Planning - Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18.
Social holiness defined -- loving your neighbor, whatever their condition, as you love yourself.
Psalm 119:33-40 (UMH 841-842).
Response 2 again fits best with the theme of the OT/Gospel stream today. Sing with Tone 1 in B-flat major (UMH 737).
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23.
Paul continues the building metaphor, and expands it to remind these Christians that they are the temple of God and so must revere who God has made them and be grateful for all leaders who lay or build on the foundation of Christ, not destroy one another in factions.
"You have heard it said but I tell you," Part 2! The nearing of the kingdom of God means we are to (and now can!) treat those who harm us, oppressors and enemies very differently from the way we may have been trained.
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Today is the seventh Sunday after Epiphany. Choose and stay with the stream that seems most fitting for where your worshiping community is and needs to head, especially as a means of laying a foundation for the extended weeks of baptismal preparation known as Lent (Ash Wednesday is March 9).
Have you begun planning for Lent, yet? It's not too soon! There are sponsors to line up, ways to support candidates for baptism and professing membership to incorporate, and a coherent series of services to produce so that those preparing, and the congregation, experience a seamless, ongoing journey toward faithfulness and discipleship to Jesus Christ in the covenant of baptism. For specific guidance with suggestions for weekly ways to include those preparing in worship, see Come to the Waters by Daniel Benedict.
On the denominational calendar, Black History Month continues. Resources are available from the General Commission on Religion and Race and through the 21st Century worship resources on the Discipleship Ministries website.
The World Day of Prayer is Friday, March 4. The 2011 focus of this international and ecumenical women's day of prayer is Chile. Additional United Methodist resources will be made available by the General Board of Global Ministries as the day nears.
The One Great Hour of Sharing offering is received 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.
Atmospherics: OT/Gospel Stream -- What God's Kingdom Requires and Blesses
We have in this week's readings from the OT and Gospel almost lists of things to do and not do to find ourselves "holy as the Lord is holy." In a twenty-first-century evangelical Christian culture that has defined holiness largely in terms of individualism, and what one might call a twenty-first-century progressive or liberal Christian culture that identifies justice almost exclusively with certain positions on a few political issues, this week's reading from Leviticus breathes instead of a biblical and deeply Wesleyan understanding of social holiness. Social holiness involves those actions by which we love our neighbors as ourselves. In an agrarian economy, such as ancient Israel's, loving neighbors as ourselves first of all meant leaving part of the crops for the poor to gather food for themselves and their families. It also meant not stealing from anyone (gleaning was not stealing!), not swearing falsely, not defrauding neighbors, paying employees on time, never making fun of the deaf or the blind, but caring for them, exercising judgment in disputes without regard for economic status, not slandering, not taking advantage of others, and never taking vengeance against your own people (among others!).
Many of these same evils to avoid (General Rule 1: "Avoid evil of every kind") still work today as reminders of what it means to love all our neighbors rather than use them for our own gain. These, however, do presume a certain social arrangement of community care for the poor that may no longer apply in the same ways.
So as you think about this text in your worship planning team, starting with this text, but taking the actual context of the communities in which you live into consideration, how might you update this "code for loving neighbors" for where you are now? And then how might you present your updated version? Do you have a poet or a storyteller in your midst or nearby you might consult with? Someone who might set this to music you can sing? Might this be a bit of drama, or mime? Could it be a gallery of paintings, photographs or projected images of people caught in the act of loving their neighbors and causing them no harm?
The teaching from Jesus takes all of this one step further. While Leviticus calls for love of neighbor, Jesus reminds the crowds, and us, that in God's nearing kingdom we are called to love those who harm us, oppress us, and even enemies intent on destroying us. Offer those harming you the other cheek. Give those trying to steal your outer garments and your undergarments as well. Offer to walk an extra mile of someone who compels you to carry a load for one mile. Give liberally to everyone begging or wanting to borrow from you. And bless and do good even to those who persecute you. Counter those who would steal with a generosity they couldn't expect, and those who harm you with a perfection in love they are sorely lacking.
