Living as Disciples Worship Series: WEEK 1
Fifth Sunday After Pentecost – July 14, 2019
Planning for this Series:
The Old Testament readings during this time are in Amos and Hosea. A common theme for these weeks, and indeed the two following from Isaiah, may be “When God Speaks Judgment.” The weekly themes may be “A Plumb Line for Leaders,” “Righteousness and Justice for People,” “When Pity Is Exhausted,” and “Judgment for Restoration.”
The Epistle readings are from Colossians. The series theme is “Our Life in Christ.” The weekly themes may be “How We Grow in Christ,” “Christ in Y’all, the Hope of Glory,” “The All-Sufficiency of Christ to Save Us,” “Out with the Old, On with the New.”
The Gospel readings from Luke continue to follow Jesus as he disciples his disciples. The series theme is “Loving God and Neighbor.” The weekly themes may be, “How to Be a Neighbor,” “Loving by Listening,” “Letting God Love You,” “The Love Never Stops Here.”
Launch your new series well today! With a four-week story arc, the energy profile of the series is likely to be naturally either “ever upward” or “ever deeper.” The Epistle readings could easily be handled in an “ever-upward” direction. The Old Testament readings probably work best with an “ever-deeper” approach. The gospel readings could go either way.
This Sunday marks one of places in the lectionary where the Old Testament and Epistle readings change to new books at the same time, allowing the possibility of a shift in focus to another of the three tracks of readings throughout Ordinary Time. In the Old Testament, we shift from the era of Elijah/Elisha to the minor prophets, beginning with Amos, and so from a period and vocation of critiquing the kings to a period announcing the impending destruction and exile, first of Israel (Northern Kingdom) and later of Judah (Southern Kingdom). Galatians and Colossians address similar issues, but in very different theological, sociological, and missiological contexts. In Luke, we continue the story of the ministry of Jesus. All three of these invite a new "jumping in," with due attention to “launching a new thing”— even if you choose to remain on the track you were following.
Plan to read all the texts and to sing/pray the Psalm in worship so that the congregation hears and responds to each, but consider your congregation's best opportunities and most pressing concerns as you select which stream to focus on for preaching and other planning.
Old Testament Stream: Prophetic Ministry—Calling and Working for Justice, Righteousness and Peace
When God Speaks Judgment
Week 1, Amos: A Plumb Line for Leaders
How the plumb line figures in today’s reading shows the stark difference between the kind of ministry Elijah and Elisha had, and what Amos and Hosea were called to do as prophets. Elijah and Elisha sought to call political and religious institutions of the day back into alignment with God’s righteousness and justice. There was some sense, still, that there was time to repair and restore what had strayed.
As we hear from Amos and Hosea, however, time had run out. The plumb line shows things are too far gone for repair or restoration of the existing institutions and their leaders. Religious and political institutions alike were facing obliteration (Amos 7:9, 11). And the people who survived those horrors would be taken into exile (Amos 7:11, 17).
Amos was clear that he gained nothing by bringing this news. He had no political interests and stood to gain nothing economically by prophesying—especially a prophecy such as this! He was a “herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees” (7:15, NRSV)). His only interest was to speak what he had heard God tell him to say.
We still have the account of the prophecies of the pre-exilic prophets in part because they turned out to be largely correct. The Northern Kingdom was almost entirely obliterated beginning in 721 BCE, perhaps some 40 years or so after Amos’s prophecy, though not during the reign of the current king, Jereboam II. All of its “high places” (sites of worship, typically on hilltops and of local gods) were destroyed. Its central palace was burned to the ground. Its political infrastructure was destroyed completely. And from what we can tell, many of its inhabitants were simply butchered by the invading Assyrian armies, either on site, en route to exile (for the five tribes that we have historical records of entering exile), or at some point after they arrived in Assyria. While there remain niche populations scattered across the globe with some story or DNA evidence linking them to the “ten lost tribes,” for the most part it seems most of those ten tribes were, indeed, simply lost.
