Planning - Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Jacob wrestles with a "man" at the Jabbok and is renamed Israel because he has "striven with God and with humans, and has prevailed."
Psalm 17:1-7, 15 (UMH 749).
Consider as an alternative sung response Charles Wesley's narrative hymn, "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown" (United Methodist Hymnal, 386). Note the last two lines of stanza one: "With thee all night I mean to stay, and wrestle till the break of day." Note also the last two lines of stanza four: "To me, to all, thy mercies move; thy nature and thy name is Love." See "Psalms for Singing: Psalm 17" for another alternative.
Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, declares his great concern and anguish for his own people.
Upon hearing of the death of John the Baptist, Jesus and the disciples withdraw to a quiet place, but the crowd follows, and more than 5000 people are fed.
For Leccionario Comn Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes (pdf), click here.
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Holy Communion -- While the gospel reading has the most direct parallels to Holy Communion (the feeding of the 5000), all three texts are rich in metaphor and meaning for your celebration around the Lord's table today. Stay with the "stream" you've been swimming these past weeks. Worship in our church is called to be word AND table, with both as foci of an ellipse, neither supplanting but each supporting the other.
Next Saturday, August 6, is the anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima, and the following Monday, August 8, the bombing of Nagasaki. Worship resources are available to assist your congregation's prayer in observance of these days and seeking to give voice to the resolve that nuclear weapons never be used again. Consider affirming the Methodist Social Creed today, and singing and affirming its companion litany, approved by the 2008 General Conference. (This link is to a bulletin-ready pdf document including both the Creed and its companion litany). Additional resources are available for congregations considering or ready to join the worldwide effort to eliminate nuclear congregations considering or ready to join the worldwide effort to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth.
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: Keep to Your Series, Stay in Your Stream!
Are there connections among these texts today? Absolutely. In Genesis, we have Jacob given the name Israel; and in Romans, Paul's lament for the sake of Israel's salvation; while in Matthew, we have the demonstration of compassion for a large crowd of needy people, all being fed by our Lord at the end of a long day full of shocking news, an attempt at solitary prayer and healing ministry to thousands.
There are connections, and they can be made in worship.
But the question is, at what cost?
First, these texts were not chosen for intentional connections among them. They are each part of the continuous readings in Genesis, Romans, and Matthew for this season after Pentecost. It is in those contexts of those continuous readings that these texts bear their first meanings.
Second, each of these texts this week is incredibly rich in its own right, inviting, even begging for exclusive attention. Even that in what for most of us is likely to be a literal worship hour (or less) is not enough to exhaust the possibilities of God's word speaking in your midst from these texts today.
Third, and perhaps most important in terms of your teaching ministry in worship, trying to stitch these three rich texts together is likely to be both complicated and distracting. In the end, that effort may do more to rob every text of its richness in exchange for an overview that may do none of them justice.
So stay your course today. Veer off a bit if you really have to for some reason, but make it a good one! These texts will come around again in three years, and you may travel with your congregation down a different stream at that time. Meanwhile, fish well where you and your congregation have come to know the waters in these weeks.
Genesis: Learning from the Ancestors
This Charles Wesley hymn (UMH 386) may provide a frame for the entire service today, or at least for the reading, proclamation, and response to the Word. Try laying the hymn text alongside the biblical text in your worship planning team, and see where you might see ways that each verse of the hymn might frame different elements of worship or parts of your unpacking of this text today.
and/or From Grabber to Wrester-with-God
We hear today a "thick" story of an embodied encounter with God at a "thin place." Everything is at stake here. Jacob's family and future are on the line. This is Jacob's first encounter with Esau since Jacob ("Grabber") had snatched both birthright and blessing from his brother. Since his encounter with God at Beth-el, Jacob had heard nothing else in the 14 years he had worked on his uncle's sheep farm. Was that a promise, or just a dream? And might that dream come to a tragic end next morning?
Jacob could lose everything, easily. Esau's retinue was nearly a small army that could easily crush Jacob's. And given what Jacob had done to him, Esau would seem to have every right to do so.
No wonder Jacob wrestles all night long, the "Grabber" trying to find something to grab onto, some hold to keep.
And true to form, Jacob will not relent in his wrestling, even when, at daybreak, his opponent puts his hip out of socket. Jacob will grab one more thing: a blessing.
