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Planning Worship for Discipleship and Ministry During the Season after Pentecost, Year B

Why, How, and What

"Job Rebuked by His Friends" by William Blake - The Morgan Library,
Extracted from Zoomify by User:GGreer. Public Domain.

Why “Ordinary Time?”

The “axial” period of Lent through Pentecost is complete. During these weeks, we’ve formed persons in the way of Jesus (Lent), baptized them (Easter), and further formed them with core doctrine and preparation for the ministries they will undertake. On Pentecost, we’ve commissioned them into their ministry.

And then, after a “bookend” Sunday (Trinity) of high celebration, we hit “Ordinary Time.”

Why would we go from such strong preparatory and initiatory work into something called Ordinary Time?

You probably know the reason for this alternate reference to what is primarily known as the Season after Pentecost. “Ordinary” refers to the ordinal numbers that mark each Sunday in reference to Pentecost, such as First Sunday after Pentecost, Second Sunday after Pentecost, and so on.

But why does this time, the “liturgical low season” exist at all, particularly when it seems to be such an anticlimax after the hard work and high celebration we’ve offered since Lent?

The missional purpose of the Season after Pentecost is to help the church organize its whole life around accountably supporting those it sends in ministry to offer themselves and their ministries in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.

What those ministries are, and what you as a congregation need to focus on to support them, can vary widely from congregation to congregation, and should. The gifts of the Holy Spirit for ministry are many and diverse. And the ongoing work of the Spirit among the people to lead them to all Truth, and our varying responses to this work, creates additional and also differing opportunities and challenges to our continuing growth in holiness of heart and life and ministry in Christ’s name and the Spirit’s power.

The lectionary readings for Ordinary Time meet this diversity of situations by offering the opportunity to spend time hearing semicontinuous readings from three distinct and unrelated streams of Scripture each week (Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel) and focusing during these weeks in worship series focused intentionally on the one stream that seems to speak most directly to the most important issues facing us in our particular contexts.

The Old Testament stream during Year B focuses on the story of David, the Wisdom Literature, Job, and two key women, Ruth and Hannah.

The Epistle stream addresses the realities of conflict (II Corinthians), the promise of stability and unity (Ephesians), core practices of the faith (James), and the priestly nature of Christ and the church (Hebrews).

The Gospel stream carries us through Mark’s account of Jesus discipling his disciples, largely in the area in and around the Sea of Galilee, with an excursus for the first four Sundays in August into the “Feeding of the 5000” in John’s gospel.

On August 30 and October 4 this year, it’s also easy to “switch streams” because both Old Testament and Epistle readings (and in the case of August 30, even the gospel) begin a series in a new book of the Bible that day.

As an overlay to what the lectionary offers during these weeks, Discipleship Ministries will again provide resources to support A Season of Creation during September and A Season of Saints during October.

And after All Saints Day, all three streams, reflecting the original seven-week celebration of Advent, turn toward “culmination of all things” themes. We will also provide resourcing to support the use of these Sundays as “Extended Advent,” complete with a webinar in interview style with two significant United Methodist leaders and practitioners of this growing movement on September 15 (registration link forthcoming).

How to Plan for This Ordinary Time

Start with prayer.

Pastors, musicians, and others who are part of the planning team should enter a season of prayer several weeks before you meet for a planning meeting, asking the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to become aware of the kinds of things the Spirit is already doing and that may be most helpful in worship to support the ministries of the disciples in your congregation during the coming months.

Don’t do this just once or just a few days before you meet to plan. Take a few weeks (at least two weeks, three or more if possible) in which you each ask for this awareness daily. And ask each member of the planning team to note what he or she discovers as the Holy Spirit begins answering this prayer. The Spirit will surely do this!

Continue with Scripture.

After the first week of prayer, ask all team members to start reading through the Scriptures, or at least the outline of the themes of these Scriptures and emphases (provided below), to begin to discern which Scriptures and themes at which times may best reflect what the Spirit is already beginning to reveal about next steps to support the ministries of disciples where you are. Let this process continue for at least a week before your seasonal planning meeting.

Meet to Plan the Emphases for the Season.

All of you have been listening for the guidance of the Spirit and searching the Scriptures for at least two weeks. Now it’s time for a conversation in which you map out the “big themes” that reflect what you’ve been hearing together and which stream of texts—or texts outside the lectionary—you may use to support them.

You don’t have to plan the details of each service at this meeting. Focus on getting the themes and the focus Scriptures down for each series throughout these weeks. Then test the plan with a focus group of a few folks outside the planning team over the course of a week. Meet again to make course corrections based on what you hear, and start publicizing the themes you’ll be pursuing.

Fine-Tune the Services and Release Teasers to Build and Sustain Momentum.

Work out the details for each service within each series over the coming meetings. Then, as you more or less complete each series, release “teasers” to build and sustain your momentum through the coming months. A teaser might be a video clip of an artist working on something your team has commissioned, or an audio clip of a choir or praise team rehearsal, or a testimony of one or more whose story might be shared as part that series. Play the preview in worship, post it on YouTube (with all copyright clearances, of course!), and link to it in your bulletin, newsletter, Facebook page, Pinterest site, or Twitter feed.

