The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Signs on the grounds of the Church of Mount of the Beatitudes,
situated at a site thought to be where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos basados en el leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé.
The Lord has a controversy with Israel, and the prophet asks what the Lord requires.
Psalm 15 (UMH 747).
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Sing the response with Tone 1 (UMH 737).
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
God's saving love confounds every source of human boasting. Let your only boasting be in the cross of Christ.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with eight words of blessing.
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The texts in this Season after Epiphany are divided into two streams (OT/Gospel and Epistle) with one purpose: to prepare your congregation for its work of walking with persons preparing for baptism or reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant during Lent. The Epistle Stream focuses on being or becoming healthy as the body of Christ. The OT/Gospel stream, centered in the gospel reading for each Sunday, focuses on the calling and teaching of disciples of Jesus. Choose and pursue the stream that seems most helpful for your congregation to get ready for its Lenten work of forming disciples of Jesus Christ readied to live the baptismal covenant faithfully. For more discussion of these two series or streams, see Planning for the Season after Epiphany 2014.
In the OT/Gospel stream, we begin an extended time in the “Sermon on the Mount” today.
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 5).
Today also begins the annual U.S. observance of Black History Month.
Anglicans, Roman Catholics and some Lutherans may also observe today (February 2) as The Feast of the Presentation, commemorating the 33rd day after the birth of Jesus when he was presented in the temple as part of the purification rites for his mother after childbirth. While United Methodists have no tradition of keeping this day (John Wesley omitted it from the liturgical calendar he sent for the Methodists in America, along with many other days he believed to be “serving no valuable end”), this may be a good day to consider offering Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child for every child born or adopted within the past year. See The United Methodist Book of Worship, 585.
Scouting Ministries Sunday
(While the program calendar provides for dates in both February and March, the February date is preferred to avoid conflicting with Lent. Congregations may choose any date for this observance.)
St. Valentine’s Day
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. St Valentine is no longer a recognized saint in either 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.
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Atmospherics -- OT/Gospel Stream: Calling and Teaching Disciples
Week 3: Teaching, Part 1: The Blessed
The good news Jesus began to preach throughout the region of Galilee, and especially in the towns along the shoreline, is summarized by Matthew as “Repent! For the kingdom of God has drawn near” (Matthew 4:17). This is identical in wording to the message of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2), now in prison at Herod’s headquarters in Galilee. This message of the “nearing” of the kingdom of God is the urgent and constant theme that underlies everything Jesus preaches, teaches, and does in his public ministry and with his disciples.
The Bible is clear about this. But often well-meaning Christians have neglected to be as clear as the Bible is. And the Sermon on the Mount, which we begin reading today and through the rest of this month, is a powerful case in point. Some have interpreted it to refer to life in heaven rather than what God’s kingdom blesses and brings about on earth. Others have looked at the Sermon on the Mount as good pointers for success in life in general, disconnected from the proclamation that God has broken into history in a decisive way in Jesus, and that “ordinary life” (defined by the kingdoms of this world) and “real reality” (defined by God’s kingdom) are not at all identical. Each of these interpretations, each widespread, blunts the power, meaning, and import of Jesus’ own teaching and obscures our calling and potential for living fully into God’s kingdom now. Indeed, one may argue each leads us simply into a deeper sense of captivity to the powers that be.
Systems tend to reward or bless what they want to produce more of. Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount by announcing what the kingdom of God rewards, or blesses, and so seeks to produce more of in our own lives and throughout the world, here and now and into the new creation: people who are “poor in spirit,” meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness and justice, merciful, pure in heart, and seeking reconciliation.
Systems sometimes also reward persons who have been harmed so they are able to participate fully in the new community. Jesus announces those who mourn and are persecuted for righteousness sake or for the sake of their faithfulness to Jesus are also among the blessed in God’s kingdom.
Becoming clear about whom and what God’s kingdom blesses, and why, leads us to our question for this season: How can we, both now and especially during Lent, bless whom and what God’s kingdom blesses, and so support those we accompany on their journey toward baptism and discipleship?
The reading from Micah reminds us God does not simply bless, but also calls and requires something of us. “What does the Lord require,” the prophet asks? “To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). God could not understand how the people could have so completely abandoned covenant after all that God had done for them, all the ways God had saved them time and again. All God wanted, and expected, in return were these three things—justice, mercy, and a humble walk with God.
There are strong parallels between these three attributes of covenant life with God and what Jesus identifies God blesses in the beatitudes. The message in the gospel is “God is blessing such people and such ways of living now that God’s kingdom has drawn near.” The message in the prophet is “if it is blessing you seek, live these ways!”
