See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes. Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
God does a new thing. Springs burst forth in the desert, and the world's strongest military power is paralyzed.
Psalm 126 (UMH 847).
Response 1 with Tone 3 in F major or Response 2 with Tone 2 in D minor.
No accomplishments or faults of the past compare to knowing Christ Jesus our Lord in the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.
Mary anoints Jesus at Bethany. Judas protests, using Jesus' own teaching about caring for the poor against him. Jesus rebukes Judas with words pointing to the uniqueness of his presence and of this occasion that called forth the very response Mary had made.
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Liturgical calendar: In the churches that are preparing persons for baptism at Easter, this is another Sunday of "scrutinizes." Today may be an excellent day for the "examination of conscience" as part of worship. See Come to the Waters, pages 106-107 for context and pages 117-119 for several suggested resources.
Coming in April
Native American Ministries Sunday: April 14. Consider inviting a Native American United Methodist elder or deacon to help you celebrate the newly developed Native American Holy Communion service used at General Conference 2012.
World Malaria Day: April 25
Atmospherics: How Do I Join What God's Doing, Here and Now?
Throughout Lent in Year C, the lectionary points us to practices that prepare us to live out the baptismal covenant more fully and faithfully. This week's practice might be called something like "Practicing the Presence in the Present" or "How Do I Join What God's Doing, Here and Now?" All three texts call for the necessity of moving beyond some past expectations and experiences if we are to discern and respond appropriately to what God is up to here and now.
That means we have to focus on cultivating a living, active sense of the Presence above all.
To cultivate that fully requires more than "present awareness." In other words, "Practicing the Presence in the Present" isn't merely a synonym for "living in the moment." Indeed, unless we have suffered neurological damage that prevents us experiencing or remembering anything other than the present, our actual experience of the present as the present is always connected in some way to our experience of the past as past and the future as future. This is a good thing! It's what enables us to learn, to improve our practice, and to grow.
So while a theme like "Practicing the Presence in the Present" may tempt you as worship planners to "create a worship experience" for today that makes a nearly complete break with your worshiping community's traditions in worship, keep in mind that doing so would really be more like simulating "ecclesial amnesia" than leading your worshiping community to be the church, memory fully intact, hearing its call to be especially attentive to what Jesus Christ, "the same yesterday, today and forever," is doing in our midst now.
So stay close to the basic patterns of worship for today. And let elements within this pattern "riff" on it more than entirely break from it to help underscore the theme.
Isaiah is surprising. Philippians is inspirational. John is confrontational.
All three are there to "shake us out" of our sense of "things as usual under the powers that be." Shaking us up like this is part of what it takes to help us to "reject the evil powers of this world" our first baptismal vow requires of us. It may also be what it takes to get us up and moving to join what God is up to in the here and now, which very often overturns much that seems usual, proper or even righteous.
Which does your congregation need most today?
Isaiah: Bringing Life and Pathways to… Nowhere
Where is God in mission?
In Isaiah the voice of God cries out to exiles in Babylon for whom exile has become "normal." That means that by now, nothing in their expectations about the world or their place in it could prepare them for what God was about to do. In their framework, things such as "highways in the wilderness" and "rivers in the desert" were impossibilities, if not complete wastes of time and effort. No one in their right mind would build a road from nowhere to nowhere! And why would anyone divert a river through a desert, since it would just dry out, right? Yet, God says these very things that are about to happen -- highways and rivers across a desert! Their "new normal" is not God's intention for them.
In Christ, we have the fulfillment of God's "new thing" for all humanity. In Christ, God has built roads to our nowheres and has reached into the desert places of the world to offer the water of eternal life. God values us so much that no nowhere is too far for God to go to reach us, no desert too parched to give us drink, and no army on the planet will stop God's love.
Where is God in mission? Often exactly among those places and people others consider "nowhere"? How do we join that mission? In part, by going there!
In 18th-century England, one "nowhere" for a growing number of people was the debtor's prison. As the industrial revolution continued with few restraints or constraints, more and more families found themselves trapped in a cycle of debt and debtors prison. It was horribly discouraging and often self-perpetuating. Get caught once, and many found themselves trapped for years to come and treated as common criminals with all the baggage attached to that, and nearly no one to listen to or advocate for them. It was a desert, a nowhere, with no roads leading out.
