A holy work

Sunday Evening

1 Samuel 16

File:O thomas12.jpg

Medieval Antiphon

5“Sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.”

The Lutheran community avoids the language of sacrifice with respect to our worship, shaped as we are by the arguments of the 16th century about the sacrifice of the mass. But that language is deep in the tradition of the church. The problem for Luther was the suggestion that in the Holy Communion we are performing some work that merits God’s favor instead of God performing a work to convey to us his favor.

The ancients didn’t have an assembly line for the slaughter of animals. Meat didn’t come sanitized in Styrofoam packages; it was a much more intense affair. I received a tour of a hog slaughtering plant, once. Fortunately, it was off line at the time, but my imagination didn’t have any trouble filling in the details. There was no sense of the sacredness of life, no sense that we were trespassing on the realm of the holy, no sense that humans shouldn’t take life without asking God’s permission and favor. It was no different than the lawn mower factory to which I once upon a time delivered fresh coffee and sandwiches. Keep the line moving.

God gave Noah permission to eat meat, but he set rules – rules to insure that we don’t take life lightly. The slaughter of an animal required that we acknowledge the giver of life. Set within the context of Israel’s worship, the eating of meat becomes a fellowship meal with God. And since that meal was to be shared not only with your family and friends but also with the poor, it was a fellowship with God that anticipated that ultimate banquet where heaven and earth are reconciled and all people are gathered to share God’s table.

A life was sacrificed to create that fellowship meal. When we come to the Lord’s Table, we ought not forget that here, too, a life was sacrificed to create this fellowship between God and ourselves.

When I was a child, we always had to have a bath on Saturday night. It wouldn’t do to go to church with dirty feet even if they were hidden in dress shoes (I grew up in California and it seemed like we went barefoot all summer). My mother certainly would have been ashamed to have the people at church think we were unwashed, but it was more than that. We were coming into God’s presence. We should at least be clean in body even as we began the service with a confession to be clean in spirit.

5“Sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.”

I don’t think about this now – I don’t go barefoot anymore, and I don’t like to start any day unwashed. But I should think about this. I should prepare myself to come into God’s house, to hear his word, to eat at his table. I should be mindful that I am coming together with others to participate in the songs and prayers that proclaim God’s grace and life. I don’t need to wear dress shoes. This is not about old cultural values. It is about recognizing that the work we come to do on Sunday is a holy work. This is not an entertaining diversion, a concert to enjoy, a visit with friends or an interesting lecture. We come together to honor God and to bear witness to his grace and life. We come because we are invited to the master’s table, a holy table, a table paid for at great price.

5“Sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.”

“It was a sabbath day”


John 9

stained glass14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.

It’s not that the Sabbath day doesn’t matter. It’s not that this is an old archaic practice that is no longer binding. It’s not even that Jesus was challenging a too literal observance of the Sabbath command. Jesus was fulfilling it.

The Sabbath is the day of rest when all creation has been brought to perfection. God separates the light from the darkness. God separates the waters above from the waters beneath. God separates the waters to allow dry land to appear. Then God populates the sky with heavenly bodies, the land and sky with earthly bodies, and in his consummate creative act creates humans, male and female, in God’s own image. Over all this God seven times declares it is good – the seventh and consummate declaration spoken over the whole thing was that “it was very good.” The creation is brought into perfect life. And God rests. All things are good and perfect and whole.

And then the perfection is lost. The first humans trust themselves more than God. They hide from each other behind fig leaves – and from God in the bushes. The joy of childbirth becomes joined with pain. The joy of tending the land becomes the sweat of work in a world with weeds. Cain rises up against Abel. Blood is shed. God tries to stay the bloodletting by protecting Cain, promising to avenge any harm to him – and Lamech trumps God by promising seventy-sevenfold revenge to anyone who harms him.  Weapons are made.  The line between heaven and earth is broken by angels consorting with humans. Were it not for Noah, the world would be lost.

But God ponders Noah and grace triumphs. God sets about restoring his creation. Redeeming it. Setting it free from its bondage. Restoring his garden. He calls Abraham. He gathers a people out of bondage in Egypt and teaches them to live God’s justice and mercy. He gives them a land where all can be fed.

And then it goes astray. But Moses and the prophets and the psalms lay the foundation for God’s restoration of his world. They bear witness to the day when sins and forgiven and the Spirit of God poured out on all. They promise a day when swords are beaten into plowshares and the lion lies down with the lamb. Through the law and prophets and writings God promises to bring his creation to its ultimate Sabbath rest, to bring us into the perfect peace of God.

