Planning - Eighth Sunday After the Epiphany
God calls a people in exile to come home, a people in shadows to come out from hiding. God has not forgotten them. They are inscribed in the palm of God's hand.
Psalm 131 or Psalm 62:5-12 (UMH 787).
Psalm 131 is the better fit with the Isaiah reading, but does not appear in the United Methodist Hymnal (The UMH Psalter is based on the Common Lectionary; the Revised Common Lectionary was published in 1992).
1 Corinthians 4:1-5.
Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that it's not their call to which of their chief leaders is better than another. God judges and God hands out commendations in God's own way and time.
Jesus reminds all hearers that one cannot serve both God and the power of wealth and that those who serve in God's reign need not worry themselves about their basic needs or about tomorrow. Put God's kingdom first, and everything necessary will come as well.
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Today is the Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, the final of the "ordinary" (i.e., numbered) Sundays after Epiphany. Today is a day to wrap up whichever of the two streams you have been following (OT/Gospel or Epistle).
Next Sunday, March 6, is The Feast of the Transfiguration, a transitional Sunday between the ordinary time after Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. We move from one mountain where Jesus offered the sermon we've been listening to these past five weeks to another where Jesus is transfigured and a few of his disciples get a glimpse of his true glory. All the readings are connected to one another on this day, with a focus on the gospel reading. We celebrate this now precisely as a reminder that the one who leads us through the coming season of penitence and preparation is preparing us to participate in such glory with him both now and at his second coming.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on March 9. By now, your planning for Lent should be well underway. For specific guidance for weekly ways to include a focus on persons preparing for baptism in appropriate ways during worship, see Come to the Waters by Daniel Benedict.
On the denominational calendar, Black History Month concludes this week. Resources are available from the General Commission on Religion and Race and through the 21st Century worship resources on the Discipleship Ministries website.
The World Day of Prayer is Friday, March 4. The 2011 focus of this international and ecumenical women's day of prayer is Chile. Additional United Methodist resources will be made available by the General Board of Global Ministries as the day nears.
The One Great Hour of Sharing offering is received on April 3, the fourth Sunday in Lent. This denominational offering underwrites the administrative costs of the United Methodist Committee on Relief so it can continue to offer worldwide emergency relief and long-term disaster support with no overhead for its direct services.
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Atmospherics: OT/Gospel Stream -- What God's Kingdom Requires and Blesses
Children of the kingdom of God, fret not about this life or its necessities! God has your back! Or as the prophet put it, "I will not forget you! I have etched your names on the palm of my hand!" (Isaiah 49:16a).
What a blessing to rest in this assurance, to be buoyed up in the stream of such grace.
That is, if you are indeed children of the kingdom of God. Jesus begins his teaching in this section, making it clear that that choice remains ours to make. And it is an ultimate choice, because, he says, it is impossible to serve God's kindgom and the power of wealth in this world. Choose the power of wealth and you should worry yourselves like the Gentiles (verse 32). But choose to "lean on the everlasting arms," breaking allegiance with the power of wealth and pledging allegiance to God's kingdom first, and you can let go all of that. God will provide you clothing, food, and drink enough. Regular shelter may or may not be in the mix (foxes have holes and birds of the air, nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, Mt. 8:20). But you'll not go starving in service to God's kingdom.
The choice or the pledge of allegiance is the key point here, and it ties today's readings with the season of Lent and baptismal preparation to come. The very first baptismal question in the oldest texts we have (from North Africa, Rome, and Syria) is, "Do you renounce Satan and all his works and all his pomps?" The answer, "I renounce them." The first ritual action in baptism, then, is an act of treason, renouncing the powers of this world, renouncing Mammon. Such a decisive break is exactly what Jesus calls for here if we are to know the blessing of life in God's kingdom.
The second and third questions in our current liturgy (which represent an amalgam of the first and second questions of many ancient liturgical texts) ask whether we will accept the freedom and power God gives us to reject evil, injustice and oppression however they present themselves and whether we will confess Jesus as Savior and Lord, putting our whole trust, our whole allegiance, in him. These second and third questions move us from simply rejecting Mammon to fully embracing Christ and his kingdom. The confessing of the creed affirms this commitment to be Christ's and not Mammon's representative in the world, and prepares us for the cleansing and sealing by water over which we have given thanks and Spirit on whom we call.
Whether you reaffirm the baptismal covenant today or not, the blessing and the requirement stand before you. How rich the blessing? Why would people try to hedge their bets by seeking to serve both masters, a futile task? Even more, why would people continue to live with anxiety over basic life needs when -- should they choose the way of God's kingdom -- that anxiety, that existential angst, can be no more?
This is no theological magic. And of course this is not directly addressing the needs of people with diagnosable anxiety disorders (though as one of those persons myself, I can say it does help!). Jesus is not peddling psychological snake oil here. He is speaking the truth in love.
A challenge then and now is that we see so many "faithful people" who do hedge their bets, and worry, all around us. And we see many faithless people who, as the Psalmist of Psalm 73 complains, seem without a care in the world.
So perhaps your main task for this Sunday, worship planners, is to find people, perhaps some of your own number, who can bear testimony to what it's like to put God's kingdom first and let go Mammon and its worries. These are the people you want to give you imagery for worship space today. They can tell you what that feels like. They can tell you what it compares to. Some may say, "free as a bird and lovely as the flowers," as Jesus himself alludes to here (so do include those images!). And they may also be able to tell you the songs they sing, songs that express well what they've found. (If you can do it legally, try to sing one or more of these in some way today in worship!). But ask around, listen intently, and see what else the Spirit is awakening in people who are living this way, even if not perfectly yet.