Enter the Methodists. Charles and John began visiting prisons, including debtors prisons, in their Holy Club days at Oxford in the 1720s and 1730s, and started commending this practice to all members of the growing Methodist Societies. The results of so many Methodists actually visiting both prisons, and particularly debtors prisons, was not only that those with no one to listen had listening ears, and even advocates, but that they soon started having support not only to stay out of debtors prisons, and ultimately to lead England to abolish debtors prisons altogether.
The Spirit opened the eyes of the Wesleys, and then the Methodists, and then others in English society to a nowhere where God was working to bring deliverance. And that deliverance came.
As you discuss this reading in your worship planning team, ask yourselves where the "nowheres" are where you are. Certainly, prisons and the whole process of prisoner re-entry remain among them in U.S. culture. But where are there others? Who is already going there? How might you connect with them to encourage others on this journey to a "nowhere" that is becoming one of God's "somewheres" or "Yes-wheres"?
What is it about "normal" where you are that makes it hard to see such a nowhere as God's somewhere? How can you "retune" your discernment as individuals and as a community of faith so that God's promise for normal -- highways to nowhere, rivers in deserts and armies overcome by the power of love -- starts to become a bigger part of normal where you are, too?
Visuals: the biblical images and local analogs you come up with in the discussions in your worship planning team. Soundscape: whatever sounds like "nothing" and "no way" and "nowhere" where you are, followed by whatever sounds like what fills all that "no" with "yes."
Philippians: The Past as Fertilizer and the Sufferings and Resurrections of Christ as Energy Source for God's Mission Now
In Philippians, Paul reminds the congregation of what really binds them together and relativizes all conflicts they may experience either inside the congregation or in their life in the world. "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings" (Philippians 3:10). All else, all past accomplishments and failures are, as the KJV accurately translated the Greek word "skubala," "dung."
Now let's understand what that does and doesn't mean. Dung is not worthless if you're a farmer, then or now. Dung is what remains of food. It can no longer nourish you directly, but it can and does nourish the earth to generate more food for humans and animals alike.
As such, dung is not an energy source. It is a catalyst. The energy sources for plant life are sunlight and water.
In like fashion, Paul points out we can't "run" on our past -- whether its accomplishments or its failures. The past can help catalyze our growth in the present. But that growth itself comes as we actually tap into the true, ongoing source of our life: the sufferings and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And these we connect with just as a plant connects with water and sunlight. Plants don't "think" about water and sunlight. They are instead DNA engines that take in water and sunlight and other minerals (some of which are enhanced by dung) and convert them into cells and ultimately into fruit that feeds others and reproduces itself.
Thus when Paul speaks of knowing Christ in his sufferings and in the power of his resurrection, he is not speaking simply of "getting it" that Jesus did these things for us. Instead, he is speaking of us encountering these things ourselves, in real time, in our own lives, suffering as Christ suffered, and experiencing God raising us as Christ was raised.
We join what God's up to then in part precisely as we head into places of suffering ourselves in every way we can. And we shield ourselves from this true energy source of our lives in Christ when we evade the call to "go there."
It's important to know the difference between dung and actual energy sources. Often, we confuse the two, or even replace the one for the other.
So in your worship planning team, have a conversation about the dung and the energy sources you know in your lives and in the life of your worshiping community. Keep the two straight. List them on separate sheets of paper or in separate documents.
You might find your dung list is much longer than your energy sources list. If you do, try not limiting yourselves just to your own stories and stories of folks in your congregation. Spread the net wider. Bring in every story you know about that shows people experiencing the Christ in his sufferings and in the power of the resurrection -- locally, globally, and historically. Remember, the body of Christ includes you here and now, but isn't by any means only you here and now!
When you've gathered a good number of these stories and examples, create an immersive experience as a response to the reading that helps your worshiping community deeply link this text with its own and other Christian stories and testimonies. Consider alternating between telling a "sufferings of Christ" and a resurrection story (very briefly -- perhaps as video clips or a one- or two-sentence statement by someone in the congregation) interweaving a congregational response, "We want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings," between them. Consider what music or soundscape (if any) should happen behind and under the tellings, images and responses. ("I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" might be an appropriate tune, for example).
For this to come off well, to establish and keep a strong sense of flow that makes this an immersive experience rather than a disjointed one, you will need to rehearse it with all speakers, musicians, and tech staff before you do it "live" in worship. So plan on that! You and your worshiping community will be glad you did!
