Planning - The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
See the texts, artwork, and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service online at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
2 Kings 5:1-14.
Naaman, a commander in the Syrian Army, seeks healing for his leprosy. His king sends him to the king of Israel, and that king sends him to Elisha. Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to dip in the Jordan seven times.
Psalm 30 (UMH 762).
A psalm of thanksgiving for healing. If you wish to sing the response in the hymnal, consider using Tone 2 for the Psalm. Or use stanza 1 of The Faith We Sing, 2284, as the sung response. See page 737 of The United Methodist Hymnal for Psalm tones.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
The fifth lifeway -- self-discipline so you can run to win.
Jesus is moved by compassion to touch and cleanse a leper. Just as quickly, Jesus finds himself angrily ordering the man not to tell others but rather to show himself to the priests, and "cast him out" (the same word used for casting out demons!). The cleansed man tells all, so Jesus can no longer enter towns and villages because his fame (and infamy for touching a leper) had spread.
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Today is the sixth Sunday after Epiphany. Today marks the end of the 5-part series of OT/Gospel or Epistle readings. Next Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday, and all the readings correspond to one another, centered around the gospel. See "Planning Worship for the Season after Epiphany, Year B" for more details.
Be sure to start making transitions to Lent this week, if you haven't already done so.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is February 22 this year. See Planning Lent and Easter for Congregation, Group, and Home, Year B.
February is Black History Month.
Scouting Ministries Sunday is observed today. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts provide resources or recommendations for such recognitions. The National Association of United Methodist Scouters prefers that the February date be used for recognizing scouting programs with both boys and girls to avoid conflicting with Lent. Consider inviting scouts to serve as ushers, acolytes, and readers within your regular design for worship today. If you wish to have a service more focused on scouting or using scouting ritual, plan this as an additional service at another time, perhaps in the afternoon or evening.
Today is also the Sunday nearest Valentine's Day (February 14). Consider offering a blessing for couples as part of the prayers or an as act of response to the Word today. This could include a reaffirmation of marriage vows for those who are married (see The United Methodist Book of Worship, 135 ff.) as well as prayers with laying on of hands for all who identify themselves as couples, seeking God's blessing as they seek to honor one another and God in their relationship and discern whether they may enter the marriage covenant. See UMBOW 537 for a prayer for persons who are engaged. Consider modifying this prayer (deleting the second to last line) for those who may not yet be engaged.
March 18, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, is designated as One Great Hour of Sharing Sunday. The special offering collected this day underwrites the administrative and programming expenses of UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief. UMCOR provides direct assistance, coordinates volunteers, and partners with organizations on the ground worldwide to bring both immediate and long-term relief after natural and human disasters. This special offering makes it possible for 100 percent of donations to specific projects to be spent solely on providing relief, with 0 percent administrative costs taken out of them.
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Atmospherics: Preparing for Lent, 2
The texts this week move primarily in two different spheres of imagery self-discipline to win (Epistle stream) and cleansing (OT/Gospel stream). Both of them deal with physicality -- getting in there and committing one's body to be part of the work at hand. As an overall image theme for the day, regardless of which stream of texts you choose, think with your worship planning team about what sorts of images in your congregation or local community reflect "getting in there" and committing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
Epistle Stream: Self-Discipline to Win -- Consider using movie clips or scenes depicting team or individual practice, such as Remember the Titans or Hoosiers, or footage of individual athletes preparing for competition gymnasts "on deck," pitchers in the bullpen, tennis players working with a ball machine; or, since it is Scouting Sunday, of scouts preparing their packs or their tents for a campout, or stretching before a hike.
OT/Gospel Stream: Cleansing -- In the biblical context, cleansing is as much about a restoration to community as it is elimination of disease. So consider images of "cleansing waters" or other cleaning agents, as well as images of people coming home or returning to community after a long absence. Think specifically about people returning from war, from long hospitalization, or from prison. If you are celebrating any baptisms this day, be sure to use imagery or other prompts that draw attention to the words of the epiclesis: "Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and those who receive it, to wash away their sin"
Whichever texts or stream of texts you may choose today, consider what these texts are doing to help prepare your congregation for its Lenten practices of accompanying persons toward baptism, reconciliation, or next steps in discipleship to Jesus. Both streams of texts take up a perspective parallel to early Christian ways of preparing people for that journey. As Apostolic Tradition (ca. 215, North Africa/Rome) describes that process, candidates in the three-year process of preparation were being primarily challenged to live the way of Jesus, not simply to be able to repeat doctrinal affirmations. The examinations of a candidate before beginning the final leg of preparation (the final weeks before Easter) were not doctrinal at all, in fact, but eminently practical. Here are those questions:
- Did they live in honesty while they were catechumens?
- Did they honor widows?
- Did they visit the sick?
- Did they do every good thing?
