Planning - Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23.
A selection of sayings about wealth, justice, generosity, and the poor.
Psalm Response: Psalm 125 (not in UMH) or Psalm 124 (UMH 846).
Tone 3 in E-flat major. Psalm 125 speaks of God's protection for the righteous, a somewhat closer match to the theme of the readings from Proverbs. Psalm 124 offers thanksgiving for God's deliverance from enemies.
James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17.
James teaches that partiality based on economic or social status is contrary to the call of Christian discipleship. God has enabled the poor to be rich in faith, but the rich have often exercised their power to oppress people and keep them poor. Disciples of Jesus must take direct action to relieve the needs of the poor "faith without works is dead."
Jesus goes to Lebanon for a vacation and there encounters a local woman whose begging ultimately convinces him to free her daughter from a demon. Returning to Galilee, and re-entering the region of the Decapolis (where he had cast out a legion of demons), Jesus heals a man who could not hear or speak. The more he ordered others not to speak of this, the more they spread it abroad.
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We continue in Ordinary Time with the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
These weeks of Ordinary Time are especially suited for "series preaching" through books or "big stories" of the Bible. Continue the stream you chose to begin last week. See "Worship Planning for the Season after Pentecost, Year B" on the Discipleship Ministries website for further suggestions.
Today is also the second week of the ecumenically growing emphasis called "Season of Creation." United Methodist resources for the Season of Creation based on the Revised Common Lectionary are available on the Discipleship Ministries website.
Some congregations will find the need to keep some remembrance of the events of September 11, 2001, on this day. See our ever-growing collection of resources under the title, Times of Crisis.
How is planning going for the upcoming months? See "Seasons and Series for Fall 2012" on the United Methodist Worship Blog for some suggestions.
Continue in prayer for your former bishop (whether retired or assuming a new episcopal area), your current or new bishop (if you are receiving one), and all persons, congregations, districts, conferences and episcopal areas experiencing leadership transitions. Bishops began their new terms on September 1.
Hispanic Heritage Month (US) is September 15-October 15.
A Season of Saints is commemorated throughout October, starting with World Communion Sunday and culminating in All Saints Day/Sunday. We have posted a basic calendar of saints for each Sunday with links to more information about each saint available for both 2012 and 2011. Worship Planning Helps are already posted with suggestions for the 2011 resources. More detailed helps for 2012 are coming soon.
World Communion Sunday is October 7.
Children's Sabbath is observed on October 14.
Laity Sunday is October 21.
All Saints Sunday is November 4.
There are some thematic commonalities between the readings from Proverbs and James this week. Each in its particular way calls us to do more than give lip service to caring for "the poor," as if "they" are not "us" or as if "they" were "people with problems." Among early Christians, and among Christians globally today, very often "the poor" were/are nearly the entire congregation! "The rich and the poor have this in common: The Lord is the maker of us all," Proverbs reminds.
Read all three of the texts and pray the Psalm in worship, if you can, but focus in your planning and preaching on the stream of texts you began last week (Wisdom Literature, James, Gospel). This will give your congregation the opportunity for the deeper exploration of the Bible for which these weeks of the lectionary were created.
Wisdom: Proverbs, Week 1
Part of your opportunity and task in teaching or preaching today may be helping your congregation learn how to read, experience, and understand the Proverbs. Often throughout the collection, one proverb is not directly related to the next. So reading them aloud in succession can make them hard to follow.
And if you read them as English prose, your more social-media savvy worshipers may scan or hear them almost as if they were "tweets" -- little pithy sayings that may be almost as ephemeral as they are pointed. Depending on where you are, you may wish to consider posting them that way through the week, or even presenting them that way onscreen when you read them in worship.
But then, come Sunday, help your congregation begin to unpack what they really are: compact, powerful nuggets of Hebrew poetry that may demand minutes, hours, or even years of careful meditation, analysis, and reflection to be grasped and lived.
So as you think about working with Proverbs these next few weeks, and especially today, think less about how you will "preach" what is in them, and more about how you will help your congregation learn how to read, meditate, and grapple with them themselves.