But don't stop with this kind of experience as a response to the text (or maybe even as "the sermon" for today). Keep eliciting these stories through the week. Encourage folks to share them via Twitter or on your church's Facebook page, website, or blog. Continue to help people give testimony to ways in which actually joining God's mission among the suffering and as those who suffer the sufferings of Christ also helps them experience the power of Christ in his resurrection. Then watch to see what the Spirit does among you with all of this mutual inspiration!
John: Confronting Our "Holy Excuses"
At some point, we may all have to admit we're Judas -- making "holy excuses" for not joining what God's actually up to here and now.
Mary, a close friend of Jesus, has anointed Jesus with the contents of a large alabaster jar of perfume. Did Mary know that Jesus was about to be killed? Is that why she anointed him? We are not told. This may simply have been more of a spontaneous expression of love for Jesus in gratitude for him raising Lazarus from the dead (in chapter 11). She wanted to bless him. And this was a way she could do that.
But Judas would have none of that. He not only criticized it, he condemned it. And he did so with a "holy excuse," a principle that Jesus had probably articulated himself. Shouldn't this have been sold and the money given to the poor? How could she do something like this? And how could Jesus have allowed it?
Jesus rebuked Judas's condemnation with a more important principle. "You do not always have me with you, but you do always have the poor. You have constant opportunities to act lavishly toward them."
It's a sharp rebuke that cuts to the quick of Judas, especially as John's gospel presents him. In John, Judas cares only about money, and he's skimming it off the top of the group's common treasury for himself. He could care less about the poor. So his excuse is hypocritical. Jesus calls him on it, and Judas knows it.
But Jesus did more than rebuke Judas for his greed. He also rebuked him for his inability to appreciate what this lavish outpouring by Mary could mean. Judas saw waste. Jesus saw anointing for burial. Judas was looking at his own soul. Jesus was looking at what all was going on around him. Judas pulled out a past teaching to justify his disgust. Jesus embraced the lavishness of the moment -- the Presence in the present -- as a gift and invited everyone around him to see it as a sign.
How do we join what God is doing in the here and now? How do we Practice the Presence in the Present?
Jesus shows us here. We appreciate what is happening looking for signs of the love and kingdom of God at work, expecting to see them.
Or in other words, we allow the Spirit to retune our senses and our awareness to detect the signals of what God is doing more strongly than what "the powers" or our own sinful preoccupations may transmit.
When Jesus confronts Judas, we might say he reveals Judas is tuned in to the wrong channel. And he shows him the excuses he might claim were holy were instead a form of self-justification.
So who in your midst has heard the confrontation of Jesus and become more tuned to the channel of God's kingdom than the powers or their sinful desires? How has this happened for them? And how has it led them to become more attentive to and ready to join up with what God is doing in the here and now? Might one or more of them be willing to offer a brief testimony in worship today?
And how will you invite others in worship today to listen to where Jesus may be confronting them, too, and begin or begin again to make a shift in how their senses are tuned to what is happening around them?
Excursus on "The poor you always have with you"
"The poor you always have with you, and you may do good to them whenever you wish," Jesus says. Too many Christians over the centuries have interpreted these words as if Judas, rather than Jesus, spoke them. Jesus, who had few resources of his own, spoke them about Mary, a relatively poor woman with only one treasure, to Judas, a wealthy man. Judas, indeed, had the resources to help the poor any time he wished. The evidence from John's gospel suggests he never once did so.
Jesus is also quoting the Bible when he says this. Deuteronomy 15:11 begins "There will always be poor people among you in the land." And then it continues, "Therefore, I command you to open wide you hand toward your sisters and brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land."
Jesus, who had scarcely any personal resources, may not have had money set aside to prepare him for burial at his death. Mary, perhaps without being fully aware of it, had fulfilled the commandment by opening wide her hand and pouring her treasure on Jesus.
And Judas? He neither obeyed the commandment nor could see it being fulfilled before his eyes by Mary's action. He kept his wealth and would use what he could to justify doing so.
So perhaps it is a Judas-reading of Jesus' reply to Judas that would lead the wealthy and powerful to say, "The poor you will always have with you. There's nothing we can or should try to do to change that fact, because it is simply inevitable. Any attempt by the wider culture to address that is a waste of money, time and energy."
In a predestinarian worldview and theology, that reading may make sense. But it would have made no sense to Jesus, nor to Charles and John Wesley and the early Methodists.