In the last twenty years or so, a considerable body of literature has discussed how several of these actions (turning the other cheek, giving the underwear also, walking the extra mile) would have had the social effect of shaming the offender. Turning the other cheek would force the offender to strike in a shameful way. Removing the undergarments leaves the "victim" naked; but in that culture, the naked person was not shamed: those viewing the naked person were! Walking the extra mile would make the point that the compulsion didn't matter in the first place and, in fact, had no real power. Jesus in these descriptions comes off as a master at teaching a kind of spiritual jiu jitsu, turning the opponent's evil intentions back on themselves for all to see.
All of those effects may well have been felt by doing such things, but were they the point or more of a possible side effect of what Jesus was teaching? In other words, was Jesus offering instruction in passive aggression for oppressed people, or was he also teaching something more here?
I believe he was teaching something more. (And you and your team are free to disagree!) I believe he was teaching something far deeper -- the possibility and calling to perfection in love in this life made possible by the nearing of God's kingdom. "Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect," Jesus concludes (verse 48). So learn love -- even for enemies -- that you no longer return evil for evil, but find, on the spot, some way to offer love and blessing in return. The is the love we have been made for, love in the fullness of the image of God.
How do we learn to breathe love, have love settled into the heartbeat and the synapses? As the first letter from John reminds us, "We love because God first loved us" (I John 4:19). The first act isn't to "gin up" our own love for God and neighbor, but to become settled in the unfathomable love of God already poured out for us. As we settle into this love, or let it settle into us, we are given what we need to pour it out for others, with others helping us by continuing to model it for us all around us, and us for them. This is the "watching over one another in love" that makes such love in and through our own lives not only a distant but actually an attainable possibility. This is what makes it realistic that we can strive for perfection in love in this life and not grow either perfectionistic (self-righteous) or weary. And these practices of loving those who harm, oppress, and even intend to destroy us are both indicators and means for such love to flow through us and be realized more and more in us.
So back to Leviticus. The love we are empowered and called by Jesus to embody surely starts with such neighbor-love, but then goes much, much deeper. Neighbor-love is the kindergarten; enemy-love is the Ph.D.! There is much loving and learning to love as God loves us between. And the Christian community is called, invited, and formed to be a school of love, a school that helps all its students become full professors of the love of God in Jesus Christ. The classrooms may be worship and small-group accountability, study and mission-centered groups. The laboratory is the world. And the teacher is the Holy Spirit through Scripture, one another, and promptings in our own souls.
Everyone becoming full professors of the love of God in Jesus Christ may seem too high a goal to imagine, realistically. It certainly is too high if we do not aim for it or see it as eternally beyond our reach. Jesus did not seem to see it that way at all. He saw this as eminently doable because of the nearing of God's kingdom. And centuries of Christian witness worldwide, including -- no doubt -- several people in your worshiping community, or at least people they know, have shown his confidence not to be misplaced.
So show the kindergarten pictures or whatever you come up with for neighbor-love a la Leviticus. But then leave room for the stories of past living witnesses, testimonies, as a response to this word today, that inspire those present to realize that they, too, can become channels of even such enemy-love in this life. Be sure not to make this just one or two, but several, including at least two in your midst. Perhaps this is a video compilation of interviews or live testimony.
Folks who have such stories almost invariably describe those others who intentionally watched over them in love and helped them along the way. So be sure to identify in some concrete way, before the sending today, those persons or groups in your worshiping community who have practiced such watching over others in love well over time. Let at least part of the invitation be to decide to which of these groups or to which of these people that the people there may attach themselves, or perhaps even call others around them, so they may be part of moving from wherever they are in the love curriculum toward becoming full professors of the love of God in this life.
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Epistle Stream: I Corinthians
Last week we suggested an anchor image of "reframing." This week, an anchor image might be framing (as in framing a building), or even, to take it a step away from the specific metaphors but still in the same range of meanings, quilting.
Paul had introduced the building metaphor at the end of last week's reading. "You are God's field, God's building" (verse 9). Here, he expands that into another way of reframing how to relate to past and present leaders. All of them, himself included, have worked on the same foundation that Paul himself had laid when he founded their community -- Jesus Christ himself.
