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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
Ordinary 26 - Proper 21 - Year A
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?" But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" As you start to get old, your nose may drip and your eyes tear in the cold, but the membranes are actually drying out, drying up. So are your scalp and skin. While the young battle oily acne and clammy hands, the old lady creams her face at night and extends a dry hand to her lover. The old man watches his body hair and cuticles growing crisper and rarely works up a sweat. The journey is from moist to dry. We do not grow drippy, sappy and green. We grow stiff, brittle and rigid. It's why the old, they used to say, need steam baths, tender meats from moist animals, as well as stews, custards and soups; because growing old is about desiccation. Drying up and becoming little. How we seem to shrivel with age. The older body's very littleness, together with its daily burden of aches and dysfunctions, attests to the shrinking importance of the body. When you are young, you would find some of the physical challenges of old age unbearable; and yet the very old often dismiss them with a shrug. This devaluing of the body in the consideration of lasting things - could it be less of a paradox than a paradigm? Why do we dry up? Why is it our destiny to become juiceless mummies with parchment skin? Is it just an inevitable process imposed upon us by nature? Is old-age crustiness just another impairment on the road to death? Or is drying up imposed on us by the force of character as well? Is something deep pointing us in the direction of something far more valuable? For Heraclitus, for instance, the soul of a person was not a misty, cloudy notion or flow of feeling. It was something fiery that needed to ascend. It was wisest and best, he said, to hold to the dry end. For "Dry souls are wisest and best." The word he used for "best" was aristos, the root of our aristocrat. What he meant was that the older we get the more refined we get, more subtle, lighter and drier. Like my grandfather's humour. It is one of the most treasured memories I have of him. That dry, airy, flash of wit that would seem to spark out of nowhere, suddenly illuminating a situation we had all been talking about, sending it "up", setting the moment "on fire" with a wisdom only his wizening could accomplish. He was our teacher, as the old are meant to be, because he had learned how to see into the dark. He carried fire within him, became our lightkeeper because, by the force of his character, he had learned how to be dry. + Israel was drying up, but not enjoying it. The itinerary Moses chose to follow after having left the Red Sea was one you would never find in a travel brochure. For one thing, it wasn't a straight route from here to there. It has left biblical commentators scratching their heads ever since. God seemed to be in no hurry to get Israel out of the wilderness. They made no beeline for the milk and honey. To make matters worse, we don't know which way they went. Theories abound, of course. Some maps even pretend to know. About all that is certain is that a wadi called Rephidim seems to have been the last stop before Sinai, which, of course, is out in the middle of nowhere. They didn't know where they were. All they knew was that they were doing their best to follow the Lord's leading. He had led them this far out of slavery. Surely he knew where he wanted to lead them. Well, maybe. You can't read any of these stories about Israel's wandering in the desert without catching a real sense of doubt being expressed about whether God knew what he was doing. Let alone, Moses. Moses hadn't a clue either, other than that "The Promised Land" was out there somewhere. And Moses was a pretty convenient target when things got tense, which they did, rather often. That and dry. I mean, what with the wind and the oceans of sand, it wasn't long before they were parched with thirst. These were not seasoned Bedouins, remember, people who know how to crack a crusted-over piece of limestone to uncover a spring of fresh, clear water. These were city folk accustomed to the usual, albeit sparse accoutrements of slavery. There may have been back-breaking labour back in Egypt; but at least their had been water and ground you could grow something in. Suddenly, they were in this barren, dusty, god-forsaken wilderness where somedays it was all you could to see past the nose on your face for the grit. Blazing hot enough to burn your sandals during the day. Cold enough to freeze you to shivering by morning. It had been the Lord's idea of freedom. It was their idea of hell and my guess is that the worst of it, the part that they never really understood while they were suffering it was the dryness. Not just the physical dryness, but the spiritual dryness that is implicit in a text such as this story's. "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" At first, Moses tries to deflect their complaint by using a good offense. "Why do you test the Lord?" It is a favourite trick of religious leaders when they don't know what else to say! But the people are too smart to buy the evasion and keep Moses' feet to the fire, until eventually, Moses figures out a way to find water for them and that particular crisis is resolved. But that wasn't the end of it. The problem remained for another forty years or so. This physical hunger and thirst that was symptomatic of a much deeper need, one that kept coming to the surface as they went from one dry place to another. The closing verse of this week's passage "Is the Lord among us or not?" reinforces