The Adventurous Lectionary – Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 19, 2023
Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41
Today’s readings are full of twists and turns, theologically and spiritually. They invite us to look at the world and our beliefs with new eyes. They challenge glib theological reflection, including the bloviations of pastors and spiritual guides who connect suffering and sin with divine judgment, negative thinking, and lack of faith. God deliver us from easy answers that traumatize persons who are already traumatized by illness and pain.
UNLIKELY LEADERSHIP. In the reading from I Samuel, the unexpected and unlikely child becomes a national leader. In Psalm 23, we feel safe to trek through the darkest valley, and, in the epistle and gospel, we can live in contrast to the norms of our culture in which the blind can see and the sighted are blind. These scriptures speak of light and darkness, and sight and blindness They are metaphorical in nature, and must be understood in terms of honoring the full humanity of persons of color and sight-impaired people. Darkness is not synonymous with evil: it is also the place of growth and gestation. Too often we have universalized spiritual states to the detriment of marginalized peoples.
The call of spiritual leadership comes from unexpected places and to unexpected persons . Wealth and celebrity do not ensure good leadership. In fact, those least willing to lead – and overlooked by a populace in search of sound bytes, adoring crowds, tweets, and easy answers – may very well be the most gifted leaders. In the story of David’s anointing as king, Samuel participates in both divine disingenuousness and divine inspiration. Worried about his well-being, Samuel wants to hide his visit from King Saul. Seeking to protect his servant, God tells Samuel to go Jesse’s family under the ruse of sacrificing a heifer. When he arrives at Jesse’s house, he is shown the most likely candidates for king, but none of them fit God’s requirements. Instead, God directs him to the youngest and least experienced of Jesse’s sons.
Samuel and David discover the surprising nature of God’s vision. God’s way differs from our own. God sees possibility in the most unlikely of places. Whether in an adverse situation or an unexpected encounter, all things can become vehicles of divine revelation and all persons can reveal the holy to those who have eyes to see.
GOD IS WITH US IN THE DARKNESS. The shepherd Psalm 23 involves a transformed vision of reality. As comforting as this Psalm is, its context is that of threat and anxiety. Circumstances can be challenging, yet we can still experience God’s peace and know that it is well with our souls. Most readers see the comforting aspects of the Psalm and fail to notice that the Psalmist is traveling through the darkest valley and is feasting with enemies all around. We cannot go around some dangerous situations; we must go through them.
ENCIRCLING PRAYER. Psalm 23 is a Hebraic version of the Celtic caim or encircling prayer: in which one draws a circle around oneself, pivots in a clockwise direction, and invokes a prayer of protection. Many of life’s challenges will not go away, but we can experience God’s presence and a peace that passes all understanding in the midst of turmoil and threat. The words of the Psalmist speak to our current concerns over health, national security, and climate change. God is with us, companioning us, in times of fear and anxiety.
CHOOSING RIGHT, BEING THE LIGHT. Ephesians 5 contrasts light and darkness as spiritual and ethical realities and invites us to become children of the light, forsaking the pathways of darkness and evil and following God’s luminous adventures. We embrace and become God’s light to the world as Christ’s followers and should behave accordingly. Those who awaken to Christ’s pathway of wholeness and integrity will experience Christ’s light shining on them and, dare we say, in their cells as well as their souls. In the meantime, our vocation is to live faithfully, act lovingly, and walk in the light, for the brevity of our lives calls us to make the most of each day. In this pandemic time, we need to walk in the light following our better angels, reaching out and sharing, albeit with care, rather than succumbing to the forces of fear and exclusion.
WHO SINNED? There are many definitions of health. In fact, health and illness are a matter of perspective and relativity. You can think are healthy, showing off your power, bullying your opponents, and demeaning others as inferior, and be empty inside. You can have no symptoms and be a carrier of the Coronavirus or have a hidden cancer. You can be apparently broken physically and economically and experience grace beyond belief. John 9 is about light and darkness and healing and wholeness and seeing God’s presence beneath external experiences.
This story is profoundly theological in nature. First, this healing story challenges the acts-consequences understanding of suffering. In acts-consequences theologies, there is a direct and linear relationship between what we do and what happens to us: the good prosper and enjoy health; the evil suffer and become diseased; positive thinkers succeed, negative thinkers fail; the blessed are right with God, the poor obviously have done something to deserve their poverty. God punishes the unrighteous and blesses the righteous.
Jesus addresses the problem of evil, in response to a peculiar question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” This question raises a variety of further questions:
• Is the suffering of children fully attributable to their parents, whether in terms of DNA, quality of relationship, or economics?
• Is this man suffering from the prenatal behaviors of his parents or some prenatal act on his part? (For example, the prenatal conflict of Jacob and Esau.)
• Does this passage suggest a first century, barely articulated, version of reincarnation?
Jesus does not give a direct answer, despite his undermining of the traditional theodicies of inexorable karma from past lives and this-worldly linear understandings of health and illness. Jesus notes that God will be glorified in the curing of the man’s blindness. He is not an object of God’s wrath or a moral lesson to others; his healing is the important thing, both in terms of his own well-being and its witness to God’s amazing love.
Similar to the passage from Ephesians, Jesus tells his disciples to walk in the light, doing works of healing, while it is still day. Time is short and our lives are brief: acts of healing cannot be put off until tomorrow. When suffering is around us, the solution to the problem of evil is our partnership with God in bringing comfort and cure.
The problem of evil is a theological issue and challenges us to reflect on the nature of the God-world relation and the extent of God’s power in the determining the events of our lives. Although his words raise theological issues, Jesus’ solution is more practical: confront suffering, ease suffering, and cure suffering. Two thousand years later, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “Mr. Rogers” made a similar comment: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” This is sagely advice to those who are living by fear rather than hospitality.
HEALING PRACTICES. I need to mention the methodology of healing: Jesus uses mud to cure the man’s blindness. Mud is a poultice and a form of therapy in ancient societies. Jesus uses faith and ordinary medicine to cure blindness. Prayer and medicine are companions. God uses energy work and laying on of hands; God also uses medication and surgery. Wherever there is healing, God is its source. We need prayer and Prozac, praise and pills, and chanting and chemotherapy. (For more on healing, see Bruce Epperly, “Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel”; “Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice”; “God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus,” “Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus,” and “The Energy of Love: Reiki and Christian Healing.”)
John 9, if read in its entirety, concludes with a long and convoluted conversation between certain religious leaders, the man, and his parents. The religious leaders are unable to accept the healing. This healing act of Jesus does not conform to their understanding of religious propriety. God doesn’t heal on the Sabbath, they assert. Healing occurs in prescribed ways and times, they claim. Anything else cannot come from God. But divine healing is always surprising and not limited by human rituals and institutions. (This Sunday, I am only focusing on John 9:1-7; if you add the next 34 verses, I believe a readers’ theatre is in order to help the congregation focus on the various dialogical interactions.)
Today’s readings challenge us to walk in the light and to experience God in unexpected places, including in our own daily lives. God is with us in threatening times and God’s circle of love surrounds us. In living light-filled lives, we tap into resources beyond our imagination for the good of ourselves and the world. We can do ordinary things with great love and claim our vocation as God’s companions in healing the earth.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION, and THE PROPHET AMOS SPEAKS TO AMERICA. His most recent book is TAKING A WALK WITH WHITEHEAD: MEDITATIONS WITH PROCESS-RELATIONAL THEOLOGY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org