Planning -Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Servant Song of Isaiah -- "I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
Psalm 40:1-11 (UMH 774).
Sing the response and the psalm to Tone 1 in C major.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (1 of 3 Sundays in 1 Corinthians).
Paul's greeting to the Corinthian community.
John the Baptist tells of the baptism of Jesus and points out the "Lamb of God." They follow him and tell others they have found the Messiah.
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With this Sunday we enter into "ordinary time" (in the sense of numbering Sundays with ordinal numbers) marking the Sundays "after the Epiphany." This year, we have the second longest possible Ordinary Time after Epiphany, a full eight Sundays prior to Transfiguration Sunday.
How to approach these Sundays? There are essentially two streams of texts during these weeks. The Old Testament aligns with the Gospel reading, and beginning next week, the gospel readings until Transfiguration Sunday are from the Sermon on the Mount. That gives you a full five weeks for a series on the Sermon on the Mount, should you choose that track. Or you could start a series this week on the epistle readings, which are taken in order from I Corinthians.
So where should you focus? That depends on your worshiping community, and perhaps especially which of these two might make a better lead-in for Lent and its focus on preparing for baptism. What sort of foundations do you need to lay just now? Are they more about the teachings of Jesus? Then follow the OT/Gospel track beginning next week. Or are they more about how the congregation functions as a community? Then focus instead on the readings from I Corinthians. Either path can be fruitful, and we'll support each in the helps you see here in the coming weeks. For a bit more on these two themes, see our planning overview article for these weeks.
On the denominational calendar, today is Human Relations Day . Next week is Ecumenical Sunday (January 23) in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. If you don't already, consider including the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle as part of your worship on January 23, and keep it as part of your intercessions throughout the year. The weekly listing of nations to pray for is always included in these helps (below) and a full list of prayers for each nation is included on the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle website, usually posted about two weeks before the given Sunday.
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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So, which direction are you heading? A sermon series on I Corinthians, or an OT/Gospel focus, with an extended series on the Sermon on the Mount beginning next week? If the latter, what are you doing this week?
While the Old Testament reading for this week is chosen to correspond to the gospel, the pairings are actually much closer beginning next week when the gospel reading also begins a much more of a series. In many ways, this week's gospel is still continuing the "Epiphany" theme, rather than branching out into a more clearly post-Epiphany direction. So for this week, rather than an OT/Gospel stream, you may wish to focus on just one of these two texts.
Isaiah: A Light to the Nations and Your Neighborhoods
What does it look like for a people just now re-gathering as a people in their own land after five decades of exile to take on the vocation of being "a light to the nations"? That is the promise and the call of the prophet in Isaiah 49. At the very least, it seems to mean that the witness of these people is intended to go beyond all cultural and political boundaries and bless and enlighten peoples they had never met.
At first glance, such a vision seems impossible. These people used to have a lot going for them -- strong institutions, a vibrant economy, roads and infrastructure that provided for employment and trade, and the largest religious campus on the face of the planet. But those who were returning found all of this in ruins. Renovation was out of the question. It would not do simply to patch or repair what was broken. To go forward was to start over and build anew.
And maybe that's the point. They could and would be light to the nations as they struggle to start fresh, keeping what worked from the past as they design a future with God, other nations, and each other.
So where are the ruins in the immediate neighborhood around your worship space? Where are the ruins in the neighborhoods where the people in your worshiping community live? How do you respond, as a congregation and as individuals, to these ruins where you are? How do people in your congregation and community decide what to salvage, what to repair, and where to start from scratch? (Go and ask some folks who are making these kinds of decisions!)
But more than this, how do you take up this calling to be "a light to the nations," or at least in your neighborhoods? If you haven't yet cast that vision widely yet, perhaps worship today is an opportunity to begin to imagine what that might look like that begins to inspire some of your worshiping community to get to work!
So send members of your worship planning team out on a field expedition. Have some collect sounds, images, and artifacts of current ruins (and images of past glory!) around your worship space and in the neighborhoods where they live. Have others collect stories and testimonies of people who remember what these ruins once were, as well as those who knew them only as ruins. And also capture video or audio of people talking about what they hope to see some of these things become, or maybe even are working to help them become.