Let their songs and stories inspire and lift the worshipers who gather. Let their images surround and flow over you like baptismal waters. And let many more people know and feel that choosing God's kingdom surely means no worries, because God has etched them in the palm of God's hand.
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Epistle Stream: I Corinthians
Our final foray into I Corinthians may seem strange, confusing and even troubling. What is Paul talking about here when he talks about judging? Is he saying never judge anyone? Jesus did teach us to judge others, but to do so recognizing we are judged by whatever standard we use to judge others. Is Paul throwing even that to the wind here? Perhaps even worse, for those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, is he making a case here against being accountable to one another?
In a word, no. It's important to read these five verses with the first verse, and all that has come before it (all we have seen these seven weeks!) in mind. Paul is making an argument here about himself, and particularly himself as a leader, an apostle, and essentially the founding pastor of the Christian community in Corinth. He identifies what his role and the role of other pastoral leaders since has been for them: "a steward (household manager) of the mysteries of God" (I Corinthians 4:1). In a Greco-Roman household, the steward essentially managed the books, supplies and upkeep for the household. In that role, he had only one person he reported to, the head of the household. He didn't report to the other servants, or to other family members, or to anyone else in the rest of the household, though his decisions and processes would affect them all. He reported to the head of the household, and that was all. The head of the household, and no other person in it, would offer commendations or critique of the work the steward performed.
In the same way, Paul is saying here, since he and other significant leaders the Christians in Corinth had known were such stewards of the divine mysteries, they, too, had only one report, only one who could determine who had done well and how well each had done, and that one report is God. So it's one more argument from Paul about why any of their efforts to say one pastor or leader or another was THE right authority on a particular thing, and worse, as they had done, to take sides around which was greater among them, were entirely misguided. It is not up to them to judge relative pastoral effectiveness, and seeking to do so can only lead them into serious conflicts and troubles, the very conflicts they were then facing, in fact, conflicts which still keep them operating "in the flesh" rather than moving on "in the Spirit."
By now in this series your worshiping community may have "gotten it" that Corinth had a problem with divisions based on allegiances to past or present leaders. In that sense, there may be little new here to explore for today, unless this remains as persistent a problem in your worshiping community as it appears to have been in Corinth, necessitating Paul to come up with so many different angles to try to tackle this and get them to let it go.
So maybe the question for your community today is more about ways in which holding on to assessments about the ultimate effectiveness of anything in the past, including positive assessments, may be keeping preventing you from moving forward into all that the Spirit is doing in your midst now and leading you toward. Are you overly attached to continuing to offer a Vacation Bible School for young children while most of the minors in your community are in their teens, and some of them might be great leaders in a variety of ministry projects that have nothing to do with VBS? Has a feeding ministry started by a beloved saint in your midst become a burden for that person and others you really can't handle well now, and maybe don't need to?
This isn't about rejecting the past or past leaders, or failing to appreciate them. Far from it! It's not even about trying to forget the past, as if memory were your enemy. It's certainly not! The church is profoundly a community of memory! It's really about whether memory and prior attachments are now functioning as a friend to current opportunities in mission or a roadblock. In making that discernment, you are not making ultimate judgments about leaders (which is what Paul rejects here!). Instead you are appreciating all that you've had and all the people you've known and finding better ways to use these gifts in God's mission in your midst now, trusting that in the end God is the ultimate judge, and along the way the Spirit is guiding you to use what you have, all that you have, in service to God's mission, God's kingdom here and now and for years to come.
Judging is a key word in this reading. It is also a word that often conjures negative feelings, especially in current North American culture. What images speak of judging where you are? A gavel? A pointed finger? People holding up score cards? A number of thumbs up or thumbs down? Precisely because this word and such images can be negatively loaded, think about how such images may be a motif in worship space today, but in a playful way. Help take the toxic feelings out of this word and these images with creativity and humor.
Maybe even offer a skit or a video where former pastors or certain elements of worship are judged by the "audience." Consider bringing out a gong, even! But then move from the fun to the realization that if we come together as a community to judge our leaders and pick favorites, or come to worship to judge each element there, perhaps we've not come together as a community or in worship at all. Perhaps, in taking on judgment as our primary task, we've distanced ourselves from actually being community to one another in the Spirit, and from actually offering ourselves fully in worship to God.
Find ways to reinvest the word with nuances of discerning, getting unstuck (from two weeks ago), and sensing the work and movement of the Spirit that unites you in love and common action, both in worship and in mission.
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- Greeting: UMBOW 457 (Isaiah, Matthew), UMBOW 456 (I Corinthians)
- Opening Prayer: UMBOW 459 (Matthew) UMBOW 464 (I Corinthians)
- Invitation/Prayer of Confession/Pardon: UMBOW 475 or The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 7-8 (1 Corinthians, Matthew)
- Concerns and Prayers: UMBOW 495, UMBOW 529 (Isaiah, Matthew) UMBOW 530 (I Corinthians)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Andorra, Monaco, and San Marino
- Prayer of Thanksgiving if Communion will not be celebrated: UMBOW 552
- Great Thanksgiving: UMBOW 78-79 or The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 9-11
- Dismissal with Blessing: UMBOW 564
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