Planning - The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33.
David's son Absalom had begun a civil war against his father. Still, David orders to his army were to "deal gently" with him. When Absalom was found stuck in a tree, he was executed and brought to David. David wept bitterly.
A Latin version of David's lament has been set to choral music by many composers in the West. Scores from Josquin des Prez and Heinrich Schtz are available. You can hear an arrangement by Pierre de la Rue on YouTube. Schtz's version with canzona introduction is also available on YouTube.
Psalm 130 (UMH 848).
A psalm often used at funerals (see UMH 873 for the King James Version), and an appropriate response to the story of David's deep grief over Absalom. John Wesley heard this psalm sung by the choir on the day of his turning to God at Aldersgate, May 24, 1738. If you will be singing the psalm, consider one of the following:
UMH 848 (Response with Tone 4 in G minor)
UMH 515 (metrical setting) "Out of the Depths I Cry to You" or
The Faith We Sing, 2136
The writer encourages the congregations to give up practices that lead to broken relationships with God and others and engage in practices that build up community.
John 6:35, 41-51.
Jesus says the Father, not his own teaching, draws people to "eat of him," "the true bread that is coming down from heaven." Those who "eat of him" are receiving eternal life.
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Calendar: Looking Ahead
How are you beginning to plan now for after "vacation season" comes to a close? See "Seasons and Series for Fall 2012" on the United Methodist Worship Blog or "Planning Worship for the Season after Pentecost, Year B" on the Discipleship Ministries website for prompts and suggestions.
Continue in prayer for your current bishop, your new bishop (if you are receiving one), and all persons, congregations, districts, conferences and episcopal areas experiencing leadership transitions. U.S. Bishops begin their new terms in just three weeks (September 1).
Labor Day (US) is Monday, September 3.
The Season of Creation is commemorated during September.
Hispanic Heritage Month (US) is September 15-October 15.
World Communion Sunday is October 7.
A Season of Saints is commemorated throughout October, starting with World Communion Sunday and culminating in All Saints Day/Sunday. Resources for 2012 will be posted in June. A basic calendar of saints for each Sunday from 2011 is available for those who did not use it last year. You would simply need to leave one week out, as October has only four Sundays this year.
Grieving, transforming, or proclaiming the power of the Eucharist? What will be your focus today? Once again, the readings are focused in such different directions that trying to address them all in one service may lead to "worship whiplash."
While you are always free to choose where to focus, consider the value of staying with the stream you have started rather than skipping around from week to week. The weeks of Ordinary Time after Pentecost are often a time for "series" preaching, and the lectionary is designed to support just that by staying with readings from the same book or larger story (in the case of the David saga) for weeks at a time.
Old Testament: From Judges to a King Like All the Nations
As we noted in last week's reading, this week's selection from 2 Samuel continues to address the aftermath of David's affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. That set of sinful actions provoked a curse from God on David's family that we see coming about in part in this week's reading, the execution of Absalom. Absalom had revolted against his father's reign, gathered an army around himself, taken over the palace in Jerusalem forcing David to flee, had public sex with (publicly raped!) his father's leading concubines on the roof of the palace, and set his army out to attack and destroy David's remaining army (see chapters 15-18). Still, as we see in today's reading, David ordered his army commanders to "deal gently" with Absalom.
Contrary to original plans, the battle was fought primarily in the forests of the territory of Ephraim. That location proved treacherous for Absalom's army and Absalom himself. He, like many of his men, found themselves knocked helpless or stuck in the trees. When Absalom managed to get his own head stuck in a tree, Joab (David's military commander) ordered Absalom executed on the spot -- hardly "dealing gently" as David had ordered.
When David receives the news, his grief knows no bounds.
As you are thinking about how to offer this reading, consider strongly using Psalm 130 as an immediate response to it. This Psalm, which has been used in Christian funeral rituals for centuries, puts poetry and song to the sense of grief expressed by David in the story.
After you have read the Scripture and responded with the Psalm, the critical question to address in your worship planning team is where you need to focus in this story today for the rest of the service.
Let me suggest two possible directions.
One is to sustain the focus on David's almost inconsolable grief. This story provides an outstanding opportunity to explore the many kinds of losses we experience in grief by naming some of the specific losses David experienced in Absalom's death. He had lost a beloved child, to be sure. But he also had lost his throne and his home for a time. He had lost control over even his most trusted military leader. He had lost any sense of harmony, respect, or leadership in his own family. And now he had lost any chance to try to reconcile with his power-hungry, estranged son. With Absalom's death, David was grieving all these losses and more.