In English poetry, meaning or at least memorability may be enhanced through the rhyming of sounds at the ends of lines. Hebrew doesn't work with rhyme. Instead, it rhymes "meaning" through a literary device called "parallelism." If you and your planning team have access to a good study Bible, look up and "bone up" on parallelism in Hebrew poetry. And as you do, keep in mind this insight from Gerhard von Rad in his book Wisdom in Israel (Trinity Press International, 1993, p. 24) "[P]erception takes place precisely in and with the poetic conception."
That's why sermons, which tend to "linearize" or "principlize" or "moralize" or "narrativize" or "prose-ify" biblical texts can't possibly do the Proverbs justice. Instead of a sermon, teach and train the congregation in how to listen to these words, how to hear the interplay of meaning within a verse and across verses that may be connected, and more or less let the meanings emerge from the hearing and interplay itself, perhaps aided by some examples and conversation along the way.
Let's take one verse as an example for your worship planning team, or possibly your congregation, to "play with"-- Proverbs 21:1 (NRSV).
A [good] name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
And favor is better than silver or gold.
A direct, linear reading might be "reputation matters more than money." That would not be incorrect, but it would be missing the richness of what is going on here poetically.
Within the first line, there is a contrast (antithetical parallelism) between "good name" and "great riches." This line itself is saying that when given the choice, go for a [good] name. It doesn't even have to be great. In fact, the word "good" doesn't even appear in the Hebrew (though it is probably implied in translation to English). A "name" is more valuable than even great riches.
This leads to contemplation on those elements that make for a good name. Then as now, family of origin has something to do with this. But the verse itself already indicates that that isn't the point here. The good name commended here is to be chosen. The good name is what we make of it the way we live, not an inheritance some may be blessed or lucky to be born with. This means a good name is potentially available to all. But, given the tense of the Hebrew verb here, it also means it must be pursued, chosen continuously over time.
So what leads to a good name where you are? What choices do people make and keep making to achieve and sustain a good name over time?
And there's more. Both "a good name" and "riches" can be chosen continuously. What is there about the process of choosing riches continuously that might inform how we think about choosing a good name continuously instead? Every culture has its stories of people coming into sudden wealth and losing it all. "Getting" wealth is different from having the skills and habits needed to build, sustain, and continue to grow it. Are there habits of "choosing" wealth that are like those needed to choose a good name? Are there habits of choosing wealth that make it more difficult to choose a good name?
Have a conversation about this in your worship planning team. The purpose of having this conversation is to give you experience in having it among yourselves before you open it up to the congregation on Sunday morning, perhaps in small groups among the people where they're sitting. And the purpose of that conversation in worship is to help your congregation begin a lifelong, ongoing conversation about these things within the household of faith. Wisdom emerges among those who keep such conversations alive and keep learning from them.
All that, and we've only looked at the first line of one verse.
Second line: "favor is better than silver or gold."
What is favor? Here it does not mean favoritism, or being favored for some reason by others. It's not about trying to make others like you. In Hebrew, the sense may be better rendered something more like "graciousness." And here, the Hebrew adds the adjective "good" to modify "graciousness." We could re-translate this as "goodly graciousness."
But now comes another question. The line as we have it in the NRSV seems to propose that "goodly graciousness" is, by its very nature, better than silver or gold. The Hebrew text, however, does not say that. The verb of being (is) is not supplied. And the word order of this line in the Hebrew is actually the reverse of what appears in the NRSV.
So here's a translation of the line that is closer to the Hebrew structure and wording:
"rather than silver and rather than gold, goodly graciousness."
Put this way, the governing verb for this line is the same as for the first -- "is to be chosen." "Goodly graciousness" here is thus not a talent or a gift one may be lucky enough to have, but a chosen way of life continuously practiced.
