Planning - Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12: 1-4a.
God initiates a covenant with Abram, and Abram enters it by leaving his country and family to start over where God leads.
Psalm 121 (UMH 844).
Tone 5 in D minor with the sung response.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17.
Abraham was made righteous -- not because he did good things, but by a life bent on trusting God.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. Jesus tells him, "You must be born again."
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Keeping time with Christ: This is the second Sunday in Lent, Year A. Here we begin a series of close encounters of Jesus with (in order) Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, and Lazarus (and his two sisters). Or to put it another way, these are "encounters" with our need for rebirth, our thirst, our blindness and our deadness.
The Wider World: Lent is not only a personal, congregational, or denominational discipline, but a discipline undertaken at the same time using the same readings by Christians worldwide. Keep the global community and global concerns before you especially as you worship through these weeks. The Ecumenical Prayer Cycle is one way to do this. This week we pray for China, Hong Kong and Macau. But as other news emerges on the global front (such as the non-violent revolutions in North Africa in recent weeks), include those nations and peoples, too, remembering that we have sisters and brothers in Christ in every nation on the planet.
The One Great Hour of Sharing offering is received in two weeks, on April 3, the fourth Sunday in Lent. This denominational offering underwrites the administrative costs of the United Methodist Committee on Relief so it can continue to offer worldwide emergency relief and long-term disaster support with no overhead for its direct services.
The Festival of God's Creation in 2011 falls on Easter Sunday (April 24). You are encouraged always to include the earth and care for the earth in your congregation's weekly intercessions (if not, start adding that now!), and of course on this day as well. If, during Lent, you will encourage folks to reduce their energy consumption, today may also be an occasion for folks to share testimonies or simply place something in the offering plate indicating the results of their efforts to save energy. But Easter should be the primary focus of your celebration this day, regardless of any other denominational focus. So while you may include recognition of the denominational day in worship, keep the resurrection of our Lord front and center, and consider offering other commemorations for the day at a time other than the worship hour.
Atmospherics: Called to Be Born Again
Throughout this season of Lent, these helps will help you develop worship around the theme, "Responding to God's Call." Each week, one key call and response will be highlighted. To see the overall plan for this season, with a listing and some explanation of the call and response for each Sunday, click here.
This week the readings tell us in no uncertain terms that we ourselves can do nothing to be part of or even perceive God's redemptive plan for the world or for ourselves short of an entirely new beginninga new land (Abram), a new perspective (Paul in Romans) and ultimately a new birth (John). What is called for here, too, is more than a "restart," a CTRL-ALT-DEL move on a Microsoft Windows-based computer. We need, and God is ready to supply, an entirely different operating system.
Today's Scriptures provide rich imagery or suggestions of the same to express the forms our re-creation may take. In Genesis, it is the call to leave all that is familiar and begin a new life in an unknown land far away. This is no pilgrimage. On a pilgrimage, one sets out to a new place or a holy place to learn something and return where one came from with some new insight for living back home. Abram's is to be a permanent relocation, something far more like the experience of the millions since Abram who have immigrated to other countries, including the vast majority of the population of the current United States or at least their ancestors. Something like this has been the experience, too, of some of those being permanently dislocated by natural disasters or political change, such as the earthquake in Haiti or the thousands who recently left Tunisia to find refuge in France, and may well become an increasing experience for peoples whose lands are now being submerged by rising seas caused by global warming. Consider drawing on such stories of relocation as you design the worship space today. But do so with one other factor clearly in mind -- how our calling to baptismal covenant in Jesus Christ also calls all of us to relocation, to a new beginning undetermined by promised places.
Romans reminds us of what may have become by now an "old Protestant saw": We are justified by faith and not by works, even as Abraham's faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. As Protestants and evangelicals, we may come to this text with blinders about its meaning, if it has not become so familiar that we can hardly hear its actual message at all.
Paul offers all of us, if we will truly hear him, a powerful critique of the way even many of us Protestants, and perhaps especially Methodists, actually live our lives with God and one another.
