“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”
So Jesus tells his disciples today, on encountering a man who blind from birth. His disciples have asked a theological question about the man’s condition: is it the man’s own sins or his parents’ sins that account for his blindness?
This may sound like a heartless question to us but it does not sound that way in the world of Jesus. These things require an explanation that preserves the justice of God. So if God is just, someone must have deserved this condition. Either God knew in advance the sins the man would commit, or the man’s parents transgressed and this is the consequence. That wasn’t the only way people looked at this question but it was a common and urgent one.
But Jesus turns the question around: What is God’s work here? And what will we do?
To answer his own question, Jesus does a small, intimate homage to the original Creation. He spits into the dirt and like God forming Adam out of the mud, gets himself dirty. He puts the spit-mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to wash. His eyes are opened. Let there be light.
Today in our series on What Are We Doing Here? We come to Martin Luther’s fifth “holy possession” of the church. The first is the Word of God, the second is the sacrament of baptism, the third is the sacrament of the altar, the fourth is confession and forgiveness. Each of these, Luther claims, are signs by which the true church of Jesus Christ may be known in the world.
The fifth holy possession, today’s topic, is ministry. During the Reformation there were many arguments about what ministry was and even whether it was necessary. Luther insisted that the church needed people to serve on behalf of the whole community: to preach, to baptize, to celebrate the sacrament and so on. Otherwise it would be chaos. So the church sets apart ministers for the work of God in the community of faith.
Now this in no way diminishes the vocation of the baptized people of God to serve each other and the world. Every Christian has a religious vocation in their work, their homes, the community, and the church. And it is in no way to say that the people who do what I do are special people. We are not set apart because of our holiness. Rather we are set apart for holy tasks that are given to us by God.
Look at the story from 1 Samuel today: God does not speak to David or David’s father Jesse directly. God sends the prophet. And the prophet does not speak his own word, but the Word God gives him to speak. The prophet does not choose David, but declares God’s choice of David. God chooses David, but it is the prophet’s hand that anoints him.
The prophet here is serving as God’s minister. He is God’s means for accomplishing God’s work. Just like ordinary human words, ordinary water, and the bread and wine that are the work of human hands all serve as means for the grace God wishes to give us. God calls ordinary people to fulfill a work that is not of our choosing or design. We are simply trying to do the work of the one who sent us while it is day.
That, anyway, is how I try to look at it. I have tried to preach God’s Word, not Ben’s word, even if it means people get mad. I have pronounced forgiveness when I doubted the sincerity of repentance and administered the sacrament to those whose faith was invisible to me. But that is the job. Samuel would have picked a different son of Jesse to anoint as king if it had been up to him.
But I have to admit, I have never done what I am doing right now. And I never meant to.
In fact, in the past I’ve been very hard on churches that pipe in a message from one site to multiple locations or into multiple sanctuaries. I get why they do that. You find an especially gifted preacher and you want to make sure that he or she can reach as many people as possible, even if you can’t be in the same room together. But to me, that’s not what the role is.
A pastor, I always said, was supposed to look his or her people in the eyes. If I’m going to offend someone or test their faith, I have to look them in the face while I do it. A pastor has to endure the only polite form of protest available to a worshiper: watching them stand up and walk out while we’re talking. Ask me how I know!
We were not supposed to be talking heads. Pictures on a screen dispensing wisdom from afar. We were not supposed to be gurus. We are supposed to be servants. We are supposed to be present. The Word we preach is supposed to be God’s Word for you, the people of Dallas, Texas in 2020. If I don’t do that as well as the pastor down the street or across the country, at least I am doing it for you.
Jesus spits into the dirt and makes mud and touches it to the man’s eyes. That is how it goes sometimes. You have to be face to face. I think of those moments where I have laid my hands on the head of someone kneeling for absolution on Maundy Thursday. Of the many hundreds of foreheads I have marked with ash on Ash Wednesday. Of the times I have held someone’s hands and prayed with them. I am not an especially demonstrative, touchy-feely person but those moments are some of the most powerful in my ministry.
And yet here we are. You’re out there but I can’t see you. I don’t know if you’re nodding appreciatively or politely chuckling at my jokes or falling asleep. Our building was designed for people, not for cameras. I miss you.
But all the same: we must do the work of the one who sent us while it is day. I give thanks to God that we can meet like this. When we can’t do what we expect to do, we focus on what we can do. When we can’t do what we think is best, we look for the next best thing.
So what I want you to hear, today, if nothing else, is this: I am still here for you. I am praying for you every day. I will pray for you over the phone or by Facebook or by Zoom or however else we can do it. If you are anxious or lonely or your life or relationship is in crisis or you are burdened with guilt, I am still here for you. And this is not because I am an especially kind or generous person. I assure you I’m not. It’s because God never quits on God’s people. God never closes down for the night or the week or the duration. We ministers of the Word and Sacrament are frail creatures who make mistakes and need rest and lead people astray without meaning to. But our only purpose--the only reason anyone bothers to put on these vestments and stand in a pulpit and speak into an empty sanctuary--our only purpose is to bring you God’s grace and mercy by whatever road is open to us. Amen.