Planning -Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
In praise of the "model" married woman, rooted in God, faithful and competent as the manager of the household.
Psalm 1 (UMH 738).
A celebration of a way of life rooted in God and fed by the "streams of water" through prayer and meditation on the word of God. For singing, consider using Response 1 with Tone 2 in D minor or Response 2 with Tone 3 in F major (see UMH 736 and 737). See also 223 and 234 in the Upper Room Worshipbook.
James 3:134:3, 7-8a.
Those who live from the wisdom from above live in peace responding graciously toward others, resisting the selfish willfulness of the flesh, and drawing near to God.
Jesus teaches his disciples a second time that he will face betrayal, execution, and resurrection. For the second time as well, the disciples demonstrate they do not understand his teaching. They continue to argue about who is the greatest. Jesus places a child already in their midst at the center of their attention to remind them that whoever welcomes such a child welcomes Jesus and the One who sent him.
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This is the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, and the fourth in the Season of Creation.
How is planning going for the upcoming months? See "Seasons and Series for Fall 2012" on the United Methodist Worship Blog for suggestions.
These weeks of Ordinary Time are especially suited for "series preaching" through books or "big stories" of the Bible. Continue the stream you began three weeks ago. See "Worship Planning for the Season after Pentecost, Year B" on the Discipleship Ministries website for further suggestions.
Hispanic Heritage Month (US) is September 15-October 15.
A Season of Saints is commemorated throughout October, starting with World Communion Sunday and culminating in All Saints Day/Sunday. We have posted a basic calendar of saints for each Sunday with links to more information about each saint available for both 2012 and 2011 Worship Planning Helps are already posted with suggestions for the 2011 resources. More detailed helps for 2012 are coming soon.
Children's Sabbath is observed on October 14.
Laity Sunday is October 21.
All Saints Sunday is November 4.
As you begin your planning for Advent and Christmastide, consider how you will enable the unique emphases of both seasons to be fully expressed. The focus of Advent is on the second coming of Christ, new creation, and the culmination of all things in him. The focus of Christmastide is far less about the circumstances of the birth of Jesus and more about the significance and challenges of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. See "Restoring Advent and Christmas 2012/2013" for three proposals for helping both seasons have the impact for which they were originally designed.
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Although the texts this week were not selected to explore a common theme or doctrine, an underlying motif of "confident centeredness" (Proverbs), or rootedness (Psalm) or groundedness (James, Mark) can be found within them.
In an age that delights in the eccentric, where the sideshow is center stage in prime time, and where the most outrageous or loudest voices get the most attention, the Scriptures' praise of centered or rooted or grounded life may seem quaint or even nave. How can one achieve rootedness in a postmodern context that decries the legitimacy of roots? How can one achieve centeredness in a context that lacks any center? How can one achieve groundedness when the bearings that show where ground may be are lost? Given how unrooted, uncentered and ungrounded our culture biases us to be, what investment will it require on our part to "kick against the goads," much less to become sustainably rooted, centered and grounded in Christ ourselves? And is it even worth it?
Our two readings in the New Testament this week are from contexts not terribly dissimilar from our own. The Greco-Roman world was fully as pluralistic as our own, if not postmodern. Niche groups within this larger cultural near free-for-all could establish a sense of discipline among their own adherents, but there was no likelihood and, in fact, at that point, no chance that the more rooted, centered, and grounded norms experienced there would either dominate or even, in many cases, be generalizable to or ratified by the larger culture as a whole. That would not be the case in fact (even if in law) for the church in the West until well into the sixth or seventh centuries, several centuries after Christianity had become the legal religion of the former Roman Empire. So perhaps these readings this week provide occasion to remind your congregation about how relevant these readings actually are for our own context -- and so, perhaps as well, how more tight-knit bands of sisters and brothers watching over one another in love may be a vital means for helping us live this way with power even now.
