The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service are available at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos basados en el leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé.
1 Samuel 16:1-13.
God sends Samuel to find and anoint as king one of the sons of Jesse; " . . . the LORD does not see as mortals see."
Psalm 23 (UMH 754 or 137).
"For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light."
Jesus puts mud on the eyes of a man born blind and sends him to wash in the pool at Siloam. The blind man gains his sight and immediately becomes an evangelist!
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Keeping time with Christ: We continue in John’s gospels with encounters with people who make us aware of our need for salvation. Today, it is a man born blind. Next week, we encounter Lazarus, dead for four days, and his two sisters. In encountering them, we also encounter with our own blindness and the stench of our own spiritual deadness. For a suggested plan for this whole season, see Planning for Worship during Lent, Year A: Living Our Baptismal Calling.
The One Great Hour of Sharing offering is received today, March 30, the fourth Sunday in Lent. This denominational offering underwrites the administrative costs of the United Methodist Committee on Relief so it can continue to offer worldwide emergency relief and long-term disaster support with no overhead for its direct services.
Holy Week begins on April 13 with Palm/Passion Sunday. If you have not already done so, plan now for a complete celebration of the week, including services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and The Great Vigil (see BOW 343-376 for resources, descriptions and service orders, and the link above for thorough instructions and suggestions for The Great Vigil). Readings for each day are available on the Discipleship Ministries worship website (click on April at the top of the list, and scroll down slightly). If you do not plan to gather for services in your worship space, consider organizing smaller gatherings at homes throughout this week (especially Monday-Wednesday) using these texts as guides for your prayer and reflection.
The Festival of God’s Creation in 2014 falls on Easter Sunday (April 20). You are encouraged always to include the earth and care for the earth in your congregation’s weekly intercessions (if not, start adding that now!), and of course on this day as well. If, during Lent, you will have encouraged folks to reduce their energy consumption, today may also be an occasion for folks to share testimonies or simply place something in the offering plate indicating the results of their efforts to save energy. The resurrection of our Lord should be the primary focus of your celebration this day regardless of any other denominational focus. So while you may include recognition of the denominational day in worship, keep the resurrection of our Lord front and center, and consider offering other commemorations for the day at a time other than the worship hour.
April 13-19 Holy Week
April 13: Palm/Passion Sunday
April 17: Maundy Thursday
April 18: Good Friday
May 5-11 Christian Family Week
May 17-18 Change the World Weekend
May 24 Aldersgate Day
May 26 Memorial Day (USA)
May 29 Ascension of the Lord
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Atmospherics: Be Healed of Your Blindness
It may seem a bit counterintuitive in Western cultures for our Lenten focus to move from thirst and opened hearts last week to blindness and opened eyes this week. The typical Western epistemology (our theory of how we know) would suggest the way to change our hearts is first to change our vision. We seem to bias worldview—having the right position or perspective about the world—above desire, how we love the world. As James K.A. Smith reminds in his book Desiring the Kingdom, we tend to believe human beings are fundamentally “thinking animals.” So if our perspective is right, our hearts will become right as well. Or put another way, the surest way to make us love aright is first to make us think (or see) aright.
Here in Lent, as in the chronology presented in John’s gospel, that order is reversed. First, we need opened hearts, admitting our thirst for God and ready to accept and welcome the Holy Spirit and God’s grace. Then, and only then, if we take this ordering seriously, do we talk about dealing with our poor or even absent capacity to see. The fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince may have gotten it right: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essential est invisible aux yeux.” (One can see clearly only with the heart. What truly matters is invisible to the eyes). Or, in James K.A. Smith’s terms, following St. Augustine, human beings are first of all “desiring animals.” We are what we love. We see (or don’t see) based on what and how well we love.
This is not a call to ignore blindness. Quite the reverse. It is the call to become aware that we actually are blind in the first place, a blindness often rooted in hardened hearts, and then to be healed of it. Once our hearts are opened, then, and only then, will our eyes be.
Our blindness comes in a variety of forms.
