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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 24 - Proper 19 - Year A
Exodus 14:5-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
"Between The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea"
"The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh's horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea... In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?... Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, 'Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness." There was once a man who was tormented by all kinds of evil and degrading thoughts. Night and day they would come to him. Nothing he tried would vanquish them. In desperation, he sought out a local holy man and confessed his dilemma. "Nothing I do seems to stop these terrible thoughts from coming into my head, Master. I know I am in danger. What should I do?" The holy man took his visitor outside and said, "Open your shirt and take hold of the wind." The man answered, "But I cannot take hold of the wind!" The holy man said, "If you cannot do that, neither can you prevent such thoughts from coming in. But what you can do is to stand firm against them." + We have all been there. For Moses and the Israelites it came immediately after that grace-filled moment when they realized that, after all those years of bondage to their Egyptian masters, day after day of meaningless drudgery without end and no hope whatsoever that things would ever change, freedom was within their grasp. Even tight-fisted old Pharaoh had crumpled before that terrible last night of death. "All right, go! You and the Israelites, leave me and my people in peace! Take what is yours and be gone!" he had said to Moses. It was the chance everyone had been waiting for. The text before us fairly bursts with descriptive power. You can almost hear the Egyptian parents, even Pharaoh and his family wailing laments over their lost children, hear Moses and his lieutenants jostling and exhorting the people. "This is it! Let's go! Let's go! Fast, faster!" The race against time had started. It was late, later than anybody thought. They had one night in which to break the vise that had held them for almost four hundred years, one night to escape a prison so familiar that it had become like home to them. It was now or never. Everybody knew that by tomorrow Pharaoh would change his mind. Tomorrow he would come to his senses and realize what he had done. Tomorrow would be too late. Tonight was the night. You can almost see the people running breathlessly, grabbing whatever they could, without even glancing backwards. There was no time for that. They had to make for the sea. God knows, the sea was their only chance. Not the straight road to Canaan, which would have taken them there faster, because that would have meant having to get past six (count them), six, heavily-armed Egyptian outposts. "The way to the land of the Philistines", it was dubbed in ancient times, the highway to the Promised Land. The Egyptians traveled it regularly. Had constructed it to withstand the pounding of their chariots. They would have been run down like animals. No, their only hope of survival was the wilderness of Sinai; and to get there meant going by the sea. What they would do when they got there nobody knew, not even Moses. All they knew was that it was their only chance. The devil or the deep blue sea. Not much of a choice, but a choice nonetheless. Then, finally, after a night of running in the dark, that long, straggly band came to an abrupt halt. There was the end right in front of them. The sea was there waiting; and already they could see the dust of Pharaoh's chariots behind them. Terrified, they clung to the banks while Moses' leaders urged them on. "Come on! Into the water! Into the water! God will lead the way!" Terrified and panicking, the people did as they asked. When, suddenly, Moses ordered everyone to halt. "Wait a moment!" he said. "Think about what you are doing! Enter the sea, not as frightened fugitives, but as free men and women! No matter what happens, Pharaoh cannot take that away from you!" It was then that the Israelites advanced on the sea. Moses turned to God with a prayer; but God quickly reminded him that this was not a good time! "Tell the people to hurry!" And the people, united as never before, swept ahead and crossed the sea, which drew back just enough to let them through. So awesome was the moment, so charged with faith and hope that even the most humble saw within it more of God's mystery than even Elijah would see centuries later. Then, when they reached the other side, Moses was so moved by what had happened that he burst into song. The old stutterer, the old pain in the neck who couldn't put two words together to shake a stick suddenly became a minstrel! Well, they say that stutterers have difficulty speaking, but not in singing. But Moses was the first; and the Hasidic explanation is that it was that the people had faith in God and Moses that did it. For the first time since Moses had started urging them to get out of Egypt, they had rallied around as one. That was why he was able to sing. Because it was like the people were singing through him. It is the thing to remember, it seems to me, about this most famous of all the stories in the Bible. The exodus was no tiny band of fugitives sneaking out unnoticed, but indeed a nation defiantly striding out, flaunting their freedom before a handcuffed pharaoh. But, that moment of decision came just as it always comes when we