And as you do so, remember and keep front and center the Why—this is all about accountably supporting disciples of Jesus in your midst to grow in holiness of heart and life as they carry out their ministries in their daily lives, wherever those lives take them. Your “marketing” work for the series you are developing isn’t about getting more (or losing fewer) people in pews on Sunday morning. It’s about building and sustaining the energy, challenge, and encouragement disciples need to keep growing and stay on mission, especially during these summer months in the Northern hemisphere where the culture is far more about tuning out of everything than tuning in to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to live out our end of the baptismal covenant faithfully.

What Are the Scriptures Doing This Season?

Here’s a stream by stream summary of the themes coming up in the Revised Common Lectionary readings for this Ordinary Time. You and your team may find this a helpful way to “get into” the readings as your make your overall plan and then finalize your specific plans for each series and service over the coming months.

Old Testament Stream: David, Wisdom, Job, and Women

June through August-- David

People who may have had only a “Sunday School” exposure to the stories about David, Israel’s first king, may have come away with an idealized view of this poet/prince. The scriptural accounts, which we read from June 7-August 23 this year, pull no punches in portraying him as a deeply flawed, but deeply committed leader upheld by the grace of God. Don’t read these stories for “The Psalmist’s Perfect Principles of Princely Power.” Read them, instead, for the stories themselves, the richly layered relationships they disclose, and, above all, for the ways you might find God offering wisdom, correction, and mercy in the places you are called to be leaders as you offer your lives and ministries in the name of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit today.

As you explore the character of David as a leader in these passages, you see one thing become very clear. David, as a leader, always worked in an ecosystem of other leaders. He is never portrayed a “lone hero,” either triumphant or tragic. Saul has his thousands, and David, it is said, had his ten thousands. This insight does not point simply to David’s personal charisma or popularity, but rather to his God-given ability to build alliances with others that could forge and then sustain relative unity in a nation as diverse as the “twelve tribes” actually were. Some of these alliances were in his own court, family, and military. Others were the tribal leaders where were still very much in play, both religious and political/military. And then there were the international connections he achieved through the wars fought and treaties made during his reign.

You and your team may particularly want to follow this series, at least for a time, if your key challenges and opportunities are in the area of leadership or community development.

Late August through September-- Wisdom: Songs, Proverbs, and History

During late summer this year, the lectionary offers its only reading from Song of Solomon (August 30), followed by a series of selections from Proverbs. The Proverbs are so different in form and function from much of the rest of the Old Testament that if you choose to focus on them, you should probably plan to do so all three weeks they are offered, perhaps in tandem with the James readings (which share some literary similarities). A “drive by” reading of these texts may yield far less fruit than taking your time to unpack them and helping the congregation learn how they can do so as well. The Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings during these weeks provide for a daily immersion in Proverbs that will allow those who use them plenty of practice in mining the riches of these texts. A reading from Esther, the background of the celebration of Purim, concludes the September texts.

Learning how to read the Wisdom Literature teaches disciples both how to have a deeper relationship with God and to expand their awareness of the work of the Spirit in daily living with one another and with all other creatures and things on our planet. As school gets going again and vacation season comes to a close, these readings invite taking time not for vacation, but for spiritual retreat. Think about how you might create a retreat for your congregation built around reading these texts, even if you don’t choose to focus on them primarily in worship.

October -- Job: Theodicy in Drama

October is for the month of Job this year. The text for these Sunday are “highlights” and “extracts” selected to tell the great contours of the story. Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings through these weeks fill in more of the details from Sunday to Sunday. You may also wish to consider doing a performance night or a retreat including a full dramatic reading of Job, or a performance of Archibald MacLeish’s dramatic adaptation of it, JB.

The story is compelling enough. But the power of Job, as dramatic literature, is its struggle with the reality of suffering in the face of widely accepted theologies that claimed suffering was always God’s punishment for human failings.

The problem of suffering, perhaps more than any other, has been the intellectual crowbar that has pried thoughtful people away from faith in any sort of God, much less the God proclaimed by the established religions. Indeed, this has been the key argument against any God or the validity or value of nearly any religion by the still-fashionable “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and the late Christopher Hitchins (God Is Not Great). Adam Hamilton’s little book, Why?, may be a helpful study companion as you live and work through these weeks as well.

An October with Job can be a time to tackle the real questions that people in your congregation and community may have about suffering. The honest struggle with God, portrayed in Job, can be a reliable guide not for answers, but for probing conversation in and outside of worship.

November-- Women of the Bible: Ruth and Hannah

All Saints Day is actually a fairly recent celebration for American Methodists, since Mr. Wesley left it out of the original lectionary and calendar he gave to the 1784 Christmas Conference. Still, it remained, as he wrote more than once in his journal, one of his most cherished days in the Church Year. Those of us United Methodists who are celebrating it now do so, then, in the good company of one of our founders, and this year All Saints Day falls on a Sunday (November 1).

