The Death of Absalom. Detail from the Breviary of Charles V, 14th C illuminated manuscript. Public domain. in 2015. Public Domain.
Revised Common Lectionary Readings
See the texts, artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this Sunday at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes. Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegéticos: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
Lecionário comum revisado (português)
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33. David's son Absalom had begun a civil war against his father. Still, David ordered his army to “deal gently” with him. When Absalom was found stuck in a tree, he was executed and brought to David. David wept bitterly.
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 516 (alternate version)
UMH 515 (metrical setting) "Out of the Depths I Cry to You" or
The Faith We Sing, 2136
Ephesians 4:25—5:2. Paul 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.
Worship Planning Notes
Mid-Series and Heading for a Wrap
We are now three weeks out from a “stream switch Sunday,” where all three readings will move to a different book of the Bible and different themes. These Sundays give you the opportunity to work from a different set of texts without interrupting a series in progress.
On August 30, the Old Testament reading will move from a focus on the story of David and Solomon to a reading from Song of Solomon (the only one in the three-year cycle) and wisdom literature through the end of the season. The Epistle will begin a five week series in James. And the gospel reading moves back from John to Mark through the end of the season.
Now is a good time to begin promoting your next series if you have not already started doing so.
How are you beginning to plan for after “vacation season” comes to a close? How about Advent and Christmas Seasons? See “Seasons and Series for Fall 2015,” “Planning Worship for Discipleship and Ministry During the Season after Pentecost, Year B,” and “Three Ways to Celebrate Advent and Christmas Season Fully in 2015/2016” for suggestions and resources.
To learn more about Extended Advent and how to implement it where you are, sign yourself and your team up for our free webinar, Celebrating Extended Advent: Why and How-To, September 15, at 7:30 p.m. CDT.
All Month Season of Creation (global and ecumenical)
September 7 Labor Day (USA)
October 15 Hispanic Heritage Month (USA)
All Month Season of Saints
October 4 World Communion Sunday
October 11 Children’s Sabbath
October 18 Laity Sunday
November 1 All Saints Day (USA Standard Time Begins)
November 8 Extended Advent Begins
Organ and Tissue Donor Sunday
Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church
November 11 Veterans Day (USA)
November 22 Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday
Bible Sunday (USA)
November 26 Thanksgiving Day (USA)
November 29 “Regular” Advent Begins
United Methodist Student Day
Old Testament: The David Saga
Week 10: Losses and Life Go On
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. “I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house,” the prophet warned (12:11, NRSV). Absalom had revolted against his father’s reign, gathered an army around himself, taken over the palace in Jerusalem forcing David to flee, 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). Even so, 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 (18:8). He, like many of his men, found themselves knocked helpless or stuck in the trees. When Absalom’s head became stuck in a tree, the armor bearers of Joab (David’s commander) killed him on the spot—hardly “dealing gently” as David had ordered.
When David received the news, his grief was profound (18:33).
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.
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 fired Joab, showed mercy to enemies, and began to reconsolidate his power in the nation (see chapters 19-23). In a very real way, today’s reading represents a “bottoming out” from which David then emerged to end his kingship and his life in a much more stable place.
Losses caused by his sin continued to accumulate. He grieved them.
And, when he could, he got about the business of repairing what he could and moving on.
In Your Planning Team
There are two distinct directions a focus on this text and what follows it could take today.
Disciples grieve. Jesus wept. Whether we can be considered in any way the cause of our losses as the David saga in 2 Samuel clearly claims David was, the fact is we lose loved ones and we grieve. And we need to take time for that pain, or, rather, the pains resulting from the myriad small losses that even a single loss can bring.
So you may discern with your team that today is a good day to focus on the reality of grief and how we as disciples of Jesus experience it and find ways to lament and grow through it, or, sometimes, despite it.
