Planning - Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
The fast God chooses and honors -- ritual tied to real action.
Psalm 112: 1-9 (10) (UMH 833).
Sing the response with Tone 3 in D major (UMH 737).
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
Paul's proclamation in Corinth was not based on elegant human wisdom, but spiritual wisdom displayed with power.
The Sermon on the Mount continues: You are salt and light. I have come to fulfill the law and teach you to do likewise.
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Today is the fifth Sunday after Epiphany. The texts today and for the next three Sundays fall into two distinct streams (OT/Gospel and Epistle), either of which your planning team may wish to adopt as the "theme" for worship from now until February 27.
If you're following the OT/Gospel stream, the focus is on the teaching ministry of Jesus, and perhaps especially on "What God's kingdom requires and blesses." We began an extended time in the "Sermon on the Mount" last week. If you choose to follow the Epistle stream, the focus is on coaching the worshiping community to live out its calling to be the body of Christ where you are.
Choose the stream that seems most fitting for where your worshiping community is and needs to head, especially as a means of laying a foundation for the extended weeks of baptismal preparation known as Lent (Ash Wednesday is March 9).
On the denominational calendar, February is Black History Month. Resources are available from the General Commission on Religion and Raceand through the 21st Century worship resources on the Discipleship Ministries website.
Scouting Ministries Sunday is scheduled for next Sunday, February 13. Since the alternate date for Scouting Ministries Sunday falls on the first Sunday of Lent this year, a significant day in itself for the life of the church, strongly consider consolidating all scouting-related celebrations into a February commemoration, or schedule them during Ordinary Time after Pentecost. As you plan for this day, while it would be appropriate to include participants in the five youth development programs United Methodists recognize as leaders in worship (readers, acolytes, Communion servers), turning worship into a Boy or Girl Scout program is not recommended.
On the U.S. cultural calendar, Super Bowl Sunday is today, February 6. What impact may this have on worship today -- especially for those of you near the Dallas Metroplex? Whichever stream of texts you choose as your focus, how might they address how disciples of Jesus approach the day?
St. Valentine's Day is February 14, the day after Scouting Sunday (6th Sunday after Epiphany). If you include recognition of this day in worship, consider how you might remember the witness of the third-century martyr or martyrs named Valentinus rather than the cultural celebration of romantic affection. Note as well that St. Valentine is no longer part of the sanctoral cycle (the calendar for remembering saints of the church) for the Roman Catholic Church or The Episcopal Church, owing in part to the lack of historical clarity about who this person (or persons) may have been or what he or they may have done.
As with all Sundays that have some cultural or programmatic elements, keep in mind this advice from the Book of Worship:
"Such special Sundays should never take precedence over the particular day in the Christian year. The special Sundays are placed on the calendar in the context of the Christian year, which is designed to make clear the calling of the Church as the people of God." (UMBOW, 422).
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Atmospherics: OT/Gospel Stream -- What God's Kingdom Requires and Blesses
The Sermon on the Mount continues with words of blessing and expectation for the crowds. Jesus says to these crowds, not just to his closest associates, "You (plural) are the salt of the earth! You (plural) are the light of the world!" These are ordinary folks who live in the region around the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. They are not religious giants. The vast majority of them are not disciples of Jesus. But still he tells them, now that God's kingdom has come, "You are salt! You are light for the world!"
But there is some expectation around their saltiness and their light, if it is to fulfill its purpose in God's kingdom. There is requirement. To be useful salt, salt that people will value, the salt must remain salty.
But what does that even mean? The form of table salt we know in North America, a chemically synthesized and purified form of sodium chloride, cannot but be salty. It is salt! But that was not how salt was experienced in the time of Jesus or in many places in the world today. Salt then and in many places still today is a mixture of a variety of compounds. The more salts in those compounds (whether sodium or magnesium or whatever!), the more valuable it was because the saltier it tasted. But the more inert dissoluble compounds in the mix, the more "fillers," the less salty and the less valuable it was. The blessing, "You are salt" is complemented by the call to remain salty, not to dilute what God's kingdom is already doing among you and within you with "fillers" from the kingdoms of this world. Bigger is not better. More volume does not equate to better value. Be real. Be authentic -- authentic to the one whose kingdom makes us salty!
