“Where is our help from…? Stories of simplicity and surprise” by Jill Joseph

3 April 201111 lent cover front page 402x640

The Fourth Sunday in Lent


Where is our help from? Recently, we have heard some things about where help is not to be found. On Transfiguration Sunday, at the margin of Lent, we realize that our help is not a static solution, not the booth on the hillside neatly constructed, but in the journey together toward Jerusalem and all it holds. And then we considered together the story of the desert temptations and we saw our help is not to be found in the conditional, in the “if this… then that” of evil promise, but in some quite unconditional assertion one’s own knowledge that ties us both to our God and to our history. Jesus replied to temptation not with a conditional logic of choice but with the assertion: “it is written….”  


And then today: complex stories tied together by themes of sight and seeing. While I was wrestling with today’s readings I heard the half whimsical comment of an author about writing. He said that trying to finish a particular piece was like “trying to carry a heavy sheet of plywood in a high wind.”


What with sacrificial heifers and seven sons and the fruit of light and the shame of dark and disputations Pharisees, I found I needed to put down this particular piece of scriptural plywood that was flopping and flapping in the high wind of my confusion and return to some basics.


There was a rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov, who lived in Eastern Europe, a saint and the founder of the Hasidic movement who taught that God is to be found in dance and song and story. It is said that one day villagers came to him because they were threatened by a great plague and they asked that he save them. And so the Baal Shem Tov went to a sacred place in the wood and lit a sacred fire that had no flame, and spoke the words of an ancient sacred prayer. He implored God to save his people, not because of his merits, but because of all this sacred ancient wisdom that was gathered together. And the village was saved.


A generation passed and the Hasidim were now led by the Maggid of Mezritch and again villagers came to him, now threatened by a great flood and asked for his prayers of salvation. So he went to the sacred place in the wood and he said the words of the sacred prayer, but he did not know how to light the sacred fire that had no flame. But it was enough, and the people were saved. And so in each generation something was lost until a nameless rabbi in some village now lost from memory was approached by desperate villagers pleading for his help so that they might be saved from yet another disaster. Sitting alone after they had left, he prayed aloud: “I know so little, for it has all been lost. Not only do I not know how to light the sacred fire that has no flame, but I cannot find the sacred place in the wood, and I do not even know the words of the ancient sacred prayer. But I know the story”…….and the story was enough.


Our stories are sacred.


What do the stories in today’s readings tell us about help and hope in the season of Lent?


What emerges from me as a lesson about simplicity and surprise.


Where does our help come from?


First, there are simple questions: God asked of Samuel, “How long will you grieve?”… grieve over Saul, grieve over your own thwarted plans, grieve over what cannot be or over what must be, grieve over all the ways our lives is not the lives we wish for. Grieve over the aging parents I want to love better than I can and do. How long will I grieve? How long will you grieve?

And then the dialogue continues: “fill your horn and set out” this matter of fact God instructs.


Get over it.


Set out.


Look up from your concerns.


Set out.


But Samuel doesn’t simply refuse to set out. Rather he offers a starkly honest and surprising question in reply: “How can I go? I will die.”


Do I have such courage before the living God, to see myself and my own reluctance? Or seeing my reluctance, to dare to name it before God rather than hiding it shamefully away? How would I explain, how would you explain why we do not “set out”? Can we find ways to see and name what may be anything from deeply existential fears of our own irrelevance to quotidian anxiety about finances?


Our story suggests that we can, indeed must, dare this honest dispute with God. That we can claim, indeed must claim, what we really are… for when we dare this audacity, the story does not end.


The God of Samuel not only abides this protest, but responds with the simplest of solutions: here’s a task at hand, take this heifer. Here’s a companion, take Jesse. And know that I will be with you.


Notice that this God does not say, “You will not be killed”, although Samuel certainly survives. The response to Samuel’s hauntingly honest “I cannot go. I will die” is not simple reassurance, but another logic altogether. Fearful reluctance encounters the simple immediacy of task and human companionship. It’s actually pretty simple stuff, much like Marjory’s pots that begin with formless clay. It’s oil and beast and friend and what can be done right now…… and woven into all that simple stuff of ordinary life, the abiding presence of God.




