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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 Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4.1, Luke 13:31-35
"With Eyes Wide Open"
But the word of the Lord came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. In his wonderfully evocative novel, Son of Laughter, Frederick Buechner imagines Jacob recalling how his father Isaac would speak to him about his grandfather. "When I was a boy, he sometimes talked to me about his father - Abraham, the father of fathers, the Fear's friend. Abraham was a barrel-chested old man, with a beard dyed crimson and the hooded eyes of the desert. He had a habit, when he spoke, of putting his hands on your shoulders and drawing you gradually closer and closer as the words flowed until at the end his great nostrils were almost in your face like twin entrances to a cave. He was rich in herds and flocks, not to mention also in silver and gold, tents and in women. He was the bane of many small kings and in many ways was more of a king than any of them. It is said that Abraham talked with the Fear the way a man talks with his friend. He would argue with him. They say sometimes he would even nag him into changing his mind. Perhaps that was why my grandfather was the one the Fear chose out of all men on earth to breed a lucky people who would someday bring luck to the whole world. All that and more was my grandfather Abraham, yet sadness always rose in me when my father talked about him. I pictured him laboring under his wealth and his honors like an ass under three hundred weight of millet. I pictured his eyes red and bleary from years of whipping sand. I pictured him breaking wind, groaning, as he heaved himself out of the pit of sleep at sundown to lead his precious train of kin, beasts, baggage, mile after moon-lit mile in search of pasturage and whatever else he spent his days in search of. I saw him as a homesick, sore-footed man. A wanderer. A broken heart." What I like about that portrait is the insight that faith - the only kind of faith the Bible talks about - is not an easy thing. It is a gift one must struggle to receive one's whole life long. + This week's text from Genesis is one of the most important in the Bible. It is the story of how Abraham and Sarah, whom the Bible remembers as the quintessential models of faith, came to possess that extraordinary gift. Of course, Abraham and Sarah had already demonstrated their faith long before this particular story. You will recall that years before this story happened, at the youthful age of seventy-five!, the voice had spoken to Abram back in Haran and said, "I want you and your wife Sarai (as she was called then) to pack up all your things and set out for a land that I will give to you. For I intend to make of you a great nation." And Abram packed up all that he owned into a U-Haul and, along with his wife, set out for parts unknown with not even a map to guide them. A ll they had to rely on was a voice, which may have been God's voice or maybe just an undigested matzoh ball. Now, I don't know; but I suspect that most people, most of you would probably call that faith. "It sure must take faith to do something like that." Faith is the assurance of things hoped for but not seen and all that. Following the lead of your heart and your belief in God not knowing what, where or why. Who knows why Abram and Sarai trusted the voice enough to do such a wreckless thing. But they did; and it still fills us with wonder when we think about it. But, the day came when Abram lost that faith - or at least lost whatever it was that had brought him that far. Not that the two of them hadn't been tempted to give up along the way; because, of course, they had. But God wouldn't let them and, at strategic points, kept showing up to remind them just how many their offspring would one day be. Nevertheless, at one point Abram had finally had enough. Well into his eighties with his wife Sarai still as barren as the land down around Dead Man's Gulch, he finally said, "What offspring?! I DON'T HAVE any offspring; and my servant Eliezer stands to inherit everything I own!" That's when, according to the story, the voice spoke again and said, "No he won't. Go outside and look up at the stars. How many can you count? That's how many YOUR offspring will be." And Abram went outside and looked up - and believed. Really believed. Of course, this thing the voice was telling him was still ridiculous. It was still too good to be true. But for some reason that night Abram - looking up at all those stars - gave up deciding whether it could or could not be true. He just decided to believe what he had been told and to settle down and wait for it. And the point of this ancient story is that faith is something that does not come easily. The real thing is not something you get all at once or lose all at once. It is the continuous, committed response to a promise in the face of real doubts, deep questions and painful struggle. That is why Abraham and Sarah are remembered in scripture. That is what the Bible calls faith. + When I was still in parish ministry, it was the thing I wished for for every couple who stood before me. There they were making their wild and improbable promises to love each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health - in other words, no matter what life brought. And I would always think to myself, "What could they possibly know about what lies in store for them?" Of course, as with most couples these days, they had been living together before they got married "to get to know" each other beforehand; and now that they "knew" each other, they figured they knew each other enough to make such a commitment. They knew all about it! They knew next to nothing! How can any of us know what the person we marry is going to be like, let