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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
Ordinary 16 - Year A
Genesis 28:10-19; Psalm 139:1-12,23-24; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
Then Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. In the hit TV series and movie The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble is a man on the run from the law. Wrongfully accused and then found guilty of his wife's brutal murder, he escapes his own death-sentence by miraculously surviving a terrible accident and then by managing to elude a relentless police detective. He is a man for whom we cannot help but feel sympathy and compassion; and his simple honesty and goodness elicit the same kind of response from just about every stranger he happens to meet. There is something about the underdog, the decent person who has been dealt a bad hand by life with which just about any of us can immediately identify. We can't help pulling for this guy to make it in the end because we want to believe that somehow, somewhere goodness is on our side. That justice will prevail. That right will win out. That God will not forget about us. + The Bible's version of how all this plays out is the story of Jacob; and it is as different from any Hollywood story of how goodness prevails as night is from day. Jacob is a fugitive in this week's text but not the kind of fugitive for which anybody feels an iota of sympathy. He is a man on the run not because of what others have done unjustly to him but because of the nasty things he has done to them. He is also a momma's boy who owes his life to his mother twice: the day she brought him into the world alongside his twin-brother Esau and the day she saved him from being strung up by Esau. Jacob is a died-in-the-wool crook and his seamy adventures throughout the twenty-fifth to thirty-sixth chapter of the book of Genesis tell like a long-running soap opera if it weren't for one thing: Jacob survives by being cunning all right, but also because he never seems to get what he deserves. Jacob always gets more. He cheats his lame-brained brother out of his birthright and gets away with it. Then years later, he cheats him again, this time out of the blessing that was rightfully coming to Esau, and he gets away with that too. He not only gets away with it; once his crime is known, both Rebekah and Isaac cover up for him. When Rebekah discovers that Esau is ready to slit his brother's throat for what he has done, she makes up a lame excuse to her husband that it would be a bad idea for Jacob to marry a foreign girl now that he is heir to the family blessing. It is just what Isaac needs to tell Jacob to take a hike back to the ancestral homeland while Esau cools his heels. That's where this week's story starts. Jacob is on the lam between a place where he is no longer welcome and a place where he has never been. He's guilty, defenseless and scared; and he hasn't got a friend in the world. He finds himself out in the hill country north of Beer-sheba. Worn-out and strung-out, he lies down under the night sky with nothing but a stone for a pillow. It is what happens next that Hollywood would never have written. Jacob dreams a dream. Now, sophisticated people like you and me know that dreams are what come back to haunt you during the night - like that left- over pizza you shouldn't have eaten or that tax deduction you should have reported. We toss and turn at night, often because that is the time we come face to face with the things we have been running from all that day, or all of our lives. With his defenses down, and his unconscious running the show, you would expect that Jacob would have slept the sleep of the guilty, complete with nightmarish visions of the father he had deceived and the brother he had betrayed. Getting what he deserved, right? Think again. For the story says Jacob dreamed a dream that nearly brings tears to the eyes with its unexpected beauty and wonder. Jacob dreams a dream of a stone stairway set up on the earth and reaching all the way up into heaven. Angels are ascending and descending on this ramp; and there, right beside him, is the Lord God himself, speaking to Jacob, not words of reproach and accusation, but of great comfort and blessing: "...the land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth... and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." - Genesis 28.13-15 Now, let's not get sidetracked by this. You know, off on some tangent about the mystical kind of experiences one can have at the most unforeseeable times or the nature of dreams and their place in the spiritual life; because that is not the point. The point, as always, is what God says in the dream to the people who dream it; and here what the dream says, quite pointedly, is that God is going to give Jacob, the biggest crook in 'them-thar' parts, absolutely everything he could ever want or need: more land, family, power and honour than he could ever imagine. It was more than Jacob ever dreamed of trying to get. More than his own father could have given him. More than God had ever promised anyone; because he even reassures Jacob by saying that he will stick with him until every last part of the promise is kept. It was, to say the least, quite a promise, quite a blessing and quite a dream. One would have expected God to have had something a little more just in mind for the little cheat, a taste of divine wrath, perhaps, a dose of Jacob's own medicine for a change, some good-old 'chewing-you-out' words, for starters. But this unbelievably beautiful dream was what Jacob got, not to mention the God who went with it. It would take a while