This is what Jesus is doing on the Sabbath. He is fulfilling the rules not breaking them. He is bringing light into the world. He is healing every wound. He is releasing us from our debt of shame. He is restoring our sight. He is bringing God’s perfect peace.

The tragedy is that these very religious people could not see. The sorrow is that “the world loved darkness.” We harp on the rules and miss all that they promise: A world where God is God. A world where God’s name is not used for falsehood. A world where all enjoy God’s Sabbath rest. A world where the elderly are protected and provided. A world where no harm is done to another’s life or family or reputation. A world where truth reigns and there is no evil eye. A world gathered at one table. A world of light and life.

It was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 






1 Samuel 16

File:Dura Synagogue WC3 David anointed by Samuel.jpg

Dura Europos Synagogue, panel WC3 : David anointed king by Samuel.

4The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?”

The arrival of a prophet unbidden was cause for concern. Had God sent him with some word of judgment? Was he here on behalf of the king to seize their sons or lands? Did they imagine that Samuel was already involved in some plot against King Saul and his presence would make them enemies in Saul’s sight? They would rather be left alone. “God bless the tsar and keep him far away from here,” says the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof when asked whether there is a blessing for the tsar.

The Bishop showed up at my parish many years ago when I was serving in Toledo. He spoke to me privately about a possible call to a church in Detroit. It was all very confidential, but the moment he walked out the door the secretary turned to me and said, “When are you leaving?” I was caught off guard – and don’t lie very well. Fortunately, she was a woman who could keep secrets. And when I asked her how she knew, she said the bishop only comes when the associate is leaving. He is, in her eyes, always the bearer of bad news.

So here is the prophet. And everyone is trembling. “What does this mean? Why would the prophet direct God’s gaze towards us? He will call our sins to God’s attention! He will make us look like rebels in the king’s eyes!” An unexpected prophet spells trouble.

Samuel is mindful of the danger of his task. Saul has shown himself unstable and unpredictable. He has not wielded his power wisely, faithfully, in service of God and God’s people. Now God has disowned him. God has sent Samuel to anoint another, sent him to start a revolution. The hunt for David will consume Saul’s life. He will throw his spear across the room in hopes of piercing David to the wall. He will rant at his son for befriending David. He will chase David though the wadis of the desert. He will try to secure the dynasty for his son and will fail. He and Jonathon will both fall in battle and the kingdom will fall to David.

Saul is a tragic figure. David, on the other hand, is on no one’s radar. He is out tending the sheep. All Jesse’s handsome, strapping, kingly sons will parade by Samuel and each time God will say no. God does not judge as we do. God is not impressed by outward appearance. God sees the heart. And it is the heart of David that matters. A heart that honors the Lord. A heart that seeks to be faithful. A heart that is not afraid of the lion or bear but will fight to protect his father’s sheep. This is the heart God wants in a king.

And it is the heart of Jesus. He will be faithful unto death. He will lay down his life for the sheep. He is a king of David’s line. He is the true, eternal king in whom blind eyes are opened and outcasts gathered in. He is the one who enlightens every heart. He is the one who fills the world with light.

He came back seeing


John 9

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Blind Man Washes in the Pool of Siloam (Le aveugle-né se lave à la piscine de Siloë) - James Tissot.jpg

James Tissot, The Blind Man Washes in the Pool of Siloam

7 He went and washed and came back seeing

I’m not sure what it is I love about this simple sentence. Perhaps it is just its utter simplicity. He went. He washed. He came back seeing. He who had been blind, he who had never known the light, he who had lived among the cast off and unclean, he who had survived only from begging, he went and washed and came back seeing. A life that had known darkness now knew light.

One translation says, “he came back able to see,” but that seems like such an impoverished translation. He came back seeing.

I remember the day I got my first pair of glasses. I did not know that I didn’t see clearly. I can’t remember now what prompted me to get my eyes checked – except I do remember not being able to see clearly the sign above the servers’ heads when I stood where the cafeteria line first turned into the serving area.   Perhaps it was the realization that I could read it with my left eye but not my right. Anyway, it was late fall in Minnesota. I walked down from campus into the little town of Northfield, Minnesota that, at the time, had only one stoplight. The leaves had all fallen and we were awaiting snow. The optometrist fitted me with my glasses and when I walked out into the bright sunshine my jaw dropped. I could see every little twig on the end of every bare branch in the stately old trees of the town. I could see every line in the brickwork and facades of every old building. I could see every ripple in the water as the Cannon River flowed beneath the bridge. I walked back to campus staring up and around at everything, my mouth open in wonder.

