The Sower (Le semeur), by James Tissot. Public Domain.
See the texts, artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.)
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
The next, next generation: The beginning of the story of Isaac's children.
Psalm 119:105-112 or Psalm 25 (UMH 756)
The Spirit of life in Jesus Christ sets us free from the law of sin and death. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.
Jesus tells a parable of a sower to the crowd and interprets the parable to the disciples.
In the Northern hemisphere, especially in the US, today marks the midpoint of “practical summer.” It’s been about six weeks since “summer vacation season” began with the end of school years in May or early June, and it’s about another five or six weeks until Labor Day, by which time most schools will have started again.
And for many United Methodist congregations in the US, today may be the first or second Sunday of new pastoral appointments.
All this means several things for congregations. The timing relative to “summer” means this Sunday may be within the prime vacation band. The timing relative to “appointment season” may mean that just as a new pastor is starting out, many “regulars” may be away.
So what do you do when you have two major factors that conspire to make this a “Low Sunday?”
Remember our advice for the other “Low Sundays” after Christmas Eve and Easter. Make it a “Launch Sunday” instead.
A Launch Sunday when folks may not be around very much? Absolutely. Making a strong launch in such situations shows you and your congregation care about those who ARE there. And it also reminds those who are not that they are missing something “back home.”
This year’s lectionary cycle does not provide any occasions during this season where both the OT and the Epistle change at the same time (as do Years B and C). However, today marks what could be referred to as a “mini stream switch” opportunity. The First Families stream (OT) starts up a new generation this week, marked by the birth of Jacob and Esau and their struggle in the womb foreshadowing the path of their lives to come. The Jacob story, per se, continues through August 3. On August 10 the Joseph story begins. The gospel (Matthew) also switches gears, focusing today and for through the rest of July on parables of Jesus in Matthew through the end of this month.
Either of these two series is long enough that you can develop a common theme or themes over a period of time. And both are short enough that those who may miss them while on vacation won’t have as much “catching up” to do as if you were continuing a longer series. Both, too, get you up to or into August, when an increasing number of schools are resuming classes so you can time the beginning of the next series to correspond with your congregation’s Back to School emphases and programming.
Whatever you and your team decide to do this Sunday and throughout “mid-summer,” remember the purpose of this season: to challenge and support your people in taking their next steps in discipleship and ministry in their daily lives. The choice about which mini-series you take on (if either) is a choice about which (or something else) will best support the people of your congregation in doing that.
Civic Calendar: Independence Day (US) will have fallen during this past week. If you will recognize that celebration in worship today, see BOW 442 and a variety of resources from Discipleship Ministries..
Back to School Resources
August 6, 8 Hiroshima/Nagasaki Memorial
Whole Month: Season of Creation (2014 lectionary resources coming soon).
September 1 Labor Day (USA) (August 31, Labor Sunday)
September 15-October 15: Hispanic Heritage Month
Whole Month: A Season of Saints
October 5: World Communion Sunday (Discipleship Ministries Resources)
October 12: Children’s Sabbath (Discipleship Ministries Resources)
October 19: Laity Sunday
Atmospherics -- First Families: Week 4
OR Week 1: Struggle, Tricks and Promise
So you first decision is how you are approaching today. Is this a continuation of the larger “First Families” series? Or are you doing a launch or relaunch focused on the the “Jacob Saga” within the First Families series for this season?
If you are simply continuing the series, then today would be a good day to talk about how today’s birth story and the coming three weeks fit into larger First Families narrative frame.
But if you are doing a launch or relaunch, you’ll likely want to focus a bit more on the narrative arc today lays out and that is completed, more or less, on August 3. The Sundays starting today have four “stopping points” within that larger narrative arc. Today includes the birth of Jacob and Esau and the story of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. Next week, we see Jacob in transition, fleeing for his life to his uncle Laban’s household, having deceived his blind father into bestowing the birthright and blessing on him rather than Esau. On July 27, we see Jacob himself being tricked into marriage with a woman he had not chosen, and having to work an additional period of time to obtain the wife he had desired all along. The series concludes on August 3 with Jacob, as prelude to making a peace treaty (covenant) with his brother Esau, wrestling all night long with an angel and being given a new name: Israel, one who struggles with God.
