Worship Resources for March 19, 2023—Fourth Sunday in Lent

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

Narrative Lectionary: Parable of the Bridesmaids (Parable of the Talents) Matthew 25:1-13 (14-30); (Psalm 43:3-4)

The call and anointing of King David happen while Samuel was still grieving Saul in 1 Samuel 16:1-13. Saul, chosen by God, turned from God’s ways. As a prophet, Samuel anointed Saul, and perhaps took it as a personal failure that Saul didn’t work out. Nonetheless, God sent Samuel to Jesse in Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice, and God promised to show Samuel who to anoint. Although Samuel assumed it would be one of the eldest, tallest, or strongest, none of Jesse’s first sons were chosen by God. Jesse had not brought the last, youngest, smallest son who was out with the sheep. Instead, God chose the one who was known probably for being too cute. Too small, too young, probably picked on by his brothers for his looks. And God told Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

A song long associated with David, Psalm 23 sings of the assurance of God’s presence even in the most difficult times. God is the one who provides, protects, and shelters us, and whose presence is with us in the valley of the shadow of death. God is the one who honors us, even in the presence of our adversaries, and the psalmist concludes with a blessing of knowing God’s steadfast love and mercy all of our days, and dwelling in God’s presence forever.

The Epistle reading shifts from Romans for one week in Lent to Ephesians 5:8-14. The writer uses the images of light and darkness to show that everything in light is exposed, and we ought to live with nothing hidden in us. We ought not to hide any part of who we are—for if we do, it is because of shame—and instead we should live as people without shame. Live with the fruits of the Spirit, the fruits of light, and know that everything will become visible. The writer concludes this section with “Sleeper, awake!” In other words, be alert and ready for Christ, coming at an unexpected time, and live with nothing to hide before God.

The account of the blind man receiving his sight in John 9:1-41 must be approached with caution. There was a societal view that disability was the result of sin, which is the question the disciples have when they find a man who is blind from birth. Jesus’s reply is that no one has sinned. However, Jesus uses this moment to show that God’s work might be revealed in this man. The work that is revealed is one of deconstructing cultural and theological beliefs that are harmful, for the man born blind could only beg; he was not able to or allowed to work until he was freed from the marginalization of society. Far too often we have focused on a miraculous healing and that the man could then see, instead of the liberation that Jesus proclaimed from society’s sin of marginalization and oppression. Jesus then used sight and blindness as spiritual metaphors for those opposed to the kind of radical liberation he brings. Again, approaching with caution the antisemitic ways John’s gospel has been interpreted, this was a general societal belief that forced disabled people to beg, instead of inclusion of all people in the community. Some of the leaders opposed Jesus because he was claiming to be the Son of God, something blasphemous to their religion and culture, and therefore they questioned his authority.

The Narrative Lectionary focuses on the Parable of the Bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13. One thing to note is that while five bridesmaids packed extra oil and five “foolish” ones did not, all of them fell asleep. Jesus knows that we all have moments where we are not paying attention, where we fall short, where we fail to live into God’s intentions for us. We might do better to look at this parable from the context of the whole, rather than the separation of the foolish and the wise. How do we ground ourselves in community, tradition, scripture, and prayer? Who do we know to turn to when we need guidance and help in our struggles? Whom can we count on? And can we be that person for the other? The five “wise” bridesmaids refused to help others, and therefore marginalized the five that they thought of as foolish. Perhaps this parable is less about preparing ourselves as preparing to help each other and to build a community so that all may enter the reign of God.

The Narrative Lectionary also gives the possibility of the Parable of the Talents in verses 14-30. This is another parable that, on the surface, seems very harsh and cruel. One possible interpretation is that the one who refused to risk anything has the most to lose. Another might be that this master is harsh and cruel, and that does not change with the ending of the parable, but the last one refused to participate in the systems and structures of oppression in this world, and it cost him his life. Given Jesus’s own death on the cross, this is a possible way to look at a parable that has no satisfactory answer.

The supplementary verses are Psalm 43:3-4. The psalmist asks God to send light and truth, so that the psalmist may praise God with celebration and joy. In reading the parables, we ask for light and truth to help us understand the mysteries and myriad of possible interpretations, as we do with all scripture.

How we fight systemic sin: oppression, marginalization, and power/privilege over others underlies how we interpret Scripture. If we believe we are all on equal footing, then it makes sense to think of the bridesmaids as foolish or wise, the servants with the talents as worthy or not. It’s the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” idea that if everyone works hard they will get what they want and need. John 9:1-41 upends that thinking, as does Jesus’ own life and death on the cross. If it isn’t good news for the most vulnerable—disabled, poor, low-wage earners, anyone on the margins of society—then it isn’t good news at all. This ought to be the lens for interpreting parables as well as all the Gospels. When we look to David, the youngest, smallest, cutest boy picked on by seven older brothers (most likely)—we see why God chose him. We see in both the Epistle reading and the parable of the bridesmaids that all of us have the tendency to fall asleep. Even those among us in the struggle for justice against the powers of oppression have times when we fail to observe how empire has entered our own way of life. The point is, when we wake up, who do we go to? Who do we turn to? Who do we help on the way? Who do we view as part of God’s beloved community and how will we make sure they are included? How will we practice mercy, grace, and forgiveness? How will we love our neighbor as ourselves?

Call to Worship (Psalm 43:2a, 3-5)
God, You are the One in whom we take refuge,
O send out Your light and Your truth.
Let them lead us;
Let them bring us to Your holy dwelling.
Then we will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy;
And we will praise you, O God, our God.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again sing praise,
Our help and our God.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Awakening God, we confess at times we have fallen asleep. The weight of the world is too much. There is too much pain, injustice, sorrow, oppression—it all is weary and it seems no matter what we do, it doesn’t make a difference. Nothing seems to change. Yet we know from our ancestors in the faith that You have made promises to us that still hold true: promises of love, hope, mercy, grace, and peace. Promises that we have experienced through the love and care of others. Beloved God, may we not give up on You, though the world has failed us, though even the church has failed us. For You are our Creator and Sustainer, Redeemer of us all. You are the one who reminds us that there is nothing in all of creation that will separate us from Your love. You are the one who rose after the deepest night. Wake us up, O God, to what You have intended for us, and let us not hold on to daydreams of the past or nightmares of helplessness. Wake us up, O God, to live into Your way, Your truth, and Your life, in Christ’s name. Amen.

We sing the words, “There is a balm in Gilead,” to respond to the rhetorical question of the prophet Jeremiah. There is healing for our sin-sick souls. There is hope still to be found. There is love. There is always love. Know that you are God’s beloved child, and there is no place you can hide, no place where you will be lost. There is nothing you can do that will take you from God’s love. Trust in this truth: God loves you and the promise of that love is written inside you, from your first breath until the end of time. Go and share that love with one another, a love that builds up and holds fast against the struggles of the world. You will endure. You will make it through. Love one another. Amen.

Holy Spirit, fall afresh on us. Fill us, renew us, mold us and shape us into who You need us to be. Help us to let go of the ways this world confines us, so that we might be free in You to love, care, and lift up one another. Holy Spirit, inspire us when the well is dry. Care for us when we cannot rise again. Empower us to rise up, and to keep rising when we fall down again. As we are reminded from scripture, from the beginning to the end, You breathed life into us and formed us into a community of faith. We are not on this journey alone. Refresh us, Loving Spirit, and remind us that You are with us, now and always, and we have one another. Amen.

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