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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
The Eighth Sunday after Epiphany - Proper 3 - Year B
Hosea 2:14-20; Psalm 103:1-22; 2 Corinthians 3.1-6; Mark 2:13-22
'Resisting God's Glue'
In Jewish tradition, Elijah was not only a renowned prophet of Israel. He was also a bit of a trickster and magician.
Once Elijah was walking through a town when he heard the sounds of a party coming from a very large and beautiful house. He swirled around and instantly became clothed in the rags of a beggar. He knocked on the door of the house and, when the host answered, he took one look at Elijah’s miserable clothing and slammed the door in his face. Whereupon Elijah swirled around a second time and was instantly clothed in the fine garments of a gentleman. He knocked on the door again and, this time when the host looked at his splendid attire, he ushered him in immediately.
At the feast, there was a long table of food. Elijah went to it immediately and began to stuff food into his pockets. The other guests all stepped back to watch this strange sight. Then Elijah pushed more food into his shirt and poured wine over his shoulders and down the front of his fine attire. It was not long before the host became irritated and asked Elijah, "What do you mean by this unseemly behaviour?"
"I came to your door dressed in rags," replied Elijah, "and you did not invite me in. Then I came to your door – the same person – dressed in fine garments and you welcomed me to your feast. I could only conclude that it was not me you invited but my clothes. So I fed them with your food and drink."
The story says that the people were ashamed and looked down. When they looked up, Elijah was gone.
The effect Jesus had on people was something like that. To those who felt rejected, he became an event of inclusion. To those who regarded themselves as superior to others, he became an event of unmasking.
More than all the parables he told, none was more scandalous and dangerous than his enacted parable of table fellowship; and we are still struggling to appropriate such a vision.
The charge against him was simple: "He eats with sinners."
It is difficult for people like us to catch the force of such a condemnation. After all, we think, "Isn’t everyone a sinner?" We think the Pharisees are simply being self-righteous. It was a little more than that.
For one thing, not everyone was regarded as a sinner in those days. Only certain people were singled out for that special categorization: persons with a skin disease ("lepers"), the maimed, the halt, the blind, gentiles, Samaritans, petty tax officials (collaborators with the Romans), most of the poor and women who did not observe the social proprieties. In that society, in other words, "sinners", were a fairly numerous group and, apparently, they hung around Jesus in hordes.
For another, the traditional Jewish theology in vogue at the time was that God did not welcome sinners and did not forgive them either. God embraced the righteous, which is to say those who kept the law, observed the purity codes and stayed away from sinners. Sinners were outcasts both from God and from polite society.
Furthermore, it was a charge that stuck to Jesus wherever he seemed to go.
This was no mere criticism. This was the ultimate condemnation by his enemies. To the sharp eyes of the envious and the proud, Jesus’ willing association with those deemed unacceptable threatened the religious, social and political status quo.
For the immediate and unthinkable implication of Jesus’ table fellowship was that his religious contemporaries had been wrong. Worse, they had been wrong about God. God did not reject the sinner and pull the righteous to his bosom. He was not a Lord of sharp delineations, but of open, ever-welcoming embrace.
What was at stake as far as Jesus’ opponents were concerned was the very existence of their well-ordered world. If everyone was invited to God’s banquet, then the whore down the street would become your sister in the faith. The soldier who occupied your house would have to be invited to share your cup. The tax-collector who never forgot to call on you the first of the month would get to break bread with you. There would be no telling who would be sitting next to whom.
Better, thought Jesus’ enemies, to get rid of this party animal than risk the shuddering conversion of mind and heart his inclusive vision would entail.
Before I accepted the call to my last parish, Susan and I decided to try to scare off the team of people who had approached us about the possibility of becoming their minister. We knew how "romantic" pastoral search committees could get when they thought they had found the right "match" for their church and we had resolved to warn them about the hazards involved in any pastoral relationship. In addition to providing them with full disclosure of where we had been and managed to be in ministry with others, we attempted to point out some of the inevitable risks of having somebody like me for a minister. A little reality check, in other words.