All throughout these stories, beginning today, three motifs are consistently interwoven: struggle, tricks and promise. Even in the womb, today’s story tells us, Jacob and Esau were struggling with each other, rivals to see who would be born first with all the birthright (promise) would entail in a culture built on primogeniture. Jacob apparently gets his birth name (Ja’akov means “grabber”) in part because he grabbed Esau’s leg in the birth canal, apparently in a last ditch effort to be born first himself. Later, we see Jacob attempting to “grab” the birthright from his brother by means of another “trick,” offering a meal of stew to his famished brother, fresh from the hunt, in exchange for it.
What neither Jacob nor Esau seem to understand is the birthright is not the most important operative promise. But Rebekah knows that. As she struggles with these contending twins in her womb, even before the day of their birth, she cries out in desperation, “If this is how it’s going to be, why am I still alive?” God’s answer offers no immediate comfort. “Two nations are in your womb, one stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (verses 22-23).
God’s declaration is subversive. The younger should serve the older according to that culture’s rules of primogeniture. And typically the one favored by the father (Esau, the elder) was understood to be the one favored by God.
This means the most important operative promise isn’t birthright, as Jacob and Esau believed, but God’s choice to continue the “first families” line, and all the promises of land and nationhood attending it, through Jacob.
Since neither social nor religious norms would have made room for Jacob to become the next bearer of God’s covenant, those norms would have to be subverted in some way for that promise to come to pass.
The subversion lies in the very nature of the two brothers. Esau is self-indulgent and Jacob is shrewd. Jacob knows his brother is famished, but will not share his lentil stew unless Esau renounces his birthright.
Jacob’s wit overcomes Esau’s brawn. Esau thus “despised his birthright” (verse 34), placing his immediate physical needs above the values of his family and culture. At the same time, it might also be said Jacob despised the nature of the birthright by thinking and acting as if it could be bought or sold at all, with or without his father’s knowledge or permission.
This story functions as the foundation for another trick, not covered in the Sunday lectionary readings: Rebekah enlisting Jacob to trick a blind and dying Isaac out of the birthright and blessing near the end of his days (Genesis 27-28). And as we have noted already, that trick directly leads to Jacob’s “flight” or journey toward Rebekah’s brother’s homeplace in Paddan-aram, both to save his skin (as instructed by Rebekah, Genesis 27:45) and to gain a wife (as instructed by Isaac, 28:2).
What are we to make of all the tricking going on? Are we to approve of it, since in the end it becomes a means by which Jacob ends up receiving the promise? Are we thus to see deceit as part of God’s means of subversion of the cultural commitments to primogeniture and male headship? Or might we be intended to see that when we take God’s promises into our own hands, the result is a dangerous detour?
Or maybe, that the interest of the storytellers isn’t in the morality of Jacob’s action, but the commitment of God to keep God’s promises no matter what messes we put ourselves into?
In Your Planning Team
I left the final questions open above on purpose. One of the more helpful ways to launch a new series is to leave open questions, to create a “cliffhanger effect,” if you will.
Just remember: the point of these texts during this season isn’t to create “cliffhanger worship.” Rather, every week and over the course of the series you develop, it is to encourage and strengthen your congregation for their ministries in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
So discuss in your team what implications you see of each of these possibilities for how we approach our ministries in daily life.
1. Does God sometimes call us to trick others to achieve some greater good? This isn’t a theoretical question for your team or your congregation. It’s an eminently practical and experiential one. Are there situations where you and your team members have believed deceit was the better, if not entirely the “morally upright” way forward? Share these stories, and especially talk about what eventually happened because a “trickster” path was chosen rather than plain honesty.
2. Does this story indicate God finds all forms of deceit untenable, and so deceit therefore triggers further struggles that detour if not destroy our life-paths or ministries? If you haven’t already done so in response to the first question, share some stories in your group of how deceit may have derailed more than it helped either the immediate or the longer term situation. Talk especially about how your relationship with God was affected when you knew you were acting deceitfully.
