Planning - Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13.
A suitor calls on his beloved to prepare for their uniting.
Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 or Psalm 72 (UMH 795).
Psalm 45 is not in The United Methodist Hymnal, but makes a more fitting response to the first reading with its celebration of young love and marriage. Psalm 72 was used in the earlier Common Lectionary (1983-1992).
Be the first fruits of God's generosity toward others. Stay away from excess and impurity. Actively do the word. Restrain the tongue. Make sure the weak and vulnerable are protected.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.
Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem confront Jesus about why his disciples do not follow the customary hand washing rituals before eating. Jesus insists that true cleanness is not a matter of external cleansing, but the cleansing of the "inner self." Uncleanness results not from anything external, but only and always from what is inside.
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We continue in Ordinary Time with the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Today is also a "hinge day" or a "stream-crossing day" in the readings of the lectionary. All three readings (OT, Epistle and Gospel) start new streams today. The OT readings begin a series in the Wisdom Literature, starting with Song of Solomon today and continuing into Proverbs in the weeks ahead. The Epistle reading for the next five weeks is practical instruction from James. And we resume the narrative of Mark's gospel after five weeks of focus on the feeding of the 5000 and the meaning of Holy Communion from John's gospel. These weeks of Ordinary Time are especially suited for "series preaching" through books or "big stories" of the Bible. Choose wisely among these three streams, selecting the one where your congregation or worshiping community may most need to "go deep" at this time. See "Worship Planning for the Season after Pentecost, Year B" for further suggestions.
Today also marks the launch 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.
This is Labor Day weekend in the United States. Disputes between organized labor, government, and management have been much in the headlines this year. How will your congregation be part of honoring the labor of all people?
A prayer of blessing and a service of Holy Communion are available on www.umcdiscipleship.org. Additional background resources about labor and worker justice are available from the General Board of Church and Society.
How is planning going for the upcoming months? See "Seasons and Series for Fall 2012" on the United Methodist Worship Blog for some suggestions.
Schools and colleges are likely back in session by now or starting soon. Will you have a "back to school" celebration? How about a Sunday school kickoff? See our resources on the Discipleship Ministries Planning Calendar.
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 yesterday (September 1).
Hispanic Heritage Month (US) is September 15-October 15.
World Communion Sunday is October 7.
A Season of Saints is commemorated throughout October, starting with World Communion Sunday and culminating in All Saints Day/Sunday. We have 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.
It's a hinge Sunday, an opportunity to move the focus of worship into a fresh stream of texts (Old Testament, Epistle, or Gospel) that starts up this week.
Keep in mind that the readings for today, as through much of Ordinary Time, are not chosen to be connected to one another, except for the Psalm as a response to the first reading.
This calls for some clear decisions from you and your worship planning team about where you are going today and in the weeks ahead.
One of those decisions centers around when you want to dedicate time in worship to Song of Solomon. Today is the only time in the three-year cycle where Song of Solomon shows up. So unless you intend to do a series on this book at another time, today is the one chance you get for another three years.
Wisdom: Songs, Proverbs and History
Does it seem strange to start a series in the wisdom literature here? Do spring flowers and couples running off together seem a bit at odds with your vision of wisdom? Maybe you (and many in your congregation) associate wisdom primarily with detachment from life, asceticism, or at least something more austere.
This text is here this week to remind us that isn't the biblical view. Instead, the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom is grounded in the love and enjoyment and sharing of the abundance of God's first work of creation. Proverbs 8:29-30 makes this point clear. Wisdom herself speaks, "When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race" (NRSV).
Wisdom, from the beginning then, is sheer delight in creation and in the Creator who turns a chaos entirely hostile to life into a new order where life in every form can abound and multiply.
The brief verses we read today from Song of Solomon evoke that sense of delight in the creation and the Creator, in abundant life and its multiplying, perhaps at least as richly and succinctly as any in the Bible.
