African (Sénégal) Basin and Pitcher for Washing Hands. Photo by T.K. Naliaka. Used by permission. CC BY-SA 4.0.
Revised Common Lectionary
See full texts, artwork, and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this Sunday at Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes. Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegéticos: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
Lecionário comum revisado (português)
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 UMH. It makes a more fitting response to the first reading with its celebration of young love and marriage. Psalm 72 is the recommended substitute from the earlier Common Lectionary (1983-1992) included in our hymnal.
James 1:17-27: 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.
Today marks a “stream-switch” day within the Season after Pentecost. All three streams (Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel) ended a series last week and begin a new one today. Both Old Testament and Epistle start new five-week series. The gospel will be semi-continuous in Mark through Christ the King Sunday.
As you begin a new series today, remember these basic tips.
1. Your first service is both overture and Act I. Pay attention to both so folks not only know where you’re focusing today, but something of what the series promises for the weeks ahead.
2. Establish a distinctive look and sound for the series. Elements of a distinctive look may include special lighting, banners, artwork, staging elements, or the basic graphical palette you use each week of the service. The distinctive sound for the series may include a genre of music, soundscapes you create to accompany slides, readings, or other elements of worship, or a hymn, song or chorus you use in each service of the series.
3. Coordinate ongoing communication and formation opportunities with the worship series. Build a series webpage with links to other kinds of resources people can use in small groups, classes, or in daily personal acts of devotion and study. Send links to these resources regularly via email newsletters or social media. Make sure existing classes and groups have what they need to help their members make the best use of worship and the ancillary resources you develop and provide.
4. Be clear about WHY this series matters for disciples of Jesus in your congregation or ministry setting. Every service and every resource or communication you provide about the series or resources should remind folks why you are focusing where you are for these five weeks. The underlying Why of this Season after Pentecost is to challenge and support disciples as they offer their ministries in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit and grow in holiness of heart and life. Be sure to show how the Why for the particular series you select supports and is the appropriate next step in your context for the underlying Why of this season.
Resources for Planning Ahead
Here are three articles and a webinar to help you plan through the end of the year.
Seasons and Series for Fall 2015
Planning Worship for Discipleship and Ministry During the Season after Pentecost, Year B
Three Ways to Celebrate Advent and Christmas Season Fully in 2015/2016
Celebrating Extended Advent: Why and How-To, September 15 at 7:30 p.m. CDT.
Back to School Resources: United Methodist Communications
All Month Season of Creation (global and ecumenical)
September 7 Labor Day (USA)
October 15 Hispanic Heritage Month (USA)
All Month Season of Saints
October 4 World Communion Sunday
October 11 Children’s Sabbath
October 18 Laity Sunday
November 1 All Saints Day (USA Standard Time Begins)
November 8 Extended Advent Begins
Organ and Tissue Donor Sunday
Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church
November 11 Veterans Day (USA)
November 22 Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday
Bible Sunday (USA)
November 26 Thanksgiving Day (USA)
November 29 “Regular” Advent Begins
United Methodist Student Day
Week 1: The Wisdom of Love
We start this five week series in the Bible’s wisdom literature with spring flowers and a young couple in love running off together.
Why? Because our God reveals the animating force and character of wisdom is love, joy, and delight.
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 delights in creation, in the lives and loves of people, 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 as richly and succinctly as any in the Bible.
Lover and Beloved are exuberant over each other. Lover portrays “my beloved” as “leaping upon the mountains… like a gazelle or young stag” (verses 8-9). Beloved calls Lover to come forth and join the celebration of the rest of creation, its flowering, its singing, its fruitfulness, its sweet aroma.
This is what wisdom does. This is what the Holy Spirit does. This is what we do when we undertake to learn wisdom. Wisdom consists in such joy, such delight, such awareness of and joining in the flowering, singing, fruitfulness and sweet smells around us.
In Your Planning Team
Today’s reading practically overflows with possibilities for imagery and soundscapes. Spring flowers, fruit-trees bearing fruit, gazelles leaping, bird song, and young lovers about to be reunited.
And all this to launch a series on wisdom.
Indeed, all this. This is the tone to set for today and for the whole series.
We have misread wisdom and missed entirely the joy and delight in it if we have treated it as academic pursuit, or the result of extreme ascetical practice, or merely of hard intellection. We hear wisdom and we think “somber, solemn, serious.” We hear wisdom, and, if we are hungry, we think “Eat your spinach.”
Not in this series. Not in the Bible. And not in Christian discipleship.
Wisdom is love, joy, and delight ordering all things.
If you see the order, or seek to impose it, but your effort lacks the love, joy and delight of wisdom, you’re doing it wrong.