3. Does the story simply report deceit happened, again and again, but God found a way to accomplish God’s promises anyway? This reading, like the others, gets at a core question of our understanding of God’s will and our relationship with God. It also gets at whether we understand ourselves primarily to be enacting God’s story as our story or participating in it. As Stanley Hauerwas might ask, do we believe it is our job to “make history come out right”? Rebekah and Jacob seem to think so in today’s stories. But God, in these stories, today and elsewhere, like a good GPS, perhaps, seems simply to be “recalculating” how to bring about God’s promises, given what people do next. How does this angle help (or not) as we consider ways we may have messed up in the course of our ministries and the promise of God we understand we are participating in as we offer them?
Take the time this conversation needs, perhaps up to half of your meeting time allotted for the initial planning of this Sunday. These are fundamental questions that will recur in every set of readings we have in this mini-series, and to some degree the Joseph saga that follows it as well (August 10 and 17). Let this conversation lay a foundation for the ways you will develop the themes of struggle, promise and trickery across the story arc of these four weeks, and let it guide your selection of music, artwork, prayers, and the specific direction for preaching from Sunday to Sunday.
Theology for Ministry: Week 4
Focused on the Spirit
Last week’s reading was heavy on diagnosis of our profound need for sanctifying grace. Without it, we will simply not do God’s will. We may wish to, but we won’t. Or we may tell ourselves we’re not going to do something we know to be wrong, and we do it anyway. Though our sin has been forgiven and we have been raised to walk in newness of life in Jesus Christ, the power of sin is still at work in our mortal bodies. We need new habits, and especially we need God’s sanctifying grace to enable us to overcome the power of sin that still abides in our bodies and brains, down to our neurons.
This week’s reading moves us to the next step. Once we accept our need of sanctifying grace, and once we’re putting into practice new ways of living that reflect the operation or opening of our lives to that grace, there is one thing most needful always: to fix our minds on the Holy Spirit and allow the Spirit to our lives accordingly.
The fixing of our minds is our work (verses 4-6). Our key discipline is focus, or, as Paul puts it, “think intentionally on the things of the Spirit” (verse 5). The Spirit is in us, so this is not a question of imagining what God might want of us or might do through us. It’s rather a question of paying intentional attention to the promptings and direction of the Spirit already given us by God through Jesus Christ, and shaping our concerns so that this pattern of paying attention becomes our default way of being in the world.
So what does it take to do this? First, of course, we must acknowledge the Spirit’s presence! God is at work in us, not simply “out there.” Second, we must cultivate patterns of listening for the Spirit’s direction and receiving the Spirit’s empowerment. This is where practicing the means of grace comes in (prayer, searching the scriptures, fasting, public and personal worship, participating in Holy Communion). Third, we must, as we vow at baptism, accept the freedom and power given us to resist evil, injustice and oppression however and wherever they appear. Our attentiveness, our openness to the Spirit’s leadership through the means of grace, and our resistance to evil are all instrumental in breaking its power over us permanently.
The direction by the Spirit, though, is the Spirit’s work. The Spirit is life. Our actions make room for us to recognize and participate in the Spirit’s life. The Spirit generates righteousness. Our participation through attention, practicing the means of grace and resistance to evil makes room for that righteousness to take root in us. The Spirit gives new life to our mortal bodies. Our participation depends on that life at work in us even and especially when we are weak or our discipline fails.
How does all of this inform our ministry in Christ’s name and the Spirit’s power? We are here reminded that ultimately our ministry is a channel and gift of the Spirit’s work in us and in the world. As Jesus himself reminds in Matthew 7, we may do all sorts of things in his name, even all sorts of very good things. But unless we do so in obedience to God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are simply acting on our own authority and power, not on his. Jesus will say, “Depart from me. I never knew you.”
We are therefore reminded that fixing our minds on the Spirit, and so practicing the means of grace and continuing to resist evil with the power the Spirit offers, are intrinsic parts of any ministry we undertake. The ministry we undertake is not about self-expression. We don’t do it because we like it or it makes us or even others feel good. We also don’t do it simply because we happen to be good at it. We do it because God has called us and the Spirit has empowered us to be faithful witnesses to God’s kingdom and to grow in holiness all the days of our lives. We do it as the outflow and overflow of the primary and primal relationship with God and creation Jesus has inaugurated and the Spirit has birthed and continues to nurture in us.