Mix and then play the sounds of these places of ruins as this text is being read. Or consider doing the reading in silence, projecting words of the text onto images of contemporary ruins as the soundscapes play behind them. Consider making the voices of those expressing their memories of what had been into a litany of confession, inviting others to share aloud or silently memories of what had gone to ruins in their own lives. Consider turning brief statements from the hopes for the future into prayers, and invite others to join their prayers for renewal with these voices in a symphony of intercession.
John: Behold the Lamb of God
John the Baptizer identifies Jesus as the "coming one" whom he has been proclaiming in today's text. Jesus is the "lamb of God who "lifts up" (a more accurate translation of the Greek than "takes away") the sin of the world" and the one upon whom the Holy Spirit rests. This is a direct reference to Passover, to the death of Jesus, and to the power of God that would be manifest in all of Jesus' life and ministry.
While other texts in Scripture address the death of Jesus in terms of atonement for sins, this one does not. The phrase "sin of the world" refers not to our personal sins (plural), our own personal faults, but rather to the brokenness at the heart of the cosmos itself -- "the sin (singular) of the world." It speaks of Jesus as the one who will expose and defeat the very power of sin, a strong Passover theme. It calls to mind part of a verse from a Charles Wesley hymn: "He breaks the power of cancelled sin, he sets the prisoner free."
So how do folks and how does your congregation as a collective speak and work in ways that demonstrate how Christ, whose body you are, is exposing and defeating not just individual moral lapses, but the sin at the heart of the cosmos, the sin that drives the powers that be, the sin that keeps the people in your neighborhoods and communities captive, just like the Israelites had been held captive in Egypt until their Passover?
It doesn't matter how small these sins may be today. Find them. Identify them. Share them. Live testimonies would be good if you have folks willing to offer one or more. Help those who gather around this text see, hear and feel how Jesus is still the Lamb of God exposing and delivering us, here and now, from the sin of the world. And then follow this up with a confession of faith -- the Apostles or Nicene Creed, or one of the many other confessions found on pages 883-889 of The United Methodist Hymnal, or perhaps even the Song of Mary (UMH 199). Select something familiar enough that people don't stumble over the words. But also select something that offers clear resonances with this text and with the testimonies shared in worship.
I Corinthians: Greetings and Introduction to the Letter
Paul begins his letter to the Christians in Corinth with an affirmation of their spiritual strength. Specifically, he notes they are strong in speech, knowledge, and testimony. These people know how to talk about their faith and know what they are talking about when they do. And more than this, Paul says, they lack no spiritual gift -- they already have from the Spirit everything they need.
In beginning his letter with such a positive regard for their strengths, Paul is not inviting the Corinthian Christians to idealize themselves, nor inviting us as "second-hand readers" to idealize Corinth. He's simply identifying what they are truly gifted and blessed to be and do. And in the process he is reminding them that it is the Spirit who has blessed them so, and the Spirit who has provided more than enough competence to address any challenges they may face or mission they are called to accomplish.
Speech, knowledge and testimony were their spiritual strong suits. If Paul were writing a letter like this to your worshiping community, what three (or more!) things would he identify as yours? What are you known and well-regarded for, especially by those who know your faith community mostly from the outside? Be sure to do more than just list these in worship; find or create representations of them in art, or on projected imagery, or in whatever means best seems to communicate them. Surround the worshipers today with reminders of these "top three" blessings they already offer to others.
But keep in mind that such gifts and blessings are not the only ones present. Your worshiping community, like that in Corinth, has already been given every spiritual gift you need to fulfill your mission where you are, and in abundance. Provide as well some visible evidence of the many more ways you already experience or can experience your giftedness as individuals and as a community. Think collages. And remember that your giftedness as a community is not limited to what the program or institutional needs of the congregation may be; it includes all forms of ministry offered in the life of your congregation and all the individuals in it, wherever they go, whomever they encounter.
This is significant. If you focus solely on what your congregation does as a congregation, you may (or may not!) be able to see just how abundantly the Spirit has already blessed you for your mission. But when you begin to add in all the gifts of all the people present, indeed the harvest is plentiful!