Perhaps you have other and better ways to deal with grief in the life of disciples than a single sermon or worship service today. Or perhaps the better focus for your congregation today is more on what happens beyond the reading—how David moved from and in the midst of his profound grief to doing what was needed to make his nation more whole. Grief can stop us cold, and sometimes, for a while, it should. It can also clarify what matters most, and, almost paradoxically, give us the energy to focus our passion and energy toward ensuring the most important things get the most attention.
The choice is yours: Grief as stopping place, or grief as motivator. Let me simply suggest it is a choice. Trying to focus on both in the same service is unlikely to address either of these appropriately.
If you choose the former, you may find it useful to draw on the rich resources of the Services of Death and Resurrection section of the Book of Worship (139-171). Some of these also appear online.
If you choose the latter, draw on testimony from within your congregation. Collect interviews or make room for live testimony or post and refer to stories on your website about how disciples of Jesus have found guidance to focus much more on what matters most as disciples of Jesus and took concrete action to bring these things to fruition or a better state than they had been. Simply be sure to screen any such pieces before they are shared to make sure they do not come off as in any way critiquing persons who, in their process of grief, may not be in a place where they can begin to pursue new things.
Be attentive to song text choice as well. Upbeat, happy-clappy songs that “just praise the Lord” are not likely to be helpful whichever approach you take today. Songs with a theme of strength in the midst of tribulation may be more on target today. See UMH 509-536, TFWS 2208-2219, MVPC 256-266, CLUS 304-309, and W&S 3140-3144 as places to start.
Epistle: Networked Unity
Week 10: From What We Are to What We’re Meant to Be
Ephesians this week focuses on the personal transformation of individuals and systemic transformation across congregations and networks.
Christian people and Christian culture in a congregation or across a network quit lying and embrace truth-telling for the sake of the whole body. They also understand and begin to use anger as an occasion to seek reconciliation quickly (verses 25-27).
Christian culture in congregations or across the network helps move former thieves into hands on community service with the poor (verse 28).
The nature of the conversation supported within congregations and networks is never to be destructive of others, but always about building up the whole body and blessing all who hear or overhear (verse 29). It is to be an expression of joy in the Holy Spirit, not words that grieve the Spirit (verse 30).
For that kind of conversation to happen and be sustained requires putting an end to all conversation that is filled with bitterness, rage, uncontrolled anger, fighting for the sake of fighting, slander of others (ad hominem) or malice. Instead, the conversations to be fostered must be driven by kindness, compassion, and mutual forgiveness (verses 31-32).
All of these are not just individual changes, but cultural ones. And all of them are necessary if we are to be imitators of God, walking in love as Christ has loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God (5:1-2).
Few if any individuals unsupported by a community seeking to live out such a transformed way will be able to do it, at least not for long. Paul envisions the congregations and their larger network working together in some way to provide the support needed for individuals and congregations in the network to live into this vision of sanctified life in Christ.
In short, helping these transformations happen for more people requires a process of accountability for individuals and congregations alike.
Such accountability 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 including specific lists of behaviors, were guidance for concrete practices to help people enact the baptismal covenant of the day (Book of Common Prayer, 1662), and as ways of making these verses from Ephesians 5 come to life for people.
A key learning in early Methodism, though, was that having these rules as lists—not unlike Paul’s list in Ephesians 5-- makes almost no difference in the lives of individuals or wider systems. You could recite the rules, memorize them, hold them up as ideals for all in a larger group to follow, and next to nothing would change. Indeed, during 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. The large group couldn’t and didn’t help people live accountably. It would take a smaller, face-to-face group, to do that. The class meetings that began as a means to collect funds for the societies soon became the needed small groups where people could give weekly accounts of how they were (or were not) living out the General Rules, and each person could offer support to the others to do so better.
Class meetings were already on the wane by the 1830s in “white” American Methodist denominations, though they continued strong among African-American Methodist denominations. In General Conferences in 1848, the divided white Methodists, North and South, made participation in class meetings essentially optional for church membership, and by the early twentieth century, the class meetings themselves were considered optional as a ministry for congregations to offer.
