Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fourth in Lent, Laetare

(Year A) I Samuel 16: 1-13; John 9: 1-41

Laetare Ierusalem.  The first words in the traditional Latin Mass Introit for this Fourth Sunday in Lent, from the 66th chapter of Isaiah.  Laetare Sunday, as it says on the front page of the leaflet.  The ancient choirs singing over the centuries, to lift our hearts from heavy weight of exile:  Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . . .

Something of a pause, a resting place, along this journey of Lent.  Laetare.  A green and oasis on the trek through the wilderness.  A place of shade, out of the midday sun.  Sometimes called “Refreshment Sunday.”  Also in England called “Mothering Sunday”-- and in the Downton Abbey households of the great aristocracy a day when the upstairs family would fend for themselves and the downstairs staff would be given the day to go home for a family visit.  Ancestor of our contemporary “Mother’s Day” customs.   In churches where Lent is observed with a more rigorous discipline, the purple paraments and eucharistic vestments replaced (to be clear about this, not with pink, but) with rose-colored hangings and vestments.  The one Sunday in Lent when you might have flowers on the altar and something more than coffee and tea on the table at coffee hour.  Not a time to throw all our Lenten observance overboard.  Not yet a time for the trumpets and feasting of Easter.  But to relax the disciplines just a bit.  

A reminder, just in case we have been feeling a little tweak of spiritual pride in our seasonal austerity, that we aren’t earning our salvation here, but learning our salvation.  It’s not about working harder and being perfect, some energetic climbing of the holiness ladder, but about learning to practice our mindfulness, to remember, to awaken from sleep, in the living presence of the Lord whose property it is always to have mercy. To embrace the gift that has already been won on the Cross.  To learn again and again year in and year out in the long gestation of our Christian life that it is only by his grace and love that we can have any hope for this life or for the life to come.  It’s not about us, about all our busyness and accomplishments, not even about our best moments, our good deeds and admirable character.  It’s about him, about Jesus, and only about him.  Rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . . .

There just isn’t any way to live as Christians except with joy.  So St. Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I say rejoice.”  Philippians 4:4.  Perhaps remembering the title of C.S. Lewis’s spiritual autobiography: “Surprised by Joy.”   All joy, blessing, and peace.  There’s Easter joy and Christmas joy and Pentecost joy, and there is Advent joy, and Lenten joy, and Holy Week joy, even on the way to the Cross.  I guess especially on the way to the Cross.  

To feel that joy in our hearts this morning of Laetare.  Even as we take a deep breath and prepare ourselves for the last leg of the journey on toward Holy Week and Good Friday.  The season something of a metaphor for our day to day lives, citizens of the Kingdom still in exile, strangers in a strange land.  A reminder of our true citizenship.  Not to say there aren’t times of pain and suffering, disappointment and loss.  Sometimes crushing us.    In every one of our lives.   Illness and injury, failure, accidents and landslides.  I’m not preaching a prosperity gospel, at least as we measure prosperity by the ordinary metrics of the world around us.  The ancient Covenant doesn’t make things any easier for the Israelites; the new Covenant doesn’t make things any easier for Christians.  Wealth and health and happiness, all wonderful when we can have them of course.   Ephemeral as they may be.   And I would hope and pray that we would each and all of us have that and in abundance.  But that’s not what the joy we would talk about on this Laetare Sunday is about. 

Two images.

Old Samuel.  Years ago Prophet and Man of God had anointed Saul to be Israel’s first King, and now that is turning out badly.   Instead of unity and peace there is division and conflict.  Instead of faithful obedience and a renewal of the ancient Covenant there is rebellion and betrayal.  And now God has directed the Old Man to the country home of Jesse, just outside Bethlehem.  And as Jesse’s sons are paraded one after the other before him, Samuel’s heart begins to despair.  Fine, strapping young men, strong and noble.  Regal.  But the Lord remains silent.  Finally with a sigh: are there no others?  And the teenaged David, scrawny adolescent, is reluctantly brought in from the back 40.  Really, Lord?  Really?  This is the one?   And Samuel takes a breath, brings out his flagon of oil.  This decisive moment in the long purpose of salvation history.  “Young Man, God has a great plan for your life.” 

Hard not to remember the words of the Prophet in the second part of the Book of Isaiah right here, chapter 55: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” No kidding.  This reversal of expectations.  Exactly opposite what we would do.  How God works sideways, from the off angle.  Upside down.  Through the small, the weak, the broken.  The last first, the first last.

And the Man Born Blind.  This odd procedure—if that’s the right way to talk about it.   Mostly  Jesus just says a word.  Or with a gentle touch. But here, spitting on the ground, taking the mud and smearing it across his eyes.  Almost a kind of deep and distant echo of Genesis 2, as God made the first man from the dust of the ground.  New and renewed creation, new and renewed humanity.  A foretaste and hint of the perfect healing that we will know in him, as we come to know him perfectly.  “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  And of course the transformation, the words of the song that echo down the centuries, “one thing I do know, I once was blind, (but) now I see.”  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound!

Be joyful, Jerusalem; be joyful Highland Park.  Good Christian people of St. Andrew’s.  It’s Lent, and the season for joy.  Not with trumpets, but in the deep quiet of our hearts.  God has a great plan for your life, for our lives.  Even if we are an assembly of odd ducks.  A great plan: we need to hear that, and to believe it.  As it was a reality for David, a reality for the Man Born Blind.  A great plan for our lives, in this life and for eternal life.   Gathered to hear God’s Word, to know the assurance of his real presence, to go out through these open doors to communicate the good news by word and deed.  Not only with our lips but in our lives.   Laetare.  Rejoice, Jerusalem of God.  The curtain is beginning to open to reveal the great celebration of his victory.  For each one of us.  The dark shadow of the cross giving way even in this Lent to the radiance of the Third Day.  Refreshment.  Our eyes opened as if for the first time.  Born blind, but now we see.  Light shining in every dark corner.  The oil of gladness flowing in abundance, anointing us with his mercy, his healing, his forgiveness, his love. 

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