United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds March 22 2020

Fourth Sunday in Lent Year A

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Worship resources for the Fourth Sunday in Lent Year A are at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations:
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
John 9:1-41
Special Environmental Justice Reflection on Psalm 23 by Andrew Greenhaw
Additional reflection on Psalm 23

Focus Theme:
I Am Because We Are

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

In this week's story of the healing of "the man born blind," John uses "seeing" as a metaphor for believing, for coming to perceive, past outward appearances, to the truth deep in the heart of things. (Remember his use of metaphors like "light and darkness," and "living water" in the readings for the past two Sundays?)

The man whose sight is given to him by Jesus makes his way, like all of us, toward belief and understanding, not suddenly or easily but in the course of a long story that leads to another personal encounter with Jesus.

The former beggar's openness and growing faith contrast sharply with the fearful, hesitant questions of his neighbors (how cynical they are not to rejoice!) and the downright judgmental reaction of the religious establishment. Curing on the Sabbath, breaking religious rules--how can this Jesus truly be "of God"?

Metaphor and irony

And yet "the man born blind" sees God's truth so much better than those who spend all their time studying and talking about God. Metaphor, and irony. While the other characters in the story remain at the end where they were at its beginning, the healed man's life is transformed, and he finds himself in a very different place. And Jesus is there, in that very different place.

John told this story and used these images of seeing and not seeing, believing and not believing, to help an early Christian community find themselves in that story. They knew what it felt like to be driven out of the synagogue by the religious authorities, to be expelled from their "church home." (They were really feeling the lack of "extravagant hospitality"!)

John helps them to connect their loss with the gain of grace in their powerful experience of conversion and healing, understanding and trust.

Judgment and rejection

However, sometimes conversion, belief and sharing our story provoke judgment, rejection, and condemnation from those around us. It's a lonely place to be, and John's way of telling this story must have spoken powerfully to the people in that situation, reassuring them that they were not alone: they now belonged to a community that shared the same faith, and, ultimately, like the man in this story, they would encounter Jesus on their way.

John also pairs the categories of "sinner" and "not a sinner" in this story. Who is the real sinner, we might ask? (As if it were up to us to judge.) The authorities tried to judge both men, Jesus and the man he healed, and even tried to trap them both with their arguments, but the man is amazingly clever in countering them.

Jesus has done something amazing in giving sight to someone who had never seen. That alone is worth sitting and thinking about. How would you adjust to the challenge of taking in all that new information that eyesight brings? And how would you begin to thank the One who had done this for you?

A story with twists and turns

The tension in the story comes from judgment, of course, and the twists and turns judgment takes. The disciples see a blind man and right away ask for a judgment from Jesus about who the "real sinner" is--the man, or his parents. (Once that's established, presumably they believe they can move on to "loving the sinner, but not the sin.")

The twist comes when Jesus says "Neither" and uses the occasion, outside the religious building and the religious rules, to glorify God by healing the man, using means that remind us a bit of baptism (in a river, that is), with water and mud and rising to a new life.

More questions than wonder

That healing by Jesus causes a lot of talk, and more questions and conjecture, instead of dumbfounded wonder and praise of God. Even the man himself takes a little time to find his way to the truth, but he's persistent in his search, and delightfully clever in his defense before the powers that be.

Richard L. Eslinger helps us find ourselves in the man's experience: There are many "who have been baptized but who, if asked where Jesus is in their lives today, would answer with the same poignant 'I do not know'…and even for ourselves, there are times and seasons when the honest-to-God answer to that inquiry would be the same" (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

Still looking for that sin

The healing also prompts another judgment, this time from the religious authorities who, rather than praising God for such an amazing thing, start the interrogation so they can find the sin that they just know must be there. Jesus has broken the law about the Sabbath (as they interpret it), so they know that he must be a sinner.

The man he healed claims to know only one thing, that "though I was blind, now I see." But the Pharisees "know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from."

A brilliant response

The response of the healed man is brilliant, of course: "Here is an astonishing thing!" (We might say, another astonishing thing, after witnessing something that had "never since the world began" happened before!) "If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."

The man not only grasps the truth of things more clearly than the scholars do but he can also "do the math." And the Pharisees don't appreciate the way things add up.