IN YOUR PLANNING TEAM
Yes, the plumb line is a powerful image, and there are powerful images in the other readings from Amos and Hosea later in this four-week series.
But why do a series on such strong words of judgment?
This is a question you and your team must settle together and be clear about with your congregation. They’ll want to know the same thing.
I can think of two possible reasons, neither of which may apply where you are. One is historical, biblical interest. The exiles that happened to both the Northern and Southern kingdoms (Israel ca 721 BCE, Judah 587-6 BCE), what led up to them, and what happened afterward are at the heart of the prophetic literature (especially Jeremiah through Zechariah) and much of the historical literature (especially II Kings, II Chronicles, and Ezra through Esther). A good number of the Psalms also reflect on or come from the period of the exile of Judah, including the bitter Psalm 137. In a very real way, Judaism’s biblical story is a story of destruction or exile and deliverance, whether in the archetypal stories of Genesis (fall, murder, flood, tower and patriarchs), or the displacement and reorientation of Abraham, or the exodus led by Moses, or the multiple times of deliverance through judges, the exiles themselves.
This underlying story of destruction or exile leading to a deliverance hoped to be permanent animated the vision of what Messiah was hoped to do and be. The cycles of destruction and renewal would cease. A reign of peace, stability and shalom would begin and last forever.
That underlying story and this hope for the renewal of the entire creation in the Messiah, whom we understand to be Jesus, the Son of God, has continued as central among Christians as well.
So, getting in touch with a linchpin in this story—the declaration of judgment that precedes a period of destruction that precedes a period of renewal—is likewise important for us, to this day.
Another possible value of this focus on judgment is to help us identify what there is about our current way of ordering ourselves as church, whether as congregations or as individuals, that stands under God’s judgment and is leading us to destruction. We’ll find more specific examples of this in the prophecy from Amos we hear next week. But for this week the focus could be simply on the fact that there are times when the only faithful word to be spoken is a word of judgment, a word that points unflinchingly to where our lives as they have become are inexorably headed.
Today, then, marks an opportunity to raise this simply as a point—that the word of judgment is no less the word of the God who intends, ultimately to save us—as a word of blessing or encouragement may be.
Which brings us to a further point. The word in question is God’s. It isn’t Amos’s, or the pastor’s or the lay leader’s or even the bishop’s. The core question for us to consider today is whether and where God is bringing such a word of judgment into our midst, and then how we will respond when God does.
This week’s prophecy only identifies that things are too far gone.
Next week identifies why.
As you think about what you will say and do in worship today to launch this series, keep that in mind. And use that fact to help you make a strong segue from today’s launch to next week’s exploration in this series.
Epistle Stream: Mission in the World, but not of It
Our Life in Christ
Week 1: “How We Grow in Christ”
Colossians is unique among the letters of or attributed to Paul in that Paul himself had not previously visited or been directly involved in the life of the Christian congregations there. His companion and colleague Epaphras had been there, but Paul had not (verse 7-8). That is likely part of why he does not in this letter offer specific commentary on what is happening in their midst as he could, for example, in his letter to the Christians in Galatia. Instead, he gave them more general guidance to stay the course with sound theology about Jesus (1:1-2:15), a morality grounded in Christ himself rather than the works of the law (2:16-17), and patterns of community life that reflect the love and power of God active in their midst through Christ who dwells among them (2:18-4:5).
Today's reading is the introduction to the letter, an extended and generous greeting from Paul and his coworkers. It is a greeting full of graciousness, hope, and prayer.
It is a greeting that launches us into the key theme of his letter, and into this series on our life in Christ.
And it is a greeting that specifically describes how he believes these Christians, and all of us, can continuously grow in Christ.