And remember too that the giftedness your congregation can experience is not limited to the people it comprises; but can also be received and expressed in the relationships and networks you have with other congregations, other community organizations, and perhaps church or denominational organizations in a variety of ways.
Today's special offering for Human Relations Day could be one expression of ways in which you give and share in a network of others to support higher education for persons like you and different from you here and around the world. And if you peek forward just a bit to next week's emphasis on Ecumenical Sunday, you can express the sharing you also experience through your relationships with Christians in other denominations where you live and worship as well.
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Embodying the Word: "Collecting" for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
The collect is a form of prayer offered at a variety of points in Christian worship. It is a prayer intended for "collecting," or literally "gathering together" the people or some series of actions they have engaged together into one.
The forms of Anglican worship from which early Methodist Sunday morning worship were derived included two such prayers, called "collects" near the beginning of worship. One was a collect for purity, whose purpose was and is in our ritual (Word and Table I, UMH 6) to gather ourselves before God, seeking the Spirit to help us focus and offer ourselves as fully to God in our worship as we can.
The second collect is a prayer that usually "collects" the texts or the theme of the day just before the Scriptures are read, helping us make the transition from the Entrance to the Proclamation and Response to the Word in our worship. Our ritual currently has a "Prayer for Illumination" in that place (UMH 6).
It is this second collect we condsider this week. The Consultation on Common Texts has already produced a collection of such collects for every Sunday of the Christian Year, and as participants in this project, we have regularly referred to the collects and prayers of the people in this book, Revised Common Lectionary Prayers since its publication in 2002.
Do consider using these collects as they are now shared online (for free!) at the Vanderbilt Lectionary Site; or consider purchasing this helpful resource, and using one of the two collects provided for each of these Sundays (as well as at other times throughout the years).
Consider also making your own, in words and forms that reflect the speech patterns and cadences of your congregation, using the basic four-part form of the collect as described below:
Address to God: Examples might include "Almighty and merciful God" or "Light of the World" or "Holy, Triune God" or "You beyond all knowing."
A Description of God's Actions (in a way that refers to the theme of the season of the texts for the day): Examples: "You have illumined the darkness of the world with the radiance of Christ" or "whose Spirit has been poured out to bless your people abundantly with all we need to love and serve you."
A Call for God's Action: Examples: "Enlighten our hearts by the truth of your Word, revealed in Scripture" or "So make our hands ready to serve, our vision honed to see, and our hearts overflowing with love that all we encounter may have no doubt of your infinite mercy and grace."
A Doxological, Trinitarian Ending: "Through Jesus Christ, to whom be all honor and glory, with you and the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen."
If the collect is an unfamiliar form to you and your congregation, and you wish to introduce it, strongly consider using existing texts for a while, texts that have proven their usefulness to Christian congregations over time and a variety of cultures. This will help all of you learn the underlying rhythms of such prayers, so that when you are ready to improvise or create such prayers for yourselves, the underlying pattern will already be there, and you can "riff" meaningfully and powerfully in your particular context.
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BOW 307 (1 Corinthians)
BOW 181, "Introit: Sing to the Lord a New Song" (Psalm)
BOW 468 (Isaiah, Psalm)
- UMH 82, "Canticle of God's Glory" (John)
- UMH 83, "Canticle of God's Glory" (John)
- BOW 435, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day (Human Relations)
- BOW 515, For the Nation (Isaiah)
- BOW 526, For the World and Its Peoples (Isaiah)
Prayer of Confession
BOW 483 (Psalm)
BOW 423, Human Relations Day (Human Relations)
Concerns and Prayers
UMH 300, "O the Lamb" (John)
Use before the gospel reading and/or following it; it could also be used as a sung response in the prayers and concerns.
Great Thanksgiving Prayer
- UMH 9-11 or 13-14
- BOW 78-79
Prayer of Thanksgiving
BOW 552 (Psalm)
- BOW 559 and 563 (Isaiah, 1 Corinthians)
Other sources and suggestions
Revised Common Lectionary Prayers (Augsburg Fortress)
- Thematic prayers for the season: page 50
- Intercessory Prayers: page 51
- Scripture prayer: page 56
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