Finding ourselves in the story

Now the question for us, today, is about finding ourselves in the story. I don't know about you, but I always prefer the role of the people Jesus helps, rather than the role of the Pharisees and whoever else is judging him. This is an especially uncomfortable question for pastors and other religious leaders, but it works for all of us inside the church.

Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text, "A Tale of Two Heretics," suggests that we might find ourselves so occupied with our own modern version of "ritual purity" and "preserving the law" that we fail to understand what really matters. We might miss the truth right in front of us, especially if we don't expect it outside the normal bounds of what we think religion ought to be.

The folks who think they have it all together and can judge others may be well-meaning and sincere, Taylor says, but we should be careful of them and their inclination to tell us what we should believe. "They do not do this to be mean, either. They do this because they love God and maybe even because they love you too. They are doing it to protect you from believing the wrong things" (Home by Another Way).

Grace for an "unworthy recipient"

Frederick Niedner wrote a beautiful reflection on this text in the Christian Century: "The Pharisees in the story, like the Pharisee in each of us, prove stubbornly blind to the reckless dispensing of mercy that takes place. It has come on the wrong day, to an unworthy recipient, from a maverick agent whom the Pharisees can't see for dust."

Religion, organized or not, seems to gravitate toward structure and limits, perhaps because of the power of mystery and our anxiety and eagerness to control it. "A reckless dispensing of mercy" plays havoc with our need for order and "decent" behavior. It also goes against our subconscious conviction that in some way, we deserve what we get (if it's good, that is), and those beggars on the street must have done something (or failed to do something) to get themselves into such a situation. The judging goes on, even today.

Niedner writes evocatively about the baptismal imagery in the healing, and how, even today, we baptized Christians can connect to the man whose life was transformed by Jesus, this stranger "buried and reshaped in the mud of the new creation, washed in the water of the sent One. Now we see as never before, but we scarcely recognize ourselves, much less those around us or even the One who healed us" (Christian Century, February 26, 2008).

Jesus comes looking for us

Such a long story, and yet Jesus appears only at the beginning and the end. In fact, when he hears that the man has been driven out, he goes looking for him. We might sit with that line for a little while, too, and picture Jesus hearing about what happened to the man, and setting out to find him.

It's not a question, then, of whether we find Jesus, but of Jesus coming to look for us, and finding us wherever we are (and no matter what people are saying about us).

Hidden truths to consider

What hidden truths and realities, perhaps just under the surface, do you need to sense, in your own life and the life of your congregation? What might your church need to perceive in order to move more purposefully toward a new future, new hope, new possibilities?

Are there unrecognized leaders and spiritual guides within the life of your church who are busy, on the edges, with "tending the sheep" while the "important" matters are discussed by experts and authorities?

By what standards do we judge?

What are the standards we use to judge what we experience, whether it's a person, a building, a mission or ministry, or whether it's an event, such as a healing or transformation, or even a disaster? What are the core truths we depend on, as the man cured of physical blindness depended on when he reasoned that Jesus must be "of God," since he was able to do "something that had never before happened"?

And yet even that reasoning was not enough. He needed to encounter Jesus, to understand what was happening. When--and how--does your church take time to encounter Jesus Christ and to experience the truth that transforms your life, to follow in a new path that you previously could not imagine?

Refusing to believe news "too good to be true"

Does it ever happen in the life of your congregation that there are some who question even the most wonderful turn of events--the miracles--and press for more information, details, rather than praise God and give thanks? Is it easier to say that something is "too good to be true" rather than to follow a new path?

Is it tempting to claim our identity based on what has gone before and on our ancestry, rather than on who God calls us to be, to become, today and in the days ahead? How much does fear influence our inquiries, our wondering, our discernment? How do you sense a still-speaking, shepherd God, calming your fear and calling you to a new boldness and a new faith?

What is the "one thing" that you know for sure?

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The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, 20th century
"The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen."

Charles Shulz, 20th century
"I cannot fail to be thrilled every time I read the things that Jesus said, and I am more and more convinced of the necessity of following him. What Jesus means to me is this: In him we are able to see God, and to understand [God's] feelings toward us."

Carl Gustav Jung, 20th century
"Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves."

Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), The Blank Book, 21st century
"Just because you don't understand it doesn't mean it isn't so."

Robert Frost, 20th century
"How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?"

Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century (when asked, "Do you believe in God without any doubts?")
"I believe in God with all my doubts."