I Samuel tells the story of the initial blindness of Jesse and the prophet Samuel as they sought to discern which of Jesse’s sons to anoint as the next king. With God’s direction, Samuel did finally see what God saw. When our hearts—the seat of our values and our will, as well as our emotional intelligence—are well formed, which is to say, when they desire what God desires, we can see much more clearly, too.
Ephesians reminds us that we are accustomed to and therefore often blind to the darkness around us, and calls us to live as children of light, rousing from our spiritual sleep or torpor to expose that darkness for what it is. In our baptismal vows, we pledge to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” But if we have been lulled into sleep about the evil that surrounds us, how will we have the energy or will or even awareness to expose, much less resist it?
The long story from John today drives home the point that not only this man, but actually all of us are born spiritually blind. But just as powerfully, it shows us God’s way of healing our blindness- and not ours only, but that of the whole world.
Jesus does not wait for this man to ask to heal him. Jesus has been sent by God to work God’s works in the world (verse 4), and that is what he does. He goes to the man, makes mud from soil and his own spittle, places mud on the man’s eyelids, and tells him to go wash in the pool called Sent. The man does all of these things, and finds himself not only healed but indeed sent to proclaim the truth about his healing. He does not become a disciple of Jesus per se until later in the story. For the majority of the story, he is simply bearing witness to what has happened to him. He was blind; now he sees, thanks to Jesus.
We remain blind ourselves if we stop with our own cleansing and do not also respond to where we are sent—indeed, if we do not in our cleansing understand ourselves to be sent as witnesses to the healer of all blindness.
It is no accident that this man’s blindness is healed through “washing” in a place called “Sent.” This story is told by John’s community precisely as another sign of what persons can expect to happen in baptism into Jesus Christ and lifelong discipleship in his way.
How do you live this story with those you prepare for washing, for baptism? Do you prepare them for the washing only, or also to be sent as witnesses to Jesus Christ and his kingdom alive and active in the world? Do you practice baptism in ways that portray it primarily as a palliative for a sinsick soul or as a cleansing that cures spiritual blindness. Do you see and portray your font or baptismal pool as a destination, or as a launching pad? Do you treat baptism as if it means those baptized have arrived, or as if they are now expected and ready to be sent? Do you prepare people primarily to assume their seats in the sanctuary or the classroom or the committee, or for their role in ministry and witness in all the places where God now sends them?
For guidance on thinking through ways of preparing all the baptized for their ministry in all the contexts they find themselves, read through the many resources on the MemberMission website.
The conclusion of today’s gospel reading gives a solemn reminder of where we started. Some religious leaders are complaining about the healing of the man born blind, seeking to discredit both the man healed and Jesus, the healer. When some of them ask Jesus whether he is suggesting they are blind he says, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you saw, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Protesting they (and they alone) can see aright, Jesus is saying, simply reveals their fundamental hardness of heart, and so, in fact, their blindness, a blindness about which they are not even aware, and a blindness that keeps them bound in sin’s power. As long as they seek to justify themselves, their hearts are hardened, and they cannot possibly see aright. As long as we seek to justify ourselves, our hearts are likewise hardened, and we cannot possibly see aright, either.
Hearts open to God’s healing grace make us aware of our blindnesses, and open us to their healing, even in those places where we have been blind from birth.
There are many ways to be blind or become blind. Some of them are physical. Others are intellectual, emotional, or spiritual.
The good news is there are also many ways to see, even to see fairly clearly, even when we are blind, and even when that blindness is physical.
But we cannot do it alone. We need one another.
The man born blind needed Jesus to put mud on his eyes and send him to wash in the pool called “Sent.” Jesse and Samuel needed the voice of God to guide them to see what they could not see, for the one God desired to become king did not much look the part, as they saw it. All of us, swimming in a sea of profound evil and darkness, need the jolt of light, and indeed are empowered to become such jolts of light to expose just how deadly the evil is (resisting evil, injustice and oppression however they present themselves).