Likewise, you are already the light of the world, Jesus tells the crowds. God's kingdom has drawn near to you, bringing glory to all. So shine that light! In the face of the claims of the kingdoms of this world, there may be serious temptation to hide the light to escape notice. No, Jesus says. Shine! Shine brightly! Go to the highest places and people and shine, shine, shine!
Such words of blessing and calling for so many and such a motley crowd as this are not any excuse for ignoring the law, God's covenant with Israel. No, Jesus says. They are the means by which God enables them (and all!) to fulfill it. Being salty and radiant aren't excuses for libertinism! They are rather the power offered by God's kingdom to keep all that God commanded, to live exactly as God requires. Such blessing is God's means to enable anyone who lives it out to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
The reading from Isaiah for today spells out what such a salty, shining life in God's kingdom entails here and now. It is not a "holier than thou" life bound by fast days and ritual calendars for the sake of keeping the fasts and observing the traditions. Rather, there is a deep coherence between ritual fasting and the fasting that God chooses. Such fasting is all about deliverance, not simply enhancing self-discipline. The oppressed are set free. Yokes are broken. People share their bread with the hungry, their homes with the homeless, the clothes with those lacking them, and their whole lives with their families and communities. The kingdoms of this world, in the prophet's day and now, encouraged obtaining, storing up, and keeping all of these things for oneself as a sign of importance and blessing. But in God's kingdom, it's in the sharing of them all, including our own lives, widely -- being salty, being light -- that the true fast is kept and shown. Live like this, the prophet continues, and your whole community will be like a well-watered garden and like a spring that never runs dry.
Being salt and light in God's kingdom impels such radical sharing, such abundantly blessed living but only if we neither dilute the salt nor hide the light.
So who is salty among you -- and not just among you as a worshiping community, but in your wider social networks? Who beams with light? How are you seeing such salty, radiant people truly fulfilling God's law and living a true fast that brings deliverance, hope, and life to all around them?
How can you help your worshiping community taste vibrant saltiness today? Perhaps many in your worshiping community have never tasted salt like people in Jesus' time would have known! Find a "foodie" who knows where to get great salts (stuff you can't get from your average supermarket!). Think about inviting people to a salt-tasting as they enter the worship space, with four or five different varieties to sample, and fresh cold water to drink between samples (get a water cooler and have mugs or recyclable cups ready!). If your font is near the entrance, or you can move it there, then remind people, "You are the salt of the earth! Remember you are baptized and be thankful!"
Consider the lighting in your worship space today. Maybe your worship space is already filled with light, natural or otherwise. If so, be sure to remind folks of that and to carry this light with them wherever they go. But if your worship space is dark, or even intentionally darkened to allow for better use of projection screens and the like, think carefully about what may be more important today -- the technology or the actual message. Flood the space with light! Bring in extra lights if you need to. Or find another way to help people physically experience something of what it might mean for all of you inside -- and even those outside -- to be the light of the world that doesn't hide but shines!
Epistle Stream: I Corinthians
If last week's reading from I Corinthians could be summarized as "boasting only in the cross of Christ," perhaps this week's could be "encountering the Spirit and having the wisdom of the Spirit." There really are two different emphases here, so you may need to decide as a team whether to focus on one or both.
The first of these is about encountering the wisdom of the Spirit. Paul chose intentionally not to try to "wow" the people of Corinth with a display of human wisdom as he brought the gospel to them. From what we can see in his letter, he would have been quite capable of such had he wanted to do so. Instead, he said, he approached them with "a demonstration of the Spirit and of power." We do not know what that demonstration entailed, but likely it involved healing and other "mighty acts" that would bear witness that the message Paul brought had true spiritual authority. In such a spiritually intense, active (and diverse!) city as Corinth, this was certainly a wise approach! But his point in doing so was to ensure their faith, from the very beginning, would not depend on eloquent arguments, but on the very power of God.
