the parish, as a chaplain in correctional institutes and, worst of all (according to my friend’s evaluation) as a teacher of homiletics at a theological college. "The scenario never seems to change," my friend was saying. "The pastoral relations committee goes to great lengths to categorize the ideal candidate for the minister’s job – somebody creative and progressive who will lead us intelligently and bravely into the new millennium. Then, when they find a candidate brimming over with high ideals and boundless enthusiasm, it is usually a matter of months before somebody puts the brakes on things and let’s the new minister know that he or she is NOT going to change ANYTHING around here! What is it," asked my friend, "that makes congregations keep pursuing this suicidal, masochistic madness!?"
Maybe just this.
The reason people became disenchanted with Jesus in the end is precisely because he wasn’t interested in saving the Free World, organizing an evangelical campaign or founding a new religion. All Jesus wanted to do was to preach the Good News. The Good News, of course, required that people change themselves before they try to change the world or other people; and, after a while, that ‘good news’ began to sound like ‘bad news’ to a whole lot of people.
Why? Because getting rid of the Romans (the Conservatives/Liberals or the NDP), starting a new church, punishing evil-doers, denouncing people who don’t live up to our particular moral standards or beliefs are things most people can sink their teeth into. We like goals which are clearly identifiable.
But transforming our own lives because the Good News says that God loves us and has now set us free to become the very best that we have it in us to be – well, that sounds just a little scary; because, if God has already forgiven us and there is really nothing standing in our way from becoming the people we know we can be, then the Good News is obviously going to mean work, risk, personal sacrifice, dissolving old habits and constructing new ones. In that light, going after other people looks like a much preferable option; for it is much easier to accuse others of fakery and hypocrisy and moral turpitude than it is to examine our own nasty defensiveness and insincerity. Anybody who insists on preaching a vision of God’s love that insists we change ourselves as well as the social, religious and cultural order around us had better check over his or her shoulder every once in a while. For it seems that, at least a good part of the time, we are quite willing to believe Good News that demands we change other people’s lives, but we are quite unwilling to accept Good News that demands we change our own lives.
The passage from Job for this week may sound oddly reminiscent. It is, in fact, a work of poetry that people have borrowed from over the centuries. The night drags on. Are lives are filled with restless waiting for the dawn. Our days are swifter than the weaver’s shuttle. Our lives are like the wind. We see an end without hope and we wonder whether happiness will ever come back.
It is to such fears that Jesus came primarily to preach. One would have thought that a preacher with a message of such deep consolation would have been far more successful than any political or nationalistic messiah.
Unfortunately for Jesus and unfortunately for the complacency for which we often settle, the Good News is that we can overcome the restlessness that so dogs our days, we can be gifted with the hope that this day’s reality does not have the last word, and we can rediscover the joy of living by finding new ways of loving; but, the Good News can be ours only when we abandon our quest for security and give up the rigid defensiveness by which we continue to congratulate ourselves and keep others at bay.
The kingdom becomes a reality within us when we realize that peace, joy, contentment are found in living trustful, open, gracious lives no matter what happens. That is not an easy game to play; and whoever preaches such a message isn’t going to be popular in our town for long.
We much prefer heroes instead.
JOB 7.1-17 – The horrendous moral problem of the book of Job arose out of the discovery that one could no longer be satisfied with an explanation of evil and suffering that said God was inflicting such suffering as a punishment on individuals for their personal sins or on a people for their collective sinfulness. The point of the book is that Job was a good man. He had lived an honest, pious, responsible life. Any yet, he experienced terrible and, seemingly, unfair suffering. He demanded, understandably, an explanation. Unfortunately, he never got one because the only thing God says to him in the end was that he (God) was there in the beginning and Job wasn’t. When Jesus arrived some centuries later, it seems that some new and, additionally, unsatisfying answers were added to the debate: good people who remind others of their own innate potential for goodness are apt to end up suffering more than most people.
1 CORINTHIANS 9.16-23 – Many of the first Christian preachers probably had conventional jobs for the time. Some were fishermen. Some were tradesmen, like Paul, who made tents for a living. Some of the Christians at Corinth were apparently critical of his lifestyle, complaining that he should accept a stipend for preaching. In this passage, Paul defends his lifestyle, claiming that it grants him a freedom in preaching that may not be available to those who are rewarded for doing so. What we see in this passage, besides Paul’s dogmatic temperament, is the passion of a man so possessed by the gospel of Christ that he has devoted his life to it even though he didn’t need to do so.
MARK 1.29-39 – The theme of Jesus as a miracle worker is important in Mark for two reasons. It is a sign that the kingdom is present in the kind of transformative power that Jesus represents. It is also a problem for Jesus who seems quite resistant to the idea of being worshipped as ‘a miracle worker’. In this light, it is interesting to ponder another reason why Jesus may have retreated into the desert or a solitary place to pray. Perhaps he was, understandably, suspicious of the tendency that others had to be attracted to the miracles that happened around him rather than the message he came to deliver. It is clear in Mark that Jesus sees himself more as a teacher than a wonder worker.
HYMN 503 When Seed Falls on Good Soil (Voices United)
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