The Monday Brief is a weekly blog series in which I reflect on my experience of the liturgy and pastoral ministry over the weekend. While it is primarily oriented toward pastors and lay congregational leaders, there will likely be something for everyone in it. I do draw on my past experience and occasionally reference my current pastoral assignment for case studies and examples; however, no names are used for the sake of confidentiality and respect.
A majority of the readings for the Narrative Lectionary this year have an historical context in or around the exile of the Israelites into Babylonian captivity. I’ve spent a significant portion of this fall preaching from texts that are asking the question, “What happens now?” The Israelites believed God had abandoned them, and they saw little hope. Through priests and prophets, they (and we) are given some wondrous compilations of stories and words of promise that remind all of us that God has not left anyone alone. Restoration will eventually come.
As I went through this weekend in pastoral ministry, preaching in the liturgy and engaging in a number of other important tasks, I found myself thinking about consequences. The Israelites’ position as an exiled people was the direct result of their poor behavior choices. They stole from the poor, they committed gross injustices against the needy, they made unwise political alliances with neighboring nations, and they ignored the words of Torah to be a people of peace, mercy, and hospitality.
What were their intentions, though? Did they believe their actions were wrong or immoral as they committed them? I was reminded while I was preaching on Sunday of a scene from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when a character, Jake, a young aspiring writer, follows around Quark, a businessman who engages in shady and under-the-table dealings. Jake tells Quark that he is having a hard time creating a nefarious character who is believable. Quark responds with, “Lesson number one. No one involved in an extralegal activity thinks of themselves as nefarious.”
The Israelites likely believed they were doing what was good, honorable, in the best interest of themselves and others, and that which was pleasing and honoring to God. And we, like the Israelites, almost always believe that, if our intentions are good, God will be on our side. And for all the times I’ve heard in various congregations that God looks at the heart, we are almost always confronted with the result of our choices, whether positive or negative. Regardless of their intentions, and whether you believe that the punishment of exile came from God’s parental hand or from the poor political and social decisions the leadership made over centuries, the Israelites’ exile was a consequence of choice.
When Advent is observed as a mirror season to Lent and approached as a time of confession and lamentation, we are provided an opportunity to liturgically recognize that our actions may have unintended consequences that hurt others and ourselves. We hear the Word proclaimed to us and we confess our sin. These confessions may be deeply personal, or focus on broad societal wrongs in which we are complicit, or be worded generously to provide open space for us to come to terms with what we’ve done and said in the recesses of our existence. In the end, though, our response to these stories of a people grappling with the consequences of poor choices should be one of introspection and humility. And, as we discover in those Old Testament texts, the exile was necessary for Israel to come to terms with the choices they made.
On Friday I shared with you that I went into this weekend hopeful, knowing that Christ waits longingly for us to arrive in worship. Today’s reflection does not negate that great hope because we are not left alone when we are confronted with the results of choices. The words of the prophets always end with promises of restoration and hope, just as our confessions of sin in the liturgy should always end with assurances of God’s great and wondrous grace. An admittance of failure is never a death sentence; it is an honest self-assessment and the beginning of a journey toward healing. The Israelites emerged from exile and went home. We can, too.
As pastors and worship leaders, as humans, we make many choices that impact our own lives and the lives of people around us. While our intentions may never be nefarious or selfish, we must own and accept how our actions ripple beyond us and often return to us. It’s part of following Jesus and it’s part of being human.