Do we treat our relationship with God as something we earn by what we do, by "being good" or at least "not being bad" plus "being successful" on the basis of some checklist of good or bad behavior or some career ladder chart to plot success? Have we reduced a life of trusting discipleship to Jesus to morality and status instead of actual faithfulness to trust him and follow where he leads every day?
How about our relationships with others? Do we approach others as those to whom God has also offered justification by faith, or do we also expect them to prove themselves to us by their works and/or their status before we embrace and support them as God has embraced and supported us?
Or have we gone Gnostic, and decided we're "in" because we have the "right knowledge" (intellectual assent to the right doctrines) and so missed the fullness of the meaning of faith/faithfulness as it would have been understood in Paul's Jewish Christian tradition? "Faith" in Scripture never means mere assent to an idea. Faith always means placing one's complete trust in the one being followed and therefore following where that one leads. That's why James could write "faith without works is dead" without at all contradicting what Paul is teaching to the Christians in Rome.
If you or others in your worshiping community find yourselves in any of these three approaches to faith, you need to start over. Paul here is saying your whole approach is not only wrong, but a dead end.
Why? Because of what we know from Abram's story. Abram was reckoned righteous not because he was good, or not bad, or because he was successful, or because he had the right ideas. He was reckoned righteous because he trusted God enough to keep going where God led him, even when that meant a long journey for him and his family to start over in an unknown land far away. That's faith!
The challenge for Methodists in this should be clear. To be a full member of a Methodist Society, it was not enough to say you wished to join or even show up for the class and society meetings on a regular basis. You had to demonstrate your interest in accomplishing the purpose of the Methodist Society by showing you were serious about living into the Three General Rules. These were a kind of checklist to be sure -- a checklist of practices for living out the baptismal covenant. But they weren't used to justify oneself, but instead as reminders about the journey and the destination ahead -- "entire holiness," or "perfection in love in this life," or as we might now say it, faithful discipleship to Jesus Christ. Full membership in the Methodist Societies, and later the Methodist churches, was thus based not simply on justification, but on clear signs of sanctification -- of living faithfully and showing that by "working out one's salvation with fear and trembling."
At the same time, Methodists were ardent teachers of justification by faith alone.
How could they hold these two seemingly contradictory approaches together?
With very little difficulty early on, actually! Why? Because in early Methodism, the Methodist societies were not and were not trying to be congregations. Membership in the societies was in addition to whatever membership people may have had in the congregations of whatever denomination they also attended. Methodism was a para-congregational movement trying to help people in congregations -- as well as those not yet connected to one -- to live into a life of "entire holiness," to "move on to perfection in love in this life," truly to follow Jesus in all their ways. Justification could never be earned or even worked at. Early Methodists never wavered on this. But the reality of God's justification by faith could be known with some assurance as people moved from new birth itself, the first experience of justification, into a life of sanctification. And that was what the Methodist class and society meetings were particularly designed to help them do.
How does your congregation help people to embrace this both-and way of living their discipleship -- both understanding and living by justification by faith AND moving on to perfection in love in this life through works that help them grow and to which they are held accountable?
If you don't have anything like this in place now, Lent is the ideal time to get started!
Are there good, working examples of Covenant Discipleship groups or other class-meeting-like groups in your congregation? Or are there people in your congregation or wider community who are participating in such groups that may or may not be directly part of your congregation's life? What do people who are involved in these groups have to say about the assurance of justification they have through their relationship with God by faith? How are they connecting that assurance with how they treat others, even as they are working out their salvation and moving on to perfection in love in this life, to full maturity in Christ? And perhaps especially, given today's text, what witness can they offer about how they may have had some awakening and started over, how their lives are now based (or at least more based!) on the kind of living, listening, active faith Paul is describing here, rather than merely on checklists or success charts?
Send one or more members of your worship planning team out to talk with these people; or if you have a few in your team already, take time to talk and listen to their stories. As you listen to these stories, spend some time discerning how such stories may inform the shape or content or actions of worship for this Sunday.
John 3 is likewise a very familiar text, or at least parts of it are. Look to this text this week for its many images of how God saves us. The Spirit blows like a wind. We are reborn of water and Spirit in baptism -- an image that speaks strongly of God as birthing mother, and font as both bath and womb-water.
