Planning - The Second Sunday after Pentecost
The attempted sacrifice of Isaac.
Psalm Response: Psalm 13 (UMH 746)
A Psalm of lament. To download a Psalm tone by Dean McIntyre for congregational singing, click here.
When we are baptized, buried, and raised with Christ by water and the Holy Spirit, we are given a new life and a new master. Sin no longer reigns and drives us to death, but God and righteousness rule and lead us to life.
Rules for Mission: Expect, look for, and bless those who offer welcome.
For Leccionario Comn Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes (pdf), click here.
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Church Calendar: Remember that the lectionary in these months of Ordinary Time after Pentecost offers three different possible journeys for the focus of worship: Abraham and the ancestors in Genesis, Paul's theological reflections in Romans, and the ministry of Jesus in Matthew. Pick one of these as a stream or series, and stay with the flow.
Civic Calendar: Independence Day (US) is July 4, the Monday following next Sunday. If you plan to recognize that celebration in worship next Sunday (July 3) or on that day, see UMBOW 442 and these online resources: "A Great Thanksgiving for Independence Day" "Call to Worship for Independence Day" and "Worship and Music Resources for USA Independence Day."
Denominational Calendar: The next denominational emphasis is Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15-October 15. The next denominational special Sunday is World Communion Sunday, October 2. In preparation for World Communion Sunday, consider viewing "Living into the Mystery," either in worship or as part of a class. You can view it online if you have broadband Internet; or order the DVD. The video and ordering details are available here.
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Atmospherics: Three Different Streams
From now until All Saints Sunday, and then again from then until Christ the King Sunday, the Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel readings have no intended relationship to each other. The Season after Pentecost is set up for planning worship around one of these three streams. This is a time to dive deep into one stream at a time, and so to Think Series, not just week to week. Click here for more thoughts on how to "Think Series" during this season.
Genesis: Learning from the Ancestors
The Attempted Sacrifice of Isaac
We begin our journey in Genesis with a profound and disturbing story propelling us into the very heart of religious violence.
You will rarely hear me say something like this. But if you are not intending to focus worship this week on this text, or at least lead your congregation in a study of it in some way, you are better off not reading it in worship. The text is too powerful, too evocative, and too easy for those of us at far remove from ancient cultures to misunderstand badly. It demands full attention, or none. You decide.
Here's why. We've all heard the news stories. Some of us may have known people who experienced what happened when someone claimed to have heard directly from God to perform unspeakable violence against a child. In U.S. culture, we call such people criminally insane and lock them away for life, with or without treatment. In some instances, we may authorize the state to execute them.
If we're going to hear this story in its own context, however, we have to put aside what our contemporary cultures might say about it. We have to look instead to the struggles and issues at stake in Abraham's day. In those days, human sacrifice killing and then burning the remains of one's firstborn would not have been understood to be about madness, violence, or abuse, but leadership and devotion to the greater good. It was a terrible and costly price to pay, but seen by nearly everyone in those cultures as necessary from time to time.
Do you have parallels to that in your own cultural settings? Are there culturally endorsed callings to commit violence and endanger one's own life or the lives of our children in our culture today? How do we respond to such callings as Christians? Do we excoriate those who hear the call or praise them? Do we consider people who ask us or our children to commit violence for some greater good to be criminally insane, or honorable?
One of the remarkable things about this text is that Abraham clearly struggles with what he is asked and would culturally and even politically and religiously be expected to do in his context. On the one hand, he feels the pull of this calling to sacrifice Isaac and follows it. On the other hand, he recognizes that this pull is terrible, not simply because he will lose his son, but also because it seems to undo God's promise to him to become a father of many nations. Isaac was a miracle child. Kill Isaac, and can any future miracles be expected at all?
But this is not just a story of a struggling father. It is also and as importantly the story of the proposed victim of the culture's human sacrifice machine something unprecedented in such stories in the history of religious literature to that point. Everywhere else these stories are told, the victim is hidden, invisible, impersonal, mute. Here, Isaac speaks! He is not hooded, and his mouth is not gagged. "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" he asks.
Who are the Isaacs where you are? What typically happens to them? Do they remain silenced and hidden? What happens when or if they speak? Are there in your midst survivors of something like this, people who are willing to talk about how God's story delivered them from certain death if the "accepted" story were allowed to run its course?