Paul Gauguin, 19th century
"I shut my eyes in order to see."

Helen Keller, 20th century
"My darkness has been filled with the light of intelligence, and behold, the outer day-lit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness."

Special Environmental Justice Reflection on Psalm 23: Journey Toward Hope
by Andrew Greenhaw

The 23rd Psalm begins by using the beauty of creation to speak of the goodness of God. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters." This we know first: that God is good, that all God creates is good.

Without first grasping the majesty of God's creation, one cannot begin to comprehend the magnitude of sin and its effects. For those who believe God's creation is good, the consequences of climate change and environmental injustice are devastating. Yet, spread out over the globe its true impact can be hard for us to comprehend. This is not the case in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana.

St. Charles Parish is located along a stretch of the Mississippi River known as "Cancer Alley." It is home to 130 petrochemical plants and 7 of the 10 US census tracts with the highest cancer rates. The pollution causing unprecedented devastation around the earth is concentrated in St. Charles, and it is killing the people who live here.

To them, the effects of our environmental crisis feel neither distant nor abstract. They are the cause of the ubiquitous reality of death in which they live. This is the valley of the shadow of death that our sin has created.

Though it may begin with the glory of God and creation, any meaningful journey toward hope must proceed to a full accounting of the depth of sin and suffering in our world. It is for this reason Psalm 23 leads us from the goodness of God into the shadow of the valley of death.

For if our hope cannot acknowledge the true extent of our crisis, it is no good to us. If our hope cannot face the true extent of our depravity, it cannot lead us out of it. If our hope cannot bear witness to the suffering and death of Cancer Alley, it has no chance of helping us confront climate change.

Although the magnitude of the climate crisis can be overwhelming to acknowledge, we do not face repentance alone. "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me…" Our God accompanies us through repentance of our complicity and into a new life in resistance to the powers of death.

When we repent of our sin and join with siblings in St. Charles Parish fighting for their lives, the God who created the heavens and the earth goes with us. "You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over."

Of two things can we may be sure: (1) in Christ, God has already won the final victory and (2) God will be with us in the midst of struggle. "Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever."

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The Rev. Andrew Greenhaw is the Pastor of St. Paul United Church of Christ in New Orleans.

Additional reflection on Psalm 23:
by Kathryn Matthews

In several of his books, Walter Brueggemann provides beautiful commentaries for anyone preaching on this familiar, and favorite, of psalms. While it's most often associated with funerals, the psalm sings of God's tender care throughout life, so it describes an approach to living every day just as much as it provides comfort in the face of loss or the unknown.

Brueggemann has contrasted "psalms of celebration" and "psalms of complaint," the latter focusing on enemies and threats, and the former lifting up God's awesome power and gracious care. With that kind of shepherd, why should a little sheep worry, indeed?

Not worried at all

I remember a Peanuts cartoon from many years ago, in which Charlie Brown is asked what "security" means. He describes the experience of riding in the back seat, while your parents are in the front seat, driving. You can sleep worry-free, because they're taking care of everything, Charlie Brown explains to Peppermint Patty.

That might be another way, in our culture, to describe the feeling of utter trust and security provided by a reliable, loving, all-powerful figure. (Of course, Charlie Brown ends with the gripping realization that the day inevitably comes when you grow up and can never ride in the backseat again. But that's another sermon.)

A feast of goodness

While the psalms of complaint use tears as a metaphor, Brueggemann writes, the psalms of celebration use a feast to convey God's goodness and power, a goodness and power that Christians experience in Jesus: "There is no gesture as expressive utter well-being as lavish food--as every Jewish and every Christian mother knows. Thus the feeding miracles of Jesus and the Eucharist are gestures of a new orientation that comes as surprising gift and ends all diets of tears" (Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit).

The table, then, is at the heart of who we are as Christians, a community that blesses, breaks, and shares bread, a feast that remembers Jesus' sharing long ago and looks forward to that heavenly feast when all of God's children will have more than enough.

Brueggemann again: "Thus 'table'...means all the good tables at which you have ever sat and the experiences of joy that happened there and the subsequent vibrations you have from them" (Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit).

Leading and feeding

In another book, Brueggemann focuses more closely on the shepherd, who "leads and feeds" the vulnerable sheep, an image full of "tenderness, gentleness, and attentiveness." While we may think of a shepherd as a man, Brueggemann hears in the psalm the suggestion that "the God who feeds and leads has maternal qualities, and in these verbs does what a mother does…."

