Sunday, March 2, 2008

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

A disclaimer, or rather, a note about context. All preaching is contextual. I would not preach this sermon, or rather, I would not use some of its language and style (I would certainly preach the same message) at some of the larger and more --what's the right word for them? I can't say "established" since we are over 100 years old, that's pretty established-- parishes in town. The famous line from Rhett Butler wouldn't fly in the pulpit there. Nor, probably, would my hamming it up as Scarlett quite as much as I did. And I'm not sure that I would use these particular movie characters in humorous tones in another setting.

We are a small mostly White congregation (with an African American pastor) which is also a chaplaincy for three area colleges and universities. While there is a separate Sunday evening liturgy for students, on any given Sunday morning you will find at the 11 a.m. liturgy a few students, a few retired academics, some high-tech-y types, musicians, the news editor of the local alternative weekly newspaper, college professors and teachers of young children, one or two semi-employed people, and nobody very stiff or formal. This is an unpretentious group and if you stick around, you find out that this modest and unpresuming crew are disproportionately involved in leadership and service in the city's environmental, human rights, human services, and political groups. The congregation happens to include both straight and lesbian/gay/trans people, including a fairly significant proportion of gay men. (Not that anyone keeps track in our congregation, but you may or may not see in the sermon a reflection of this particular audience.) We used to have a few young children but because of the chaplaincy focus, they and their families moved to congregations that could better meet their needs. We can't do everything, though there were times when we tried. We do outreach and we also learn our limits. Okay, enough preliminaries.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A

Sunday, March 2, 2008
St. Mary’s House (Episcopal)
Greensboro, North Carolina

[Revised Common Lectionary]

I Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:9-16
John 9:1-41

It’s a week after the Oscars,
and it’s time we got back to the classics.
The Scripture classics, of course,
and the movie classics.

So remember with me
the final scene of “Gone With the Wind.”

Scarlett O’Hara,
wearing basic black,
in a flouncy, Hollywood 19th century mourning
kind of way,
is in the throes of what will be
her final conversation with Rhett Butler.

And among her memorable words
in this scene
are these:

Oh Rhett! Rhett!
Rhett! Rhett!

(She really does say his name four times.)

If you leave,
Scarlett says,
where shall I go, what shall I do?

Where shall I go?
What shall I do?

Scarlett is having
what in Christian spirituality
we call
a discernment issue.

Today I want to talk about discernment.
I think our scriptures have something to tell us about that.
The season of Lent, too, has something to offer
about discernment.

That’s fancy Christian language for
trying to figure out what to do next.

Though there’s more to discernment
than decision-making.

Today’s scriptures are about seeing, and hearing,
and choosing.

They are also about reversals -- God’s reversals.

But first, a reminder about Lent.

We are, on this Fourth Sunday
in Lent,
deep into it.
We’ve been engaged in our Lenten practice
for a while now –
or, perhaps, engaged in bemoaning the fact
that we never quite got started on a Lenten practice
or discipline
for this year.

Either way, we are at
or somewhere near
the stage I am about to describe:
At some point in Lent,
or sometimes during all of it,
we encounter the chaos within.
You know what I’m talking about.

We’ve all got it.
In our Lenten discipline,
or lack thereof,
we wade into the murky, messy
landscape within.
Or perhaps it’s not murky and messy;
perhaps it’s desert and wilderness.

Right around the same time
that individually we encounter
the inner challenges,
and some outer ones as well,
we encounter, as individuals
but also as a Christian community,
the mid-Lent questions.

Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday in Lent,
those calls to return to God with all our hearts,
to refocus our lives,
to begin again
to reflect on the path of dying and rising
which is Christ’s way,
are no longer new.

After the initial call,
the initial return,
the beginning of the Lenten practices,
then what?
are we going to live the next steps of our Christian life?

How, in fact,
are we going to live
and are we living
the whole of our Christian life?

We don’t engage in our Lenten disciplines,
--the traditional ones of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving
or our individual adaptations of these for this year’s Lent--
for their sake alone,
though even alone
they are salutary for us
and for our sisters and brothers,
for the earth on which we walk
and for the social world in which we live.

We engage in them
so that we might live a life
more attuned to God,
more attentive to the Spirit.