There are ways to reclaim a positive practice of accountable discipleship so individuals, congregations and networks of congregations can enable the kinds of transformation Paul describes to be lived reality for more people. Covenant Discipleship is one of these ways. The Covenant Discipleship website provides much guidance on ways your congregation or your wider network can recapture the core practices of accountable discipleship and thereby develop leaders who will live as and make disciples of Jesus Christ who are being transformed by God's grace and power.
In Your Planning Team
Last week, we looked for assets in our congregations and across our networks for building up the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
That Spirit-born, Spirit-breathed, and Spirit-sustained unity provides the foundation for a community where much transformation can happen in the lives of individuals and systems.
Unity is foundational. But it is not all that is needed.
We also need for sinful practices to be stopped and rooted out, replaced by practices that allow the love of Christ to flow through us unimpeded.
And that level of transformation, in turn, requires more than a to-do list and individual will-power. It requires face-to-face accountability.
As you design worship today in your own congregation and across your networks, ask which of your congregations has effective accountable discipleship groups—small groups of 5-7 people who meet to help one another grow in faithfulness to the baptismal covenant and, perhaps more specifically, in faithfulness to the kinds of transformations Paul describes in today’s reading.
Maybe your congregation already hosts one or more such groups. Maybe yours does not, but another in your network does. Ask about which of these groups may be open to receiving new participants, and ask specifically how people who are interested could get in touch with group leaders to start participating this coming week.
If none of your churches has any such groups, or the groups that exist are either not open to new participants or not effective, discuss across your congregations how (and when) such groups that would be open to folks from any of the congregations in your network could be started. Develop a concrete plan, with trained or experienced leaders, contact information, and start dates. And include information about these plans as it becomes available in all of your congregation’s regular communications.
We are Wesleyans. We do not intend simply to increase the number of people attending worship, but the number of disciples of Jesus Christ who are growing in holiness of heart and life toward perfection in love in this life. We understand there is no religion but social religion. That is, we cannot grow alone. It always takes a village of those committed to growing with us.
This is why John Wesley forbade field preaching where there were not class meetings ready to receive new members. And it’s why the invitation at the end of field preaching was never simply “come to Jesus,” but also “come to a class meeting” that can surround you with support where you are so that you will grow into the full image of Christ.
Model what you do today in worship on the early field preaching. Sing, pray, and preach passionately for the power of the Spirit to bring about such transformations among the people who gather with you, across your congregation, and across your network. And then invite people, as an invitation to discipleship in response to the word, to sign up for the group they wish to be part of. If possible, make sign-ups available in real time, whether via paper, phone, or tablet, so group leaders can follow up with those who have indicated an interest in participating in their group.
Gospel: The Holy Meal, Part 3—
“Ingesting” the Bread of Heaven
In last week’s text, Jesus offered his hearers a way to “get it” about the signs of God’s kingdom—follow him, and in so doing come to recognize him as the Bread of Life, the bread that comes down from heaven.
This week, we see pushback from those who reject his answer, and further pushback from Jesus in response.
The pushback of some religious leaders was that Jesus was 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 discredited 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, 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 was 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, like that of the prophets, 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 (verse 51). 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.
In Your Planning Team
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 of eating the body and drinking the 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 a list and a sampling 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 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.
The United Methodist Book of Worship (BOW) and Ecumenical Prayer Cycle
Greeting: BOW 453 (2 Samuel, John) or UMH 870 (“Dying, Christ destroyed our death,” II Samuel)
Opening Prayer: BOW 469 (John), 872 (II Samuel)
Call to Prayer: UMH 608, stanza 1, "This Is the Spirit's Entry Now" (Ephesians)
WORD AND RESPONSE
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)
Ecumenical Prayer Cycle: Aotearoa, New Zealand; Australia
THANKSGIVING AND COMMUNION
Great Thanksgiving for Season After Pentecost: BOW 70-71, 78-79 or Holy Wisdom: A Great Thanksgiving (John, Ephesians); or the version for today from Lift Up Your Hearts (Year B)
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)