Planning - Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
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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We arrive at the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. The texts today and for the next four 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 begin an extended time in the "Sermon on the Mount" today. 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 arrives on March 9).
On the denominational calendar, February is Black History Month. Resources are available from theGeneral Commission on Religion and Race and through the 21st Century worship resources on the Discipleship Ministries website.
Scouting Ministries Sunday is scheduled for 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 coming next week, February 6. What impact is this likely to have on worship that day? 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 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). It is no accident that it 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 (or kingdom of heaven, as Matthew prefers) is the urgent and constant theme that underlies everything Jesus preaches, teaches, and does in his public ministry and with his disciples. Nothing he said or did has the meaning his earliest followers understood it to have apart from this point.
Why be so insistent about this? First, the gospels themselves are. And Acts and the epistles are no less insistent. What is proclaimed, the kerygma of the church, is the kingdom of God. What is taught is both the teaching of Jesus itself and how his life and ministry and our discipleship to him as Risen Lord through the Holy Spirit in the church enable us to witness, bear witness, and even occasionally cooperate with or be channels of the kingdom of God in our midst, wherever we are. (See Acts 28:31.)
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 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 now that also prepares us for heaven, missing the point that Matthew's use of "kingdom of heaven" is simply synonymous with "kingdom of God" and not pointing to conditions delayed until an afterlife. 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. The result of each interpretation -- and both are widespread in many variations -- is that the power, meaning, and import of these words from Jesus have been seriously blunted; and the potential for us living fully into God's kingdom now has been coopted by a deeper captivity to the powers that be.
As you plan worship during these weeks, resolve to be part of sharpening this sword of the Spirit in these texts, and thus to being part of the liberation of many from cultural captivity and openness to hear and respond anew to Christ's call, "Follow me."
And do not neglect -- but perhaps even spend some time individually or as a team -- studying John Wesley's 13 Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, all of which are part of our Doctrinal Standards as United Methodists. 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.
And given that Wesley devoted two full sermons to the beatitudes (this week's reading), consider whether you might wish to do the same as you plan this week. Yes, that means you may diverge a bit from the lectionary and not cover as much of the Sermon on the Mount, but you'd certainly be acting in the "spirit of the law," as well as the letter of our denomination's founder, should you decide to take a bit slower pace for starters.
Now, on to this week's planning proper. In Matthew, Jesus tells us plainly what and whom God is blessing in God's nearing kingdom -- the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice (or righteousness), the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for the sake of justice. None of these are people or ways of being that dominant human cultures have typically blessed. They are counter-intuitive to "common sense" (that sense of things and feeling about how the world "naturally" works formed by often unspoken but powerful cultural assumptions). They are not keys to success in this life, as the world usually counts or rewards success. But they are both signs and pathways of the abundant life in the kingdom of God.
If we are serious about having lives aligned with what God's kingdom is up to in the world, it is such people as Jesus calls blessed among whom we will find God already at work and offering abundant blessing. These are the people we have most to learn about from our calling and discipleship to Jesus and our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. These are the people who already have practices in place that show God's reign in action in the world. They may not know it or identify it as such. But here Jesus does.
Some questions for worship planners: What does worship space that demonstrates that these people are the objects and subjects of the blessing of God's kingdom look like where you are? How might worship space and acts of confession and pardon today reflect that the poor in spirit -- or as Wesley puts it in his sermon, those who are sinners and know it -- are truly blessed? How about for those who mourn? How about for those whose passion is righteousness and justice for all? Whichever of these you decide to focus on for worship today, give serious thought and attention to how the design of your space, or some objects in it, or what you will do in worship today reflects how these people are blessed in God's kingdom.
And consider, too, taking Jesus even more seriously. Consider that he isn't saying "these people will be blessed someday." Nor is he even limiting this to his disciples! (Wesley makes a huge point of this!) He's saying wherever you see people like this, whoever they are and whatever their background, know that God's kingdom offers them blessing. These people are, right now, being blessed by the reign of the Most High.
So think about what it might mean to invite two or three people who may have no connection to your congregation or any congregation to talk about how they may experience blessing from God in the midst of their life. Maybe this is a video you share, or maybe it is a live testimony. Either way, it's about bearing witness to the reality of what is blessed and who is blessed in God's kingdom.
The reading from Micah, though, reminds us is it not all about blessing, but also about requirement. "What does the Lord require," the prophet asks? "To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8). That set of requirements is offered in response to Micah's wondering how to respond to the Lord's controversy with the people (verses 1-3). God in this encounter cannot 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 hope for, live these ways!"
Both the requirement and the blessing matter. We'll see the same pattern in the next four 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. Beginning today, how will you design worship space and acts of worship that help your worshiping community experience these two elements -- requirement and blessing -- as equally important and deeply related for those who seek to live in the way of the kingdom of God?
Epistle Stream: I Corinthians
In last week's text, Paul identified a core challenge for the Christians in Corinth -- their factionalism around leaders and disunity as a body. The cross shows a different way, he argues. It's not about spiritual pride based on which leader one identifies with. It's about everyone identifying with the Christ and, in particular, his suffering on the cross.
We begin with the last verse we left off with last week. This week, Paul says more about what it means to live as those who count "the foolishness of the cross" as nothing less than "the wisdom of God." Not only factionalism is put aside, but every form of boasting, whether in strength, or wisdom, or power, or nobility of birth. Why? Because in Christ, God reversed the flow of energy behind most human values. 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. No ground remains for any boasting, except in God alone through the cross of Jesus Christ.
What do people boast of where you are? Position? The latest gadget? Prowess in sports or games? Coolness? Uncoolness? What does your worshiping community boast of? Size? Intimacy? Friendliness? Great programs for youth or older adults? Cutting-edge music and technology? The band? The choir? Relevance? Tradition? What would it look like if, indeed, "in the cross of Christ you gloried," and in that alone? What people you know already seem to do that well? What can you learn from these people about a journey that took them there? How can worship at least ritualize such a journey today -- a journey from whatever we boast in to boasting in Christ alone?
What sequence of music from the start to the conclusion of worship might dramatize this? How might faithful attention to the four-fold pattern of Christian worship (entrance, word and response, thanks at the table, sending) provide a substructure that guides your planning today?
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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 "canticul," 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 five 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 and 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 sing it with joyous abandon.
Epistle Stream: A Canticle Smorgasbord
While there is a fairly common theme uniting all the Old Testament and gospel readings through these weeks ("What God's Kingdom Blesses and Requires"), the same does hold for the epistle readings. Each week brings a new dimension, a new word of encouragement, or a new challenge from Paul to the Christians at Corinth. So check out the complete index of canticles and canticles in metrical paraphrase on pages 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 that fits your context better.
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- Greeting: UMBOW 449, 456 or The United Methodist Hymnal, page 6
- Opening Prayer: UMBOW 461, 465
- Invitation/Prayer of Confession/Pardon: UMBOW 494 with pardon from 477 (Micah) or The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 7-8 (1 Corinthians, Matthew)
- Concerns and Prayers: UMBOW 545, 546
- 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 559, 562
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