One of the most profound examples of sight emerging from blindness I have witnessed is in the remarkable way Christ Deaf Church in Baltimore, Maryland, would ensure that people who were both deaf and blind could “hear” and “see” the service in real time—and through the very same means Jesus offered it, the gift of touch. Using Tactile American Sign Language, an interpreter (usually herself or himself also deaf) would work with each deaf blind person one on one, interpreting everything from music, to sermon, to prayers, to Great Thanksgiving, and then walk with them to receive Holy Communion with everyone else. Most of the rest of the world would dismiss or institutionalize the deaf blind. Christ Deaf Church literally embraces, touches, and radically includes them, enabling them to see and hear, through touch, and then taste and see just how good our God is.
So it is for all our blindnesses. We may not be able to be released from them ourselves. We need God and we need one another to help us see.
When our hearts become opened, we become far more aware of what we can’t see.
And when we become aware of what we can’t see, we can also become aware of the One who can heal us, and whose body, surrounding us, can see us through.
In Your Planning Team
Before You Do Anything Else…
First, two points of awareness for today. One is about blindness as physical reality for many people. However you plan today, address the reality of physical blindness and the lives of blind people sensitively. Strongly consider inviting one or two people with blindness to consult with your planning team as you develop today’s service so that you speak and treat people with blindness with dignity.
Second, John 9:18 and 22 in many English translations, including the NRSV, comes across as profoundly and unjustifiably anti-Jewish when it renders the Greek word here (oi Judaioi) as “the Jews.” A more accurate translation would be at least to transliterate it as “the Judeans.” Better still, as some more recent English translations have done, would be something like “the religious leaders of Judea,” because it is clear, in context, that it is these leaders, and not all Jewish people, to whom this verse refers. Likewise, the term “the Pharisees” in verses 13, 15, 16 and 40 does not refer to all Pharisees, but, quite obviously, only to a few key leaders. Whatever you do, do not allow these terms (the Jews, the Pharisees, each implying a wholesale condemnation of the whole of these people) to be read aloud, sung, or printed in any worship bulletin. To do so is to perpetuate the blindness that has led generations of Christians and other nations to do great violence to these physical and spiritual co-descendents of our common spiritual ancestor, Abraham.
In Your Planning Team
Today calls for worship that moves people from awareness of their blindnesses, in whatever form, to recognition of the opportunity to be healed of it through Christ, and finally to call to receive such healing and become agents of light and healing for others.
This work in worship begins with conversations in your planning team.
1. Where are you blind? What can’t you see? Why? Where are you blind that you’re blind? (Note, this is a question you can’t answer yourself—it’s part of why you have this conversation with the team!)
2. What are all the opportunities around to heal these blindnesses you have named? How are you availing yourself of them? Where do you need challenge or support to start, persevere, or go deeper?
3. Where are you being healed from blindness (again, a question others will need to answer about you, or at least affirm, or perhaps deny!)? Having been healed, how are you now sharing the story of your healing?
4. How does what you can now see enable you to shine light where you once found yourself or others ensnared or blinded?
These are all personal testimonies. We’re not talking theory here, but rather the experience of Jesus touching you and healing you each from blindness. These stories need to be at the heart of worship today, even as such a story is at the heart of our gospel reading from John, and at the heart of Paul’s encouragement to the Christians in Ephesus. This is also at the heart of the work of Lent, showing people preparing for life in the way of Jesus living examples of how this life is done— in its struggles, and in the breakthroughs God’s grace, God’s touch makes possible.
One more thing: Consider inviting the persons with blindness you invite to your meeting to do one more thing for you—or consider inviting at least one additional person to your team meeting as you begin planning this service. This should be someone who is a relative newcomer or someone returning after a time apart to your congregation or community. Sometimes we are so lulled and blind to our surroundings that the only way we can begin to see what is there is either to leave for a time and then return, or call upon a newcomer or an outsider to help us see what we can no longer see. Who is new enough in your congregation or community to help you see where you as a congregation may need to “rise from the dead so Christ can shine on you” and through you again?
And as you are having these conversations, invite your artists to help you imagine how to create an evocative space for worship today as these Scriptures are read (see Embodying the Word, below) and such testimonies are offered so that Christ’s light may indeed shine and many blindnesses may be or begin to be healed.