He came back seeing.

He came back able to see what he had never known. He came back seeing every twig, every color, every face. He came back seeing the temple shining brilliantly in the sunlight – the white stone and the brilliant gold. He came back seeing the red capes of the Roman soldiers. He came back seeing the merchant stalls, the purple grapes, the golden wheat, the bleating lambs, the silver and bronze coins. He came back seeing the scampering children and the old men praying and the women carrying water. He came back seeing the camel caravans and the awestruck pilgrims who, just like he, stood in awe of the vast temple mount. He came back seeing.

He came back seeing. He came back seeing the truth of Jesus.   He came back knowing the light that now filled his soul. He came back overwhelmed at the grace and mercy of God. He came back seeing.

He also came back seeing the religious people having a conniption that his eyes had been opened on the Sabbath. He came back seeing that they didn’t see. How can it be that God’s creating redeeming work should wait?! How can it be that this Jesus was a sinner?! He came back seeing.

And when Jesus showed himself to him again, he came back kneeling.

He came back truly seeing.

The light for all people


John 9

1File:Duccio di Buoninsegna 037.jpgAs Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The world in which Jesus lived was far different than our own, and it is hard for us to see the world in the way they saw it. We know the eye is an organ that is sensitive to certain wavelengths we call visible light. We know  photons travel at the speed of light into the complex structure of the eye, stimulating receptor cells on the retina sending signals through the optic nerve to the visual cortex where they are converted into meaningful patterns.

We know that the stuff of the world is composed of atoms that are in turn composed of protons, neutrons and electrons, that are themselves composed of things like quarks and muons. Blindness is simply a disruption in that complex system where, for a variety of reasons, the signals no longer reach the brain in a clear or meaningful pattern.

My friend Charlie in college had only one working eye and had to read through thick glasses to pages that were inches from his face. But no one considered him accursed. Unfortunate, maybe, but not evil. No one thought him a sinner because his eyes were bad.  Technology eventually afforded him a surgery and a huge “contact lens” that gave sight to the sightless eye.

But in the world of Jesus light was a substance. And darkness was a substance. So in the beginning God creates light and separates it from the darkness, and the creation of light has nothing to do with the sun, moon and stars that come three days later.

Light was a substance. Angels were made of light. The stars were beings of light, inhabitants of the realm of the air. For humans, light originated in the heart (the place of emotion infused thought, where choices are made) and emanated from the eyes. But there could also be darkness in the heart, and then darkness comes from your eyes. (And so Jesus says in Matthew, “If the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”)

To be blind was to have darkness within. They may be objects of pity. They may be recipients of charity. But they were accursed. And, worse, their darkness could be the evil eye – itself a power that could work evil.

Spit is unclean. But according to the principle that like attracts like, the evil eye would be attracted to spit. That is why people spit in the presence of something bad or evil: the evil eye cannot help but look at the spit and so is diverted from entering the spitter. It is why people wear amulets of genitals or the color blue. Like attracts like.

So Jesus spits into the ground and makes a paste, and the spit paste attracts the evil eye and is washed away. And where darkness had filled the blind man’s heart, Jesus, the light of the world, now fills it with light.

This is not a miracle where the biomechanics of the body are repaired. This is a healing sign where a human being is reclaimed for God. The source of his blindness is of no consequence; his blindness will allow God’s true work to be seen.

This is why this event is such challenge to the Pharisees, for Jesus suggests that the ‘light’ in them is actually darkness, because it gives birth to evil deeds. They refuse to recognize God at work in Jesus, and their refusal will eventually show itself in murder. They become agents of death instead of life. Like the false prophets who call darkness light and light darkness, they see God and the world wrongly.

But the blind man sees. He sees God’s imperishable life manifest in Jesus, who comes to replace our darkness with light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

Light and darkness

Watching for the morning of March 30

Year A

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

File:The dark and the light of Rosh Hanikra.JPG

The dark and the light of Rosh Hanikra, By Sayhey1111

Light and darkness, seeing and unseeing eyes, form the center of Sunday’s readings. Samuel is sent to Bethlehem to anoint a king in place of Saul. He is impressed by the physique and appearance of Jesse’s first born, but he is not the one – nor any of David’s older brothers. God reminds Samuel that he does not look on outward appearance but sees the heart.

Though David becomes the shepherd of Israel, the nation’s leader and protector, David sees that God is his – and our – true protector, sustaining him even in the face of death and amidst the intrigues of the royal court.