The blessing begins as a new name. No longer "Grabber" (Jacob) but "Wrestler-with-God" (Israel).
The blessing begins in the new name, a new identity. Grabber won't survive the night or what lies before him. Wrestler-with-God will.
Jacob tries one last grab -- to wrest the name from this stranger. Naming the other could be a way of controlling or, we might say, domesticating the other. The stranger will have none of it. "Why do you ask my name?" he says. Jacob relents, and then the blessing is completed. The stranger disappears, but his presence can be seen and felt in Jacob's limp.
"Grabber" may be the name of the Capitalist Cultural Icon -- the one who uses all means to get ahead, who makes a life for himself against odds, who works and fights to establish and defend a future with power and wealth. "Grabber" got a lot done then, and "Grabber" as a cultural force continues to accomplish much today.
But when all is on the line, there is another name, another culture, that claims us and leaves "Grabber" limping -- "Wrestler-with-God." Note: not "Wrestler against God," but "Wrestler with God."
What is "Grabber" up to where you are? Who in your midst is still "Grabber"? In what ways does your congregation, and in particular the assumptions you make about your mission and the world around you continue to empower a Grabber culture, rather than begin to embody a culture as "Wrestlers-with-God"? Who in your midst has come to the end of Grabber, struggled all night with the Stranger, and come out changed and limping? How do these people talk about their conversion? (For conversion it surely is!)
Play with these words and images of "Grabber" and "Wrestler-with-God" in your worship planning team. These are primal metaphors, reaching to the core of our beings and our lives as individuals, communities, and body of Christ.
What images come to mind? What are you seeing in your worship space that already speaks of these images? What might you need to add or modify to help these elements move more into the foreground? What movement by the congregation or others (drama, mime, dance) might embody these names? How might you and the congregation enter as Grabber, wrestle with the word, be blessed at the Table (you are now the body of Christ redeemed by his blood), and be sent forth to Wrestle-with-God in the world?
And do not limit "Wrestler-with-God" to an attitude of a willingness to ask questions, to question accepted teachings, or be open to the ideas of others. While such attitudes can be part of this life, they can easily become just another form of "Grabber" in disguise, a cultural, even Gnostic, captivity to ideas alone that may barely translate into the way of life of those of us who share that name in Christ.
Do you have any wrestlers or wrestling coaches in your congregation or community? Call them in for your team's conversation. Learn from them what wrestling involves, and ask for their insights into this text -- especially the new name "Wrestler-with-God."
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Romans: Christian Theology and Ecclesiology, 101
Romans takes what some might consider a three-chapter detour from Paul's main arguments beginning with our reading today (Romans 9-11). Much of what Paul has dealt with up to this time seems to address questions of sin and salvation in broad strokes and in particular in the lives of Christian communities. He picks up that thread again in Chapter 12. But here in these three chapters, he takes on what may seem like an almost unrelated topic -- an extended theological discourse on the place of Israel and the Jewish people in the new economy of salvation inaugurated in Jesus Christ.
It may look like a detour to us. But it probably did not look like a detour at all to Paul and his readers in first-century Rome. For Paul, the whole point of this letter is to help the Jewish-Gentile house churches in Rome make theological and practical sense of their "mixed" existence as one body. These chapters then are no detour, but very much to the heart of the matter for these house churches in Rome.
The lectionary gives a less than complete sampling of these chapters during these three weeks, so you and your worship planning team may need to plot a different way through them. Start by gathering your team and reading all three chapters at one sitting. Become clear about the whole argument Paul is making here. Then plot out your plans for these weeks on that basis, not on the basis of the given selections alone.
As you enter these three chapters, try to stay focused on the sweep of Paul's proposal here. Too many have become sidetracked by "proof-texts" for predestination, Arminianism or universal salvation. Stay with the main track. Paul's point throughout the letter to Rome and here is that Christians participate in God's salvation through Christ in exactly the same way the Jewish people participate in their covenant with God -- by the grace of God's promise, beginning with Abraham, and their faithful response to it, not on the basis of mere inheritance or works of the law. God's saving mercy is about relationship. God sends God's people to live and announce God's justice and love, not to focus on being the chosen ones.