One more thing still needs to be noted in this line. In North American usage, the term "silver and gold" is used as a whole idiom referring to money or wealth generally. The Hebrew does not do that. It distinguishes silver from gold (captured in the translation above by the second "rather"). That is because to the composers of this Proverb, silver and gold, while both currency in a way, represented currency and power in different social classes. The silver coin was the daily wage for "ordinary" folk. Gold was traded among the powerful or highly wealthy. Thus, this little line is saying that no matter what kind of currency, or class, you are part of, goodly graciousness is the always the way to choose.
And keep in mind that "goodly graciousness" plays directly into the Second General Rule -- "Do good to all." Graciousness, generosity, kindness -- these are part of the fruit of the Spirit that demonstrate that our hearts and lives are moving toward perfection in love in this life.
So what are the practices that characterize and lead to "goodly graciousness" where you are? Again, discuss this in your worship planning team. And then talk about how to help your congregation begin a good conversation about this in worship that will continue into their lives as disciples of Jesus, the Word and Wisdom of God.
And there is still more. So far we have just looked at the lines individually. The fullness of meaning emerges not just from the lines, but also from the interplay between them. The Hebrew text is in an A-B-B-A poetic structure that might be captured like this:
A name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
rather than silver and rather than gold, goodly graciousness.
What this formatting helps to underscore is the parallelism between "name" and "goodly graciousness" and also between "great riches" and "silver" and "gold." What this parallelism invites is contemplation on and conversation about the possible connections and contrasts between the things that are parallel with each other. The structure of this proverb connects these things, but does not specify what the connection is. That is left for the readers and hearers of these words to meditate upon.
So try a third conversation in your worship planning team. What connections do you see and experience between a "good name" and "goodly graciousness"? Keep in mind that this is not hypothetical or theoretical, but deeply practical. The verse itself says that. These are things we are choosing to DO, not merely "traits" we are seeking to "think about." We make choices and take actions toward a good name, or we don't. We make choices and take actions toward goodly graciousness, or we don't. So what are the connections between the practices we undertake that reflect or help us obtain and sustain a good name and the practices we undertake that reflect or help us obtain and sustain goodly graciousness? Are there ways that these practices might be the same? Or are there ways these practices might be used to enhance each other? And finally, what concrete steps will each person commit to choose a good name and goodly graciousness and to enhance the practice of each throughout their lives, beginning today?
And this is just one verse.
Wisdom literature is prized in Judaism precisely for its power to generate such deep conversation and transformation of life from such small, short statements. It pushes us to reflect deeply on the whole of God's word and our lived experience in ways that no other genre of literature may do. It thus helps to number us among the righteous according to Psalm 1:2 -- "On God's law they meditate day and night." It requires strenuous spiritual work just to be able to hear these words well in the first place, and even more to let the hearing be translated as fully into our doing as these texts intend. If you haven't taken up this work yourself or helped your congregation to take it up, start today!
Doing the Word: James
James this week reminds us that our care for the poor as followers of Jesus can't be just about having our consciences pricked or simply about sending money. Nor is it only about building or supporting programs whether governmental, or faith-based, or led by other non-profits to help folks get a "hand up." It is not even solely about addressing and reversing the "root causes" that lead to conditions of poverty in the first place.
To be sure, all of these are critical places for the church to be actively engaged. But all of them can also be exercises in missing the point. What matters most of all, James reminds us, is building real relationships of mutuality and respect, in recognition that the poor like the wealthy and all those in between have both much to offer and much to receive. Folks who are engaged in hands-on ministries with the poor, whether in your local community or around the world, either quickly learn this truth or find their efforts to bring greater hope and help greatly frustrated until they do.
James calls individual Christians and congregations to account for the ways they actively dishonor the poor. Anytime we dishonor the poor, we fail to fulfill what he calls the "royal law": to love every neighbor as we love ourselves.
Once again we're faced with James's admonitory tone. In his context, saying "stop doing this bad thing" would also have been heard as "keep doing this good thing." And ultimately, "keep doing this good thing" was the bigger outcome he was after.