Both the requirement and the blessing matter. We’ll see the same pattern in the next three weeks as well, an ongoing dialogue between Old Testament and Gospel texts where sometimes one holds out the blessing and the other the requirement, and sometimes each has elements of both.
In Your Planning Team
John Wesley wrote a whole series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, including two on the Beatitudes. They are among the “Standard Sermons” and so part of our doctrinal standards as United Methodists. You would do well to assign your team to read at least the first two on the Beatitudes before you meet to plan today’s service, and then other sermons as you prepare for subsequent weeks in this series. You can find the first of these here: http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/21/. To get to the subsequent ones, just substitute any number from 22-33 where you see 21 in the hyperlink above.
Truly, the whole of the beatitudes is probably too much to focus on in just one service, much less in just one sermon. So part of your work as a team is to discern (a) how many Sundays to give to the beatitudes (one or more, departing from the lectionary), and (b) which beatitudes to focus on for this or each Sunday. I’ve suggested in the notes above one way of dividing them—by whether they are ways of living the kingdom seeks to multiply or times where the kingdom intervenes to provide blessing to overcome past harms (mourning, persecution). You may have others.
However you choose to focus or divide the reading today, remember the service alone or even a series of services cannot do the heavy lifting of helping people actually incorporate these things in their daily living. So also consider how you will devise communication between Sundays to help people of various ages, stages and abilities in your congregation both recognize where God’s kingdom is already blessing them, and how they can be agents of such blessing for others by loving mercy, doing justice, and walking humbly with God.
I’ve also mentioned above the dynamic of requirement and blessing that will interweave between gospel and OT lessons this week and in the coming weeks. Consider in your team
how you may design worship space and acts of worship to help your worshiping community experience both—requirement and blessing—as equally important and deeply related for those who seek to live in the way of the kingdom of God.
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Atmospherics -- Epistle Stream: Becoming a Healthy Body
Week 3: The Wisdom of the Cross Is Your Wisdom
Part of what drove the factionalism Paul called the Christians in Corinth to abandon in last week’s reading was a false understanding of the nature of true wisdom. People in the community were lining up behind those they thought to have the most wisdom about Christ or Christian living. Then they proceeded to boast their identified “wisest leader” was indeed the wisest and best.
That’s how the world does it. Common wisdom, we might say.
But that’s not the wisdom that helps the church be the church.
Instead, Paul says, we are all to line up and bow before the true Wisdom, “the foolishness of the cross” which is nothing less than “the wisdom of God.”
In God’s wisdom, God chooses the foolish, the weak, the low, even what seems to have no value at all. And out of all of that and in the face of all its opposites, God creates salvation. There is to be no boasting of any kind except in God alone through the cross of Jesus Christ.
The wisdom of the cross is our wisdom. We have no other.
So, how do we use or inform our lives with that wisdom?
Paul already makes a start of that here. He points to them, to their own lived experience. Not many of them were wise or powerful or noble by the standards of the “common wisdom,” yet God’s saving power in Christ was happening among them. In today’s parlance, Paul is saying, “Hey, you’re not all that! But look at what God’s saving power is doing with you, anyway. In fact, not just anyway, but to some degree because you really aren’t all that!”
The wisdom of the cross.
So how does that wisdom get “in” us, inhabiting our lives and habits individually, with one another, and toward the world?
The same way any other habit of thought and behavior does—through habituation. Repetition, practice, persistent meditation over time. Like a pianist practicing a piece of music until she no longer needs to look at the score, because the moves are in her muscles, the cadences are in the dance of her hands on the keyboard.
In Your Planning Team
- What do people in general boast in where you are? Position? the latest gadget? prowess in sports or games? coolness? uncoolness? What does such boasting do for those who can co-boast in these things? What does it do to those who can't?
- What does your worshiping community boast in? size? intimacy? friendliness? great programs for youth or older adults? cutting-edge music and technology? the band? the organ? the preacher? the choir? relevance? tradition? How does such boasting accurately name who you are as an entire community? Are you really "all that"? How does it divide your community into competing niches?
- What does the phrase "the wisdom of the cross" evoke or mean for the members of your planning team and congregation?
- What people do you know personally, either inside or outside your congregation, whose lives embody the characteristics you identified with "the wisdom of the cross"? What can you learn from these people about a journey that took them there?
Now you’re ready to start some planning for worship today. To become rehabituated, we must take a journey from where we are currently habituated, become disoriented so it becomes clear our current habituation no longer works, and then become rehabituated in the new way that does work. So the design of worship today should help your worshiping community take a journey from what the people in the congregation actually boast in now and the kinds of wisdom that actually inform them, through understanding where this does and doesn’t help them embrace or live out the wisdom of the cross, toward more of them boasting in the cross and being informed by the wisdom of the cross alone.