The heart of the prayer is in verses 9-11. Paul expresses his hope that they will “be filled with all the knowledge of God’s will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” so they can “walk worthy of the Lord,” and “bear fruit in every good work,” as they “increase in the experiential-knowledge of God,” that they will “be made powerful with all power” so they can display “all long-suffering and great-heartedness” with thanksgiving. He offers the basis for his confidence in God’s answer to this prayer in verse 13. All of this can happen precisely because God has rescued them all from the “authority of darkness” and transferred them into the kingdom of God’s beloved son (verse 13).
A key feature of the greetings in letters in this era is that what was said in the greeting was an important clue to the subjects the writer intended to unpack in the rest of the letter.
We start at the end, because that is where Paul has placed the premise for the hope he conveys for them in his prayer. “God rescued us from the authority of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son.” The parallel terms “authority” and “kingdom” are significant here. “Authority” speaks of generic rule, or rule everywhere, all around us. Kingdom, by contrast, implies a more specific location and community. Authority is dispersed everywhere. A kingdom is concentrated in its ruler, its domain, and its people. Authority can be disembodied. A kingdom is always enfleshed. God has rescued us from this disembodied darkness that is everywhere and brought us into a flesh and blood community under Jesus, the King, God’s beloved son.
The rest of the prayer describes, step by step, how God helps us grow in Christ. First, we are filled, then we learn to walk worthy, then we bear fruit, then we increase in experiential knowledge of God, then we are made powerful (different word here than authority, because in God’s kingdom all authority is located in Jesus), and all the while we are enduring suffering, growing “great-hearted,” and giving thanks.
This flow matters. We are filled first, “with all experiential-knowledge of God’s will” (1:9) so we can walk in the Lord. God initiates this process through filling our conscious awareness with God’s will and way for us. This is the work and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Ours is simply to receive it so we can walk worthy of the Lord. “Walk” refers to our whole way of life. The prayer is that this infilling moves us and enables us to make everything about how we live a worthy exemplar of Jesus.
While the outpouring may be at least partly a “me and Holy Spirit” experience, the walking worthy is not. The walking itself implies all of our interactions with others and the fruit that we bear in the process of these. I can’t talk about “my walk with Christ” and keep hoarding the infilling of the Spirit for myself and consider that I am getting anywhere. If I as an individual and we as a community of disciples are not actually walking with others and bearing fruit, the flow is being short-circuited.
The flow continues. As we walk worthy and bear fruit, we also increase in experiential-knowledge now not just of God’s will, but actually of God’s own Self (1:10). Growth in theology (knowing and understanding God) comes out of growth in practice (receiving the infilling, walking worthy, and bearing fruit). Let me repeat that. Our practice forms the backbone of our true understanding of God. This is a reversal of how Western cultures have normally framed our growth, at least since the Enlightenment. Paul’s teaching is we grow in knowledge of God only as we grow in practice of God’s will and ways. The Enlightenment says we grow in knowledge first, and that enables us to grow in practice.
As our experiential-knowledge of God continues to increase in this flow, we find ourselves encountering and incorporating tremendous power (not authority, as noted above: this word means the capacity to get things done). That power isn’t there to make us able to control the circumstances around us and bend them to our will (or God’s!) but rather to enable us to grow in longsuffering (“to endure,” NRSV) and great-heartedness (“patience,” NRSV, but maybe better, generosity of spirit). In other words, the more we come to know God through this flow, the more we find the power to respond to the world with the mercy of God. And there is thanksgiving at every step of the way, every day, every hour.
IN YOUR PLANNING TEAM
Carefully work through the description of the flow of the growth Paul prays for the Christians in Colossae in your worship planning team. Then ask yourselves the following:
Who in your midst or others you know seem to be living more or less out of this flow?
What differences are being made right now by people who keep living out the flow Paul prays for the people of Colossae?
Send folks to go talk to these people and find out what has helped them sustain this way of discipleship and what they might suggest could help others enter and stay in it.