And in hearing about God doing "what a mother does," we hear the psalm's assurance that God turns situations of fear around, transforming them into situations of joy. The metaphor of the caring shepherd goes beyond herding or even leading to tender, life-giving care (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy).

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Tables and fields must be prepared

John Hayes goes into more descriptive detail about the work of a shepherd, reading the expression "to set the table" as "preparing fields for grazing. Such activities included uprooting poisonous weeds and thorns and clearing the area of the sheep's enemies, such as snakes and scorpion's nests. In the evening, as the sheep were corralled, the injured or sickly ones were separated from the others and treated with oil and a curative drink made of fermented material and herbs sweetened with honey" (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

Why do you think our tradition gives us a metaphor for ourselves that puts us in such a powerless position, a sheep that cannot do much at all for itself? How do you think that image fits us particularly well in our day and age? Perhaps it clashes with our sense of self-reliance, or maybe it touches our most vulnerable and fearful places. Ideally, though, it should bring us back to where we belong in relation to God.

For the flock, and for each little sheep

Brueggemann helps the individual claim this text as well as the gathered community (the flock). Each little sheep, each believer receives the gift of faith, the gift of life that "begins in God, in God's good intent and God's utter reliability. Our role is to receive, accept, trust, and respond." This is no stranger; it's one whose voice we know and trust, one who knows each one of us by name.

"Sheep need three things for well-being: good pasture land, adequate water, and safe paths," Brueggemann observes, but they're "incapable" of securing their needs and unable to defend themselves. In a dangerous world, the assurance that the shepherd is there and will never leave the sheep to fend for itself allows the sheep to graze and rest in peace (Texts for Preaching Year A).

From the field to the feast

Of course, within the same short psalm, we can shift from the image of shepherd to that of host, too, and this host really knows how to treat a guest: there's nothing perfunctory about the table-setting or the hospitality offered. It meets the needs of the guest who may be in danger, may be in need of vindication before an enemy, may be in need of rest, comfort and healing.

It's all there, in this compact and elegant song. No wonder it is so loved and familiar, if it touches those deepest longings and needs of our bodies and spirits.

The things we want and expect and demand

But Brueggemann doesn't leave it there, in a place of comfort and peace. Instead, he challenges us to read the text in light of our own situation, a world full of things we want and expect and often demand, including the gifts we want from God, the giver of all good gifts, but still, as Brueggemann says, so much more, for "Yahweh is the true heart's desire of human persons, the true joy of human life, and the sure possibility of life lives in hope" (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy).

As we rest peacefully in the reassurance of this psalm, perhaps we might examine our hearts to see what has taken root there, what we have let ourselves long for, what paths we have wandered away from our "true heart's desire." Do we even know our "true heart's desire"?

What is our place in the scheme of things?

We might explore the possibility that God has become just one way for us to get the "things" we hope for. What does this mean about our sense of God's awesome and providential power, and our place in the scheme of things?

In a way, we move between two poles: on the one hand, as loved and known individuals precious to God, and on the other hand, as "sheep" struggling to take our own path and expecting the shepherd to handle all the difficulties and to smooth the way. How does it feel to "feel powerless"?

No rosy reality here

We preach this text right in the middle of the long season of Lent, a time of preparation for Easter and the celebration of new life in the Resurrection. While Christians look forward to, and even love, the promise of the empty tomb as much as the image of a gentle shepherd, a tomb is not just a happy, sunshine kind of place but one of death and hopelessness.

It's the "empty" part that matters, the promise of resurrection and new life even in an image of death. Perhaps, then, this psalm is so loved precisely because it doesn't paint a rosy (and false) picture of reality.

The psalmist faced dangers and threats, as Jesus did and as we know we must, but it was God's presence at all times, good and bad, that's being celebrated in the psalm of celebration, and in our preaching, according to O. Wesley Allen: "At the center of the psalm are the words, 'for you are with me.' This should be the center of the sermon as well" (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

Reading it alone in our room

It does seem that we can read the psalm privately, as individuals alone in our room, or in small groups over a grave, so often that we almost become de-sensitized to its beauty and power. But that beauty and power is even more encompassing, as the church relies on its assurances.