The early Methodist class meetings were very much about encouraging each other to pursue ministry, especially with the poor, in Christ’s name. But the first question, the driving question of those meetings was not “How many people did you visit in prison this week?” or “How strongly did you oppose slavery” or even “How well did you avoid the temptation to speak badly of a neighbor?” but rather “How is it with your soul?” Keeping the General Rules was never understood to be an end in itself, but a means to the end that we would walk according to the Spirit (verse 4), our minds fixed upon the Spirit and the things of the Spirit.
In Your Planning Team
The key image in this passage is focusing our minds and our walk in life on the Spirit.
Some focusing we do is automatic. We don’t even have to think about it, it happens so quickly.
But when what we’re trying to capture may be very small, or hard to make out against a distracting background, you will need to take more time, effort, and patience to capture what you are trying to see.
The same is true of non-visual focusing as well. Against a backdrop of voices full of bitterness, or anger, or pain, or jealousy or fear or insecurity, it will often take much time, discipline and patience to discern the voice of mercy, joy, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and love, the things, or fruit, of the Spirit. Amidst all these distractions, unless we keep our focus on these realities, we will soon find ourselves distracted by the noisy backdrop, if not allowing it to overwhelm us.
Our culture in the U.S., including much of our “Christian culture” (if United Methodist Facebook groups, blogs and Tweets are any indicator), has too often joined the cacophonous backdrop. We may even have justified ourselves doing so, saying, “We’re only human” or “We’re just being honest, calling it as we see it.” In other words, we, ourselves, create and applaud models of “living according to the flesh.”
But I would guess that there are at least a few among the people of your congregation, or people they know (or knew) who modeled what a life and a mind focused on the Spirit and the things of the Spirit looked like, and whose ministries, therefore never (or only rarely) became about promoting themselves or even their ministries, but rather about being committed to life in the Spirit and used as vessels of the Spirit as the Spirit needed to use them.
Some of these people may be older. Others may be younger. Some may be in other churches. Send team members to interview them, to talk about how they came to sustain their life in the Spirit, what it took to do that on their part, and how the Spirit was faithful, even when they weren’t. Perhaps you’ll want to take photos, or make video or audio recordings of these conversations (with these persons’ permission, of course). For those you know who live at some distance, consider using Skype or Google Hangouts or Facetime to have and record the conversation.
Then find ways to weave into worship these testimonies of lives becoming focused on the Spirit, and the fruitful ministry that issued from lives focused there, first. Some may tell you of songs that were important for their growth or perseverance. Some of their stories may remind you of these songs, or of works of art or poems.
By spending the time and focusing on the work of the Spirit in these people’s lives and their cooperation with the Spirit’s work in their lives and ministries, you will be modeling the very focus on the work of the Spirit then, and now, this text calls and invites us all to enjoy.
Journeying with Jesus, Week 4
OR Week 1, Parables of the Kingdom: What Really Makes for Good Soil?
Once again, worship planners, you have a choice to make. Are you continuing in a series of sermons on journeying with Jesus, or are you making an effort to “relaunch” or launch a mini-series on these parables of the kingdom starting today and lasting through the end of this month?
If you are simply pressing on, you may not want to change much of the worship space design relative to last week. But if you are relaunching or launching a mini-series in the parables, you will want to do something distinctive to mark that, both visually and musically. Keep that in mind as you start your planning for today.
We’ve skipped ahead a chapter since last week’s text (or we’re simply starting in Matthew 13 now!). But to understand what’s at stake behind the parables Jesus tells, it’s important to note what’s just happened “that same day” (verse 13:1). Matthew, after all, has taken effort to note this connection.
So review, and go invite your team to review, chapter 12 before you start discussing today’s verses from chapter 13.