Are there analogs to this missional situation where you are? Are the folks among whom you evangelize as a faith community persons who, above all, need a demonstration of the Spirit rather than eloquent arguments? How has this approach been tried? What happened? Who can talk about this either with your worship planning team or with your congregation? Or what's happening now, if this is something only more recently being attempted?
What might worship look like for today if it relies less on human wisdom and more on the Spirit and the power of God? How do people understand and experience the power and presence of the Spirit in your worshiping community? How might worship today, in the design of its elements and the arrangement of worship space, set an environment where more of these kinds of encounters are welcomed and encouraged to take place? At Holy Communion, for example, consider offering a significant pause after the words "Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here," and then another significant pause after the words, "and on these gifts of bread and wine." Make this pause not just verbal, but gestural -- stop moving, quiet and still your body, breath slowly and deeply. And see what may take place in your heart as presider and in the lives of the community that gathers around the Lord's table.
The second emphasis is on the wisdom of the Spirit. Paul again notes he didn't begin his ministry in Corinth on the basis of human wisdom (verse 5), but as people began to mature in the faith, he would and did address them with God's wisdom, wisdom revealed by the Holy Spirit to those who are in Christ (verses 6 ff). Persons maturing in the faith can receive this wisdom because the Spirit dwells in them, they have been gifted by the Spirit, and they have the mind of Christ. To others, Paul says, such wisdom comes off as foolishness.
Does what Paul is saying here make sense to you? Do you, in your worshiping community, know what it is to hear and share in the wisdom of the Spirit, wisdom derived from "the one who searches everything, even the depths of God" (verse 10)? Perhaps some do and some don't?
Talk seriously about this in your worship planning team. It's not a point of shame if this isn't part of your experience, but perhaps a point of learning of what could be, in time. Be as discerning as Paul himself was here. If your congregation does not have a way to make sense of this part of the passage, you may decide not to go there today, either in worship planning or even, perhaps, in reading this part of the text. Shorten the reading if you need to. But if at least some folks do, or you have some in your midst or some from outside your congregation who could offer a testimony about how this works in their life and in their worshiping community, consider inviting such persons to share their stories for the edification of your worshiping community.
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Embodying the Word: Praying or Singing the Ancient Songs
OT/Gospel Stream: The Gloria in Excelsis
As suggested last week, consider singing the same setting of the Gloria in Excelsis this week as you did last week (for one example, see UMH 82). Your worshiping community will know it a little better this week, especially if the choir sang it before worship last week, and if you all sang it together in worship last week as well. Singing glory to God this week dovetails well with Christ reminding us we are salt and light for the world!
Epistle Stream: A Canticle Smorgasbord
If you didn't sing "A Canticle of Wisdom" (UMH 11) last week, it would also be appropriate for today's reading. Also consider "Canticle of Praise to God," based on Psalm 95, which praises the power of God in creation and salvation and the promise of God to return as judge.
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- Greeting: UMBOW 450, 453 (Matthew)
- Opening Prayer: UMBOW 461 (I Corinthians), 462 (Isaiah)
- Invitation/Prayer of Confession/Pardon: UMBOW 490 with pardon from 477 (I Corinthians) or The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 7-8 (1 Corinthians, Matthew)
- Concerns and Prayers: UMBOW 495, 503 (I Corinthians), 504 (Isaiah) or consider trying Tongsung Kido (446, I Corinthians)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Ireland, United Kingdom
- Prayer of Thanksgiving if Communion will not be celebrated: UMBOW 552
- Great Thanksgiving: UMBOW 78-79 or The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 9-11
- Dismissal with Blessing: UMBOW 562, 563
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