With that as background, what about today? The brief extract in the lectionary is fitting prologue. It is a poignant confession of lament. I would be cut off and accursed for their sake if I could be, Paul says. My people have everything, he says -- adoption, glory, covenants, law, worship, promise, patriarchs, messiah -- everything. Everything God has ever offered in salvation is with them, nothing lacking. They have it all, yet many of them have nothing in the end, while many Gentiles are now being accounted righteous (verses 30-31) by faith in God's promise of mercy and salvation made to all in Jesus Christ.
Christians in all parts of the world today have no Jewish people in their congregations. There are historical reasons for this, including the centuries of atrocities that Christians or persons claiming the name Christian have committed against Jewish people -- in most recent memory those of Hitler in Germany and Stalin in The Soviet Union. We cannot go back and undo what our forebears and some of our contemporaries in the faith have done to our Jewish siblings. But we can resolve to do better going forward -- and not only toward Jewish people.
This weekend poses another opportunity for confessional lament. As noted above (Calendar) August 6 and 8, which fall on Saturday of this week and Monday of next, are anniversaries of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. Here we have an opportunity not only to lament the horror we as citizens of the United States brought upon hundreds of thousands of non-combatant civilians in Japan in 1945, but also to confess our solidarity with all who have ever suffered the indiscriminate and disproportional violence all nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction cause to people, economies and the environment and to work together for the day when such violence cannot be visited upon anyone by such means ever again.
This week's reading from Romans invites us to join in Paul's lament for the sake of the salvation of others. What forms of that lament are people in your congregation willing to invite your congregation and community to enter today? How might worship space be designed to facilitate what you need to do as you offer it?
Remember, too, that in Holy Communion we confess our sin, seek reconciliation with God and neighbor, and then offer thanksgiving, recalling, as Paul does in these three chapters, the whole history of God's saving work with humankind. We were slaves; God delivered us and continues to offer deliverance to all on earth. We were blind; Christ heals our blindness. We were sinners; Christ dined with us and died for us. We are still slaves, blind and sinful, with all humankind. Christ continues to offer himself to us in bread and wine that we may continue God's mission of seeing that all hear and experience the good news of salvation.
Matthew: On Mission with the Master
Another Wild Day in the Life
Matthew opens us to another day in the life of Jesus. This one begins with the sordid story of the execution of John the Baptist by Herod. Jesus is in Galilee, Herod's territory, when he gets this word. He gets in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, hoping for some time apart to pray.
Jesus was not setting out on the deep waters, though, just following along the shoreline. From where he was sitting, he could see what was happening there. Crowds were assembling, following along the shore as Jesus' boat continued to sail. He could probably hear them, so neither solitude nor silence was possible. Whenever he would pull ashore, he knew what he would find. The crowd was waiting for him.
That was all the rest he would get.
He landed the boat, went to the crowd, and got to work, moved by his compassion for them. We do not know what first-century healing actions may have looked like. The models most of us are familiar with may come from 20th and 21st century televangelists. No mention is made of any specific healing ritual. Perhaps he laid hands on them, prayed for them, and declared them well, as we have seen in stories of specific healings throughout the gospel. But ultimately, we do not know.
What we do know is that Jesus continued this activity until evening. The sun was going down. There were still thousands of people around, either watching or waiting for their own healing to come. His disciples, handlers if ever there were some, try to encourage him to stop and send them home to eat. Jesus turned the tables. No, it's not up to these villages and the people there to feed these folks who've traveled here for healing. It's up to you. You feed them.
We know the answer. "Five loaves and two fish? That's all we've got!" Jesus receives this meager fare and tells the disciples to seat the crowd. He then lifts the bread and fish skyward, a gesture of offering, blessed them, broke the loaves (a standard act for the host to do for his guests) and gave them back to the disciples to feed the crowds. All ate their fill. The remains were more abundant than the initial gifts, 12 baskets full.
The surface parallels to Holy Communion here are clear. We take the bread and wine offered by disciples. We bless God. We seek God's blessing on the bread. We break it and distribute it to those gathered. We gather the remains, resetting the table. And then we are sent, fed and healed, into the night and the next places of ministry.
But there are deeper parallels as well. We get shocking news of some new atrocity from the powers that be every day. Sometimes, these things shock our souls, and we feel the need to get away, to stop in our tracks, to regroup. We try, and we perhaps do a little, but we are aware of all the ways the crowds who want God's healing power are waiting for us. Eventually, we return to the work of witness to God's kingdom -- whether healing the sick, raising the dead, banishing the demons, or cleansing the lepers, in whatever forms we are blessed to witness or offer -- driven by the compassion of Christ at work in our very bodies.