Let’s just say, it had been a rather challenging day so far. Chapter 12 consists of a series of stories in which Jesus teaches his disciples in the process of answering one set of critics after another. Some Pharisees accost him near grainfields (verses 1-8) and a bit later in the synagogue (verses 9-37). Other Pharisees and some scribes demand a sign of him (verses 38-45). And then, after all of that, he hears his mother and brothers were waiting outside the synagogue to take him home because they’re convinced he’s gone mad. In response Jesus pointed to his own disciples, called them his mother and brothers, and indicated that they and any who did his Father’s will were his kin as well.
It’s “that same day”, after of all these controversies, conflicts and teaching, that Jesus left the house he had been staying in and went to the Sea of Galilee. There he encountered large crowds and began to teach them in parables, beginning with a parable of a farmer planting seed.
Some people he’d met that day just didn’t seem to be able to get it. Others seemed eager enough (perhaps those still listening to him in the synagogue), but seemed unlikely to get very far. Still others were so weighed down with concerns about power and position that, despite their genuine zeal for God, their other concerns were choking them out. Still, some perhaps were genuinely getting his message—even his fairly clueless disciples and anyone else who would do his Father’s will. Amazing abundance would be produced through them, and already had been (as we have already seen in the mission trip of the 70 from a few weeks back).
Any wonder then that Jesus tells this parable on this same day to this crowd of who knows what interests?
Already, then, we have one kind of explanation for the parable.
Jesus offers another one later that evening to his disciples (Matthew 13:18-23). This interpretation, not entirely unlike what they’d all experienced earlier that day, frames the meaning of the parable in terms of several different ways people may respond to the message of God’s kingdom and possible reasons for each kind of response. If your worshiping community finds this kind of explanation valuable for their next steps in discipleship and ministry, by all means offer it.
But do so keeping in mind this explanation may also be a bit ironic.
Or at least not the actual last word.
As we’ve seen again and again, these disciples themselves almost always do not “get it.” It’s clear they want to, else they likely wouldn’t keep following Jesus as their master. But for the most part, they don’t. If you were to try to align them with the kinds of soil Jesus describes in the parable or his explanation of it, they may be most like the pathway soil, too hard (or dense) for the seed of the word, even this parable, to penetrate. If the first explanation Jesus offers here is all there is, the final word, it might appear they could never “get it” because Satan (or something) would keep snatching the seed away.
But that’s not what happened. To a person, they continued to follow Jesus. If any of the first three soil types apply to any of them in the end, perhaps Judas fits the seed that fell among the thorns, one whose faithfulness was choked out by the cares and concerns of the world. Otherwise, these disciples who either did not get it or who barely got it and who were actually surrounded on every side by critics and enemies who sometimes actively try to choke out their ministry (chapter 12!), turned out to be good soil after all, producing an abundant harvest that continues to grow and multiply to this day across the entire planet.
We’re here as living witnesses of that truth!
So what are the implications of this for what the kingdom of God actually turns out to be like?
And what are the implications of that for how we pursue discipleship and ministry in Christ’s name and the Spirit’s power?
In Your Planning Team
As with the OT reading, but for a different reason, ending with open questions may be an excellent strategy for today, especially if you are treating today as a launch or re-launch of a mini-series on parables of the kingdom.
The different reason has to do with the nature of parables themselves. Parables, like koans in Zen Buddhism, are not intended to provide final answers as much as they are to provoke big questions and different thinking about the way we think things are. Today’s parable of the sower certainly does that, and as the notes above show, in at least three different ways.
And “at least” may be the key phrase.
Today, then, is an invitation to dive into all the questions and possibilities about the nature of the kingdom of God this three weeks of parables will raise.
And thus to an exploration of how the kingdom of God, by its very nature, provides the context and empowerment for our discipleship and ministry in Christ’s name and the Spirit’s power.
To get into the spirit of this whole series well as a team, discuss together ways the basic dynamics of this parable are happening in the lives of people where you are.
- Who are the “unlikely” fruitful followers of Jesus where you are? How is the word of the kingdom of God making good soil even out of beaten down paths, thin layers of earth over thick rock, and weed patches where you are?
- In the places you and the people of your congregation live, work, and spend their time, where are the people likely to be caught along the beaten down pathway?
- Where and how are folks not having much “root in themselves” to receive the word of God’s kingdom?