Paul – or, perhaps, a student of Paul – writes to the Christian community in Ephesus, exhorting them to walk as children of the light.

And Jesus heals a man born blind, an act that reveals Jesus as the light of the world – but also that the leadership of Judah as unseeing.

All of which invites us to examine whether we see truly, whether we live in and from the light, or whether we are walking in the murkiness of death’s dark vale.

The Prayer for March 30, 2014

Almighty God, Holy and True,
who opened the eyes of the man born blind
that he might see and know you:
Remove from us all blindness of heart and spirit
that we might truly follow you in lives of faith, hope and love.

The Texts for March 30, 2014

First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13
“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” – Saul has proven himself unworthy of the monarchy and God commissions Samuel to go to Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as king. All Jesse’s sons look the part of a king, but God chooses the youngest, David, who is out guarding the sheep.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – David’s famous psalm acknowledging God as his ruler and protector.

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14
“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”
–Writing to the believing community in Ephesus, Paul (or someone writing on Paul’s behalf or in his name) urges the community to live faithfully the life into which they have been called in Christ.

Gospel: John 9:1-41
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” – Jesus heals a man born blind who is subsequently investigated by the authorities and evicted from the synagogue for his affiliation with Jesus.


Sunday Evening

John 4


Yonge-Dundas Square Urban beach, evening waterplay,
Copyright (c) 2004, Steve Mann.

14“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

We have a fascination with fountains.  I have no real interest in going to Las Vegas but, if I had the chance, I’d like to see that fountain I’ve seen in movies.  The waterfalls at Yosemite capture the attention, especially when they are full in the spring.  Fountains call to children and adults alike to “come and play” – though usually it is only children who answer that invitation.  Even a simple lawn sprinkler is a source of joy and delight.  And those of us with urban experience know the neighborhood transforming power of having the fire department come open the fire hydrant.

We linger at fountains.  They are joy and laughter.  They instill peace and reflection.  They spawn wishes and kisses. There is something entrancing in the splashing water, its cool clarity, the dancing play of water and light.  A fountain provides a wonderful image for the life of the spirit that has found its peace in God.

14“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

This does not mean, of course, that believers will never have days of trouble – or that the model of the Christian life is constant bubbliness.  It does not mean there are not days of discouragement – or afflictions of body, mind and spirit.  It means that there is a reservoir of hope, an underlying confidence, a joy founded on the encounter with perfect mercy that keeps us from becoming lost in ourselves and guides us on our path, wherever that path may lead.

We are headed towards the banquet that does not end.  We are inheritors of a life that cannot perish.  We are clothed in Christ risen from the dead.  We abide in the Word that infused all creation with light and life.  We have been met by a perfect mercy.

And whether we are big splashy fountains, or still, cool spring-fed pools, the living water born of the Spirit of God will overflow to others.  And should it fail to do so, we must attend again to the work of unblocking the fountain by drinking deeply from the living water that is Christ.



John 4

File:Angelika Kauffmann - Christus und die Samariterin am Brunnen -1796.jpeg

Angelica Kauffman, Christ and the Woman at the Well, 1796

19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

There are things in the text that are jarring to ancient ears that seem perfectly innocent to us: that Jesus should speak to a woman in public; that a Judean would ask a Samaritan for a drink; that Jesus should discuss this woman’s her sexual life when she is not a relative.

We catch a hint of the scandal of all this when the disciples come back: Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” (v. 27)  But since we don’t find it shocking, the audacity of Jesus often eludes us.  It’s like listening to Holst’s “The Planets” without a brass section; you can still get the melody, but you are missing all the drama.

There is another shocking element in the text we no longer hear: Jesus discusses theology with this woman.  Theology was the domain of men.  It was men who gathered to dispute questions of the law and prophets.  It was men who held a synagogue service. Theology was part of the public square not the domestic one.  For Jesus to discuss the proper location of worship with a woman was remarkable.  Astonishing.

This is a narrative like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, or Paul declaring there is now “neither male nor female.”  This is Junia (a woman’s name) called an apostle by Paul. This is Paul discussing the scriptures with the women in Philippi or Lydia being the head of the church in her home.  This woman of Samaria is not only a hearer of Christ, she is treated as a student – and becomes a teacher.  She gathers the men of her village and brings them to Jesus.  She is their first witness.

We misunderstand Paul’s injunction that women should be silent in the churches because we miss the dramatic and wonderful thing that women are present in the worshipping assembly.  (That a woman should be cautioned not to shame her husband in public shouldn’t make us hear Paul through the lens of the medieval church.  It is good advice still – for men and women.)