alone what we will be like after five, ten or twenty years of marriage!? We can't know! How can any of us know what trials, temptations, successes, failures, tragedies and unbelievable challenges will lie in wait for us as we try to walk through life together. The truth is none of us knows much at all when we start out; and that's the terrible truth about marriage, the terrible risk of it for everybody, and there are no exceptions. But, if we are lucky enough, if we work hard enough at it, if we keep believing in each other enough, if we keep picking ourselves up enough no matter how many times we fall flat on our face, if we keep struggling to live by those promises we made and somehow waiting for it to happen through all the roadblocks and heartaches and disappointments, then eventually it is given to us to see just how much we truly do need each other, not just to survive, but to be human and whole. That's the kind of faith that I prayed for for all those couples. The faith of Abraham and Sarah. The faith that comes from keeping your eyes wide open no matter what comes. + I sometimes fantasize about what it must have been like for that old couple - during the years when it looked like the promise would never be kept. Abram had finally made peace with God and had stopped throwing Sarai's barrenness back in his face as a reminder. He didn't even complain when God renamed him Abraham which means 'father of a great multitude'. Nevertheless, there were nights when Sarah would find him standing outside in the dark, staring up into the night sky. She would walk up behind him and say, "What are you doing?" "Nothing," he would say to her with his star-filled eyes, wiping away a tear. "Nothing." Then she would take her old lover's hand and lead him back to bed. Somehow, I don't think it was an accident that the stars in the night sky were what finally convinced old Abram. When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them . . . says Psalm 8. It was the caring majesty of God for all of creation that finally convinced Abram. Convinced him to wake every morning and stay awake all night long, noticing everything, taking nothing for granted, or, taking everything as granted - as gift, as promise, as tender assurance that needed to be planted and nurtured until it has time to be born. That is how Abraham and Sarah found faith and then held on to it for two dozen years by living life reverently, deliberately and fully awake, by watering every seed that fell upon their path, by holding on to the delicate thread that was stitched through their hearts and by never losing sight of where they were going and who was leading them. It is a hard thing to have such faith - to live it day by day, step by step, to see it in the night sky and hear it in the sound of your name and in your lover's voice. But, if we are willing, the wait itself becomes as rich as its end. + Genesis 15:1-18 - God's covenant with Abraham is central to the story of Israel and of the church. It is the story of how people come to receive the gift of faith. This week's text reminds us that Abraham and Sarah did not come to such faith easily but against the constant backdrop of barrenness and hopelessness. Eventually Abraham and Sarah came to trust the promise given to them without any assurances and to settle down into waiting for it to happen. 1. What does the way God and Abram speak to each other in verses 1-5 tell you about their relationship? 2. Why is the faith Abram demonstrates in this story different from when God first spoke to him (chapter 12.1-3)? 3. In what sense are "the stars" God asks Abram to count a sacrament? Philippians 3:17-4.1 - Faith must be fought for in the church. Both in the gospels and accounts of the early church, disciples are presented as having great difficulty in receiving, trusting and affirming the power of the future as it is evident in the person, teaching and action of Jesus. Paul urges the virtue of imitation to encourage the Philippians to learn what it means to be faithful. 1. What made faith difficult for the early Christians? 2. What makes faith difficult for you? 3. What examples of faith are a source of strength and consolation for you? Luke 13:31-35 - During Lent we are reminded that faith was not easy for Jesus. He was surrounded by enemies who sought long and hard to destroy him and who eventually succeeded. Knowing this, Jesus was neither intimidated nor deterred from the path he chose. His "lament" over Jerusalem is the anguished cry of a man who knows what he must do even in the face of terrible rejection. 1. Why does Jesus not let Jerusalem forget its past? 2. Why must we not forget our own? 3. What image of God does Jesus use for the way God deals with our past? ON NOT "MOVING ON" - Frequently, I hear people say, after experiencing some traumatic event or terrible injustice, "I can't deal with this any more. I've got to move on." To be fair, there is a sense in which we need to let go of things that have ended for us and to help others do the same. This is appropriate grief work. But can this expression "to move on" also be a cop-out, an avoidance of the fact that traumatic experiences and deep losses will always leave their mark upon us and that we can never just "move on" as if they never happened? Does not faith sometimes mean "refusing to move on" and instead insisting on the struggle to keep faith with what is true and just and possible in spite of the way things are? What does the faith of Abraham and Sarah, of Jesus and of Paul say to us about "moving on"? HYMN: O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee (Voices United 560)
copyright - Barry Robinson 2001, 2004 page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2004 please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.
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