for everything to play itself out and for Jacob to become the great father of Israel just as he had been promised; but it didn't take long for Jacob to realize what had happened, and to make the most of it. Upon awakening, he built a monument in honour of the place, called it Beth-el, 'house of God', and then made a vow to God, just to show him that he hadn't lost his touch: "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you." - Genesis 28.20-22 Jacob responds to God's completely unconditional promise of blessing and protection with a completely conditional promise of his own. "IF you will give me the land, food, clothing and protection, THEN I will be your man." In response to this incredible blessing of God, all Jacob can think of saying is, "SHOW ME THE MONEY!" I mean, can you believe this guy! God, out of the unbelievable goodness of his heart, gives Jacob holy heaven instead of holy hell, and Jacob, demonstrating that he hasn't learned a blessed thing, says in response, "Prove it to me!" Still looking for some kind of easy moral in this story? It's time to forget it. There just isn't one. + What there is, instead, is the remarkable tale of the God who insisted on sticking with the likes of people like Jacob and his brood down through all the dark days their lives would take them and all the crooked paths they would insist on taking to get wherever they got And did any one of them ever realize just what it all meant? Did Jacob himself, for instance, ever "come to his senses" and finally express remorse for having "done" all the people he ever "did"? Did he ever once appreciate the kind of generosity and goodness that he was being shown? Enough to mend his ways, have a change of heart? The judgment is still out on that one, I suppose, the way it's still out on whether people like you and me have ever fully appreciated what that strange night visitor has been doing for us, going with us every step of the way, and promising never to leave us until it is all ours, too, ever since he said he'd do the same for Jacob and his family. But the message of the Gospel is that that is precisely what God has been doing all along, what he did most clearly in Jesus of Nazareth, and has been doing ever since for a world, for a church, and for people like you and me who, most days, cannot think of much better to say in response than, "Show me!" It is enough to stagger the imagination, let alone break the heart. What did Jacob finally give back in the end to the One who gave him everything? What will you and I give back? What can we give back? What should we? One tenth of our lives? Everything? Who knows. The only thing that is certain is what the One who meets us at Beth-el always seems to do, which is to grant us blessed dreams, precisely when we need them, and to give us everything we have never and could never deserve. It is what the Bible means by grace; because in the Bible it is not anything about us that makes God stick with us. It is something about God. + Genesis 28:10-19 - The remarkable story of Jacob's dream at Beth-el, house of God, on his way to escape the wrath of Esau, resists any attempt to find an easy moral. It is the kind of story that forces us to see the disturbingly unconditional nature of grace, the grace that followed Jacob and his family and that continues to follow each one of us. The point of the story is not that there are experiences in which God is present to us, but that God is present in such a decisive way to one who does not deserve it. 1. What kind of emotions do you imagine Jacob feeling as he spent the night at Beth-el? Why? 2. What is the message in Jacob's dream for you? 3. When have you had an experience of love you did not deserve? 4. How have you responded to such grace? Romans 8:12-25 - God has acted towards us with resolute commitment and love, says Paul. As a consequence of that action we have not just been treated "like" family, we have been made "part" of God's family, made to belong so much that we can now address God the way Jesus taught his friends to address God. However, as a result of that transformation we can also expect rejection and suffering in this world, having been made aliens in a world which does not understand such love. God's work is not finished. Creation still waits to see the day when it is revealed that all belong to God and that no one is excluded. 1. In what ways has your experience of grace set you apart? 2. In what sense is your church a community set apart? 3. Where is the freedom in being set apart by grace? Matthew 13:24-30,36-43 - The point of the much disputed passage of the wheat and the weeds seems to be that God is far more patient than we would be and reflects the insistent message of Jesus: that there is far more grace in God than any of us will ever have hearts to receive. What is difficult about Matthew's allegorical interpretation of the problem is that there is no suggestion of God's extraordinary patience. Perhaps Matthew was less pleased than Jesus with God's long-suffering and the text, as a result, mirrors well the church's continuing discomfort with the radical message of Jesus. 1. What seems to be the message of the parable (v. 24-30)? 2. What seems to be the message of the interpretation (v.36-43)? 3. How does your church experience reflect this same dichotomy? A PERSONAL INVENTORY - List all the things you have managed to "get" for yourself by your own intelligence and will. Then, list all the things that have become or are yours through no merit of your own whatsoever. Which are more important to you? Why? HYMN: Nearer My God, to Thee (Voices United 497)
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