So as you consider how to plan worship around this text this week, talk first about how you are going to help your congregation hear what James hoped they would really hear -- and then do! Yes, of course, stop the bad things. But more importantly, actually do the good things. The good things here have to do with active means of cultivating a community of witness and service in Christ that is shaped by devotion to Christ and not captivity to cultural power arrangements that typically honor the wealthy and dishonor the poor.
On your team, at least, you will have to be honest about hearing and discussing ways folks in your congregation (starting with your team members!) and the general practices of your congregation may currently tend to show partiality to the wealthy and dishonor the poor. This conversation will take some care. Consider this an assessment of how you're doing, not simply a list of accusations. Keep the conversation focused on what's actually happening where you are.
James himself provides at least one specific example -- seating practices. We happen to know that early Christianity in Syria, at the very least, took this teaching so seriously that they instituted a practice that if poor persons showed up, and no seats were available in the congregation, the bishop would have to yield his seat to the poor person! (See Brock, Sebastian and Vasey, Michael, eds., The Liturgical Portions of the Didascalia. Grove Liturgical Studies No. 29. Bramcote Notts: Grove Books, 1982, pp. 1-4, 15-17).
Think through this together, and reflect on it carefully. Just because our congregations do not tend to have "assigned seats" does not mean where people sit (or don't!) is entirely "their own choice." What does seating where you are say about the power or mutual respect people do or do not have?
Here are a few more general examples where those with more access to money may be privileged in worship and the life of the congregation over those who have less:
- Creating opportunities for "texting" and especially "Twittering" between the pastor and the people in worship to help shape the sermon. Cell phone subscriptions are not affordable to many of the poor. Data plans that support Twitter may be even less accessible.
- Not enabling full participation by deaf people in worship. On the face of it, this may not look like prejudice against the poor. In reality, it is, because many deaf people are poor precisely because they do not have and are not given the means to have full access to function independently enough in this culture to "make a living" for themselves. Churches that don't provide active means to connect with the deaf in worship are putting out a big sign that deaf people can read: "Deaf people not welcome here." That also means they're saying "poor people not welcome here."
- Programming the life of the congregation on the assumption that everyone has equal access to their own transportation. For the poor, reliable transportation is a constant challenge. In most cities outside the Northeast, public transportation is not reliable or flexible enough to meet their basic needs, much less for participating in many church-based activities. Two possible responses: (1) re-orient more activities to be closer to where people live or work so everyone can get there by foot or bike, and (2) create active carpooling systems within the church community to ensure that folks can get to any meeting or gathering they choose.
- An approach to the poor in worship and ministry that views poor persons as "clients with needs" ("people with problems") more than as sisters and brothers with gifts to share. James is explicit about this, noting that God gives the poor abundant gifts to share, including richness in faith that others may have no access to. (James 2:5).
That's the first conversation -- identifying practices that support or even create partiality toward the rich against the poor. That's the conversation that identifies where faith lacks works, where faith is dead.
But that conversation isn't enough to get where James (not to mention Jesus!) would want us to go. That conversation is about where you see your congregation already actively respecting and making room for the gifts and needs of all persons so all can together live as the one body of Christ, showing no partiality, but truly loving every neighbor as oneself, fulfilling the "royal law." This is the conversation that identifies where faith does have works, and so is alive, vibrant -- even vital!
Take good notes on both these conversations, and then wrap up with a "So what about worship for this Sunday" conversation. Identify specific things you can do with the design of the worship space, with artwork and imagery, with how people may be greeted in worship, with the prayers you offer, with how you will celebrate Communion today, and with how preaching and other conversations around this text today and in the weeks ahead will help you live the "royal law" ever more fully.
Mark: Discipleship Everywhere
Mark's gospel this week takes him beyond many previous boundaries, and challenges those who follow him to do the same. He has left his homeland entirely, journeying to the "region of Tyre" in what is today called Lebanon. Back then, this was a kind of "vacation" spot along the Mediterranean, someplace to go when you wanted to "get away from it all." To reinforce that this is why Jesus went there, he notes (verse 24) that Jesus "entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there."