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In the ancient church, the Sundays of Lent were days for "exorcism" of what was contrary to Christ in those who were to be baptized at Easter. In present day churches preparing men and women for baptism, the congregation prays with the candidates for baptism (catechumens/candidates in the ancient church), so they confront their own thirst, blindness, and death. Dan Benedict has included a specific prayer for candidates for this day in his book, Come to the Waters (p. 119). Consider offering this as a response to the word today, and offer this with hands extending toward or over the candidates, inviting sponsors and the congregation to extend their hands in prayer as well.
Lord Jesus, you know our blindness. Open the hearts and minds of (Name/s) to see and to yield to you anything that stands in the way of their saying Yes to you. Amen.
Healing ministry. This is also a good day to include an opportunity for people to receive healing prayer. See "Service of Healing I," The United Methodist Book of Worship, 613-621.
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Embodying the Word: The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A
I Samuel calls out for a dialogical telling, with a narrator, a voice of God and voice of Samuel (which could, in fact, be the same voice to emphasize the inner struggle that Samuel is facing from the outset—paralyzed by grief and fear and unable to find any way forward). Let the congregation take the voice of Jesse.
Sing Psalm 23 today, or if not, recite it from memory in the translation most familiar to your congregation. A recent musical setting that has gained some popularity, the first part of which could be used as a choral or congregational refrain, may be found here, and one source for the choral sheet music here.
Ephesians can be effectively offered by one strong reader and, if this can work in your worship space, lighting effects in sync with the text. The reading could begin in darkness (or the lack of additional lighting, if entire darkness is not possible), then full light/lights, or at least a spotlight on the reader, at the words “but now in the Lord you are light.” At verse 11, a more muted darkness could return, then be shifted to full light at the end of the verse “but instead expose them.” Consider playing “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” (UMH 720) quietly in the background beginning at verse 13, becoming rousing at the end, then inviting the choir and/or congregation to stand and join in singing, full voice, the entire hymn or at least the last verse. As the congregation stands, singing, bring the gospel into the midst of the people.
John brings us another long text. Again, fend off temptation to cut it; the congregation needs to experience the whole, especially during this season of baptismal preparation. Gather a team of readers to take the parts of the narrator, Jesus, the man born blind, his parents, and so on. Rehearse the text so that it comes alive. This will be even more engaging if the congregation sings a refrain at points throughout the reading. The last half of the first verse of “Amazing Grace” (UMH 378) or “Open My Eyes, Lord” (TFWS 2006) would work quite well for this purpose.
One excellent resource for this particular reading is Who Calls You by Name: Gospel Proclamation for the Scrutinies by Victoria Tufano and David Haas (GIA, 1992, item number G-3662; Cost: $9.00. To order call 800-442-1358 or click the item number).
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- BOW 306 (Ephesians)
- BOW 326 (Ephesians)
- Season of Ash and Fire, page 35.
- UMH 456
- Season of Ash and Fire, page 35.
Act of Praise: "Thanksgiving for the Light Dramatic Reading," Season of Ash and Fire, pages 36-37.
Prayer for Illumination
- UMH 6
- Season of Ash and Fire, page 38
Response: BOW 205, "Shine on Me" (Ephesians)
Prayer of Confession and Pardon:
- BOW 476 (Ephesians)
- Season of Ash and Fire, pages 35-36.
Unison Reading of Psalm 23: BOW 145 (Psalm)
- Season of Ash and Fire, page 39.
- BOW 397 (Ephesians)
- BOW 546, "For Those Who Suffer" (John)
- UMH 460, "In Time of Illness (Psalm, John)
- BOW 399, Week 4 (Psalm)
- UMH 877 (Musical setting in The Faith We Sing, 2201)
- BOW 505 (1 Samuel, John)
- BOW 516 (1 Samuel, John)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore.
- Great Thanksgiving: UMH 8-10, BOW 60-61 (Seasonal) or 618-619 (Healing)
Dismissal with Blessing:
- BOW 560 (Ephesians)
- BOW 529 Use the sign of the cross and indicate in the bulletin or onscreen that each person may sign himself or herself on the last line of the prayer. If you started this practice on the first week of Lent, continue until Easter.
- Season of Ash and Fire, page 40.
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