So plan to let the spirit of this text suffuse all of worship today, and be sure in the weeks ahead to let its fragrance linger. Song of Solomon is rhapsodic poetry celebrating human love and new life. Let your design of worship space, art, images, sounds and floralscapes reflect the bursting of new life in springtime. Consider deploying soundscapes of rainstorms ending and birds singing. Fill the space with images of flowers, vines and trees in full blossom, or perhaps the real thing with bold arrangements of springtime flowers (check with your local florists for availability). Commission artwork or show photos of couples of various ages walking hand in hand. If you use Psalm 45, add stringed instruments to the soundscape and additional pleasant fragrances if the flowers aren't quite enough (just be sensitive to those who may have allergies!). If you have good video footage or photos you can project of springtime in your community, that may be preferable to something more generic.
Celebrate joyously today in word, and song, and sacrament. See the Great Thanksgiving Based on The Song of Solomon.
Let your celebration in Word and Table today be a rich foretaste of Christ's final victory and wisdom's endless bliss.
Doing the Word: James
The reading from James this week, the first in a series of five weeks from this sometimes spurned epistle, is often experienced and preached as "admonitory moral instruction" and with good reason. As many commentators have noted, that is the literary form in which it is written (called "paraenesis," a Greek term for warning). James is practical advice on a whole range of matters of Christian discipleship, with a strong tone of warning for those who choose not to follow it or who choose to ignore it.
While this form of writing would have had a loyal following among a good number of first-century and even some contemporary societies, many in contemporary Western cultures would find it very hard to hear. Some may be simply turned off by it completely.
So, how might you find ways to communicate the heart of the message of James without many in your congregation getting mad at its tone or even almost automatically tuning it out?
One way might be by focusing on positive examples of the practices James commends already happening where you are.
For example, this week's reading reminds us that pure, undefiled religion involves "doing the word," and that "doing the word" involves "caring for widows and orphans in their distress." Has your congregation or perhaps people in it been part of a work team or a mission project that has cared for people in distressing circumstances? Consider showing images of those projects as you read this text.
James also reminds us this week of the abundant generosity of God (1:17), something God has created us to share with others (1:18). So, what stories or examples of people sharing abundantly the abundance of God do you have where you are?
Notice the language James uses about this sharing. It isn't a sharing of "haves" with "have nots." Every good and perfect gift, every last one of them comes from God -- and God's gifts are poured out lavishly on all of us. We are rarely "needy" people. We are more often gifted people who haven't yet seen the possibilities in all of the giftedness in us and in the people around us. We are "quick to speak" and sometimes "quick to anger" about our perceived "needs." We may be slower to listen about the generous gifts we have or have at hand. So, who where you are embodies being quick to listen for what God is already providing abundantly in your midst and helping others recognize and be blessed by it?
How do folks in your congregation experience and express "true religion that is pure and undefiled" in their lives away from the worshiping community, and on this Labor Day weekend particularly at school, work, the community, and at home? How are their work and your work as a church contributing (or not!) to ensuring that the weak and vulnerable are connected and protected? How well are folks where you are able to model listening more than speaking in anger in our increasingly confrontational media environment? To what degree do the Christian education structures and programs in your congregation help people DO the word, and not just hear it? And how well are you, in all areas of your lives, reflecting the abundant generosity of God?
Remember that in James and in early Christianity generally, to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27) did not mean seeking to live entirely apart from the world in some kind of ascetic withdrawal. Rather, it meant not allowing the way the world treats others -- especially the poor, the widow, the orphans, and the marginalized -- to mar the way we treat all people as disciples of Jesus. The world's way keeps them stuck or channels them off to one side. The way of Jesus and his disciples is to come alongside as advocates with the vulnerable and voiceless. And when we come alongside folks like this, actively seeking together and sharing in the abundant gifts of God, we might expect to end up with some stained clothing from time to time!
Gospel: Discipleship Everywhere
Before we started our "interlude" in John's gospel, most of our readings in Mark were primarily stories of Jesus leading his disciples in ministry along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.