As you think about the overall plan for worship space today, be on the lookout for images of rootedness, groundedness, and confident centeredness in nature, in faces of people with deep spiritual experience (just be sure to get written permission to use these images in worship!), even in buildings or institutions in your neighborhood or local community. Resist the temptation to show lots of them quickly, or even to show lots of them at all. Too many images may work against the message of becoming rooted, grounded, and centered. Use just a few, let them linger for a time and then slowly fade into one another, allowing people time to contemplate them as examples of centeredness they can see and relate to. And be sure that soundscapes and song today resonate with a centeredness, rootedness, and groundedness your congregation already knows. This is not the time to introduce many, if any. new songs; but rather to sing the long-loved "heart songs" that help everyone express most clearly who you are in worship.
The first decision your worship planning team will need to make for this Sunday is exactly where and how to focus. What is your ground? What roots have you been forming? If you have set out to do a series on one stream of texts (OT, Epistle OR Gospel), the accident that today's texts may have common themes should not distract your focus. Stay focused on Proverbs, for example, but do some thematic interweaving with the other texts using similarly themed projected imagery, video, or soundscapes when they are read or otherwise performed in worship.
Wisdom: Proverbs, Week 2
If your focus has been on Proverbs, today's text may represent both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge may come from the history of interpretation and use of this text. It has often been used, at least in the US, to "put women in their place"a place presumed to be subservient and ultimately dependent upon a male spouse. The opportunity is to offer praise to God for virtuous women in your own context, and perhaps to offer similar forms of praise to God for others in your congregation or community.
That history of interpretation is challenged by the realities of the text and the Bible itself. This "ideal wife" was actually incredibly powerful in her cultural context. What is described of her is deeply out of step with the lived experience and expectations of most women in most cultures at the time including nearly all other women described in the Scriptures. Indeed, this woman was NOT marching to the culture's drumbeat at all. She moved with a confidence and ease that showed a fearless power to act for long-term good in her family, her community, and the larger culture and world. And she is the one set up as an idea here -- a leader who serves with wisdom.
So if we are understanding the significance of this text in its context, the issue for us now should never have been "How do we 'make' women act like this now" but "How do we, as church, build a culture among ourselves that encourages and produces the kind of passionate entrepreneurship for good, by women and men alike, that this idealized woman displays?"
Still, we may have appropriate questions for this text. Can we say it provides the "biblical standard" for all married women? Was it even trying to do that in its original context? Could the text even be applicable to all female spouses in Israel at the time, or perhaps only to those who were wealthy and "well-connected" enough to have servants and access to funds to purchase new fields?
One thing the text does provide is an example of another kind of wisdom literature. Most of the book of Proverbs might be described as one-liners or "one-versers"a collection of pithy, short sayings written in "Hebrew rhyme" (parallelism). Through much of the book, these "one-versers" may not have a connection to what precedes or follows them. A second category is the short prophetic or oracular pronouncement by "Lady Wisdom" (or in other places, "Lady Folly") we saw last week. This week's text is an example of a third type: an extended meditation. It invites us to stop, think, meditate, and join in praise of the chosen object of meditation. The point of this kind of wisdom literature is, in part, to consider the praiseworthiness of its particular subject. But it is also to set an example of how any subject worthy of praise can be meditated upon to the benefit not only of the subject, but also of those who write it and those who read it thereafter.
If you believe you may be in a congregation where preaching this text directly may be more problematic than helpful, consider this alternative. Read the text, but then talk about and help your congregation practice doing what the text does: offering one or more poetic meditations on something or someone worthy of praise as an act of worship to God and enrichment for yourselves and others who may read it. Plan far enough ahead (at least 3-4 weeks) to enlist two or three people to develop such extended poetic meditations for use in worship today.
This approach may seem to be an evasion of this text rather than a completion of it. But it is not. If one of the purposes of Christian preaching is to build up the spiritual practices of the Christian community, allowing time at this point to share the fruits of this labor from several of the congregation would be a way to fulfill that duty better than any description or exhortation about it may be.
Know your people. Trust the Spirit. And trust that the Spirit's truth through this text (and many others!) can be expressed in worship in a variety of ways. This may be one of them.
Doing the Word: James
This week's reading from James includes two distinct subjects: the nature of the wisdom from above and those motivated by it, and the practices that lead to conflicts among people and with God.
