The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Foundation of a building in St. Thomas, Nevada. The town was flooded to create Lake Mead.
With receding waters in the Lake, though the building is destroyed, the foundation remains. Public domain.
Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service are available at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos basados en el leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé.
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 reminds the Christians in Corinth they are the temple of God. They are to honor their bodies as God has made them and be grateful for all leaders who lay or build on the foundation of Christ.
"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 than we may have been trained.
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The texts in this Season after Epiphany are divided into two streams (OT/Gospel and Epistle) with one purpose: to prepare your congregation for its work of walking with persons preparing for baptism or reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant during Lent.
The Epistle Stream focuses on being or becoming healthy as the body of Christ.
The OT/Gospel stream focuses on the calling and teaching of disciples of Jesus.
Keep pursuing the stream most helpful for your congregation to get ready for its Lenten work of forming disciples of Jesus Christ readied to live the baptismal covenant faithfully. For more discussion of these two series or streams, see Planning for the Season after Epiphany 2014.
And for Lent, see Planning for Worship During Lent, Year A: Living Our Baptismal Calling. 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 additional guidance with suggestions for weekly ways to include those preparing in worship, see Come to the Waters by Daniel Benedict.
April 13-19 Holy Week
April 13: Palm/Passion Sunday
April 17: Maundy Thursday
April 18: Good Friday
As with all Sundays that include denominational or other programmatic observances 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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Atmospherics -- OT/Gospel Stream: Calling and Teaching Disciples
Rules of Relationships, Part 2: Loving All
The beginning and ending of this week’s reading from Leviticus sets the tone and context for the rules they surround. “Be holy as I am holy” is the bookend to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The list of “rules” that comes between shows how the holiness of the Holy One is to be lived out by the ways we do and do not treat our neighbors. This is the biblical ground of what Wesley would later call “social holiness.”
Social holiness involves those actions by which we love our neighbors as ourselves, or as Wesley puts it, “watch over one another in love.” For Wesley, the term referred primarily to the work of the early Methodist bands, class meetings and societies, all of which were organized to help one another fulfill the three General Rules of avoiding evil, doing good, and attending upon all the ordinances of God. Both avoiding evil and doing good required early Methodists not simply to complete a checklist of personal actions, but actively to work and witness against evil (such as slavery) and for good (such as visiting the sick and prisoners) in the wider society as well.
In an agrarian economy such as ancient Israel’s, to love neighbors as ourselves included leaving part of the crops for the poor to gather food for themselves and their families. It also meant not to steal from anyone (gleaning was not stealing!), not to swear falsely, not to defraud neighbors, always to pay employees on time, always to care for and never to make fun of the deaf or the blind, always to exercise judgment in disputes without regard for economic status, not to slander, not to take advantage of others, and never to take vengeance against one another.
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 of our neighbors rather than use them for our own gain. These, however, do presume a certain social arrangement of community care for the poor (such as gleaning) that may not exist in current cultures, especially in the West and Global North, in quite the same ways.
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 kingdom we are called to love not just our neighbors, but even those who harm us, oppress us, and destroy us. Offer those harming you the other cheek. Give those trying to steal your outer garments your undergarments as well. Offer to walk an extra mile if someone 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 the 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 opponents' 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 teaching something more here?
I believe he was teaching something more. He was calling us to experience and exercise the perfection in love in this life made possible by the coming of God’s kingdom. “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven in perfect,” Jesus concludes this (verse 48), as his parallel to “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Learn how to love, even enemies, so you no longer return evil for evil, but find, on the spot, some way to offer love and blessing in return. This is the love we have been made for, love in the fullness of the holy love 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). Our first step toward such love in our own lives and bodies is not 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 out for others, with others helping us by continuing to model it for 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 to strive for perfection in love in this life and not grow either self-righteous or weary. 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 PhD! 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 larger group worship and smaller groups for accountability, study and engaging in mission. The laboratory is the world. And the teacher is the Holy Spirit through Scripture, each other, and promptings in our own souls.
Every Christian becoming a full professor of the love of God in Jesus Christ may seem too high a goal to imagine. It certainly is too high if we do not aim for it or see it as eternally beyond our reach. Jesus seemed to think it was eminently doable because God’s kingdom had drawn near. 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.
In Your Planning Team
Today completes the “ordinary time” series of readings on the calling and teaching of disciples. Next week, Transfiguration Sunday, marks a segue between the Season after Epiphany and the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday). In a way, then, this Sunday stands as its own kind of segue, bringing closure to this extended series and preparing your congregation for what is coming next.