As long as any leader builds on that foundation, Paul says, it's all good. The foundation secures the stability of the whole building. Different leaders may frame the walls differently, or even move walls that others had put up. And if the building expands beyond its initial footprint, what matters is that any additional foundation laid is still the same material -- Jesus Christ. No one room is better than another. No one room defines the sole standard for any other. Rejoice that you have had so many different leaders who have created different kinds of spaces and perhaps even moved walls or remodeled over time! Rejoice in the variety and depth that the whole has thanks to all these different leaders over time! Don't get fixated on one room or one wall or the fact that a wall got moved! Inhabit the whole house, all its rooms, and be glad for them all. They are all yours now, because you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God (verse 23).
So what does all of this have to do with quilting? Ask a quilter! Or go to a quilting bee. Quilters often work not individually, but as groups, each individual contributing another piece and her own stitchery to an overall design on a common foundation (backing) and batting. Sometimes a quilt begins with a pre-made design, and the artistry is in the stitching. At other times, quilts have multiple pieces of fabric both stitched to one another and quilted onto the backing and batting, and the artistry is in the design that emerges from all of these pieces and how they are stitched and quilted. Always, though, what matters most is a reliable foundation that won't shrink or warp as the quilt is made and as it is used or displayed over time. And no matter what, there is beauty to behold and enjoy, beauty that emerges out of not only the work done, but the time spent together doing it.
Which of these kinds of materials -- framing for walls or quilting -- are more readily available and in use by the participants in your worshiping community? If neither of these is available, are there other sorts of things people make or build where you are that have a similar property -- a solid foundation and then wide-ranging creativity to build or craft on it? Or, as liturgical scholar Gordon Lathrop might put it, "strong center, wide horizons"?
Choose one or more of these as the anchor image for worship design and design of the worship space today. Consider how even your planning for this service might happen on a similar basis -- strong center (the basic pattern of worship -- UMH 2; and if you celebrate the sacraments, one of our official ritual texts or another from the many available on the Discipleship Ministries website) and wide horizons in who and how individual elements, such as reading, artwork, banners, and space design, might be handled. Keep in mind that the strong core is essential: Whatever you design has to be and feel like those four elements -- entrance, proclamation and response, thanksgiving and Cmmunion, and sending forth. Too many surprises can be more distracting and disorienting than helpful. But with those caveats in mind, have at it in a way that, as Paul did for the Christians at Corinth, reminds your worshiping community of the abundance of the gifts of the church now and from ages past, the old and the new, and what a good thing it is to rejoice in them all because you, here and now, belong to Christ.
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Embodying the Word: Praying or Singing the Ancient Songs
OT/Gospel Stream: The Gloria in Excelsis
This may be a week when you will want to pray the Gloria in Excelsis in yet another different way. Next week, and perhaps for Transfiguration Sunday, plan to sing it again as you did the first two weeks. But this week, think about this as prayer, perhaps antiphonal (one side or group alternating with another) or responsive (one or more leaders alternating with the whole assembly) and perhaps accompanied with a drumbeat (think Native American, Cuban, or African) that suggests the sounds of the heartbeat or heartbeats of your worshiping assembly, capturing the theme of love in today's focal texts.
Epistle Stream: A Canticle Smorgasbord
Either the Canticle of Thanksgiving (UMH 74, "Jubilate," based on Psalm 100) or the Canticle of Praise (UMH 91, "Venite," based on Psalm 95) capture well gratitude to God for the diversity of God's creating and redeeming work over generations.
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- Greeting: UMBOW 449 (Leviticus), UMBOW 455 (I Corinthians)
- Opening Prayer: UMBOW 462 (Matthew) UMBOW 466 (I Corinthians)
- Invitation/Prayer of Confession/Pardon: UMBOW 488 with pardon from UMBOW 476 or The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 7-8 (1 Corinthians, Matthew)
- Concerns and Prayers: UMBOW 495, UMBOW 526 (Leviticus, Matthew) UMBOW 502 (I Corinthians)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Germany, France
- Prayer of Thanksgiving if Communion will not be celebrated: UMBOW 552
- Great Thanksgiving: UMBOW 78-79 or The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 9-11
- Dismissal with Blessing: UMBOW 564
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