Abraham's response reveals his continued openness to a different outcome from what the cultural narrative and its ritual would demand. "God will provide it," he says.
But the inner struggle continues as Abraham binds Isaac (with no signs of resistance on Isaac's part at this point), lays him on the wood for the sacrificial fire, and raises the knife with which he would slaughter his son as preparation for the sacrifice to come.
That's when the angel's voice interrupts the action. "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him." This may sound redundant. It probably isn't. Laying the hand on the boy was the first ritual action of a sacrifice. Before the plants or animals would be offered, the offerer would lay his hand on them, signifying to the one who was to prepare what was offered for the fire that it was owned and offered willingly and legitimately. The voice of God's messenger thus stops the ritual of the sacrifice before it can begin.
How that interruption happened is miraculous. Here, at a moment of intense religious devotion and violence, calling Abraham by his name ("father of a people") stops him cold.
It's as if the angel had said, "This is who you are. You are the father of a people, not the ruler of a tribe. You are the father. That's what I've made you and promised you will be."
It is in light of all of this that we can now begin to read the words that to our cultural ears may sound like the utterance of a psychopathic god. "Now I know that you fear God, since you did not withhold your only son from me."
Isaac's non-sacrifice was the means by which Abraham fully gave Isaac to God and did not withhold him.
This was a test. It was a real test. It was not a test of how far Abraham would go. It was a test of whether in the end he truly trusted in the God he had come to know and trust and what that God had made him to be, or whether he trusted more the "accepted" religious story of how leaders were to respond in times like these.
Who are the Abrahams where you are witnesses who can talk about how God's story kept them from becoming the "acceptable" abusers, killers, or destroyers of others that the "accepted" story would have endorsed or even demanded?
The power of this story is both in the test and in how it comes out. It's not just in the outcome, but also in the struggle.
As you reflect on these images and questions in your worship planning team, do so with the idea in mind that this struggle between stories, and testimonies of what happens when we let God's story define our response, are likely to be lively in many worshipers.
Abraham's and Isaac's story is also our story. Plan worship around this text to help people in your worshiping community get in touch with and be able to talk about how this struggle is playing out or has played out in their own lives.
So what images, music, and soundscapes speak of "the way things are" story where you are? What images, music, and soundscapes bear witness to the way God has promised to make things to be and is making things to be all around you? What combination of images, music, and soundscapes can convey the allure of the "way things are" story, the convicting power of the God-story, and the struggle of these stories in our own souls, the soul of your congregation, the soul of your neighborhood or community, the soul of your nation, and the soul of the world?
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Romans: Christian Theology and Ecclesiology, 101
Romans 6:12-23 leads those of us influenced by American Reformed Evangelicalism to familiar territory, part of what's been called in some evangelistic tracts, The Roman Road. "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
This is a true and powerful text in its own right, even extracted from its proper context as most "Roman Road" presentations use it. But what Paul has offered us in these words in the context of Romans 6 is a much richer description of life in the body of Christ.
And an important part of the context of these words is not just the words on the page, but the religious and cultural assumptions that come with them. In Paul's day, any notion of a sharp separation between ritual actions in community and the life of that community was unthinkable. Ritual life was not virtual life; it was real life in its most basic forms expressed ritually. That is why Christians and Jews objected so heartily to idolatry and the worship of other people or gods, because for them, the ritual itself declared either non-reality (there are no other gods) or reality distorted (the god portrayed is a false one). This also meant that if there were a disconnect between what was expressed in a community's ritual and how the people who celebrated it actually lived, the ritual was not the problem. The problem was failure to live the reality the ritual declared and embodied.
The ritual in question in this section of Paul's letter to the Christians at Rome is baptism. Baptism happens to us and changes us. We have been buried with Christ in baptism, and raised with Christ in baptism to walk in newness of life, Paul says earlier (verse 4). If indeed we have been buried with Christ in baptism, we are actually dead to and freed from sin. If indeed we have been raised with Christ in baptism, we are actually freed from the power of death.