Still, celebrating All Saints and strictly using its readings always poses a potential problem for those of us who use the Revised Common Lectionary. This is because November 1 and 8 are the only Sundays in the three-year cycle that offer readings from Ruth.

So what to do?

Consider the possibility of replacing the first reading for All Saints (from Isaiah) with the first reading from Ruth on November 1, then continuing this as a two-part series on November 8. Once again, Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings can fill in the gaps in the Ruth’s story between Sundays. The season continues on November 15 with the story of Hannah’s faithfulness and the birth of Samuel, and comes to a close with the “bookend Sunday” of Christ the King (November 22) with David’s remembered last words, set to poetry and song (II Samuel 23).

The role of women as leaders and pioneers, while present in a scattered way throughout the Bible, is presented in a more concentrated way during these three weeks

The Epistles: Conflict, Stability, Practicing the Faith and a Priestly Covenant

June and early July--Conflict: II Corinthians

II Corinthians is written by Paul as a “leader on the outs.” He has offended at least some of the people in this congregation he had founded. And some of them have offended him. Their relationship is so strained, it seems, that Paul needs to go to great lengths to rebuild some basis on which they will listen to what he now wants to say to them, including his desire that they make good on their previous pledge to the fundraising campaign he had launched to support poverty-stricken Christians in Jerusalem. The readings from June 7-July 5 offer glimpses into these complicated relationships, and perhaps inspiration both to be on God’s mission and encourage others to stay on mission, despite all strains.

If your congregation finds itself in a place of conflict, or with an opportunity to address how to move through conflict helpfully, these readings from II Corinthians may be an excellent place to focus.

July into August— Stability and Networked Unity: Ephesians

The contrast in content and tone between the conflicted situation in Corinth and what appears to be a fairly positive relationship in Ephesus—so positive that Ephesus acts as a hub to send this letter out to other churches in the region—couldn’t be greater. Here, Paul offers a calm but compelling vision of Jesus who unites Jews and Gentiles, the congregations in the Ephesians circuit and everywhere. He also offers practical guidance and wisdom for living as communities who connect with one another to follow Christ’s way.

Is your congregation looking at how to build and connect small groups for accountable discipleship to one another and to your congregation? Are you working at building networks of ministries across congregations for a greater common good? This stream of readings from July 12-August 23 can help disciples where you are build a solid foundation for such work.

September-- Practicing the Faith: James

If you’re looking for systematic theology or stories, James is not your epistle. This letter is modeled more on Wisdom Literature than “standard” letters of the day. It reads and sounds like a collection of proverbs for living as disciples of Jesus in the world. It is nuts and bolts, down to earth. It embodies its most famous/infamous dictum: faith without works is dead.

James is the handbook for people who are ready, or at least ready to learn, what getting down to the work of discipleship means. This year, you will have the month of September to do that in worship, and Revised Common Lectionary Daily Texts will include many of the texts in the course of these weeks that the Sunday lectionary is not able to include.

October – November-- A Priestly Covenant: Hebrews

From October 4-November 15, the epistle reading plunges us into a world different from any in the New Testament. Gospels, Acts, and Revelation offer stories. Romans and Ephesians offer theology. The rest of the epistles tend to offer primarily interactive advice. But only in Hebrews do we have a consistent vision of Jesus seen through the lens of worship, in this case, Jewish-Christian ritual.

Jesus is the high priest, mediator of covenant with God. We are called together as a priestly community, not as intercessors in general, but in line with the priestly ministry of Jesus himself which we, his body, are called to continue.

Spending good time with Hebrews through these weeks may help your congregation get a keener sense of how not only Scripture, but the practices of worship, then and now, inform our understanding of Jesus and our discipleship to him as we join him in his mission of transforming the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of our God.

The Gospels: Mark, with an Interlude from John

If Year B is the Year of Mark, why don’t we have readings only from Mark this season?

The three-year lectionary cycle includes John at various times of the year. In fact, the lectionary includes more of John than any other gospel! We encounter John most notably during Lent and Easter Season each year. Then, during Year B, we are invited to take an extended deep dive into John 6 (July 26-August 23). This one chapter that tells the story of the “feeding of the 5000” is also the most extensive theological foundation for Holy Communion found in the Bible. If there is any time in a three-year cycle of sermon planning to focus on the meaning, practice, and implications of participating in Holy Communion, these weeks are perhaps the richest.

Mark’s Gospel, meanwhile, is also not to be missed. What it lacks in extended teaching and narratives, it makes up for by tight, quick, cleverly constructed stories that, if read as one series, or especially at one sitting, reveal an amazing, energetic, Jesus confronting every power that is and soundly defeating them all, and an amazing gospel writer whose capacity for clever rhetoric is unmatched in Scripture. The overall effect is a portrayal of Jesus and his calling for us to be like him, wise as serpents, gentle as doves, and utterly unstoppable.