These questions pointed at practices, concrete relationships and things they had to learn and literally work at (practice) in their lives. Before people could be baptized, the expectation was that they would already show these kinds of fruit in their lives.
This is not unlike what John Wesley required for people who were to be considered for membership in a Methodist society. (Keep in mind that the Methodist societies were not congregations, but paracongregational groups!) Beginning the journey toward membership required only that people indicate a desire to be saved from sin and flee the wrath to come. But being admitted and retained as members required that they show that this desire was real by practicing the General Rules -- Avoiding evil of every kind, doing good of all kinds, and attending upon the ordinances of God. Admission to a Methodist society could take between three and six months, so people could begin to get these practices "up to speed." Those who did not engage these practices seriously would not be admitted, and those who chose to quit doing so would be removed.
What does your process of preparing people for baptism, professing membership, or next steps in discipleship require of them? What does it require of you? What will you come alongside and coachpeople to practice and perfect? How will you concretely help people offer their whole selves, souls and bodies, to the way of Jesus?
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OT/Gospel Stream: This Call's for You, 3 -- Cleansing the Unclean and Dealing with the Consequences
In both the Old Testament and Gospel readings today, a leper is cleansed. That's a significant point of contact, but ultimately a topical one at best.
The contrast in the circumstances involved in the cleansing of Naaman and the cleansing of an un-named leper in Mark's gospel could not be more distinct. Naaman, an army commander in Syria, appears still to have plenty of connections to power and to community in his cultural setting, even though he has come down with leprosy. The leper in Mark's gospel was an outcast, and probably had been for years. Naaman was able to talk to his own king and get messages to the king of Israel to track down the best treatment option available in the region. The leper in Mark's gospel had no one to advocate for him but himself, and he had to be very careful about how he went about that. Elisha never met or went anywhere near Naaman in person. Jesus touched the leper in Mark's gospel. Elisha's fame and respect grew when news of Naaman's cleansing got out. Jesus was banished from every town and village for a time when news got out that he had touched a leper and cleansed him.
Plan to read Naaman's story in worship. Get "leprosy" into the minds of your worshiping community. But don't focus there.
As Christians, we are called to be disciples of Jesus. So it is his story we need to hear more deeply as we consider what it means that we, too, are called into his ministry of cleansing the unclean.
As Christians now preparing to accompany others -- in the midst of their uncleanness and other uncleanness they may encounter-- in the journey of Lent toward baptism, confirmation, reconciliation or a significant new step in ministry, our need to focus on this story right now may be urgent.
It's a strange story. Cleansing the unclean is portrayed in this story as an act of compassion. Literally, the verb translated in the NRSV "moved with pity" (verse 41) means "feeling it in his gut." It points to a powerful and literally visceral response to the leper's plight. What is strange is that compassion was not at all the culturally expected response. The leper was unclean. Everyone knew that. So a response of fear, maybe; disgust, quite likely. A visceral and automatic shout to the leper to back off, almost certainly. But not compassion. We see Jesus respond with compassion.
How are even our visceral responses becoming tuned so that our automatic first response to uncleanness is compassion?
It gets stranger. Jesus not only said he wanted the leper to be cleansed. He touched the leper (verse 41). This meant Jesus was now unclean. Jesus entered into the uncleanness of the one who was unclean in order to cleanse him.
What prepares us not simply to respond with compassion, but even to cross lines of deep cultural taboo to offer cleansing to the unclean?
Stranger still is Jesus' immediate next response: rage. The participle translated in the NRSV as "sternly warning him" at its roots means "snorting like a war horse." Why is Jesus suddenly taken by rage? We may get a clue in the next verse. "Look. Say nothing about this to anyone. Go show yourself to the priest and make the offering for your cleansing that Moses ordered as a witness to them" (verse 44). Perhaps the rage is about the system and the people who made this man an outcast in the first place and the fact that the only way back in is through them.
How do our hearts become so tuned to our Lord's heart that we respond not only with compassion for the unclean, but also with realistic rage against the systems that determine the unclean are unclean and do more to lock them out than welcome them back in?
Strangest of all, the ultimate outcome of Jesus' act of compassion. The leper, unclean, was received back into his town or village. Jesus, the compassionate cleanser, was banished from towns and villages because of his act of compassion. The leper is now celebrity. Jesus is now outcast, persona non grata.
Maybe part of his rage was that he knew this would happen. He knew, at that very moment, there was no way the leper would not "out" Jesus for touching him and cleansing him. He knew that his first missionary strategy of visiting town to town and teaching in the synagogues was at an end. How would he get the word out if he couldn't be where people regularly gathered to hear it? (Mark 1:38-39).