Followers of Jesus are expected to show they have received and are motivated by "the wisdom from above." James contrasts the wisdom from above with other forms of teaching and ways of life claiming to be wisdom, but are really "earth-bound, flesh-driven, and demonic" (3:15, translation mine). The difference between heavenly and "earth-bound" wisdom can be discerned in how people treat one another. Bitter jealously and selfish ambitions are signs of earth-bound wisdom at work. Treating others with gentleness and mercy while doing good works is a sign of the wisdom "from above."
The second section of the reading today presents stark either-or choices for Christians in a way very similar to the "two ways" presented in Psalm 1 and throughout much of Jewish wisdom literature. Either be content with what you have, or you will become a murderer to get it. Be an enemy of the world, or you cannot be a friend of God (verse 4:4).
The starkness of the language in these contrasts could make James out to be a religious fanatic. To be sure, this kind of language has been used by leaders in many religions, including Christianity, to justify negative and sometimes violent responses to "others" who do not share the same religious commitments.
But this text was not written to "others." It was written to Christians, people already in the household of faith. For the faithful among them, these were reminders of what it takes to remain faithful. For the "backsliders," these are warning of the peril that lies before them if they continue to follow the paths Jesus had delivered them from rather than returning to his way. Both are still "in the house" at this point, though. The "them" are "us."
There really are two ways. This is not a matter of dualism ("flesh" versus "spirit," or one idea versus another opposite idea). Dualism is a philosophical non-starter for us because Christians affirm that God was fully present in the flesh of Jesus. Thus, we affirm the potential goodness of both flesh and spirit.
The two ways refers to two different approaches to life. One places our own desires, wants, and will at the center. This the Bible everywhere calls "the way of the wicked." The other, "the way of the Lord," places God first, calls us to submit to God, and empowers us both to overcome evil and to serve as Christ's representatives in the world. The stark, no-shades-of-grey-here contrasts in this advice from James reflect how different these two paths and the outcomes of these two paths are. One keeps us stuck in the mire of this world. The other sets us free (by our submission!) to live fully now and in the age to come.
James reminds us here of our own baptismal vow to "resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves." "Resist the devil and he will flee from you" (Verse 7). This is good news for all who have ears to hear!
He also reminds us that a life rooted and grounded in wisdom from above gives life to others and is not driven by selfish ambition. A community of people grounded in such a life is far less likely to experience rending conflict. Disagreements, yes. Disputes, no doubt. But conflict that causes the choosing of sides, the demonizing of the other lives rooted in the wisdom from above do not go there. Instead, in the midst of such circumstances, as in all circumstances, these people draw near to God by every means they can.
If you have not preached on the "Bread of Life" series from John's Gospel this past summer, or even if you have, here is another opportunity to help your congregation deepen its understanding and experience of drawing near to God as God has graciously drawn near to us in the body and blood of Jesus shared around the Lord's Table. For excellent recent publications exploring the connections between conflict (inner, interpersonal, social) and the sacrament of Holy Communion, see Conflict and Communion and The Teaching of Peace in Early Christian Liturgies.
If you are continuing a series focusing on James today, consider using images and soundscapes throughout the reading or preaching of this text that reflect places people associate with the good qualities the reading commends -- wisdom with gentleness, contentment, sole commitment and submission to God, and the power to overcome evil. Go with specific scenes and sounds (preferably from your local community) suggested by your worship planning team -- places that have those effects for them, personally -- with perhaps a one-line statement identifying the place and why it was chosen to reflect that trait. Or consider placing a variety of these images and sounds (on mp3 players) around the worship space as worship stations for a time of extended reflection following or as part of the sermon.
All of those places and sounds will have suggested the atmospheres in which people were full of the wisdom from above, banished the "other wisdom," submitted themselves fully to God, resisted evil, and treated all with mercy. What are the places in the life of your congregation or wider community that do this, that concretely and intentionally help people live this way?
Accountable discipleship groups, like Covenant Discipleship, whether part of your congregation or another, can be one way to address this. So can groups such as Emmaus 4th Day and organizations such as Wesley Foundations. As you are thinking about what is available, don't limit yourself to your congregation or denomination! And be sure to invite people in meaningful ways to connect with these.