The temptation we face in our ministries in Christ's name may be similar to those posed by his disciples to Jesus himself -- to send people off to be fed elsewhere, or to think what we have to offer is not enough, or to assume that what we have in our hands is actually all there is or may be.
Jesus' simple action of feeding a crowd with what began as the offering of all the disciples had showed up all of these temptations. God's abundance is right here, right now, wherever right here and whenever right now may be. We think we don't have enough not because our supplies are too small, but because our "we" is too small. The "we" includes God and the gifts of all those among whom we are sent as Christ's body. Indeed, far more of the gifts are "out there" than "in here." That how it is that ministry in God's kingdom grows by becoming viral and multiplying. Or perhaps, to recall last week's story of the leaven in the loaf, by becoming fungal!
And so we who have been among the sick and needy all week long join them too in needing dinner as the sun goes down. We won't be fed by hoarding our small portions for ourselves. But we are fed as Jesus fed the crowds long ago. We confess our shock at what we have seen and done (confession of sin). We return to the shore to offer restoration to others (the peace). We take what we bring (bread and wine). We bless God and these small gifts, offering them and ourselves to God for God's transforming power. (Great Thanksgiving). We break the bread (the "fraction"). We share it and the cup, small fragments of the loaf, small sips of the flagon. And it is enough. We are satisfied with Jesus, ready now to face the night again.
We learn our ministry here, in this story, and at the Lord's table, which also enacts it. Our ministry is not to think that we ourselves will transform the world. It is to know that our Master has called us to declare and embody its transformation, knowing that indeed all the materials needed to satisfy the hunger around us are already in place, just not yet deployed in a way that intends to feed us all. And knowing too, that in all the brokenness we bring ourselves, and despite our failings at patching it up (though we try!), that in this simple act of offering ourselves and our gifts to God, we are all fed and changed.
Where can your congregation best focus in this story just now? Is it in the response to a shock or disaster? Is it in the reality that in the midst of getting away you may also be getting deeper into the ministry into which you are called? Is it in the offering of healing, cleansing, witness, deliverance, or raising from the dead? Is it in the compassion that fuels that work? Is it in the awareness of your own limitations? Is it in the awareness of the abundance of God that employs our limited gifts and connects them with those of myriad others for massive gain? Is it in being the body of Christ? Is it in receiving the body and blood of Christ around his table? Is it in being sent forth in his name to continue his ministry, fed there by what seem small things that multiply?
Let questions like these guide the work of your planning team as you design worship around this text today. And remember that the gifts for worship, as for all ministry in God's kingdom, may start with you but multiply through the gifts of many others. In that spirit, do not neglect to think about who else in your congregation, community or region has learned ministry from this story, and at the Lord's table. Be sure to find a way to discover the stories they have to tell about what they have learned, and what they have seen happen as a result.
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The readings today are rich with possibilities for vital worship and preaching.
- Where are you and your people wrestling with God, life, self? (Genesis)
- Where is there anguish for one's people? (Romans)
- What do we do when we need to mourn and grieve? How does the need of others follow us into our solitude? How does what Jesus does with food pattern our way of living? (Matthew)
Where does your context connect with the readings for this Sunday?
With respect to the Romans reading, read and keep in mind our church's teaching about the relationship between Christianity and the Jewish people and remember how much Christians and Jews share in the roots of biblical revelation. Our statement is in line with that of many Christian bodies throughout the world, Protestant and Catholic. See"Building New Bridges in Hope." (The link is to a commentary that includes the United Methodist resolution beginning on p. 31).
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The United Methodist Book of Worship (p. 24) ) describes a variety of actions worship planners may wish to consider as they design how congregations may best embody their response to the Scriptures read and proclaimed in worship on a given Sunday. From today through August, this section will offer suggestions for such responses based on the biblical texts and the Atmospherics commentary above.
An embodied altar call for all (see UMBOW, p. 24.1). The Genesis text, and Wesley's hymn "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown" are both very much about those places in our lives still controlled by "The Grabber" that need to be converted into our new vocation as "Wrestlers with God."