But that fact appears to have been no real impediment. Indeed, it may have helped. People were now coming to him out in the countryside from everywhere (verse 45). Perhaps being banished to the "heath" (home of the "heathen!") positively served Jesus' mission to bring good news of God's reign to the poor. After all, poverty rates "out there" were much higher, and the systems that could care for them much less viable than in the towns and cities.
How do you train disciples to be ready to change their mission strategies midstream when acts of compassion cause them to be cast out of the places and prevented from taking the steps they had come to rely on? How do you get folks ready to "roll with the punches" that will surely come when they commit transgressive acts of cleansing -- transgressive to the kingdoms of this world, but fulfillment of the kingdom of God?
If nothing else, this story is a warning to those who think that enacting the good news of God's reign is necessarily safe or respectable in "polite society." Follow Jesus, and you may end up marginalized, pushed out to people you may not have intended to be dealing with, and having to deal with the fact that your schedule and plans may no longer work. This story says that all of that has to be okay with you. The powers that be are serious about resisting God's reign. Disciples of Jesus have to be just as serious about doing whatever it takes to embody it, regardless where that leaves us.
The journey of calling we have experienced in this stream for the past five weeks has been preparing us all for the Lenten journey to come. We do not live in a world that gives us the luxury of a Lenten journey as a "nice," quiet, reflective, introspective, process of self-affirmation. Not, at least, if it is going to prepare people actually to answer the call to follow Jesus! Mere assent to the bold claims of the baptismal vows -- to renounce the evil powers of this world, repent of sin, resist evil, injustice and oppression, commit one's whole life to Jesus as Lord and Savior, and represent him and his reign wherever we go -- just does not cut it.
How will you plan worship today to encourage and support people to follow Jesus even in those situations where doing so puts them at the margins?
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Epistle Stream: Christian Lifeways, Week 5 -- Self-Discipline to Win
Some review of the lifeways you have explored over the course of these five weeks is in order today. We understand and treat our bodies as temples of the indwelling Holy Spirit. We "live light" in this world because the ongoing coming of God's kingdom means this world is passing away. We express our liberty most fully when we limit it to love the least. We become all things to all people that we may be part of saving some. And, as we see in this week's conclusion of this series, we do it all with intense, physical and spiritual self-discipline because we are intent on gaining the prize.
Paul uses the analogy of athletic training to make his point. Athletes then and now could be among the cultural "superstars" of their time -- if they could excel in their events. To excel, it would take some talent, perhaps, but never talent alone. It was always some talent, plus lots and lots of training, lots and lots of practice.
Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, gathers and reflects on the stories of a number of people in a variety of walks of life whose success has been remarkable. None of these people, by their own admission, Gladwell affirms, were especially talented to do what they did. They all got to where they are today because an opportunity opened up to them that they were committed to take, and they spent at least 10,000 hours of practice in the kinds of skills needed to take advantage of that opportunity.
Gladwell's observation leads to two questions.
First, how are you opening up or helping people see opportunities they have to enter a life of discipleship to Jesus?
And what are you doing to move and support these folks in the 10,000 hours of practice it takes to become the disciples of Jesus they can be?
If you're like most congregations, the answer to the first question may be limited or vague, and the second, almost nothing at all. Perhaps you invite people to repent of their sin or to consider whether they are being called into church leadership in some way. But neither of these is exactly the same as a call to discipleship -- a call, ultimately, to follow Jesus in every arena of their lives. In your worship planning team, name all the "arenas" you have in your lives. For starters, think about school, work, neighborhood, marketplace, family, and community organizations.
Then think about and name ways you might issue a call to become well-honed as disciples in each and then in all of these.
And then identify processes people can start, beginning today, to get in their 10,000 hours of practice so they can become the kinds of disciples God intends -- disciples equipped and self-disciplined to win!
Lent is all about that practice -- for the congregation and especially for those you are accompanying this year on their more intensive journeys of preparation. So as you may lay out a list of such opportunities today and next Sunday, be ready to have those opportunities in place and folks signed up for them on or by Ash Wednesday.
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Greeting: UMBOW, 453 (Psalm, 2 Kings, Mark)
- UMBOW 309 (Seasonal, 2 Kings, Mark)
Confession and Pardon:
- UMBOW 483 (1 Corinthians) Add words of assurance or pardon.
Concerns and Prayers:
The Great Thanksgiving:
- UMBOW 58-59 (Season after Epiphany)
- UMBOW 618-619 (Healing)
Prayer of Thanksgiving if there is no Communion:
- UMBOW 553 (2 Kings, Mark)
- UMBOW 551 (1 Corinthians)
Dismissal with Blessing:
- A deacon or assisting minister/lay person could dismiss the people using UMBOW 559. The pastor could then speak the blessing, using UMBOW 561 or The United Methodist Hymnal, 669.
- UMBOW 551 (1 Corinthians)
- UMBOW 621 (Healing)
- UMBOW 186 (sung)
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