We engage in them
so that we might know more intimately
in our bodies
in our hearts,
in our minds
what it means to follow Christ.

Following Christ.
Being attentive to the Holy Spirit.

How do we learn this?
How do we do this?
And how do we recognize the promptings
of the Holy Spirit?
How do we know it’s not our stomach growling,
or the emotion of the moment speaking?

How can we know it is God’s voice we hear?

Where shall we go?
What shall we do?

And so we come to the prophet Samuel.

Samuel is not too happy about this trip he has to take.
God has asked him to choose a new king.
The current king, Saul,
is still alive.
The journey to Bethlehem,
not a long one,
is still burdensome,
since Samuel, in addition to
the donkey he is presumably riding,
has to take a heifer with him.

So we’ve got a middle-aged man
in fear of the king
and apprehension of what he will encounter
dragging a cow behind him
on a mission from God.

The two books of Samuel
and the two books of Kings
are great drama.
Prime time television
has nothing on them.
And who needs soap operas when you have
David and Bathsheba?
Or rather, David and Michal,
David and Jonathan,
and David and Bathsheba,
and I am leaving out a few of David’s

In the same saga, we will also have
David and Goliath.
And we will have
David’s military prowess,
David’s deceit and manipulations,
David’s political skill,
David playing his lyre and singing,
David dancing before God. Whew!

God, war, sex, power, men, women,
intrigue, lies, love, friendship,
politics, prayer, dance...

what else?

The Bible. God’s own reality show.

Samuel the prophet
ought to know from discernment,
though as a child he certainly needed help.
Remember little Samuel,
living with Eli in the temple?

-You called me?
-No, my son, I did not call you.
-You called me?
-No, my son, go back to bed.

Finally, Eli, wise old man that he is,
and discerning,
after many years of prayer
and attuning his heart
to the voice of God
and the signs of God’s presence,
helps little Samuel understand
that this is God calling,
and that he needs to go back to his room,
and listen,
and be
to the voice of the Holy One
who is speaking in the night.

The Samuel we meet in this scene of the drama
is at a later stage of life.
He is, as it were,
an established prophet.
He is, in fact, part of the establishment,
though the call from God to go on the road with the cow
reminds him that the establishment
is not his primary allegiance.
Still, he has a position
that is well known.
Notice that the people in Bethlehem
are quaking in their boots,
or rather in their sandals
until Samuel reassures them
that he has come peaceably,
and that the imminent death of the little cow
will be a sign of this intention.

Samuel, still not too happy,
goes about his mission
to find
and anoint
King Saul’s successor.
And then a surprise takes place.
A reversal.

Samuel does the logical thing,
in his society and in many of our societies.
With Jesse’s help,
he goes for
Jesse’s first-born son.
he’s tall, he’s the oldest.
Nope, says God. Not that one.
Aminadab, the second oldest.
And on down the line.

Did you notice that God, by then,
had already told Samuel
what not to look at
and how
God sees?

Seven sons
file before Samuel.
they have to fetch
the shepherd boy.

That was dirty work, by the way.
Sheep are smelly,
and not always very bright,
and the shepherd’s job,
though requiring attentiveness, care,
and agility both mental and physical,
a low status job, and one
often given to younger persons
like David:
beautiful, tan, rosy David.

This shepherd boy,
says God,
is the one.

Earlier, before the parade of tall,
older, not so smelly sons,
God has said:
Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…
for the Lord does not see as mortals see;
they look on the outward appearance,
but the Lord looks on the heart.

“Surprise,” writes the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast,
“is a name for God.”

is a name for God.

And attentiveness
to God’s tendency
toward surprise
and reversal
is part
of what discernment is about.

A reversal
is also what goes on
in the story of the man born blind.
It’s not the only thing going on
in that very rich, complex story.
Not by a long stretch.
But it’s there.

It’s there in the physical healing.
It’s there in the approach to sin.
It’s there in Jesus’ dealings with family
and religious authority.
It’s there in the placing at center stage
as the Gospel of John did last week with
the woman from Samaria,
an unlikely witness:
the man born blind
who now can see.

I do not know whether [Jesus]
is a sinner.
One thing I do know,
that though I was blind,
now I see.