Whether you can find others around you or not, consider entering this flow yourselves as a team and see what happens. Commit to a spiritual exercise, at least for the weeks you are working on this service. Begin each day in Scripture reading and prayer, inviting the Spirit to fill you with experiential knowledge of God’s will. Do what you hear and learn from the Scriptures and the prayer that day. Watch what fruit emerges. See what else you learn of God. Encounter whatever power flows from that. See how that power moves you to greater mercy, both in enduring suffering and in the generosity of your spirit. And at every step, give thanks.
Invite other small groups and individuals in your congregation to join your worship planning team in this exercise during the coming week, and report what they experience as they do so via social media or email. This is both an outflow of this week’s text and preparation for encountering next week’s. For as we practice listening for God’s will and doing it, we put ourselves in better stead to learn the fullness of who Christ is. And next week’s reading is all about who Christ is!
Gospel Track: Learning from the Master
Loving God and Neighbor
Week 1: “How to Be a Neighbor”
The story from Luke is so familiar that it may be difficult to hear in the way your congregation may need to hear and respond to it today. It's been made the subject of drama, of artwork, and many moral admonitions that we ought to love everyone well. We've heard it all before, right? So how do we hear it, really hear it, today?
One temptation that faces worship planners and preachers with such a familiar text is to try to come at it with some brand new “creative” approach to “spice it up.” Instead, consider letting the text speak boldly in its familiarity, while keeping the question Jesus asks us to learn from always before us: Who was neighbor to the man beaten and left to die? Or, as we might put it, “How can we love our neighbor?”
While the answer to that question may appear to be obvious, “The Samaritan,” that is not the answer the expert in the law gave and that Jesus commended. The literal answer the expert gave was “The one who did mercy with him” (Luke 7:37). Jesus’ response, “Go on your way and do likewise” is exactly his response to us. The invitation here is for us to quit “feeling” merciful and actually start “doing” mercy. And it is to do it with those in need, not at them.
Look at all the concrete ways the Samaritan “did mercy.”
- He came near.
- He was moved with compassion.
- He went to him.
- He bandaged the wounds.
- He poured oil (a soothing agent) and wine (antiseptic) on the wounds.
- He put him on his animal.
- He brought him to an inn.
- He took care of him at the inn.
All eight of these things were “triage.” All eight were things this man could not do for himself in his condition. So the Samaritan did them.
But that wasn’t all. He did more after that.
9. When he had to leave, he gave the innkeeper money to keep caring for him, promising to pay more if needed when he returned.
This is a bit of triage, but also something more. The Samaritan wasn’t promising to come back right away and keep fixing everything for the man. Instead, he was making it possible for this man to have some kind of community to get him back on his feet again.
This was “ministry with.”
Yes, we’ve seen this before, earlier in the gospel lessons this season, if you were following that series then. But it bears repeating. And this story is a great example of it, despite its history of serious misreadings.
The Samaritan did mercy, and he did it, hands on, with the beaten man.
This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus who loves neighbor as self. Sometimes it’s about rescue, if that’s needed. Sometimes it’s about making sure the systems of care and community in a place have what is needed. And sometimes it’s about walking away because you trust God and the resources of the community to do what is needed from there.
QUESTIONS FOR YOUR PLANNING TEAM
- Who is being beaten up on dangerous roads near you and left to die?
- Who is being chewed up and spit out by the culture, or individuals, or groups or institutions where you are?
- In what ways are people in your worshiping community owning that you are neighbors to these people?
- In what concrete, physical, hands-on ways are you “doing mercy with them?”
Send out your worship planning team members and others to go and ask these questions and listen for answers. Use the images you gather from what you learn to illustrate both those beaten at the side of the road and concrete examples of doing hands-on mercy with the beaten, the recovering, and the systems of care and caring people and resources in the community. Fill the worship space with these images in art or things evocative of them, while leaving the Lord’s Table and the font for their respective uses (bread and wine/water).
Then use Twitter and Facebook and other social media to keep asking for and sharing more examples throughout the following week to help prepare for the second service in this series, “Loving by Listening.”