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 Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time - Proper 9 - Year B
Ezekiel 2:1-7; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
'A Prophet Among Them'
Now, when I look back on my preaching days and consider the fate of those who still risk their reputations and retirement savings before their congregations each Sunday, I tend to think of the preacher as a kind of riverboat gambler.
He climbs into the pulpit, switches on the lectern light and spreads out his notes like a poker hand. For that one single moment, at least, he may have everyone's attention - the visiting college student who is there only because somebody dragged him there, the plump little den mother who runs the choir and has already started a rumour campaign about him, the young couple with the two month old, wondering if he will baptize their baby after the service, the fans who did cartwheels to convince him to be their minister because they sensed in him an inner fire and passion for the truth that they coveted for their church, the backroom boys who have been running things their way for so long that all they are waiting for is for him to make one false step before they move in for the kill and, of course, the ones who are heavy laden under the burden of their own lives as well as the world's tragic life and who need him only to let them know that he has what it takes to be their pastor. They are all there - players at the table - when the preacher deals the hand that God has given him.
But who can tell how the cards will fall or how the hands will get played or how long things will last or who the winners or the losers will be by the time enough people get up from the table? As for the one who cuts the deck to get things started, who knows what will become of him before the night is through? Will they slap him on the back with a wink or throw him over the side of the boat because of the way the cards fell? Who can tell how things will eventually go for these daredevils who call themselves preachers, these tightrope walkers who defy the heights that most folk have the good sense not to ascend?
I think it really is a crap shoot.
The Danish preacher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard once said that the test of a good sermon is not that you heard it, enjoyed it and went home to Sunday dinner afterwards, but that you heard it and were too sick at heart to eat anything afterwards! . . . . which makes things a little tricky if you happen to be the preacher, of course, because it is your neck that is on the line. Each one of you reading this knows the truth of that, both those of you who preach and those of you who hope to hear good preaching. When it happens, and you find yourself either speaking or hearing the intrusive word the gospel can be, it has a way of challenging everyone in the room down to the tips of their toes. It is not always comforting or comfortable to hear good preaching. It can be a downright dis-comforting experience from both sides of the pulpit! - and, it is what all of the readings for this week, in particular our first reading from the book of Ezekiel (the alternative Old Testament reading from the Lectionary) are all about.
Ezekiel was one of the strangest birds Israel ever produced. Given to seeing visions weirder than anything you are ever likely to see on The X-Files, he was also called to be both priest and prophet to his people during the most devastating time in their history. Six short years after he began preaching to them in the year 593 B.C., the holy city of Jerusalem was captured and destroyed and every last person in Israel was carried off in chains to exile in Babylon. What is worse, Ezekiel saw it coming and told people. He told them it was God's way of punishing them for being so thick-skulled and hard-hearted (3.7). Predictably, they refused to listen. This was the good news according to Ezekiel! This was the hand God asked this preacher to play!
They didn't believe him, of course, even when the Babylonians were setting fire to their homes and hacking down the carved pillars in their beautiful temple. They stubbornly denied the truth about themselves the whole time they were dragged off, kicking and screaming to Babylon.
And it was not until there, years later, with no temple to attend and no sacred rituals permitted to them that they began meeting in Ezekiel's house(8.1), where this bug-eyed prophet also learned how to become their priest. Softened up by the experience of desolation they could no longer deny, they began, for the first time, to listen to this old friend who had never given up on them and who reminded them of the God who had no intention of giving up on them either.