When Jesus engages in reversal,
as God does in Samuel’s anointing of David,
he is squarely within his Jewish tradition.
God has done this reversal thing before.
Again and again:
Picking prophets away from sycamore groves.
Blessing barren women with children,
including Samuel’s own mother Hannah.
Healing blindness.
Forgiving sin.
Lifting up the lowly.

The facts of the story
and its literary structure
and its theological message
are not so much
what I’m inviting you to look at now.

Look on the edges of the story
or rather
into the fabric of the story,
to the blind man’s knowing.

I do not know whether he
is a sinner.
One thing I do know,
that though I was blind,
now I see.

Proof positive.
Concrete evidence.
A fruit that we can know.
Seeing and then
-- this is very important in the Gospel of John—
Sometimes at a cost.

Concrete evidence.
A fruit we can know.
But also
God’s reminder to Samuel
to look with the eye of the heart.
This is not as much of a contradiction with the Gospel as it seems.

Watching for God’s reversals.
Noticing how God speaks to us
in the way that we need to hear.

This is part of what we practice in Lent.

How do we know?
Who and where is God in all this?
Where shall I go?
What shall I do?

We ask this in
the momentous decisions:
Taking a job;
leaving a job.
Helping an aging parent move to a new residence.
Beginning a relationship or ending it.
Deciding to become sexually involved with someone
or to stop being sexually involved.
Thinking about being a teacher; or an artist; or a scientist;

or a deacon; or a mother or a father.

There are also
the little discernments of every day,
the tiny Lenten steps that face us
in the desert or chaos of our inner life
and in the demands and pressures
of our external life.

A very wise and wonderful spiritual director
who walked with me during the end of my time in Boston,
in the mid-1990s,
once said to me:
We can make too much of the process of discernment
as a series of steps
and neglect to pay attention to what God is doing with us every day.
It’s not focusing on this discernment or that,
he said
that is most important.
Discernment is a lifelong process.
Becoming discerning persons
is much more important.

Developing the capacity to discern,
he said,
is part of the prayerful practice of attention.
Noticing what occurs in our prayer and in our daily life,
being attuned
–that will lead when necessary to discerning decisions.

Hearing the voice of God is intimately related
to living in the presence of God
and being attentive to this presence.

In Lent, we learn anew to do this,
we clear space and time.
In that space and time and attention
we let God tune us again
like a piano that needs to learn to make music anew

Where shall I go? What shall I do?
You remember Rhett Butler’s answer:
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

God is not Rhett Butler!

Banish that swashbuckling, disillusioned, mustachioed, handsome male figure
from your vision of the divine.

We hear today who God is
–another reversal—
a shepherd.
Which is not to say that we are
smelly and not very smart sheep.
The focus in the 23d Psalm is on God
and who God is for us.
For us:
leading us beside still waters,
reviving our souls,
walking with us even in the dark valley.

Remembering this
is part of why we have Lent.
That’s why we take time.
That’s why
the long, patient, stumbling, purifying and confusing process
of prayer.
That’s why the communal journey,
for Lent is never only a private enterprise.
It is the retreat of the whole church on the road to Easter.

Look not upon the sins of your parents
or your enemies’ parents
or your friends’ parents.
Look not upon your own sin
as the engine for your life in Christ.
Look into God’s own heart.
Watch for God’s reversals.
Stay awake.


Anonymous said...

Jane, your sermon today came like
water to the desert.


Pax Christi,


pj said...

This was my only church today Jane, so thank you. I only wish I'd heard it in real life! (((Jane)))

Mike Farley said...

Wow - just, wow!

Thank you, Jane...

Wish I'd been there, if only for the Scarlett it ;-)

Seriously, this is just a delight and a wonder and a blessing to read, first thing on Monday morning!


Ken said...

Words fail.

Masterful. Greatness.

more cows than people said...

thanks for pointing me here and for all your wisdom on my blog of late. you've been a gift to me.

this sermon is OUTSTANDING.


i was on a national task force for our church charged to lead our denomination in "spiritual discernment of our christian identity in and for the 21st century", among other things. we worked a lot on discernment. and one of our members who taught us the most saw John 9 as a powerful witness to discernment. that came back to me as i read your sermon.


Algernon said...