realize the risk our freedom entails. It is not about whether we get out of Egypt but how we get out. I have added my own spin to the story, of course, just as many later biblical writers added theirs. Just as you will add yours. No matter how we tell the story, trust was the issue. Would the people trust God and trust that deepest place within themselves that allowed them to have faith in God once the moment their defiance melted away? This was no Patrick Henry moment. "Give me liberty or give me death!" They knew that there would be no battle. Pharaoh was a formidable foe. They could no more stop him than they could stop the wind. What they could do was the only thing that Moses asked them to do. "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today..." There comes a moment of unearthly silence when we stand firm in our resolve between the devil and the deep blue sea, a moment when we must wait upon our own convictions and to see what God will do because it is the only thing we can do. + A few days ago I came across a note from a friend, an Episcopalian priest who had been run out of his parish by its leaders, the punishment voted upon him as a result of having faithfully done his job. "Your sermons are too political. We don't want to hear what's wrong with the world. And we don't want to hear what's wrong with us. Just tell us God loves us and leave it at that," they told him. When he couldn't leave it at that - anymore than Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesus could have before him, they insisted he resign. And his bishop supported their decision. Being faithful to the gospel, having faith in himself meant heading for the Red Sea, not knowing what would happen next. Standing firm for the man he was and for the God who had called him - between the devil and the deep blue sea. There comes a time for all of us when we must find out whether we have what it takes. That moment when we break free of the oppressive circumstances that have held us captive for so long and stand before an uncertain future. When matching the enemy blow for blow is not an option. When no one can see a way for us to the other side. When we must simply reach down within ourselves and find that source of fearlessness, dignity and integrity. The place that literally in-spires us to be more than we know. It is then that a path opens before us in recognition of that which we were prepared to believe, a way out of what seemed an impossible dilemma into that new day that God alone can provide. --------- Exodus 14:5-31 - Since the Lectionary at no time asks us to read the entire story of the Exodus, we have included verses 5-18 to assist us in capturing some of the drama of the moment. As with much of the Exodus story, we are dealing with a stylized reflection of an historical event cast in a liturgical setting. The author's purpose was to encourage us to reflect on situations of our own similar to the dilemma Israel faced at the barrier of the Red Sea, where trust in God to make possible the impossible is what is most at issue. 1. When one considers the ultimate tragedy of this story, what is the moral dilemma in telling it for all people of faith? 2. How do you feel about the way the storyteller of Exodus portrays the Israelites and about the way this week's reflection adds to or diminishes the story? 3. When have you or someone close to you stood between "the devil and the deep blue sea"? Romans 14:1-12 - It is a perennial problem, it seems, for any Christian community: the tendency of the self-righteous to make their own convictions the measure of the validity of the convictions of all others. Paul offers two insights with which a community must approach the problem. Tolerance is a necessary practice among Christians because there will be different understandings of Jesus' vision. If someone's particular practice or lifestyle honours God, it should be respected. 1. Who might the weak and the strong be to whom Paul refers? 2. If God's grace is precisely that God accepts the unacceptable, an understanding that Paul affirms over and over in his epistles, what does he mean by judgment in this passage? 3. When has intolerance been a problem in your community? 4. How would Paul's advice have shed light on the controversy? Matthew 18:21-35 - Matthew's passage is a relatively long complex intended to deal with the problem of backsliders and errant behaviour. In the first instance, Jesus makes clear to Peter that we must practice unlimited forgiveness. It is a clear repudiation of Lamech's boast to his wives in Genesis 4:24. In the second instance, Matthew offers a parable, the kind of ambiguous, twisted tale that Jesus might have told and that often left his readers twisting in the wind. Who should we try to be more like: the one who forgives magnanimously or the one who refuses? Matthew, like many in Jesus' audience, appears to be misled. He takes the ending to correspond with the divine perspective; but Jesus just before this has shown that forgiveness cannot be compromised without undesirable consequences. 1. What kind of problem seems to be behind Peter's question? 2. What dilemma is the audience left with at the end of Jesus' parable? 3. What is wrong with Matthew's conclusion to Jesus' parable: that God won't forgive you if you don't forgive your fellow human beings? 4. In what way is Matthew's treatment of Jesus' attitude toward forgiveness a mirror image of the error Christians continue to make? HYMN 453 Out of Deep Unordered Water (Voices United )
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