The key word here is "freed." Just as a captive is set free from bondage, so we have been set free from sin and death. The captive set free is not thereby authorized to do whatever he or she wants, but rather to live lawfully, as a dutiful servant to the law among the people once again. Likewise, those freed from sin and death are not thereby authorized to live any way they please, but rather to live righteously as dutiful servants to righteousness in the communion of God and the saints on earth and in heaven.
Here's the heart of Paul's analogy in these verses. What former captive in his or her right mind would attempt to live lawlessly after being freed from captivity, unless the condition of captivity has become "home"? Likewise, given that we have been freed in baptism from sin and death, why would we give ourselves to the ways of sin and death again, rather than submitting to the righteousness of God in which we now stand?
Given the baptismal vows that have developed from the earliest centuries as represented in United Methodist ritual in Baptismal Covenant I (UMH 34), we might ask some more pointed questions. If we have been given grace and power to renounce the forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, repent from sin, resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, why do we seem so timid and powerless in the face of these things around us? Is not our timidity a sign that we have resubmitted ourselves to sin and death, rather than, as the vows continue, to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in union with his living body, the church?
Put another way, if these are our vows, what structures do we have in place to help people live this way? Are these just pretty ritual words, divorced from real life, or are they, as Paul understood baptism, declarative of the very reality into which we have been initiated? If we are not building or connecting to structures to help us live the vows we take, were we just playing around when we took them? Or, to put it in Paul's terms here, have we allowed ourselves and others to resubmit to sin and death (the wages of sin is death!) by our negligence in so doing?
Perhaps there are in your congregation or larger community people who are finding ways to take their baptismal vows seriously, to live the ritual, to live into the covenant, and to help one another do likewise. Early Methodism accomplished this through the class meeting. The General Rules, which provided the basic source for weekly conversation in the class meeting, were related to the baptismal vows of the Church of England in Wesley's day. Rejecting the powers of Satan: Do no harm (Rule 1). Obediently following Christ: Do all the good you can (Rule 2). Walking in the God's will and ways continually: Attend upon all the ordinances of God (Rule 3).
Covenant Discipleship is one current process that seeks to take up this role seriously in our day. Other structures and supports for accountable discipleship are also in place in a variety of ways. As you are planning worship today, invite folks in your congregation who are part of such groups, whether offered by your congregation or others, to be part of your team.
If accountable small groups are not happening in your congregation, link with folks in other congregations (or denominations!) who are part of such groups that seek to help one another live the ritual with integrity. Listen to their testimony about how living into the covenant helps them experience what it means to be part of the body of Christ through baptism in a deeper, more coherent way. Listen for testimonies of how people are actually living as those dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.
And then, among not just worship leaders, but any willing leaders or participants in your congregation, start talking about how you can take the challenge of this text seriously today, not by expecting people to live out the reality of baptism all by themselves (which works how well?), but by building communities of folks who will be committed to help one another live as those who have been set free from the power of sin and death, submitting themselves to righteousness for sanctification (verse 19).
Matthew: On Mission with the Master
Matthew this week is brief and happy! This short text is not an invitation for a "sermonette," but it may be an opportunity to help folks begin to count and account for all the places of welcome they've encountered when they've been about the mission Jesus sent these disciples out to do: proclaim God's kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons (Matthew 10:7-8).
Today is a day to be invitational and perhaps conversational. In addition to providing a brief introduction to this text, consider inviting people to talk in small groups for a few minutes to describe where and how they see signs of welcome for these kinds of ministries in what Wayne Schwab names as the seven missional contexts in which most Christians regularly find themselves: work or school, home, local community, wider world, spiritual health, congregational life and its outreach, and leisure. (See the image above and www.membermission.org for much more information!).
Meanwhile, as you design for the worship space, think about what symbols or signs would best reflect each of these seven kinds of contexts for folks in your congregation and community. Consider creating stations around the worship space dedicated to each of these seven areas, and having several different images or art works or soundscapes available, drawn from what actual folks in your actual congregation see and hear when they are in those places.
Embodying the Word: The Entrance
We offer suggestions for the Entrance this week, recognizing that today marks the beginning of the "second half" of the church year. A special focus on Entrance today may help you "kick off" the series you begin today and for the coming months.