This altar call is not a call for people to "come forward" (though they may certainly be invited to do so if they wish). People may need some additional space. If you have pews or rows of chairs, encourage folks to come out from them if they need to.
First, invite people to form their bodies into a pose, or perhaps into a dance, that shows who "The Grabber" is and what "The Grabber" does in each of them. Have them hold the pose or continue the simple dance for a minute or so, long enough for their bodies to retain some memory of what they have done. Then invite them to release their pose or stop their dance, take a deep breath or two, and relax. If your congregational community is open to this, invite one or two persons to share what they have embodied after you or another worship leader have done so first.
Now, invite them to embody who "Wrestler with God" is and what "Wrestler with God" does in each of them. Again, hold the pose or continue the dance for a minute or so, releasing and relaxing at that point. Once again, debrief with one or two, beginning with a worship leader sharing his or her story.
Now encourage everyone to think about how each pose he or she took was different from the other, and in particular how each might live more from the "Wrestler with God" position throughout his or her life than from the "Grabber" position. Once again, encourage volunteer responses. Close by asking each to consider this question: "What is God's invitation to you to let go of being "Grabber" and become instead "Wrestler with God"? Encourage all to say "Yes" to God's invitation. Invite those who wish prayer from others for their commitment either to ask others where they are to pray with them or for them, or, if they wish one of the worship leaders to pray for them, to come to the altar.
Joining in Paul's lament for the sake of the salvation of others. Three suggestions are listed in Calendar above (Hiroshima/Nagasaki remembrance, Methodist Social Creed with Companion Litany, commitments to abolish nuclear weapons). These are all issues that are national and global in character, good reminders of the global nature of the church, and that Christ as Lord of All really is Lord of all the earth and all relationships in it. Still, there may be local issues, or even issues within the families of your own congregation, that require a similar thoughtful response to join Paul's lament in the text from Romans today. Consider how you may attend to the personal, the local, the national and the global scope as you design your response around Romans 9 for this morning.
A service of healing. Resources for healing services are found in the Book of Worship, pp. 613-629. You may include this as a specific response to the Scripture or sermon, prior to the prayers and invitation to the Lord's table, or you may include prayers and anointing for healing as an option for people to receive after they have received from the Lord's table.
As you develop your thinking about this service of healing, however you choose to offer it, think about ways that it can become not an end in itself, but rather an example that leads many participants in worship that day to offer acts of healing throughout the week ahead. Let the healing begun here become contagious and multiply, just as the five loaves and two fish were multiplied to feed thousands.
Today's reading from Genesis makes this the ideal day in the entire three-year lectionary cycle to sing UMH 386, 387 "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown." This hymn has often been noted as Charles Wesley's favorite and was named by Isaac Watts as the best poetry Charles ever wrote. If you don't know the tune provided on 386 (a traditional Scottish air) or find it unappealing, use the Metrical Index (UMH 926-927) to find a tune in Long Meter Double (LMD) that works for your congregation, or one of the many Long Meter tunes (LM) sung twice for each stanza. Consider, too, the possibility of a sermon or drama based on the Genesis text with sung responses using the entire hymn (UMH 387 includes all of the verses) and using the tune you select for the hymn as the basic theme music for the ritual actions for the day, including sung responses for Holy Communion.
- BOW 33 (General)
- BOW 245 (Romans)
- BOW 455 (Matthew)
Opening Prayer or Collect:
- BOW 462 (Genesis) or
- God of Israel,
you weep for the centuries of persecution of the Jewish people;
end our complicity in their suffering and challenge us to resist bigotry, hatred and genocide of any people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Romans)
- BOW 465 or 469 (Matthew)
- BOW 486 (Genesis, Romans)
- BOW 485 (Matthew)
Concerns and Prayers: BOW 495
The Great Thanksgiving for the Season After Pentecost: BOW 70-71 OR adapt Great Thanksgiving II (UMH 13) by adding appropriate words at the asterisks drawn from the focal text of the day.
Dismissal with Blessing:
- BOW: 559 led by a deacon or assisting minister and 561 led by the presiding minister.
- The Franciscan Blessing (www.saintmarks-stl.org/blessing.html)
Additional Visual Environment: River, wrestlers, stone tablets, scroll, five loaves and two fish, baskets, men, women, and children. For graphics to go with the Gospel reading, see Lumicon's "All You Can Eat" or The Work of the People's weekly offerings and loops.
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