Think about the ways today’s service will both bring closure and link to what is coming. One of the key ways you can communicate closure for a series is by recapitulating some of the themes explored and the journey taken along the way. Consider choosing hymns you may have sung earlier in this Season after Epiphany and concluding with a hymn that will point toward the celebration of the Transfiguration next Sunday as your closing hymn. If you have not already been doing so, include symbols of the key teaching from all seven services in this series (starting with January 19) in your worship space today, all ultimately pointing or leading to today’s ultimate calling and teaching to express the same holy love for all, including enemies, declared in today’s readings from Leviticus and the Sermon on the Mount. Consider an opening of worship in which these symbols are taken and placed on a central table all can see, or placed in succession on a video screen.
Remember these are but atmospheric effects. They help set the stage for an effective service and closing of this series.
Once you’ve given attention to the “series wrap,” focus on this service and these texts in particular. Consider the following questions in your team.
1. How might you express the Leviticus “code for loving neighbors” for where you are now? What would you update? Specifically, what might gleaning look like in your context?
2. How might the presentation of a contemporized, contextualized “Leviticus code” be shared in worship today? 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?
3. Who in your congregation, community, or wider social networks has a story to share of the perfection of such “neighbor love” into “enemy love”? Some of these stories may be from the past—family, friends, neighbors and others known to you but perhaps no longer living or no longer where you are. But be sure at least two of them are from living witnesses.
4. Consider how to present these stories in worship, whether through a video compilation of brief interviews or live testimony.
5. Today is a good day for an invitation to deeper discipleship, to grow in love of God and neighbor, to commit to letting people move from the “Leviticus Kindergarten” to the “Full Professorship in Love” Jesus describes in Matthew, and so to becoming part of groups that will help them do this very thing. Assuming you have Covenant Discipleship or other accountable discipleship groups in place, have their leaders come forward to receive any who respond to become part of their groups starting today. Then plan for a meal for Covenant Discipleship group members and those they receive, and time for them to have a first meeting as a newly expanded group during and/or after the meal.
Atmospherics -- Epistle Stream: Becoming a Healthy Body
Week 6: You Belong to Christ
Our reading from last week concluded with a metaphor Paul develops a bit further this week: “You are God’s field, God’s building” (I Corinthians 3:9). The foundation of this building, laid by Paul when he founded the Christian community there some years earlier, is Jesus Christ (3:11). Together, as God’s building on this foundation, they are nothing less than the very temple of God, where God’s Spirit dwells (3:16).
This is why, Paul says, they must take care how they treat one another, and how they now regard their past and present leaders. They are God’s temple, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Leaders among them have guided how various parts of the building have been shaped on the one foundation. But it is still one building, with every room having its use in its time and place. No one room is more important than the others. It is the foundation that counts, and the harmonious working together of all the rooms. How the rooms are arranged may be changed from time to time. But care needs to be taken not to treat either leaders or one another in ways that deny the one foundation, or in ways that end up destroying the community as a whole for the sake of just one leader or group.
All of the past leaders of the Christian community in Corinth have been good for the community, Paul says—whether himself, or Apollos, or Cephas (Peter?). They have all been good, all of them gifts from God, because they have all sought to build on the one foundation of Jesus Christ, even if with different emphases. The body needs different emphases from time to time. But all belong to the whole body, and the body itself belongs to Christ as Christ belongs to God (verse 23).
In Your Planning Team
As the conclusion of the series, this service should help your congregation see how you have journeyed, and where you’re going next. If you and your team chose this series, presumably it was because you recognized your congregation needed to do some focused work on improving the health of your community so you could be ready for the work of preparing candidates for baptism and walking alongside them during the Season of Lent to come. Today would be a good day to review and highlight both the themes of the weeks from the beginning of this series until now, and especially particular signs of progress you and your team have seen your congregation make toward greater health during these weeks. As much as you can, today is a day to identify, highlight, and celebrate those places where you are now clearly ready for your work ahead.
Today’s reading reminds us where to look to find those signs of readiness. Use them to encourage your congregation today. Whatever is being built or built anew on the foundation of Jesus Christ is now ready. And that is probably much more than they may initially think or realize.
Discuss in your planning team:
1. Who and what have been significant leaders and ministries for us in the past, and even now, who have built on the foundation of Jesus Christ?
2. Which of these leaders and minsitries —taking a diverse cross section—might we lift up for particular thanks and encouragement today?
3. Specifically, how will you tie in the message that not just these leaders and ministries, but every member of the church, baptized or professing, belongs 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: 449 (Leviticus), 455 (I Corinthians)
- Opening Prayer: 462 (Matthew) 466 (I Corinthians)
- Invitation/Prayer of Confession/Pardon: 488 with pardon from 476 or The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 7-8 (1 Corinthians, Matthew)
- Concerns and Prayers: 495, 526 (Leviticus, Matthew) 502 (I Corinthians)
- Ecumenical Prayer Cycle: Germany, France
- Prayer of Thanksgiving if Communion will not be celebrated: 552
- Great Thanksgiving: 78-79 or The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 9-11
- Dismissal with Blessing: 564
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