Mark: Discipleship Everywhere
Mark's gospel offers the second of three occasions when Jesus taught about his impending death and resurrection and his disciples plainly misunderstood what he said. We saw the first of these last week. We'll read about the third in October (Mark 10:32-45).
In the first instance (last week), we might say the disciple's misunderstanding is about Jesus' identity. Peter could not conceive how Messiah could suffer, much less be executed, by his own people. Jesus clarified his own teaching about the role of Messiah. Messiah would not come first as conquering king but as vindicated victim in the struggle between God's kingdom and the kingdoms of this world.
In this week's reading, the disciples' misunderstanding is about the nature of their role as companions of Jesus. If Jesus were to be raised victorious, then surely they would be ruling with him. That mistaken thought led to their debate along the way back to Capernaum about which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom to come.
Jesus reminds them of their true role. It's not about greatness or power; it's about service to the least. The one who serves those who can offer nothing in return will be the greatest.
That was why Jesus found and embraced a child in their midst here. This has nothing do to with either a Romantic or Victorian view of the innocence of children. It's all about power. Children had zero power in Palestino-Roman culture. In ancient Greek (as in modern German and a number of other languages), the word for "child" is neuter. A child was an "it," not a "who." The culture said and generally guaranteed children had nothing to offer to adults except obedience and service.
Jesus sets the example. What a typical child could expect when being called over by an adult would be instructions to perform some task for that adult. Jesus offered instead an embrace. Jesus did not call the child over to get the child to serve him. He called the child over to give the child a hug.
Jesus thus showed his disciples what their role was. They were to serve the least, to welcome children, just as Jesus himself had done. In so doing, they would continue to welcome Jesus, and not just Jesus, but "the One who sent" him.
This was how Jesus expected and expects his disciples to live all the time, not just on mission trips or projects. This is what discipleship was to be like, everywhere. Even his own disciples who had been with him for three years were still having difficulty getting this deeply enough for their first response to be service and not an attempt to assert power or control. It takes practice, years of practice, to get there. Teaching the principle alone won't cut it. Trying it out practically once or twice or occasionally is no more effective than an aspiring surfer dipping her toe in the water rather than getting out on the waves and actually surfing.
One of the expectations of early Methodists was visiting in the prisons. Most of the people who were in prison in eighteenth-century England were there because of debt. But there were many "hardened criminals" as well. John and Charles never presented visiting in the prisons as an option one might try out occasionally. They expected all Methodists to do it regularly or not be called Methodists. Why? Because through developing relationships with these people, who could offer the visitors nothing, Methodists could learn, hands-on, how to fulfill the way of Christ -- to serve the least. They could learn this in no better way in that day.
We, too, claim as Christians to be disciples of Jesus. Whose vision of life as his disciples after his resurrection do we more closely resemble? The disciples, arguing about who would be the greatest? Or Jesus, showing us how to connect with and serve the least in whatever ways we can?
What do you have in place where you are -- whether in your congregation or in your larger community -- that concretely helps people move from the disciples' vision to Jesus's vision for us? Again, Covenant Discipleship Groups, Emmaus 4th Day groups, or Wesley Foundations might be part of that mix.
And look more widely. Ask in your worship planning team, in your social networks, and have them ask in theirs, who or what has been most helpful for people to make that transition from thinking about and working to ensure their own greatness to serving the least as the most important thing they do. Ask people of all religions and no religion. What you're looking for is what works to help people achieve that outcome. Highlight the stories, images and sounds of whatever you find that's working, connect with these things yourselves, and invite others to do the same in worship today.
- Opening Prayer: BOW 469 (Proverbs)
- Prayer of Confession: BOW 476 (Proverbs, Mark)
- Intercessory Prayer: BOW 519, For Others (Mark)
- Prayer:BOW 528, A Prayer of Susanna Wesley (Proverbs)
- Prayer: UMH 401, For Holiness of Heart (James)
- Prayer: UMH 570, Prayer of Ignatius of Loyola (Mark)
- The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Belarus, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine
- Prayer of Thanksgiving: BOW 555 (Proverbs)
- Fiesta Christiana (Hispanic Heritage Month)