His effort to get some anonymous "me-time" failed, and right away. He was no sooner in his "hideaway" than one of the local women, whose daughter was "demon-possessed," tracked him down and asked him to exorcise her daughter. Jesus was on vacation. He didn't want anyone bothering him. And he apparently had gone there with no intention of doing any preaching or healing.
This woman pushed every boundary the culture or he had tried to set. She was a female addressing a rabbi. She was a Syro-Phoenician, and thus from a people long considered enemies or at least rivals to the people of Israel. And her daughter was demon-possessed. She might have been described, then, as "inferior, enemy, evil," or more simply "unclean, unclean, unclean!" (About the only way to have added to that would have been for her to have had leprosy!)
In your worship planning team, discuss the following:
- Are there people your congregation allows the disciples of Jesus you're training to approach as "unclean, unclean, unclean"? Where are the places they won't go? Who are the people they are scared to see? (Have they been to any prisons lately?)
- What are "unclean" people doing where you are, like this woman does, to try to convince disciples of Jesus to help them, despite their perceived "uncleanness"? How is your congregation helping these disciples listen?
- Where is your congregation actively helping disciples reach beyond their prejudices and their "usual" boundaries to offer ministry and reconciling presence? What happens when they step out and start to connect with these people?
Mark does not flinch from presenting this story as an occasion where Jesus had to change his mind and even his will to do the right thing. Jesus was challenged, learned something, and stepped up.
Part of what he learned -- and that his disciples then and now have to keep learning -- is that there is no place, no time, and no people where the gospel of God's kingdom is not to be made known in deed and word. This gospel is always for everyone, everywhere, all the time.
So how might you plan worship today -- in the design of worship space, artwork, images, sound, in the prayers you pray and the songs you sing -- in ways that help people get over their self-imposed boundaries, even at times "me-time" boundaries, to be agents of the healing power of God's kingdom wherever they are, with whomever they are, at whatever the time?
This might be an opportunity to show a homemade video of places or people in your community or town where neither you nor perhaps any other churches are currently having any effective ministry. Or perhaps showcase another church that IS having an effective ministry with folks you are not yet able, or perhaps not yet willing, to reach.
- Prayer: "Bread and Justice," 639, United Methodist Hymnal (Proverbs, James, Communion)
- Prayer: "For Courage to Do Justice," 456, United Methodist Hymnal (Proverbs, James, Mark)
- The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Albania (the largest religious affiliation here is Muslim); Bosnia and Herzegovina (Islam 40 percent, Orthodox 31 percent, Roman Catholic 10 percent, Protestant 4 percent, a nation still sharply divided and with ongoing significant violations of religious liberty); Croatia ( 85 percent Roman Catholic); Macedonia (66 percent Orthodox, 30 percent Muslim; ); and Slovenia (predominantly Roman Catholic).
It would be good to add today nations whose people may have had some involvement in 9-11 attacks, including Afghanistan (99 percent Muslim, tiny Christian communities); and Saudi Arabia (90+ percent Muslim, perhaps 5 percent Christian, mostly Roman Catholic), with a particular focus on prayer for people who are part of terrorist organizations, especially al Qaeda, and the people whose lives they have destroyed.
- Great Thanksgiving Prayer: 70-71, UMBOW (Proverbs, James, Mark, Remembrance of 9/11); 78-79 (general and more inclusive language); 74-75 (Remembrance of those from our congregations who died in the 9-11 attack or in the Iraq or or Afghanistan wars).
- Communion Liturgy: UMBOW, pages 41-50, "A Service of Word and Table IV." See especially the "Prayer of Humble Access," page 49 (Mark). If your congregation is no longer accustomed to the older language of this service, consider what you would need to do to help people experience this in positive ways. If you can't imagine it working well, then stay with the more modern language of Word and Table I or II.
- Dismissal: UMBOW, 559 (Proverbs, James)
"Our Hope, If We Will Find It, Is in Christ" A new text, intended as a post-Communion text, this piece connects with all the texts and is especially suitable for the anniversary of 9-11 and other traumatic events.
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