For years, I had attempted to be as inclusive in ministry as I knew how. I believed the church needed to do more than talk about wanting newcomers; they needn’t to practice hospitality if they wanted newcomers to stay. I also believed that it was time to get rid of the last remaining barriers to women in the church by talking openly about the violence still being done to women and by using language in worship that not only embraced everybody but reflected the rich variety of metaphors for God found in the Bible itself – including feminine imagery. I knew that some church folk don’t always welcome such an approach.
"Which one of you here is going to drop dead of a heart attack the first time I call God mother in worship?" I asked the pastoral team that was intent on wooing us. "Please don’t ask me to be your minister if you don’t think the congregation can handle such issues." They never so much as flinched and appeared to be determined to find a leader that would open the doors of their church. "We need someone just like you!" they said unanimously.
Within months of having begun my ministry with them, however, it was apparent that there was considerable opposition to opening any doors. When new people starting showing up, including some refugees we had warmly embraced as friends, one pillar of the church was overheard to say with a sneer, "Soon, they’ll be calling us the church of the Handouts!" When God was referred to in anything other than patriarchal metaphors, I found myself accused of being a heretic – in a denomination which had adopted a policy of inclusive language twenty years earlier! I had become an intolerable threat to some. They saw their neatly ordered world in jeopardy.
Apparently, the people who invited us to their feast were only interested in inviting our clothes. Religious arrogance is still a force to be reckoned with, it seems, even in a denomination considered to be one of the most progressive and tolerant in the world.
Anthropologists point out that the basic structure of the human mind, being binary, divides things into two and that this is the reason we are forever turning the world into "we" and "they". But there is something a good deal more insidious and persistent about human arrogance. It’s not just that we cannot help seeing others as different; we must somehow deprecate them for being different. "There is no room for people like them at our table!" It was the objection the arrogant had about Jesus. It is the objection they still have. We can and do resist the everlasting offer to come together.
Whether or not some Christians ever get their act together in our time, I am betting that eventually even the most hard-hearted of us will weaken to the insistence of grace. Sooner or later, we must all give in – for, although global warming may or may not be an atmospheric fact, in the world of spirit it is an ever present possibility. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to melt hearts. It is what SHE does for a living!
Study and Reflection
Hosea 2.14-20 – Although Hosea is commonly regarded as one of the minor prophets of Israel, its a wonder Hollywood hasn’t made his story into a movie. Pretty racy stuff! In fact, his life is a parable in itself of the love of God: a man who marries a prostitute who bears him three children and then runs off and is then lured back by Hosea who takes her as his wife again. This is the way God is with his people: constantly having to lure them back from their faithless ways.
2 Corinthians 3.1-6 – When Paul is challenged once again to give his credentials for being an apostle, he points to the Corinthians themselves and says in effect: "You are the testament to my ministry." Considering the kind of congregation Corinth was, it was a risky thing to say. There was much that was good about Corinth and a lot that was deplorable. Nevertheless, Paul is stating the truth, not just about Corinth, but about any church. "You are the only gospel some folk will ever read."
Mark 2.13-22 – In a well-ordered society, people know their places. In Jesus’ world, the few very rich and the many very poor knew their places. The social distance between them was mediated by brokers who dispensed favours bestowed by patrons on compliant peasants. In contravention of this social order, Jesus was socially promiscuous. He deliberately ate and drank with those considered unwanted and unacceptable. He went on to defend such behaviour in many parables and teachings. Says Robert Funk, Founder of the Jesus Seminar, "I doubt that there is any typification, any generalization, about the words and acts of Jesus in which we can have more confidence."
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF . . . Your church started holding a regular kind of dinner party to which all sorts of people were invited – men, women, children, old people, rich and poor, powerful and power-less, people who live in expensive homes and the homeless – as an expression of human solidarity, as an attempt to embody Jesus vision of God’s embracing love – a dinner, moreover, at which everyone was treated equally? How would you go about it? What would be the risks? What would be the pay-offs? . . . What about it!?
HYMN 702 When a Poor One (Voices United)
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