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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 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 Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time - Proper 7 - Year B
Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3,23-32; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
'The Triumph of His Art'
Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?" Poets have wrong'd poor storms: such days are best; They purge the air without, within the breast. Storms are the triumph of his art. - George Herbert. The Country Parson, the Temple Mark, that brilliant writer, is up to his old tricks this week, giving us vivid details of a dramatic story in order to help us feel our way, not just into the text, but into the kind of situation he is portraying. Jesus' decision to cross to the other side of the lake is the only way he and his disciples can leave the crowd behind. But no sooner do they embark than Jesus and his friends experience the danger of sudden storms on the Sea of Galilee. Lightning starts flashing, waves come crashing over the side and the boat appears to be sinking. Even these veteran sailors become panic-stricken before a power that they are completely unable to harness; and they cry out to Jesus, who appears to be totally oblivious to what is going on. When he is roused out of sleep, Jesus rebukes both the wind and the sea, as if he were in command of them all along. Then he chastises his friends for "losing it" as if they had been derelict in their duty. It is a story filled with Semitisms, one of the most powerful being that of a boat being tossed about in a storm. Now, sea stories are enough of a rarity in the Bible that they invite attention. If you know your Bible, you will notice the obvious similarities in this week's gospel with another sea story, that of Jonah, as he sought to escape God's command to go to Nineveh. Once the storm hits in that story, Jonah is out of control. He had been quite deftly in control before the storm. He had decided to go to Tarshish instead of Nineveh. Since Tarshish was in Spain, it took him a long time and a lot of money to get all the way through the Straits of Gibraltar. What Jonah was doing was taking charge of his vocational destiny, telling God, in effect, what he could do with his command to prophesy to the city of Nineveh. But God wouldn't take "No" for an answer and sent a violent storm that threatened everybody on board Jonah's ship, including Jonah. Jonah, the story says, had the good sense to get off the ship, inviting the sailors to dump him. His trip to Tarshish was, thereby ruined, but his real vocation in this world was saved. The other famous sea/storm story of the Bible, in between which Mark's story is sandwiched, is the story of St. Paul's shipwreck journey in the Book of Acts (27). Paul is being taken prisoner aboard a ship bound for Italy. No sooner does the voyage start when winter storms threaten everyone's safety. Paul counsels wintering at the Cretan harbour, Fair Haven, but the captain and shipowner override his advice, making the decision to sail on for Rome, presumably for reasons of greed. It is not long before disaster strikes. Money, a powerful element in the story of just about everybody's vocation, holds a key place in both these stories, Jonah using his excessively large sum of money to purchase a passage across the Mediterranean, and the shipowner's money interests setting aside Paul's counsel. The power of money disappears in the storm. There is only a single power to deal with: God - and the salvation God intends to give. Both stories are similar in length and equally impressive in the skill of their narration. In both, ships are heading west across the Mediterranean sea. Both are overtaken by severe storms. In both, the chief characters and the crew are in danger of drowning. And in both, the protagonists are saved vocationally. Jonah is turned back from his disobedience. Paul was confirmed in his. Mark's storm story also uses another element common to Jonah's and Paul's sea journeys. It is a transitional story in which Jesus is "crossing over" into Gentile country. Probably nothing felt like the cosmic forces of opposition more than the enmity between Jew and Gentile in Mark's church. This ancient hatred was regarded as the prototype of human hostility. The separation of these two people was seen as part of the natural order. The controversy that eventually developed in the early church about whether or not to take the gospel to the Gentiles must have seemed like "the perfect storm". Such a "sea crossing" would have been regarded as, not only difficult, but virtually inconceivable. In all likelihood, Jesus' disciples ended up feeling completely helpless before such a task - just like they do in today's text. Mark's story, like that of Jonah and Paul, is a story about saving one's vocation. Salvation, God's will for every creature to experience the love that redeems, is not a casual or cool abstraction; it is a wild and extravagant energy, not reducible to human control, not to be harnessed to the service of a religious job. The storm is all-encompassing and unmanageable. As such it provides the contextual analogue for the unleashed spirit/wind of God. Storm is the environment in which we either lose our lives or are saved; there is no cool, safe ledge on which to perch as spectators. There are no bleachers from which to enjoy the lightning and thunder, the waves and breakers of the storm. We are in it, prophet and people, sailors and saints. Nothing else matters at this point; it is life or death. Whatever else has been on the agenda is on it no longer. There is this single item: salvation - or not. (Eugene H. Petersen, Under the Unpredictable Plant) + Now, it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to see today's church caught right smack in the middle of an unmanageable storm. Not that "religious" activity is declining. On the contrary, it is very popular. Never has the world seen the kind of religious freedom that people have in a culture such as ours. People like us have virtually absolute freedom to be religious any old way we want. The only problem is: the way most people choose to be religious has nothing to do with the gospel of Christ. We live in a culture and church which courts the consumer at all costs. God is seen as a product that can help you live well or better. As a result, people shop around for the best deal in town, which makes life difficult for people like me. Before they know it, most ministers start making deals, packaging "the God product" so that people will be attracted to it. Then we keep presenting it in new ways so as to beat out the competition. Religion, including the kind that gets practiced in the church, has never been so taken up with public relations, image making, salesmanship and marketing technique. And it's easy for people like me to become anesthetized to what is wrong with such a practice. After all, everybody else is "doing it". We are immersed in probably the most mindless religion, ranging from infantile to adolescent, that any culture has ever witnessed. "Freedom of religion" has not flowered into "maturity of religion". In fact, our constitutionally protected right to believe what we want has turned into culturally enslaved religion. Most religious practice, including the kind people espouse in the church turns out to be not much more than a lethargic rubber stamp on worldly wisdom. Not whether or not we should ever support the use of violence, for instance, but how much violence and against whom. Not whether Christians have a right to be wealthy in a world where most people starve, but how to justify it. Not whether the church should be in the entertainment business, but how often we should break for the moral commercials. G. K. Chesterton lamented the mindless cultural conformism of the religious establishment in the opening decades of the twentieth century. The opening decade of this century matches them like a bookend. Nor am I a single voice of protest against such religiosity. What outsiders to societies like ours, particularly people from Third World countries, notice mostly is the greed, the silliness and the narcissism of what we call Christianity. While they note the size, prosperity, energy and technology of our churches, they wonder at the conspicuous absence of the cross, the phobic avoidance of suffering, the puzzling indifference to community and relationships of intimacy. Most appalling is the shameless treatment of clergy right across denominational lines. These are not good days to be a pastor; and one of the reasons is the systematic trivialization of the pastoral office. Your colleagues and ecclesiastical superiors will reward you if play the religious game, but not if you try to make a difference. It is no wonder that so many ministers today get seasick. More and more of the people you ordain to represent the gospel of Jesus Christ for you are getting out of bed and saying, "I quit. I refuse to be branch manager any longer in a religious warehouse. I will no longer spend my life marketing God to religious consumers. I have read the latest job description handed to me and I am buying it no longer. This is not what I signed on board to do." The fury in which Christians now find themselves or are about to (depending on your level of paralysis) is one of God's doing. I believe it is the Spirit's way of calling us back to our true vocation. This is not simply bad weather. We are being exposed to the brooding, hovering wind/spirit of God. In this storm, we are being reduced to what is elemental, and the ultimate element is God. What we are about as Christians is either God-called, or it is not worth doing. The moment we begin to drift from dealing with God primarily (and not merely because God fits into our agenda), we are no longer living vocationally, no longer living in union with that vast reality that constitutes our lives and the entire world around us. This storm is either exposing the futility of what we do or confirming the integrity of it. Either way, we are being compelled to acnowledge who is really in charge of things. And it ain't us. ------ Job 38.1-11 - The book of Job (an alternate Lectionary text for today) was probably written by a Jewish sage sometime around the time of the Exile. It addresses the problem of human suffering but does not explain it. It is a kind of folktale and the central character, Job, represents a good person who must deal with the agony of unjust suffering. In this week's text, God addresses job for the first time, questioning his right to challenge God's authority and leading Job deeper and deeper into the mystery of creation. 1. When have you felt like challenging God for what was happening? 2. Did anyone or anything ever talk back to you? 3. In what ways is the answer Job receives the answer of a loving Parent? 2 Corinthians 6.1-13 - Paul is authenticating his ministry of service in three ways. Any authentic servant of God knows and experiences the difficulties of human existence. This authentication comes, not after such endurance, but through it. Our service is also authenticated by the moral character of the life of the Spirit in us. The effects of God's life become visible in us. Finally, the life of discipleship is authenticated by radical affirmation in the face of radical denial. 1. When has suffering demonstrated the endurance of your faith? 2. When has God's life been visible within your own? 3. When have you been able to affirm the authenticity of your life in the face of radical denial of it? Mark 4.35-41 - Mark is using a story symbolically to suggest the crossing over into a largely pagan realm, a context of considerable controversy and pain for the early church. The comparisons with the two other sea storm stories in the Bible are just too obvious not to mention and clearly point to the elemental forces of the universe, which have a way of reminding disciples who is really in charge. The story ends with Jesus' friends commenting about Jesus something like, "Who was that masked man!?" 1. How has this week's gospel and reflection put into perspective some of the storms you have experienced in your own life? 2. What did you learn about your own vocation through such experiences? 3. Have you ever felt like "jumping ship" in today's religious climate? 4. To what deeper calling is the Spirit calling Christians? 5. What evidence would point to the fact that we have understood the Gospel call? FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - "In my own Jonah journey, the sea storm was internal, not external. I had been pastor to my newly organized congregation for about three years when I realized that things were not going well at all. I was getting seasick. I had accepted the call to pastoral ministry, but something wasn't right. . . . My 'within', now that I had wakened to listen to it, was crying out in protest against the way I was living, compulsively working long hours in order to succeed at the business of "church". - Eugene H. Petersen HYMN Fairest Lord Jesus (Voices United 341)
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