Where does our help come from? Another story, the Gospel story


There was a man blind from birth…..


I want to tell you about that man. I want you to know he was doing okay in a life of compromise and adaptation. Blind from birth, his other senses had accommodated. His hearing was extraordinary. He sensed subtle differences in breeze and shadow. Before others, he caught the scent of the coming rain or the approaching desert winds. He had accommodated. He knew his place, and was part of a network of relationships and expectations and obligations. He was a beggar. He had learned to plead, but not irritate; to implore, but not offend. He made his way as best he might.


And he did not ask to see. Why would he? His blindness was also his tool, the way he chipped away at the hard blocks of his life to extract another meal from another day of bitterness and dependency. But doing okay, getting by.


Perhaps not so different from the many ways we “get by”, that we accommodate and compromise….for who can aspire to more?


It is Jesus who aspires on his behalf. And in so doing sent him into a new life where he must cast aside the begging cup, cast aside the walking stick, cast aside the compromise and hardened heart.




But let me also be clear that this new sight was no easy matter. Gifts from God our not like the birthday presents of our childhood. They are, often as not, burden and toil. I think of those in this community with gifts for leadership and know they carry the concern and hopes of many in this gift. I think of Glen and Jessie and the gift of the Carroll Café, but also see them exhausted and concerned even as they are deeply committed. I could go on. This community holds many gifts and many calls, and each is both joy and burden.


So, too, for the blind man who saw. We know that neural circuits of the human brain are unprepared for sudden sight. That those who suddenly see are confused and exhausted and simply overwhelmed. They detect motion first. They may be able to catch a ball thrown at them, but they cannot name or describe what is held before them. It takes years to learn to see.


It takes years to learn to see.


It takes practice to learn to see.


Some patients who have had their sight restored have been observed to open a cupboard to “look for something” and after searching and searching in vain, to sigh heavily, shut their eyes and reach unerringly for what they seek. Even more provocatively, those who have their sight restored don’t recognize their own face or body. They literally do not see themselves.


There was a man blind from birth… It takes years to learn to see. In the meantime, there’s no more begging cup, no more alms. There’s a living to be made, new skills to be learned. Old patterns and relationships torn apart as neighbors may not even recognize this new, sighted man.


Isn’t this what were offered? Not the easy way. But the surprise of sudden gift and sudden burden. Practicing sight. Learning sight. Learning to recognize who we are. Learning, perhaps, that we are frightened and reluctant, like Samuel, to set out.


Of course, the wonderful, sacred joke is that after all this work to see, we must return to the words of Samuel. Although we may prefer our sight to blindness, our sight is deeply flawed. He reminds us that what we see is not, after all this work and practice, what God sees.


More surprises. More simplicity.


Where does our help come from? From stories of simplicity and surprise.


I dare to conclude with a personal re-telling of the 23rd Psalm, part of our lectionary today, although not read here together. I offer it as one who asks “where does our help come from?” much as did the psalmist of the ancient canticle.


Psalm 23 for 2011


God of mystery and of silence

God of simplicity and of surprise

God I do not know and cannot name

How amazing that you welcome me

     and guide me

          to places of living waters and gentle rest


The dark falls hard and fast

And I weep in a world where towering waves sweep aside the living

     and armies ride the desert roads

I tremble with sudden private fears

     and am lost amid days too full, lived too fast.

Yet you are here:

     My welcome and my guide

     In the darkness and in the tears

     In the fear and in the turmoil.


I hear but silence

Yet I know.

Know that you invite me to this table

     And pour out blessings without end

You are silent

     and yet as near as bread and cup

Your goodness and your mercy are all about,

     strength of my bones

     light of my eyes

     breath of my soul


In you I find my help.

In you I am alive for this brief shimmering moment.

In you I am alive forever.

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