What was true for David in a colossal, even public way, is true for all of us when we grieve. It is almost never a feeling of one big loss, but a thousand losses, some smaller, some greater, flooding our souls at first, and then rising to surprise us sometimes years later.
Perhaps for your congregation, it might be good for today to be a service of acknowledging and seeking healing in the midst of grief, drawing on the resources of David's story, Psalm 130, our Services of Death and Resurrection, and healing services.
Or perhaps your congregation may need to focus instead on the aspect of this story as consequence of poor decisions in the past and the need to move on from here. While today's reading ends with David's grief, David's story does not. Today's reading is the last we see of David alive. But before his death, noted in next week's reading, David fires Joab, shows mercy to enemies, and begins to reconsolidate his power in the nation (see 2 Samuel 19-23). In a very real way, today's reading represents a "bottoming out" from which David then emerges to end his kingship and his life in a much more stable place.
You and your planning team know your congregation. Think, pray and discern, then plan wisely, best enabling the Spirit of God to speak this Word of God among the People of God with whom you gather weekly.
Epistle: Networked Unity
Ephesians this week focuses on the practical possibility of transformations in the lives of followers of Jesus and the "culture" of congregations and the partnerships between them.
Verses 25-27 particularly seem to focus on the congregation or the circuit. Here Paul describes what it means to create a culture that quits lying and embraces truth-telling for the sake of the whole body, as well as one that understands and begins to use anger as an occasion for action to seek reconciliation quickly.
Verse 28 is addressed more specifically to individuals who may have been thieves in the past, but then provides guidance for the congregation (or the network) to aid their transformation -- putting former thieves into hands on community service with the poor.
Verse 29 through the end of this week's reading focuses explicitly on the actions and culture of the congregation or network as a whole.
How does your congregation's culture resemble what Paul commends here? Where does it not? What challenges has your congregation faced in trying to address "poor culture" that your wider network might help each congregation address more effectively?
As you consider these questions in our worship planning teams across your network, remember the goal. It isn't simply to have "happier" congregations. It is nothing less than to help more people "walk in love as Christ loved us," that they may be "imitators of God a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God" (5:1).
Paul's teaching here presumes it is possible to call a dead stop to the negative attitudes and behaviors and to replace them with the desirable ones. History shows this to be true. But history also shows that this works best when there is real accountability and real support -- accountability to end poor practices and support for beginning and sustaining good ones -- and where that accountability happens not at the individual level, nor solely at the small-group level, but in a network where all are held accountable to all.
This was the heart of the General Rules of the United Societies, the "large-group" ministries formed by John and Charles Wesley. The first two of these rules -- "Do no harm" and "Do good," each accompanied by specific lists of behaviors -- were concrete practices for enacting the baptismal covenant of his day (Book of Common Prayer, 1662) and as ways of making these verses from Ephesians come to life for people.
The key insight in early Methodism, though, was that having these rules in general -- that is, a larger group agreeing these things should be so -- makes almost no difference in the lives of individuals. In the first year or so of the Methodist societies, Wesley and others noted how people were floundering more than growing and the societies themselves were in some financial crisis. When the idea of creating smaller groups -- initially just to collect finances! -- was implemented, and these smaller groups (class meetings) became the place where the General Rules were actively discussed and used to help people, things turned around dramatically. See the many resources available on the Covenant Discipleship website for guidance on ways your congregation can recapture the core practices of accountable discipleship that develop leaders who will live as and make disciples of Jesus Christ who are being transformed by God's grace and power.
When you've discussed what's already in place that looks like what Paul describes, then ask how such realities of your congregation's and your network's life might be recognized as part of worship today. How might you incorporate these into prayer? into preaching? in singing? in artwork? in confessions of sin and faith? in testimonies from people whose lives have been transformed by the Spirit through accountable relationships?
Gospel: The Holy Meal, Part 3 -- "Ingesting" the Bread of Heaven
John's gospel offers us Part 3 of this five-week series from John reflecting on the meaning of Holy Communion.
In last week's text, Jesus offers his hearers a way to "get it" about the signs of God's kingdom -- follow him, recognizing him as the Bread of Life, the bread that comes down from heaven.
This week, we see pushback from those who reject this statement and further pushback from Jesus in response.
