In a lot of ways, Lent is about being stuck. Many of us sit down before Lent and take stock of our lives, discerning where we are stuck, and commit to working on getting unstuck. Some of us are not that organized, and only discover how stuck we are as we enter into the penitential season, letting the prayers, scriptural lessons, and liturgies work on us. And some of us cannot even claim to have done that work. We only discover when we are stuck when someone metaphorically or literally smacks us against the head and tells us to shake off whatever is getting in our way, and get back in the game.
Two characters in our scripture readings today are similarly stuck. The first is Samuel. If you remember, Samuel is the prophet who anoints the first king of Israel – Saul. But eventually Saul falls out of grace with God, and although Samuel delivers God’s judgment, Samuel grieves. We are not really sure why Samuel grieves – if Samuel was really rooting for Saul and is disappointed in Saul’s failure[i]; if Samuel is lost in Saul’s failure and is scared of what is to come for Israel; or if Samuel is worried about himself. After all, Samuel was intimately involved in helping Israel find a king – something God did not want for Israel in the first place. Regardless of the “Why?” of Samuel’s grief, we do know that God is unhappy with Samuel’s continued grief. God clearly thinks Samuel is stuck in grief. “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king of Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out…”
Samuel is not the only character in our scripture today who is stuck. In John’s gospel, we find a blind man healed by Jesus on the Sabbath. But Jesus’ actions are not the center of the story. Twenty-six verses – or 63% of the text we heard – is about the Pharisees being stuck in their own understanding of who, how, and when a person can heal another. For twenty-six verses they try to figure out who Jesus is, confident that he must be a sinner if he is healing on the Sabbath. They barrage both the formerly-blind man and his parents about the incident – bringing in the healed man twice. The banter goes on and on and finally, the healed man says exasperatedly, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
In both Samuel and the Pharisees, we see God’s people, God’s leaders even, so stuck in their spiritual journeys that they are unable to see the work of God among them. In both cases, neither party is doing something wrong – grief is an appropriate response from Samuel. Samuel has invested a lot in Saul and has tried to mentor him on the right path for years. And if we are honest, there is probably a bit of self-pity in his grief, as God’s being done with Saul means Samuel is in for a rocky road, seditiously anointing another as king before Saul has abdicated or been removed from his seat of power.[ii] Likewise, the Pharisees are dutifully following the law of the Lord. They have been taught for generations to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. We even prayed those very words last week, when we prayed the Decalogue together. The Pharisees’ confusion is about a man acting in contradiction to everything they have ever been taught.
I wonder how often we find ourselves similarly stuck in our journey with God. I cannot tell you the number of times someone in the midst of grief or discernment has said to me, “But this is not what was supposed to happen!” We never plan for divorces, unexpected deaths, layoffs, addictions, betrayals, or illness. We cannot anticipate the ways that tragedy or surprising life-changes will shake us to the core and sometimes paralyze us into inaction. Sometimes we do not even realize we are stuck. We get so caught up in our way of coping with life or simply surviving, that we do not realize how we deafen ourselves to the voice of God, speaking new and fresh revelation to us.
The good news for us, and for Samuel and the Pharisees, is that there is room for redemption and repentance. God finally speaks directly and plainly to Samuel. When Samuel has wallowed enough in his grief, God basically says, “Enough. You have had plenty of time to grieve. You have work to do, so get up and go.” God even has a plan for Samuel’s safety when he protests about that. “No more excuses. I have you covered. Go.” The healed man does a similar thing for the Pharisees. As they barrage him with question after question, he finally slows down and says, “Argue all you want! Your confusion does not change the fact that I was blind and now I see. Deal with it!” Of course, the Pharisees do not accept the invitation to repentance – to change their minds. But the healed man gives them more than enough direction toward truth and change.
The same is true for us. There are all kinds of opportunities for us to get unstuck this Lenten season. Many of you have already told me how the change in our liturgical pattern was just enough of a change to unsettle and reorient your senses in our worship of God. Our bible studies have offered multiple opportunities to review the saving acts of God in history. Our ecumenical services have given us ample occasions to see and hear God in fresh ways – whether through a different preaching style, music that touches us in new ways, or liturgical differences that shake up our senses. I know we had a long conversation at our house about why the wine was so different at the other churches! And I suspect our Quiet Day this coming Saturday may just be what some of us need help us hear God saying, “Enough. Get going!”
But even in this season of repentance, of orienting ourselves back to God, the church gives us a Sunday of renewal – what the Episcopal Church calls, “Rose Sunday,” “Mothering Sunday,” or in the Latin, “Laetare Sunday.” On this fourth Sunday in Lent, we take a break. Virgil Michel said about this Sunday, “A Christian Lent can never be entirely sad. With the fourth Sunday the pent up spiritual joy in the true member of Christ bursts forth in anticipation of the Easter joy to come…This was the day when the catechumens were decked with roses and when roses were mutually exchanged. Thence comes the custom of the rose vestment.”[iii] Our custom on this Refreshment Sunday is to wear rose-colored clothes and eat simnel cake as a way of honoring this day of refreshment. We all need those reminders to listen to God, to be more open to revelation, to get ourselves unstuck. But we also need those days when we say as a community, “Getting unstuck is hard work. That you are trying is blessing enough today. Take in a breath of God’s sweet mercy, and fill up that horn of oil tomorrow. There is time to get up and get going.”
So breathe in the refreshment today. Take courage that you are in good company in your need for renewal and redirection – both in the person sitting near you today and in our biblical ancestors. Honor this Sabbath that is meant for rest for your wearied souls. Do all those things; because tomorrow, you will indeed need to recommit to that work of getting unstuck. You will need to pick up that horn and go do the work God has given you to do. You will need to work on your hearing and eyesight, as God sprinkles wisdom all around for you to see and hear. But today, fully take this Sabbath. The good news is God will empower you to do all those other things you need to do tomorrow. Amen.
[i] Carol A. Newsom, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 101.
[ii] Newsom, 101.
[iii] Virgil Michel, The Liturgy of the Church, quoted in A Lent Sourcebook: The Forty Days, J. Robert Baker, Evelyn Kaehler, and Peter Mazar, ed. (Chicago: Liturgical Training Publications, 1990), 51.