The church feels threatened, too, and there are plenty of dangers to our life as a community of faith.The church can long for abundance, for a feast, for more than enough, for reassurance that everything is going to turn out well in the end, no matter how discouraging or overwhelming the situation.

How we live our lives today

This isn't just a promise about "the end," however; it says something about how we live our life today, Brueggemann writes, remembering God's long history of goodness and trusting the future to that goodness as well: "a community that breaks out of amnesia and despair will unavoidably live differently in the present" (Texts under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination).

This "present-tense" trouble the church experiences, Brueggemann says, must not throw us off the paths of obedience and trust. God is with us always. But that, of course, is not what the world says.

In Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church, Brueggemann provides another pairing for our consideration, the contrast between the dominant version of reality and the "sub-version" of reality. We live and breathe in the dominant version, and we are all "to some extent practitioners of that dominant version of reality [that] comes at us in many forms; if we conform to that dominant voice of reality, we may receive its surface gifts of well-being and security for a while."

What is the real truth beneath it all?

A sermon on this Fourth Sunday in Lent might explore Brueggemann's suggestion that what we see around us, what we're told and what we think we want and need may not be the real truth that underlies everything. In fact, as people of faith, don't we claim and rely on that sub-version, at some level of our souls?

The difficult thing is that, for many of us, the dominant version has been very good, very reassuring, very comforting. The sub-version might be quite uncomfortable for us. Still, Brueggemann suggests, this is "a small counterpoint without great voice or muscle. It has been a minority perspective for a very long time…a poetic, elusive, delicate alternative even while the dominant voice of reality prevails in its facts on the ground" (Mandate to Difference).

Why we are here

That's why we come together in worship, in wider mission, in fellowship, making and living that claim about the sub-version of reality that may seem "vulnerable and foolish and exposed." Here the understanding of faith as trust (rather than the acceptance of intellectual propositions) is the foundation of our shared life just as much as it informs our private relationship with a comforting God.

What a wonderful irony that "sub-version" and "subversion" are so close! How are they related in your mind, and in the life of your church, to the needs of your community and the suffering of the world?

For further reflection:

Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, 20th century
"If you have never known the power of God's love, then maybe it is because you have never asked to know it - I mean really asked, expecting an answer."

Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, 20th century
"God, Who is everywhere, never leaves us. Yet He seems sometimes to be present, sometimes to be absent. If we do not know Him well, we do not realize that He may be more present to us when He is absent than when He is present."

N.T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential, 21st century
"To recognize that the Psalms call us to pray and sing at the intersections of the times--of our time and God's time, of the then, and the now, and the not yet--is to understand how those emotions are to be held within the rhythm of a life lived in God's presence."

Charles Ringma, Sabbath Time, 21st century
"Whatever form and shape prayer takes, our first concern is not to press God for the things we think we need or the matters we are concerned about, but rather a quest for God's presence and relationship."

Kingsley Opuwari Manuel, 21st century
"Bible study without Bible experience is pointless. Knowing Psalm 23 is different from knowing the shepherd."

C.S. Lewis, 20th century
"If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world."
and
"We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be."

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
"Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God."

Meister Eckhart, Sermons of Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love."


Lectionary texts

1 Samuel 16:1-13

The Lord said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." Samuel said, "How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me." And the Lord said, "Take a heifer with you, and say, 'I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.' Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you." Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, "Do you come peaceably?" He said, "Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice." And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed is now before the Lord." But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, "The Lord has not chosen any of these." Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?" And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here." He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; for this is the one." Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Psalm 23

God is my shepherd,
   I shall not want.
God makes me lie down
   in green pastures,
and leads me beside still waters;

God restores my soul
   and leads me in right paths
for the sake of God's name.

Even though I walk
   through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
   for you are with me;
your rod and your staff--
   they comfort me.

You prepare a table
   before me
in the presence
   of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy
   shall follow me
all the days of my life,
   and I shall dwell
in the house of God
   my whole life long.

Ephesians 5:8-14

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light — for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
"Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you."

John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes, saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" Some were saying, "It is he." Others were saying, "No, but it is someone like him." He kept saying, "I am the man." But they kept asking him, "Then how were your eyes opened?" He answered, "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, 'Go to Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed and received my sight." They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know."

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see." Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, "What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened." He said, "He is a prophet."

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, "Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner." He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?" Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." They answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshipped him. Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."