So sing songs exulting love, divine and human, and sing and pray with thanks and joy and delight in creation in all its forms today. Celebrate around the Lord’s Table, using a Great Thanksgiving built around today’s reading.
Send people forth rejoicing.
And keep the flowers and fruit live and fresh, the sounds of birds, the vision of leaping gazelles, and the joy of young lovers front and center week by week, starting today.
Only the foolish make wisdom seem dour.
James: Coaching for Practicing the Faith
Week 1: Doing the Word
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 hands-on, practical advice on a whole range of matters of Christian discipleship, with a strong tone of warning for those who choose not to follow the advice given.
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?
Consider reframing it as coach-style encouragement.
If you’ve played on any sports team, or even had a personal fitness coach, you know what it’s like to have a coach give you direction. The coach is directive. Do this. Do more of this. More. Don’t do that. Not that. This. This. Right. Now more of this.
When this kind of communication is coming from a coach, someone we know understands what it takes to play the game or build muscle or cardiovascular endurance, we don’t take the directiveness negatively. We take it for what it is. Hands-on help. Coach knows what I need and we need as a team. And coach knows that when I’m practicing, I need to practice the right things the right ways so I’m wired to have the right reaction automatically when I need to.
For whatever reason, when it comes to living our faith, we may be less receptive to such strong directiveness.
So maybe, just maybe, if we can allow ourselves to see these five weeks as a kind of intensive training or re-training for Christian living, a refresher course or mid-season follow-up to Lent, if you will, we might be able to hear and get the benefit from what James is saying to us, both when he says “Do this” and when he says, “Stop doing that—now!”
This week’s reading starts seemingly unthreateningly enough. It reminds us God the Father, who has rebirthed us through the word of truth so we could become a firstfruits of God’s creatures, is the source of all good gifts (verses 18-19).
Even here, however, are two phrase that might catch us out if we’re not hearing James as our coach and we don’t recognize we need coaching: “word of truth” and “firstfruits of God’s creatures.”
“Word of truth” is a Hebraic construction simply taken over into the Greek. We might more completely translate that as “truthful word.” Either way, it’s no less provocative a phrase or a claim. Our rebirth is the product of and therefore connects us to truth, or, more accurately, to Truth. There is a kind of sharpness to that claim. Those who are born again are in Truth. And we are in truth for a purpose: to become the firstfruits of all creatures.
“Firstfruits” is another deeply Hebrew term, connected with the sacrificial system of Israel. The firstfruits were the first and finest portion of grain or animals set aside by a farmer or family to be offered in sacrifice to God. A similar phrase we might use is the “crème de la crème,” the best of the cream that rises to the very top.
Are we offended by the notion that God seeks to make of us, disciples of Jesus, the crème de la crème of all creatures?
Perhaps we should be, unless we read this “elitist” formation with its sacrificial overtones.
God isn’t making us the best there is so we can be the best for ourselves.
God intends to make us the best there is for the sake of and as a sign of God’s loving intent for all other creatures.
If God’s going to do that in us, there are some things we need to know to cooperate. And we need to get them right.
And for many of these, it will take some practice, some hard practice, to get them right.
We need Coach James to remind and keep reminding us.
And he does.
Get this, he says (verse 19). Listen. Don’t talk much. Listen. Keep listening. Don’t react in anger. (It’s almost like James reads our comments in social media, eh?).
Just listen. Reactivity doesn’t produce the righteousness God wants to produce in you (verse 20).
But this does. Listen. Welcome meekly the word that can save you. Listen. Let it be implanted in you. Keep listening until it is (verse 21 b).
And if you want that word to take root it you, plow the field. Get rid of anything sleazy in you. Get rid of any evil growing wild like weeds in you. Clear the ground. Listen, and receive the word. (verse 21a).
And then when you’ve heard the word, just do it. Hearing truth isn’t enough. It’s doing it that gets it planted deep in you. It won’t make you who God is trying to make you unless you act on it, wire it into your body, not just your brain. Do it. That will make it stick. That will let the implanted word grow in you. That will make it impossible to forget who you are and who God is making you to be. Do it (verses 22-24).
And if you don’t do it, if you just hear what you are called to do and be and don’t act on it, your religion is worthless. This takes discipline. It takes doing it. It takes practicing non-reactivity. It takes practicing listening to God, your teachers, and your neighbors.
And it takes caring for widows and orphans, hands on, in the midst of the world, while continuing to root out any sleaze and not let take root any more from the world. And caring for them means listening to them, listening for the implanted word and seeing the many good and perfect gifts God has poured out on them, too.
Listen. And do it.
In Your Planning Team
Coaching may provide the key visual and sound metaphors for today and these next five weeks.
Be sure to involve both the women and the men on your planning team in developing the look and feel of graphics and other design elements for your worship space for this series, and not to limit the images of coaching to men and men’s sports. And remember there are chess, spelling, and academic team coaches, too! James is coaching for all of us.