From today forward, Galilee still plays some part, but the narrative generally moves away from the shoreline toward the inland villages and beyond, as far as Tyre and Sidon, and ultimately to Jerusalem. Not everyone lives in a "liminal" space. The good news of God's kingdom is for all people in all places. Learning what it means to be disciples of Jesus requires us to follow him from margins, to beyond the margins, to the heart of establishment.
We do not know exactly where today's story takes place. The last place mentioned was Gennesaret along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (6:53), but the verses that follow indicate Jesus and his disciples had started traveling from there to a number of neighboring villages and farms from there (verses 55-56). Maybe we are thought to presume that Jesus is back in his "home base" in Capernaum.
While we do not know where Jesus is, we do know his inquisitors came from Jerusalem (7:1). So wherever Jesus and his disciples are, even at that place, here they are encountering not the "marginal" folk of Galilee, but the heart of the establishment itself. He had encountered some of the scribes from Jerusalem once before (3:22, when they were accusing him of casting out Satan by Satan). But now they have returned with some Pharisee "reinforcements." Together they started asking Jesus why his disciples seemed to ignore the tradition about eating with unwashed hands.
Note the change in tactics here. Before, there was an attack on Jesus himself. That had failed. Now, with reinforcements, they are going after his disciples, and so only indirectly after him, by implying that he may be a neglectful teacher or poor at keeping his disciples in line.
Indeed, it would appear Jesus had not taught his disciples to be scrupulous about handwashing rituals. Jesus' reply to the accusation indicates what he was trying to teach instead: Being scrupulous about having a "clean heart." He did not care if their hands were dirty. He cared about whether they were living as those being cleansed and set free from the power of evil intentions (7:21).
Keep in mind that the heart was not seen as the center of emotions in the biblical cultures. A variety of different emotions were regarded as seated in other organs of the body. Compassion, for example, was associated with the small intestine. Anger was associated with the gall bladder. These emotions were considered peripheral, not decisive to the final character of the person.
What mattered most, and so was thought to be located at the core, literally in the heart, were the values people held and demonstrated by their actions and responses to others. It is from the heart that evil intentions -- and good intentions -- spring. It is the purification of the heart that Jesus sought to help his disciples then, and now, wherever they may travel, to experience.
Look at the list of things Jesus enumerates as negative values emanating from the heart in verses 21-23: "evil plans, sexual immorality, thefts, murders, adulteries, the desire for more and more, wickedness, lying, impurity, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly." These he says are thus not the results of lesser organs being a bit out of whack, but rather of a heart defect. None of these is simply an "attitude" as we might call it. All of them are activities involving both body and mind. And all of them, he says, reflect disordered values.
Practices that do not reorient values cannot make our hearts pure. That's why Jesus didn't insist on them.
Disciples of Jesus are called, as John Wesley reminds, to nothing less than "entire holiness of heart and life." We don't get to holiness by washing hands or even following a particular diet. (Mark is clear that Jesus even overturned kosher restrictions here as well -- verse 19).
Jesus made this point clear: real human transformation, entire holiness of heart and life, is possible now. God's kingdom is making it possible. Jesus is teaching his disciples how to help this happen in their own lives. Any attention to practices or metrics that can't bring or measure real transformation can only get in the way.
Today's reading does include a rather lengthy "sin list" as we've already seen. Jesus didn't name these to "call out" the sins of his opponents in public with this list. Instead, he was naming the realities of deeply distorted values we are all up against.
So rather than using this list to preach against sins, do with it what Jesus did. Help people to acknowledge what they're really struggling with -- not dirty hands but unclean hearts. Invite folks to close their eyes. Read each of the items on the list slowly. Offer a brief example of how each might manifest itself. Between each sin and example, allow for a time of silence for worshipers to consider how each of these may have a foothold in their own lives. Conclude this with a corporate confession of sin and a word of absolution. God's forgiveness does free us from sin's power. God's grace does transform us.
