There is a feeling of urgent action in the scriptures this week.Perhaps it is invoked by the first text from Exodus in which we share a life versus death ritual meal standing up in our traveling clothes ready for a perilous journey into freedom. Psalm 149 in imperative in its invitation to praise and once again the situation seems to be life or death. The prophet, Ezekiel, is given the task of watching over a still recalcitrant Israel seeking to rebuild during and after exile. He is to proclaim a choice of life versus death to “the wicked”, those who have fallen away from God’s ways, and the choice is imminent. The verses of Psalm 119 punctuate the urgency to choose life. In the passage from Romans, Paul makes it clear to the young church that choosing love for neighbor is the urgent, active choice and not a sentimental state of feeling. Jesus follows this up with his instructions to faith communities in Matthew’s gospel. We are to confront conflict with loving transparency in communication and not let conflict fester. In doing so, God’s presence is active in community continuing to invite in extravagant welcome even those who refuse to make peace as if they were the Gentiles and tax collectors that Jesus constantly befriended.
Whichever text is chosen for worship and preaching, the sacred stories told this week – biblical or otherwise – must hold love’s urgent action. I find the image of a sentinel or watch ”person” from the Ezekiel text evocative. (See Paul Achtemeier’s comment on the passage in conjunction with his commentary on the Romans passage in Interpretation: Romans, John Knox Press, 1985.) A sentinel –watchman or woman – may not know and certainly not have affection for or agree with every person in the community that she or he is watching over. Yet their willingness to watch through long hours and to proclaim warning if need be is an act of love for everyone in the community. (I find myself humming the Advent hymn, “Watchman Tell Us of the Night” as I reflect on this image.)
Could we be watch-people in love for one another in Christian community as the Romans and Matthew text imply? Not as judgmental critics or as co-dependent protectors, but as people able to speak the truth to one another in love in the midst of conflict and/or collaboration. It would take the willingness to give our selves completely to love in powerful, intimate ways. It would take innocence partnered with wisdom. It would take the willingness to give love even when it is rejected, to speak for love and love’s justice especially when it is contradictory to the ways of society.
What are the stories we can tell in worship or education this week that evoke and inspire that level of love?
There is a wonderful story by Leo Tolstoy that can be told in short or long version. It is titled “The Three Hermits” and is found in Tolstoy’s short story collection, Twenty-Three Tales. Below is a plot synopsis from the Wikipedia site, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Hermits. I first heard the story from my storytelling mentor and friend, Dr. Robert Bela Wilhelm. You can subscribe to his weekly “Parables for Today: Lectionary Stories” at www.storyfest.com. There is a MP3 of him telling the story in a short and long version along with reflection on it and the Romans and Matthew texts. I would most likely use this story at children’s time in a simplified version that highlighted the hermits as watchers of the pilgrims seeking the monastery. They certainly understand watching one another in the community of love. And I would highlight the change in the bishop and his ministry after he meets them. In Bob’s version, the bishop repents from being so exacting in teaching the prayers of the church and adapts the hermits prayer for his own spiritual growth saying, “Three are ye, Many are we, have mercy upon us.”
“A bishop and several pilgrims are travelling on a fishing boat from Archangel to the Solovétsk Monastery. During the voyage, the bishop engages the fishermen in conversation after overhearing them discuss a remote island nearby their course where three old hermits lived a spartan existence focused on seeking “salvation for their souls.” Several of the fisherman claim to have seen them once.
The bishop then informs the captain that he wishes to visit the island. The captain attempts to dissuade him by saying “the old men are not worth your pains. I have heard say that they are foolish old fellows, who understand nothing, and never speak a word.” But the bishop insists, and the Captain steers the ship toward the island and subsequently sets off in a rowboat to visit where he is met ashore by the three hermits.
The bishop informs the hermits that he has heard of them and of their seeking salvation. He inquires how they are seeking salvation and serving God, but the hermits say they do not know how, only that they pray, simply, holding hands in a circle: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.” Subsequently, the bishop acknowledges that they have a little knowledge but are ignorant of the true meaning of the doctrine and how properly to pray. He tells them that he will teach them “not a way of my own, but the way in which God in the Holy Scriptures has commanded all men to pray to Him” and proceeds to explain the doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity. He attempts to teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father”, but the simple hermits blunder and cannot remember the words—which compels the bishop to repeat the lesson late into the night. After he became satisfied that they had memorized the prayer, the Bishop departed from the island leaving the hermits with the firm instruction to pray as he had taught them. The bishop then returned by the rowboat to the fisherman’s vessel anchored offshore to continue the voyage.
While on board, the captain notices that their vessel is being followed—at first thinking a boat was behind them but soon realizing that the three hermits had been running across the surface of the water “as though it were dry land.” The hermits catch up to the vessel as the captain stops the boat, and inform the bishop:
“We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.”
The bishop was humbled and replied to the hermits: “Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.” After which the hermits turned around and walked back to their island.”
Two more story suggestions for this week:
- Telling the Passover story in Exodus from the standpoint of a sentinel who is watching out for Pharaoh’s army as the people eat and prepare secretly to leave. Or the standpoint of one of the Hebrew midwives who have watched over the Hebrew community for many years protecting the babies born and sheltering them from Pharaoh’s edicts as she prepares the supper and reflects on the exodus from slavery.
- Create your own sentinel story by setting the commandment from God to the prophet Ezekiel in a contemporary setting. Who are the watching prophets of our culture inside and outside the faith communities calling us to love’s justice? How are they compelled to speak to “the wicked” or rather those of us who shelter ourselves from the hard stories and from the realization that we are one with those in the midst of tough even traumatic times? Reporters who are on the front lines of war, with the immigrants flocking to our country, watching and reporting on capital punishment come to mind as an example.