The major themes of today’s reading are listen, do it, get rid of the sleaze, and let righteousness take deep root. Choose songs and prayers that help these themes become implanted as you praise God together today. Taizé or other repeating, cyclical songs may be particularly useful for shaping prayer or responses to the word today.
If you celebrate Communion today, consider using Word and Table I (today and throughout this series) and adding silences in key places to enhance your congregation’s listening for God as they offer their thanksgiving. Consider placing a silence after the opening dialog and before “It is right and a good and joyful thing…,” after the Sanctus and before “Holy are you,” extended silences between and after the words recalling Jesus’ actions with the bread and the cup, and again between the two parts of the epiclesis, after “redeemed by his blood” and before “By your Spirit.” If you do this, be sure to “signal before changing lanes.” Let folks know you are doing this, and why, during the announcements or just after the Peace and before the offering.
Gospel: Discipleship Everywhere
Week 1: Cleansing the Heart
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, the Sea of 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 he and his disciples had started traveling from there to a number of neighboring villages and farms (verses 55-56).
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. Jesus 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 washed 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.
Perhaps Jesus had not taught his disciples to be scrupulous about handwashing rituals. But Jesus’ reply to the accusation indicates what he was trying to teach: Being scrupulous about honoring the commandments of God rather than human traditions (7:8).
When he speaks to the crowd after this encounter with these religious leaders, Jesus put it another way. He did not care if their hands were dirty on the outside. He cared about whether they were living as those being cleansed on the inside and set free from the power of evil intentions ruling in their hearts (7:21-23).
Keep in mind that the heart was not seen as the center of emotions in the biblical cultures. A variety of 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.
But the heart wasn’t about emotions. It was about what was thought to matter most, what was at core: 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. Jesus proclaimed God’s kingdom was bringing about the purification of the heart, and invited all who would to let God do this work within them.
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 thoroughly disordered values.
Practices like handwashing 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 records Jesus even overturned kosher restrictions— verse 19).
Because God’s kingdom has drawn near, real human transformation, entire holiness of heart and life, is possible now. This is what God wants for all of us. Any attention to practices or metrics that can’t bring or measure real transformation only distract and get in the way.
God longs and works to restore our hearts.
In Your Planning Team
Today’s text is a powerful way to start this closing series. It gets right to the heart of the matter, literally.
The process of discipleship is a thorough reorientation of all of life around the ways of the master. Some ways are easy to learn quickly. Some we enjoy and delight to embrace. (As we’ve noted in the Old Testament series, wisdom is grounded in love and delight!).
But others require something more radical, and a much longer time to get right.
Some of the most significant require cleansing and repairing our hearts, our core values.
And as we’ll see next week, sometimes that means our hearts need to grow some, too.
Sing about our need for cleansed hearts today.
And when you address the extensive sin list Jesus provides in today’s reading, use it as Jesus did.
He wasn’t preaching against people who sinned.
He wasn’t even preaching against the sin.
He was helping anyone listening 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.
Then let God feed you, that Christ may abide in you and you in him at the Lord’s Table.
But don’t stop there. Send people forth remembering 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 (BOW) resources related to marriage include:
- An Order for the Reaffirmation of the Marriage Covenant: BOW 135
- Marriage Anniversary Prayers: BOW 138
- Prayer for an Engaged Couple: BOW 537
- Ministry With Persons Going Through Divorce: BOW 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?
The United Methodist Book of Worship (BOW) with links and other suggestions
Call to Worship: BOW 198 or 200, "May the Warm Winds of Heaven" (Song, James)
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)
WORD AND RESPONSE
Canticle: UMH 646, "Canticle of Love" (Song)
Response: BOW 197, "Shawnee Traveling Song" (Song, James)
Prayer: UMH 69, "For True Singing" (James)
Prayer: UMH 409, "For Grace to Labor" (James)
Prayer: BOW 502, "For the Church" (James, Mark; 2nd item)
Prayer: BOW 530, "A Prayer of Saint Thomas Aquinas" (Mark)
Ecumenical Prayer Cycle: Czech Republic, Poland, Slovak Republic
THANKSGIVING AND COMMUNION
Prayer of Confession: BOW 488 (Song, James, John)
Great Thanksgiving: "A Great Thanksgiving based on The Song of Solomon" or Word and Table I (James, Mark)
Prayer of Thanksgiving: BOW 550 or 555 (James; 1st and last items, respectively)
Closing Prayer: BOW 567 (James)
Blessing: UMH 225, "Canticle of Simeon" (Psalm 72)
Dismissal: BOW 559 (James)
Blessing: BOW 565 (Song; 4th item)