But don't stop there. Remember that we have good examples from our larger Christian heritage, and specifically the early Methodist experience, of ways of making serious progress against sins of the heart, and so we can cultivate holiness of heart and life. Invite those who are ready to make such progress to join an accountable discipleship group or a covenant discipleship group. For more information on these small groups and how they can work most effectively, see the Covenant Discipleship website.
Song of Solomon and Psalm: Once again, this is the only time in our three-year Sunday lectionary to hear from the Song of Solomon! So if your congregation generally follows the lectionary for worship planning, and if you don't want to wait for another three years to deal with this text, today is the day to experience it deeply and well. In addition to the atmospheric suggestions above, you may also want to plan a reaffirmation of marital vows or a celebration of marriage anniversaries/engagements. The United Methodist Book of Worship (UMBOW) resources related to marriage include:
- An Order for the Reaffirmation of the Marriage Covenant: UMBOW, 135
- Marriage Anniversary Prayers: UMBOW, 138
- Prayer for an Engaged Couple: UMBOW, 537
- Ministry With Persons Going Through Divorce: UMBOW, 626
For additional online resources, see "A Service of Prayer for Marriages and Worship Resources and Prayers for Marriages."
James: For additional consideration of the ministry of members in their work, home, leisure, community, and the global community, see the Member Mission website. Wayne Schwab's book and website have much to offer spiritual leaders who are longing to unleash members for their primary ministry, Monday to Monday. Invite your members to explore the questions that will help them focus on their mission day by day, starting with this page of worksheets.
Mark: We live in an age and a culture where sanitation is a critical issue, not simply a matter of ritual concern. There are legitimate reasons to ensure that handwashing is widely and regularly practiced among us all -- and not just in the U.S. Unsanitary water conditions remain the largest direct cause of disease and death in the world. While what is outside may not be able to defile our character, it can certainly cause serious harm to our bodies and even our very lives.
Jesus isn't rejecting sanitation. He's rejecting insistence on compliance with someone's version of ideal ritual practice as a valid indicator of what matters most, to the neglect of indicators that address the reason for ritual in the first place to bind us with the God who can save us from what will destroy our souls. What other indicators that don't matter most are folks hung up on in your congregation? How does ritual practice in your congregation help folks connect with God more deeply, and where might ritual practice actually mask or block such saving connection?
- Call to Worship: UMBOW, 198 or 200, "May the Warm Winds of Heaven" (Song, James)
- Greeting: UMBOW, 458 (Song, James)
- Opening Prayer: UMBOW, 460 (James)
- Canticle: United Methodist Hymnal, 646, "Canticle of Love" (Song)
- Prayer of Confession: UMBOW, 488 (Song, James, John)
- Response: UMBOW, 197, "Shawnee Traveling Song" (Song, James)
- Prayer: United Methodist Hymnal, 69, "For True Singing" (James)
- Prayer: United Methodist Hymnal, 409, "For Grace to Labor" (James)
- Prayer: UMBOW, 502, "For the Church" (James, Mark)
- Prayer: UMBOW, 530, "A Prayer of Saint Thomas Aquinas" (Mark)
- The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer : Czech Republic, Poland, Slovak Republic
- Great Thanksgiving: UMBOW, 70-71 (James); 124-126 (Song and affirmation of marriage and anniversaries of marriage); "A Service of Holy Communion for Labor Day"; and "A Great Thanksgiving based on The Song of Solomon."
- Prayer of Thanksgiving: UMBOW, 550 or 555 (James)
- Dismissal: UMBOW, 559 (James)
- Blessing: UMBOW, 565 (Song)
- Closing Prayer: UMBOW, 567 (James)
- Blessing: United Methodist Hymnal, 225, "Canticle of Simeon" (Psalm 72)
Call to Worship (James and Mark)
Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors!
That the King of Glory may come in.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in God's holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
Who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the generation of those who seek the Lord,
Who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
(Based on Psalm 24)
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