The key phrase from this reading that holds all the texts together this morning is being "born again," a total reboot from the spiritual DNA up, which is what baptism (John 3:5, born of water and the Spirit) can both figure and occasion. That's why this text is chosen for Lent -- the season of baptismal preparation par excellence. And it comes here, on the second Sunday in Lent, so this theme is clear up front. Nothing less than a complete spiritual rebirth is both what is needed for us and, by God's incredible love, made possible for us, beginning in baptism.
Why rebirth or being "born again" (in King James and more recent evangelical language) or new birth, as John Wesley called it? Is that really necessary?
Much has been said on this topic during the past century in response to William James' famous description of the "once-born" and the "twice-born" in his Varieties of Religious Experience, especially chapter ten. James's conclusion, based on observation and case studies, is that both paths can generate similar outcomes over time. What is often missed in interpreting that conclusion, however, is that James here describes the "twice-born" phenomenon specifically in the terms of a kind of psychic cataclysm, a total change in the soul that happens rapidly, and often suddenly and even unexpectedly, in a particular moment. What I would offer as a counter is that many of those he calls "once born" and whose lives also were transformed into the way of Christ, toward entire holiness, even if not cataclysmically, were themselves no less "twice-born." In other words, the new birth itself can happen in our lives with or without a cataclysmic moment, and it is still no less the new birth!
Let me first be clear here that I am not defending my own experience. I am among those "twice born" that James described, having been raised in an evangelical context that strongly supported and even helped to generate such cataclysmic experiences in the lives of its adherents. I have no doubt about the reality or efficacy of that in my life, nor about the significance and value of having forms of Christian community that help others experience this as well. Early Methodism certainly offered such through field preaching on a public level and intensive prayer on a more personal level. We would do well to find effective means to reclaim some of these practices in our own contexts now!
But we need not continue the mistake of those who insist that only such cataclysmic experiences are bearers of the new birth. There are simply too many witnesses to the contrary over the course of Christian history, and no doubt among the people we know in our own lives. It can be much more like the next step or opening that leads to many other steps or openings, one barely noticed at the time, but if traced back, no less decisive in our own remaking into the image of Christ. So rather than calling such persons "once-born," as William James did, it seems to me actually more fitting with his own thesis that they are indeed "twice-born," though by a different, if less initially dramatic, pathway.
All of that to say this: Yes, the new birth is necessary, indispensible, as Jesus said, to our being able to enter or even see the kingdom of God. And the good news is that however it may come for us -- almost imperceptibly or cataclysmically or somewhere in between -- God both desires and the Spirit continues to draw us all toward it and through it to new life in the power of the resurrection of Christ, as we may say Yes to it, and as others support and challenge us on the way.
And all that to suggest this to you and your worship planning team: Discuss among yourselves or go find others in your congregation or community who can tell their "born again" stories, including those who have experienced it both cataclysmically and more gradually. Draw on these stories, especially as you develop prayers, think about preaching, and offer invitations both to those who are preparing for baptism or confirmation and to all present either to reclaim their own such stories (remember that they are baptized, and be thankful!) or to become aware of the Spirit's work in and around them that beckons them to be born again, by whatever pathway, today or in the days ahead.
And as you plan for today, do not neglect to think about the font (or pool, or whatever you use for baptizing). Where is the font in your worship space on a regular basis? Where is it in these weeks of Lent? How will you use and feature it -- with other images of water and new starts, new practice of faith, and new birth, with the text for this day?
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Liturgy for the Second Sunday in Lent. Remember, Sundays in Lent are little Easters. The cross will come during Holy Week. That's later. For now and the intervening weeks, focus on the encounters of Jesus with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, the family at Bethany (Mary, Martha, and Lazarus). If you have people preparing for baptism or confirmation (children, youth, or adults), pray for them and their sponsors by name during the intercessions. And in any event, keep the baptismal theme of this season and these readings front and center. Strongly consider keeping the font front and center, full of water and in full view of all either as they enter the worship space or on a pathway as they move to the Lord's Table. For more information, including ritual resources and guidance, see Come to the Waters (Discipleship Resources, 1997), particularly Part II.