The pushback of several leaders of the Jewish religion is that Jesus is simply human, like the rest of them. They know his parents. He can't be from God.
Jesus' pushback in response is that the Father will continue to draw people to believe into Jesus, to follow his way and so experience eternal life now and resurrection on the last day.
The leaders tried to discredit Jesus' parentage.
Jesus discredits their religious commitments, trumping their objection by appealing to the prophets (verse 45) and the ongoing activity of the Father ("they shall all be taught by God," Isaiah 54:13).
Then, however, Jesus takes it one step further (verse 51).
It is not simply believing into him that provides a channel for eternal life. It is, more specifically, eating him, eating his flesh. It is this that is the most important focus for us in today's reading.
Here Jesus introduces one level of metaphor that may have been familiar to his audience of Jewish leaders, but another that would have been a serious challenge. At the more familiar level there was already in Ezekiel and Jewish apocalyptic literature the notion of eating scrolls given by God. The idea may have been somewhat literal, but was also understood metaphorically as fully ingesting the word given by God and incorporating it into one's own life so that one could then speak it with authenticity to the people. Thus, at this level, the Jewish leaders might have heard Jesus saying his own teaching was also God's word intended for those who followed him to "digest" and embody.
Jesus own words point in a more disturbing direction, however, but one that early Christians would have affirmed. The logic is clear. I am bread of heaven, I am flesh, and the bread I give is my flesh. Whoever eats my flesh will live into the age to come. This was more than metaphorical, and it wasn't Gnostic. It was something else.
Christian believers in John's community knew what it was. It was the heart of their worship, the celebration of the Eucharist, in which they offered themselves with bread and wine and received, by God's grace, these elements somehow transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Christians in John's community in this early period did not try to explain how this happened. They simply affirmed that it did every time they gathered in Lord's Day worship.
The staging of these readings through these weeks gives worship planners and preachers the opportunity to offer teaching about the nature of Holy Communion in stages. This week's text points to the Eucharist, but does not point to the acts there as eating the body and blood of Christ as specifically as next week's text will do.
This week, then, may be an opportunity to focus on what it means to "ingest" (rather than physically eat) the teaching of Jesus. This may include some listing and practice of some of the practices that have been involved in doing this -- daily reading of Scripture, meditation on the Scripture, group practices of Lectio Divina, and perhaps as important or more so, people actually doing what Jesus says and reporting what happens when they do that (i.e., giving account of the gospel in action in and through and around their lives!). It would also be most appropriate to celebrate Communion this Sunday and to leave the more concrete teaching about "real presence" in the elements and among the people for next week's text, where those issues become inescapable.
Specifically for today, then, look at your worship plan and ask how, at several points along the way, people are being given the opportunity to "ingest" the teaching of Jesus. Consider how hymns, unison prayers, confessions of faith, and other responses to the Scripture might support this. Look particularly at how the "normal" parts of your worship may already support this, and take advantage of these "good habits" as a platform to begin to build out more or better ones.
- Greeting: BOW 453 (2 Samuel, John) or 870 ("Dying, Christ destroyed our death" 2 Samuel)
- Opening Prayer: BOW 469 (John), 872 (2 Samuel)
- Call to Prayer: UMH 608, stanza 1, "This Is the Spirit's Entry Now" (Ephesians)
- Prayer: UMH 481, The Prayer of Saint Francis (Ephesians)
- Prayer: BOW 399, Week 2 (John)
- Prayer: BOW 431 by Barbara Dunlap-Berg (John, Communion)
- Prayer: BOW 514, "For the Mind of Christ" (Ephesians)
- Response: BOW 191, "May This Mind Be in Us" (Ephesians)
- Poem: UMH 656, "If Death My Friend and Me Divide" (2 Samuel)
- Scripture Response: UMH 178, stanza 2, "Hope of the World" (Ephesians, John)
- The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Aotearoa, New Zealand, Australia
- Great Thanksgiving for Season After Pentecost: BOW 70 or 152 (including the names of those who have died recently between the section beginning "Pour out your Spirit . . ." and "By your Spirit . . .")
- Communion Response: UMH 628, "Eat This Bread" (John)
- Benediction: UMH 672 or UMH 673, stanzas 2, 3, "God Be with You till We Meet Again" (2 Samuel, John)
- Benediction: BOW 189, "May This Mind Be in Us" (Ephesians)