this recurring theme. Israel kept asking that question right up until the border of the Promised Land. Kept getting thirsty and kept wondering, not about why they were putting the Lord to the test, but why God was doing it to them. Too often, we commentators and preachers focus on the miracle of the water, the miracle of God saving them from the dryness. But what if we are missing the obvious? What if God was also saving them as a result of the dryness? What if providence also has to do with that necessary discipline of the soul called drying out and drying up? + James Hillman points out that the ancient alchemists were workers in metaphor like good psychoanalysts, painters and poets. One of the main alchemical operations was evaporation. Boiling off the excess wetness so that a dry remainder could be used for further concoctions. Too much liquid putrefies. You feel yourself swamped, flooded, dissolved in grief, messy, sticky situations. Evaporation lets off the steam, boils away the excess that sticks. Things that are no longer glued are free of old allegiances. Once the emotion is taken out of a memory, you can view it with some objectivity, some wisdom. It is what Israel learned in the desert. They learned from not having the luxuries, from having to survive with only the bare necessities, from not being certain as to where the road was taking them, from having to cope with heartache and loss and wondering whether the Lord was with them or not. Which meant that by the time they reached their destination, they were able to look back on that sticky situation in Egypt with some detachment and hopefully some smarts. It would never have happened without having endured many of those salty and bitterly true insights they gained from having been tested in the wilderness. A wisdom that came as a result of the dryness as much as it did anything else. Which means - drying up is not just inevitable. It is providential. Grace-filled. No longer feeling pressured to engage everything, we can be at peace without comment. Having to hold things out in front of you farther and farther in order to see them clearly, but also seeing them in a much larger perspective. The body's own version of Buddhist detachment. The resilience and stamina that comes only to the long distance runner. The dry eye that is less vulnerable to subjective affections. We become astringent - yes, like the finest wine, by letting our bodies teach us this necessary discipline of the soul. Drying up. --------- Exodus 17:1-7 - The wilderness stories of Israel (and this week's is a classic example) are increasingly about a people stuck between promise and fulfillment. It is not just a place but a state of mind. What happens to Israel is not specific to that tiny nation. It is a typology for the life of faith. We do not know where God is leading us. It is always through dark passages where our very survival hangs in the balance. We murmur and complain and question and doubt because there is nothing else we can do and be honest. This week's sermon attempts to cast a very different focus on such a paradigm than the usual interpretations, suggesting that God's providence is to be found as much in the struggle as in the redemption from it, that the force of character can only be gained through the process of refinement and drying. 1. Notice that the question contained in the very last verse of the passage is one that no one ever says? Why does the author do this? 2. Why is such a question often the last thing anyone every wants to express in church? 3. Where are you in the process of "drying up" and how could God's providence be using this to bring out that which is "wisest and best" in you? Philippians 2:1-13 - This classic Pauline text, that we also hear during Lent, is addressed, not to a fledgling church, but one that has come of age long enough to confront the two perennial threats of congregational life: internal dissent and external threat. Paul is concerned about the former in this passage and appeals to his listeners for unity and solidarity. However, this kind of harmony only happens when everyone acts from a single, fundamental perspective: considering the other person better than oneself, thinking of the interest of others ahead of one's own. Paul buttresses this example with his well-known hymn to Christ. This is the perspective from which flows the life of faith. 1. Is internal dissent more of a problem in younger or older congregations? Why? 2. In your own words, describe how Paul believes the capacity to respond in faith and love works. 3. In what way is this evident in your own experience of congregational life? Matthew 21:23-32 - There are about 3 versions in the extant texts of Jesus' story about the two sons, each of them different, which means that it is hard to know which Jesus may have told. What is important is how Matthew understands and uses the story in this context. He frames it in between the Jewish leaders' rejection of Jesus' authority and a discussion about outcasts who are accepted in God's domain. We should not single out the Jewish leaders as the intended targets of the parable but rather all those who do not do what God intends. 1. Why would a normal Galilean family have been scandalized by the actions of both sons in Jesus' story? 2. If there is no "right" answer to Jesus' question, contrary to Matthew's interpretation, how might Jesus' listeners have understood the parable? 3. Why is it always a dilemma when discussions take place within the church about who is "right" and who is "wrong"? HYMN 641 Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song (Voices United)
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