- Where is the word of the kingdom getting choked out by other concerns? How are you or others trusting that God can bring a fruitful harvest even from such places? How are you or others joining God’s word, declared in this parable, to convert that soil into good soil?
- What images address the “soil conditions” where you are right now? What images and soundscapes might inspire people where you are to become part of making more fruitful garden space for all?
After having this conversation, or one like it, your team may be in a richer place to consider music, prayers, artwork and other elements that will help today’s service become an “enlivener of soil” itself, as well as an effective launch for the series.
Embodying the Word: Intercessions for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost 2014
For all who are barren in body, mind, or spirit:
May life, vision and creativity may come and flourish.
For leaders and all who struggle for the birth of justice, freedom and peace:
Bless them, O God, with strength, courage and wisdom!
For all who will be born today, and all who will die:
We bless you, O God, for the unique gifts of every life, and grieve each death with hope.
For the blessings we enjoy and the curses we endure from every form of favoritism:
Jesus, teach us to love each other as you love us.
For wisdom and courage to work for the common good and the long run:
Deliver us by your Spirit from short-term temptations.
For good health for all, especially the sick, the friendless and the needy:
Great Physician, send us to heal.
Good Shepherd, send us to tend the lonely.
Wise Teacher, remind us whom your kingdom blesses above all. Amen.
Use the verses of “O Breath of Life” (Worship & Song, 3146) as the frame for prayers, placing intercessions between the verses while instrumentalists continue to play, as follows:
Verse 1 (Soloist sings once, then all sing)
Prayer leader (while music continues, but no singing):
For your church, for us and all your people in all times and places, that our ears,
eyes, and hands may be open to the prompting of your Spirit
Verse 2 (Female voices)
For leaders of the nations, that we and they may continually care for the earth
and each other make a world that restores and sustains life for all people.
Verse 2 (Male Voices)
For all who are sick and suffering, that they may receive comfort, healing and peace.
Verse 3 (All)
For all who have asked us to pray for them.
Verse 3 (All).
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23:
For all the soils of the earth and the bountiful harvest each can bring…
Sing: “Kyrie Eleison” (Worship & Song, 3133)
For packed down soil that makes travel swift and sure:
For the institutions we have made, for churches, governments, and corporations
Sing: “Kyrie Eleison” (Worship & Song, 3133)
For thin soils over thick rock that harbor mosses, grasses and other rock-converting, soil-making vegetation:
For all who are engaged in ministries of healing, hope and restoration,
and all they remember and care for, at the hardest edges of this life.
Sing: “Kyrie Eleison” (Worship & Song, 3133)
For weed-rich soils that foster bio-diversity and defend themselves from erosion:
For all who seek and speak insistent truths that choke out every form of ignorance, hatred and self-deceit.
Sing: “Kyrie Eleison” (Worship & Song, 3133)
For the richest soils that have produce harvests for your kingdom beyond imagining:
For every mustard seed of your kingdom planted in every one of your disciples.
Sing: “Kyrie Eleison” (Worship & Song, 3133)
For every soil to become rich soil by your wonders, wit and wisdom, Holy Spirit:
That we may rejoice with you in your abundant harvests everywhere on earth as in the new creation.
Sing: “Kyrie Eleison” (Worship & Song, 3133)
The following greeting/call to worship relates strongly to the Matthew reading. (Consider leading it from the baptismal font.)
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
And also with you.
The Lord turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water.
The Lord lets the hungry dwell there, and they establish a city in which to live.
They sow fields and plant vineyards and get a fruitful yield.
They multiply greatly by the blessing of the Lord, who does not let their cattle decrease.
(from Psalm 107:35-38)
- BOW 466 (Genesis)
- BOW 461 (Romans)
- BOW 467 (Matthew)
Act of Praise: "Canticle of Covenant Faithfulness," 125, United Methodist Hymnal
Concerns and Prayers:
- BOW 514
- BOW 527
- UMH 481, "The Prayer of Saint Francis" (Matthew).
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama
The Great Thanksgiving:
- BOW 70-71
- UMH 9-11
Prayer of Thanksgiving if there is no Communion: BOW 552
Dismissal with Blessing:
- BOW 559 and 560