In some ways, I think, these are suicidal days for anybody wanting to carve out a career for themselves in the institutional church. Although most people who still find themselves in the pews try to keep up a brave front about it, the church as we have known it is dying. That's not just an opinion from one of the church's latest casualties; it's an opinion shared by people still admired and now enjoying retirement. Looking toward the United Church's upcoming 75th anniversary, former Moderator, the Very Reverend Bob Smith was quoted in the Observer as saying,
Of course, congregations are part of the structure of the church and half of them are "ceasing to function" as well, if the situation in my last Presbytery was any indication. "Half of our churches will be closed in ten years," the Presbytery treasurer said to me the first time I met him. Many of the fine buildings that once housed that "excitement" have been demolished, sold for the furnishings or turned into restaurants because these "structures" called congregations have not been life-giving. That is the judgment. The impressive-looking church I attended in my boyhood in the east end of Toronto, where, at one time, one had to stand in line down the street to find a pew on Sunday morning, occasionally has almost as many people in the choir loft as in the congregation. Even some of the grand cathedrals of the United Church that one could worship in with packed crowds back in the sixties are only a shell of their former selves, with not enough people in attendance most Sundays to pay the heating bill, let alone the salary of the staff. If it weren't for their endowments, they would have closed up shop long ago.
What does a preacher do in such times? What can he or she say that might make any difference to this impending desolation of organized religion, which, at least in Canada (I don't know about our American readers), is pretty well a foregone conclusion? What do you who keep the faith expect of the people you call to stand in your pulpits in such extraordinary times? If ever there was a question that was at the heart of ministry in these dark days of the church, that has got to be it.
That was, apparently, all God could think of saying to poor old Ezekiel or all old Ezekiel could manage to hear. Take your pick. Either way, to be a prophet does not mean to be God or to be a saviour or to predict the future. It simply means to "tell forth the truth", to have the courage to say the thing that everybody knows is true but is afraid to say. Whether they listen or not, whether the structures of religion permit a life-giving word to take root or not, whether the church lasts for another ten or twenty years or not, all you need to do, you who dare to walk that tightrope every Sunday, and all you who urge them on can expect them to do - is to be yourself, which is to tell the truth as your have experienced it, which is to be human. Just to be human and truthful - regardless of what the times are like.
Because if you do not make real to those to whom you preach the human experience of what it is like to cry into the darkness and not receive any answers, to wait for the God who never seems to show up, then you will be the only person there who will seem not to have had it; and under their designer clothes and mascara and Scope-washed smiles, every last one of them who sits before you is there in search of God's presence precisely because of their experience of God's absence. In this day of judgment for the organized church, if people have a right to hear any word from their preacher, then they have a right to hear that one.
There will come day, sooner than any of you expect, I predict, when there will be no more gray heads left to sit in the pews, when the church as we have known it will be no more. I have seen it coming for many years. So have many of you. You know the truth of what I am saying. It is a painful truth for any preacher to have to admit these days, especially for those of us who have laboured all of our lives to renew the church. But it is a faithful truth; and someone must speak it. When that day comes, we will, like our exiled ancestors in the faith learn how to be a community of faith as we have not been for some time. Sustained then by God's grace alone, we will learn what is truly important and worth preserving: how to be priests to one another and how to love each other truly as we await our time of judgment to end and as we keep the faith in Babylon.
Study and Reflection
Ezekiel 2.1-7 - Like Isaiah before him, Ezekiel's task as a preacher was not an enviable one: to preach impending judgment upon the nation and then, after the judgment took place with the destruction of Jerusalem, to suffer with his people through their time of exile in Babylon. As noted in the message for this week, there are many parallels to Ezekiel's time and our own when we consider the fate of organized religion. Could Ezekiel's message and ministry be a paradigm for the Christian community today?
2 Corinthians 12.2-10 - Paul, too, is writing from an experience of having had his ministry rejected, his preaching spurned. We do not know what his "thorn in the flesh" was; but we do know that he was keenly aware of his humanity as a minister of the gospel and that he learned to rely on God's grace alone to validate his work.
Mark 6.1-13 - Mark links the story of Jesus' rejection with the sending out of his disciples as if to say: what happened to Jesus will happen to anybody who truly follows Jesus. When the gospel is being truly preached and enacted, you can count on conflict. Crisis, disagreement and rejection typify the world's response to Jesus.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - (Suggestion for group discussion: invite a church consultant to lunch and discuss the following:
HYMN: All My Hope on God is Founded
copyright - Barry Robinson 2000, 2003 page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2000, 2003 please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.
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