Women’s leadership in the community of the church is no shock to us now, but it is another element in this audacious reality of Christ Jesus in whom the day promised through the prophet Joel dawns and God’s spirit is poured out on all people, men and women, young and old, freeborn and slaves – a radical idea from an audacious God.

Necessary, part 2


John 4

File:Jesus and the Samaritan woman (Jruchi Gospels II MSS, Georgia, 12th cent.).jpg

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman,
Jruchi Gospels II, 12th Century, Georgia
Center of Manuscripts (Tbilisi, Georgia)

3He left Judea and started back to Galilee.  4But he had to go through Samaria

It was necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria, to go the unexpected way.  It was necessary for this woman discarded by five husbands and not worthy of a marriage contract by the one she is with.  It was necessary for this woman unwelcome among the society of woman at the well in town.  It was necessary for this woman bearing a burden of shame that has her carting water in the heat of the day rather than risking a chance encounter with others.

But a chance encounter is what she finds.  A daring encounter.  For this strange man speaks to her, transgressing all social boundaries, asking for a cup of cold water.  This is the one who will once again say, “I thirst” on that day when he is lifted up for all to see the face of perfect love.

Judeans regarded Samaritan women as ritually unclean from birth, unable ever to be made pure.  To share a cup is as unthinkable as sharing a water fountain in the Jim Crow south.  And a man would not speak to a woman in public unless she was a member of his family – unless his motives were dishonorable.  Even to be alone, one on one, with a woman would disgrace her, except this woman is already disgraced.  Jesus does the shocking and bold thing.  He asks for a drink.

It is of this very act that Jesus says in Matthew, “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”(NIV)  By this act the nations will be judged, the sheep separated from the goats, in that great concluding parable of Matthew 25 when the Son of Man declares, “I was thirsty and you gave me drink” – or, conversely, “I was thirsty and you gave me no drink.”

The gift of water, the sharing of a well, is an act that manifests the nature of God’s realm, the world brought under the reign of the Spirit of God, a world where resources are shared rather than guarded and horded.  By this simple request this woman is drawn into the reign of God, the realm of life and light, where shame and sin are lifted and all things made new.

It was necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria.  Necessary for this woman.  And necessary also for us – for her story changes the trajectory of Jesus’ ragtag band not only this once in the beginning when the door was opened to outsiders, but again and again as her story is told and retold and continues to testify to the daring, radical, transformative mercy of God.

Necessary, part 1


John 4

File:Woman at the well, Japan. (10797603194).jpg

Woman at the well, Japan. From the National Museum of Denmark from Denmark

5Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.

What’s missing from our assigned reading this Sunday are the preceding verses which say 3He left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4But he had to go through Samaria.”  Hiding in the English of verse 4 is the little Greek word ‘dei’, ‘it was necessary’.

It was not necessary to travel through Samaria.  In fact, from Jerusalem to Galilee most Judeans would not take the road through Samaritan territory; they would go down to the Jordan River, up the far side of the Jordan, then back into Galilee, avoiding Samaria altogether.  That way they did not have to deal with their despised and (mutually) hostile neighbors.  In Luke 9, when a Samaritan village refuses hospitality to Jesus and his band, the disciples are ready to call down fire from heaven as though the village had committed a sin equal to Sodom and Gomorrah.  There was no love lost between Judeans and Samaritans.

But, for Jesus, it was necessary.

Scholars refer this little Greek word as ‘the divine imperative.’  It was the plan and purpose of God for Jesus to go through Samaria.

It was not by chance that Jesus encounters this broken woman at the well outside the city.  No less than it was by chance that Philip met the Ethiopian Eunuch, or Paul finds the roads to Asia, Mysia and Bithynia all blocked, leading them to Troas and the vision of the man from Macedonia

Jesus had work to do, a ministry with this woman, a ministry with this woman that would change the whole Samaritan village and transform the followers of Jesus from a Judean club into the church, the gathering of all people to worship God in Spirit and Truth, the fulfillment of God’s purpose to redeem the whole world.

I wonder if Jesus was aware of his destiny at that well.  Surely John recognizes in Jesus a sensitivity to the Spirit of God that would make it likely.  But does Jesus “know” or was it just an inner sense that the path he should take was the unexpected one, together with a spirit open to God’s strange working, so that he recognized the moment when God provided it?

Attentiveness to the Spirit.  Openness to the unexpected.  Recognizing the moment.  They are important elements of walking in the way, of being agents of mercy in our wounded world.