The commandment of the Holy One is to open wide our hands to the poor and needy around us, constantly.
The second General Rule reminds us to do the same when it says Methodists are expected to show they seek to flee the wrath to come and to be saved from their sins "By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men: To their bodies, of the ability which God giveth, by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison."
Embodying the Word: The Offering
"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). Although this teaching from the Sermon on the Mount is not part of our lectionary readings for today, it resonates with all of them. What we treasure and how we treasure it reflects our values. In the capitalist societies in North America, treasure primarily equals money. So what we do with money -- how we store it, where and how we invest it, where and how we spend it -- may be the most substantial demonstration of our values we make in this culture.
So the ritual act of the offering matters. To be sure, it matters for most of our churches today in a different way than it did for the churches John Wesley knew. In Wesley's England, the monetary offering collected was called "Alms," and almost all of that money was used to support each parish's ministries of outreach and assistance to the poor. Clergy, musicians, and general "upkeep" costs for the churches were paid by the state. So when the "alms" were collected, they really were like the "Communion offerings" many of our churches receive today for similar purposes. That is why these monies were placed on the Lord's Table -- because they were understood as one of the ways the congregation extended the Lord's Table, not only with the food shared on it, but with tangible signs of the love of the community for the poor and needy.
In what became the United States, of course, the states did not generally pay for the clergy or physical facilities of congregations. Early Methodists in the U.S. could not count on state support anywhere. This is why they would use part of the money collected in class meetings for the "upkeep of the preachers," while the money collected in Sunday worship, at least initially, still functioned as "alms." In time, especially as class meeting participation began to wane in the early 19th century, what was collected in worship now had to cover both "institutional upkeep" and local needs. And it wasn't long before the former outpaced the latter, and the "primary" offering itself became disconnected from Holy Communion.
This is why many Methodists, among others, came to institute a second "Communion offering" for the poor, collected when Communion was celebrated, typically once per quarter or at most once per month because of the limited availability of persons authorized to preside. In many United Methodist congregations, this practice has continued to this day.
Question: How well does this practice reflect the values of Jesus for his body, the church? If Christ is all in all for us, which offering of money should be regular and which extra -- not just in words, but in funding and ritual practice?
At the same time, our ritual calls for two other offerings as well. Along with the "expense offering," the Hymnal and Book of Worship commend the practice of a "presentation of the gifts" of bread and wine that will be used in Holy Communion (see UMH p. 8). And the Great Thanksgiving itself is yet another offering, as we pray "we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ's offering for us" (UMH 10).
Question: Do all of these different acts of offering seem connected to you or to your congregation? Or do these things come off as separate acts with little connection or relationship to one another? If so, what does this disconnection say about how well the congregation understands where its treasure is and how it is being intentional about practicing the Presence of Christ in the present?
Lent is a time for training newcomers and reminding the whole congregation of the essential beliefs and practices of the way of Jesus, including our worship practices together. How will you begin to help your congregation reflect its devotion to Jesus and his teaching in its worship and its giving through the offerings of money, of gifts, and of yourselves in praise and thanksgiving this Sunday and in the weeks ahead?
- BOW 453 (Psalm)
Call to worship for Lent V, Year C (based on Isaiah 55:1 and 43:18-19)
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters.
We seek the living water, Jesus Christ.
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
We seek the new way, Jesus Christ.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
We seek new life in Jesus Christ.
The hymn or song to follow may continue the anticipation of baptism, new life, repentance of clinging to the former things, such as "Give Me a Clean Heart" (TFWS 2133), "Change My Heart, O God" (TFWS 2152), "Lead On, O Cloud of Presence" (TFWS 2234), "My Life Is in You, Lord" (TFWS 2032), or "This Is a Day of New Beginnings" (UMH 383).
- BOW 464 (Isaiah, Psalm)
- "A Prayer for Late in Lent"
Canticle: UMH 135, "Canticle of Moses and Miriam" (Isaiah, Psalm)
Prayer of Confession (adding an invitation and pardon): BOW 480 (Philippians)
Response: BOW 201, "O Lamb of God" (Lent)
- BOW 519, "For Others" (John)
- "A Prayer for Late in Lent"
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam
The Great Thanksgiving: BOW 62-63
- BOW 186, "An Indian Blessing."
- BOW 564 (Isaiah, John)
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