Genesis or Romans: At the heart of God's test of Abraham is the question about what covenant and what kind of God Abraham is ultimately claiming. Do we serve the "The Lord, The Lord, full of compassion, abounding in steadfast love" or do we serve a god who demands human sacrifices? If you're following Genesis today, consider beginning with a call to worship from the font in which a deacon or lay leader cups water and lets it fall back into the font as the following call to worship is offered:
Deacon or Lay Leader: Who is our God?
People: "The Lord, the Lord, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin." (Exodus 34:6)
Deacon or Lay Leader: Who is our God?
People: "You, Holy One, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." (Psalm 86:15)
Deacon or Lay Leader: Who is our God?
People: "The Holy One is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." (Psalm 103:8)
Deacon or Lay Leader: What does our God require of us?
People: "To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8)
Deacon or Pastor: Sisters and brothers, remember our God in the flowing of these waters. Remember that it is into this God you are baptized, One in Three, Three in One, and no other. Remember that you are baptized, and be thankful!
Opening Hymn: "Praise and Thanksgiving Be to God Our Maker" (UMH 604).
If you're following Romans, consider the following opening, also from the font while the waters are lifted and allowed to fall in by a deacon or lay leader:
Deacon or Lay Leader: Who is Lord?
People: Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior!
Deacon or Lay Leader: Buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him to walk in newness of life. Who is Lord?
People: Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior!
Deacon or Lay Leader: Jesus is Lord. How do you respond to the spiritual forces opposed to him?
People: Jesus Christ is Lord. We renounce all others!
Deacon or Lay Leader: Jesus is Lord. How will you respond when you see evil, injustice or oppression in any form?
People: Jesus Christ is Lord! We receive his power and resist!
Deacon or Lay Leader: Jesus is Savior. He has delivered us from the power of sin. What will you do when you submit again to sin's power?
People: Jesus Christ is Savior! We will repent and call upon the Spirit to make us holy!
Deacon or Lay Leader: Jesus is Savior. He has set us free from the power of death. How will you live in the face of threats of violence and death?
People: Jesus Christ is Savior! We will represent him in the world, boldly declaring the triumph of his resurrection over every threat of violence or death.
Deacon or Lay Leader: You are the body of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, and individually members of it. How will you order your lives, together and individually, to help one another live as witnesses to Christ's triumph over sin and death.
People: We will be Christ's body in union with the whole church, locally and globally, in the past, present and future; and individually we will submit ourselves to one another one on one and in groups to do no harm, to do good, and to practice all the means of grace.
Deacon or Pastor: Remember that you are baptized into this Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, conqueror of sin and deliverer from death, eternally begotten of the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God now and ever. Remember that you are baptized, and rejoice!
Opening Hymn: "Praise and Thanksgiving Be to God Our Maker" (UMH 604).
Matthew: The theme here is welcome. If you have followed the suggestion of creating stations indicating the seven missional settings we have as Christians in the West, consider an opening act that brings one element from each of these seven stations to a central place in the worship space, and gathering the congregation in a circle (or the nearest approximation you can muster!) around this center. Strongly consider placing the font here (if you can) or having a pulpit Bible or gospel book here, and reading the gospel from this place when the time comes (but that is for later!). Then sing together a song of welcome as you are gathered in the circle, focused on the signs at the central place. Songs to consider may include "Welcome" in Worship & Song (3152), or "What a Fellowship" (UMH 133), or "Gather Us In" (TFWS 2236).
Greeting: BOW 457
Consider a congregational response, such as "Saranam, Saranam" (Refuge), 523, The United Methodist Hymnal, after each section; or use Psalm 50:14-15 as a responsive greeting.
Opening Prayer: BOW 467
Confession and Pardon: Page 8 or 26 in The United Methodist Hymnal.
The Great Thanksgiving: "The Great Thanksgiving for the Season After Pentecost," United Methodist Book of Worship, 70-71
Prayer of Thanksgiving after the offering if there is no Communion: BOW 551
Dismissal and Blessing: BOW 559 and 563 and/or sing 665 in The United Methodist Hymnal or 2279 in The Faith We Sing.
Or this Franciscan blessing:
A Franciscan Blessing
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
And the Blessing of God, who Creates, Redeems and Sanctifies, be upon you and all you love an pray for this day, and forever more.
(We have searched for attribution and copyright for this text. If anyone can help us find it, we will gladly acknowledge it.)
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