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Embodying the Word: The Second Sunday in Lent, Year A
Today and throughout Lent, this section will focus on the second movement of the basic pattern of our worship (see UMH pp. 2-5), and in particular the reading of Scripture in worship.
Lent is a season for hearing the Word of God in Scripture for its power to challenge, inspire, and move us to new life and renewed life in Jesus Christ, to begin or deepen our life in the covenant of baptism. If there is a season where we are called to listen for God's Word to transform us, this is it!
During these weeks we will consider ways to help God's word in Scripture be heard deeply by one and all.
Genesis: Consider reading this short passage three times. The first time, read it straight through, with one reader, at a deliberate pace. The second time, offer two other readers with two very different kinds of voices -- perhaps one older and one younger, or one higher and one much lower. One will read a part of verse 1; then the other will read one of the blessings, in alternating fashion. The third time through, the two readers will read their lines simultaneously, while the original reader reads the passage straight through again. The value of this way of reading is to experience the "pull" of the GO and the "push" of the promise of blessing.
Here is how this might be done the second time:
Reader 1: Go from your country.
Reader 2: I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.
Reader 1: Go from your kindred:
Reader 2: I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
Reader 1: Go from your father's house.
Reader 2: I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.
Reader 1: Go to the land that I will show you.
Reader 2: And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Romans this week presents problems for reading and hearing similar to those of last week's text. Again, consider reading from a more contemporary translation, or the possibility (if you are not preaching from this text) of a monolog in paraphrase, such as the following (which you have permission to reproduce, adapt, and use as long as you including the copyright citation: "Used by permission. Copyright 2008, 2011, Discipleship Ministries").
So what can we say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor? Perhaps something, if it could be shown he was justified by his works. But the Scripture says otherwise. "Abraham believed God; that was reckoned to him as righteousness."
If you work for someone, and you are paid for your work, your pay is not a gift. It is simply owed to you. But, when you simply trust the one who justifies the ungodly, your trust, your faith becomes your righteousness.
Back to Abraham. Even the promise that his descendents would inherit the earth did not come to him because he performed the works of the law. Rather, that promise was because he was deemed righteous by God because of his faith, his total trust in God.
Look, if the only ones who can be inheritors of the promise from Abraham are those who do the works of the law, then, yes, faith is meaningless and we have no promise at all. Why? The law only and always brings wrath because we violate it. Therefore, any promise from God has to depend on faith, and ultimately on God's grace and guarantee to all of Abraham's descendents.
We are Abraham's descendents if Abraham is our father. And Abraham is our father, not just the father of those who observe the law, but the father of all who share his faith, faith in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that had no being.
John: This text presents us with three voices: a narrator, Jesus, and Nicodemus. Consider offering the reading of this text as you may have offered last week's gospel lesson, reader's theater style. No physical acting is required. You might consider offering images relating to the text on a screen as it is being performed. A dark night, water, wind blowing, childbirth (but be discreet!), womb, bronze serpent on a pole, and conclude with one word: Love.
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Greeting: BOW 327
Prayer for Illumination: See Season of Ash and Fire, page 27.
- BOW 251 (John)
- UMH 392 (John)
- See Season of Ash and Fire, page 25.
Prayer of Confession:
- BOW 494 (Genesis) and Pardon: Last portion of BOW 475
- See Season of Ash and Fire, pages 25-26. (Seasonal)
- Confession and Pardon: BOW 476 or BOW 477 (Romans)
Prayer: 373-374 (Genesis)
Prayer: 375 (John)
Prayer of Thanksgiving if the Lord's Supper is not celebrated:
- BOW 550 or 553
- See Season of Ash and Fire, p. 27.
Great Thanksgiving: BOW 60-61
Dismissal with Blessing:
BOW 529 Try using the sign of the cross and invite each person to sign himself or herself on the last line of the prayer. Continue this practice through Lent as a sign of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ and the way we are reborn to live.
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