You have the raw materials for this journey in the questions you have answered above, and as living witnesses in the lives of people who are already embodying the better way.
Taking this ritual journey together may help you take the next steps. But you will also need ongoing support to keep taking them. Ritual initiation into rehabituation starts you on a new path. But you are likely to regress to the former path unless you continue to build habits that support the new one. So the second part of your work this week is either to plan for daily follow-up yourselves or partner with another group to offer it. Such follow up may be handled through an insert outlining daily reflection on living in the wisdom of the cross in the bulletin, daily email or social media reminders, conversations on how to live out the wisdom of the cross in Sunday school or small groups this week, or some combination or all of the above.
Embodying the Word: Praying or Singing the Ancient Songs
“A Service of Word and Table I” in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989, p. 6) includes a phrase in brackets following the opening prayer or collect of the day: “Act of Praise.” The hymnal nowhere explains what this Act of Praise may be, but The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992, p. 21) lists five different options.
Of these five, the first four involve praying or singing all or part of an ancient song of the church, sometimes called a “canticle.” The word sounds old, and it is. It’s one of the words in English that is little more than a transliteration of an older Latin word, in this case “canticula,” which means song.
OT/Gospel Stream: The Gloria in Excelsis
In the Western tradition of Christian worship, the most commonly prayed or sung canticle at this point is the Gloria in Excelsis (not to be confused with the much shorter Gloria Patri, which is a response or doxology most often said or sung historically after the reading or praying or singing of Psalms). This hymn, written in the form of a Psalm, begins with the angels praise of God at the birth of Jesus (“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those of good will,” Luke 2:14) and expands into full Trinitarian praise.
Beginning as a second- or third-century Greek hymn, it was translated into Latin in the fourth century and became a staple of the Western Mass by the sixth. It has also remained an integral part of the daily morning prayer in both the Eastern Church (where it is prayed daily) and in the West (where most versions pray or sing it either daily or at least weekly among others).
The United Methodist Hymnal has two settings for the entire text (82 and 83) and one as a chorus including only the first line (72). And, of course, it has been set to literally thousands of musical settings for choirs and other instruments over the years, including perhaps most famously in the West by Vivaldi, Bach, and Mozart. Even U2’s “Gloria” points back to this ancient Christian hymn.
Throughout most of the history of the Church, East and West, the Gloria in Excelsis and the other canticles have been sung. But they can also be prayed in unison, or responsively between choir or a leader and the congregation, or divided up between left and right sides of the worship space, or between male and female voices. Praying or singing the same canticle over time and in a variety of ways during these four weeks in connection with the ongoing focus on the Sermon on the Mount may not only help your worshiping community learn this ancient hymn by heart, but also begin to see how this ancient praise of our Triune God helps them see anew the glory of God in the face and teaching of Jesus Christ alive and active in our world today.
As you consider introducing this in worship for this Sunday, do consider a sung version, such as UMH 82. Perhaps have the choir sing it for the congregation before worship begins, so that when the time comes for all to sing it, people may be familiar enough not to stumble over the words and tune too badly. Sing it again to the same tune next week, and your worshiping community will likely do it with greater ease. Then offer some variation over the next two weeks—either prayed or sung—and return to the original sung version on the final week. By then, both words and music will have gotten into the hearts of your worshipers, and they will be able to sing it with joyous abandon.
Epistle Stream: A Canticle Smorgasbord
While there is a fairly common theme uniting all of the OT and Gospel readings through these weeks (“Calling and Teaching Disciples”), each week, I Corinthians brings a new word of encouragement or a new challenge from Paul to the Christians at Corinth to become a healthy body of Christ. So check out the complete index of canticles and canticles in metrical paraphrase on pp. 935-936 of The United Methodist Hymnal. Read through them individually or as a worship planning team, and see which canticles might best pair up with the focus of the particular reading for each Sunday. For this Sunday, consider especially the Canticle of Wisdom (UMH 11), the Song of Mary (198, 199 or 200), or another you may find fits your context better.
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- Greeting: 449, 456 or The United Methodist Hymnal, page 6
- Opening Prayer: 461, 465
- Invitation/Prayer of Confession/Pardon: 494 with pardon from 477 (Micah) or The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 7-8 (1 Corinthians, Matthew)
- Concerns and Prayers: 545, 546
- Ecumenical Prayer Cycle: Ireland, United Kingdom
- Prayer of Thanksgiving if Communion will not be celebrated: 552
- Great Thanksgiving: 78-79 or The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 9-11
- Dismissal with Blessing: 559, 562
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