Planning - Third Sunday after Pentecost
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13.
The Lord interrupts Samuel's grief over Saul's many failures and sends him to Jesse of Bethlehem to anoint one of his sons as the Lord would show him.
Psalm 20 or Psalm 72 (UMH 795).
The hymnal's psalter was based on a previous lectionary that did not include Psalm 20. Psalm 72 celebrates what a good king would do, what respect he could expect, and what hopes the people might have for him and his reign. Use Response 2, or, for a Christological response, TFWS 2069 or 2070.
2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13), 14-17.
Since we are in Christ, a new creation, we are empowered to live for him.
Two parables of the kingdom of God: seed scattered that takes root, grows, and leads to harvest, and mustard weed --a woody, fast-growing and spreading, persistent nuisance in Middle Eastern fields, much like kudzu in the U.S. south or pokeweed in the midwest.
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This the third Sunday of the Season after Pentecost. We enter into a time of semi-continuous readings from Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospels that are not intentionally connected to one another in any way. If you use the lectionary, as the vast majority of our congregations do, rather than trying to connect all three readings, focus on just one stream of them (OT, Epistle, or Gospel) to create several "series" for worship that work best in your context. See "Planning Worship for the Season after Pentecost (Ordinary Time) Year B" for an overview and guidance.
Through much of June and July, the Old Testament reading focuses on the story of David. The Epistle readings (from 2 Corinthians) address conflict and authority in the church. And the gospel largely tracks the "Discipleship by the Sea" narrative Dr Marcia McFee and I used in designing worship for the 2012 General Conference. Which of these three trajectories is most promising or fruitful for your congregation or worshiping community for the next several weeks? Though you may continue to read all of the texts in worship, pick just one where you will focus and go deep. Dr. McFee has also posted all her worship scripts for the evening worship services at General Conference on her website.
Dr. McFee and I both advocate discovering and developing an "anchor image" as a way to hold a visual and metaphorical center through any extended series -- whether the ten-day series of General Conference, or what may be a six- to eight-week series of worship and preaching in your local congregation. You can hear and see Dr. McFee talking about how we found and she developed the anchor image for "Discipleship by the Sea" on YouTube.
Today is alsoFather's Day in the United States. While cultural calendar events should never displace the Scriptures as the primary guide for worship planning, there are usually appropriate ways to include some recognition of such commemorations through prayers, responses to the Word, or special gatherings or celebrations after worship. Within the larger stream of texts you have chosen to follow for these weeks of June and July, what does today's text offer as challenge or support for fathers that might be lifted up in prayer, sermon, song or other ritual action?
Tuesday, June 19, is Juneteenth, an important celebration for people in the U.S. of African descent. It marks the date in 1865 when African Americans in Texas were first informed of their freedom, made law in 1863 through the Emancipation Proclamation.
Wednesday, June 20, 7:09 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (US) marks the beginning of the Summer Solstice (Northern Hemisphere) and the Winter Solstice (Southern Hemisphere). For those north of the equator, June 21 will have the most hours of sunlight of any day of the year; for those south, the fewest hours of sunlight. As Christianity continues to multiply in the global South and diminish in the global North (as well as in Australia and New Zealand), this day offers an occasion to reconsider how we imagine the Christian seasons in our own lives. For those in the global South, the season after Pentecost is the coldest, bleakest and rainiest of the year; and Christmas falls at the beginning of the hottest, driest season. Keep this in mind as you pray for the church and the world week by week, and this week, especially, as we pray for the people of Brazil in the ecumenical prayer cycle.
Independence Day (US) falls on a Wednesday this year. You may choose to recognize it in Sunday worship either on July 1 or July 8, or in special worship offered on July 4. The Revised Common Lectionary does provide readings for this day, although the United Methodist Book of Worship version of the RCL does not.
Labor Day (US) is Monday, September 3.
Hispanic Heritage Month (US) is September 15-October 15.
So which stream are you focusing on for the next several weeks? The movement from judges to kingship and the character of the king (I Samuel)? Or Paul's efforts to re-establish his authority and provide helpful leadership for the conflicted and spiritually challenged Christian community in Corinth (2 Corinthians)? Or the sweep of the story of Jesus discipling his disciples as he carries them with him in his mission along Galilee's shoreline and beyond (Mark)?
Old Testament: "From Local Judges to a King like All the Nations"
The reading from I Samuel poses two different "movements" for interpretation -- the movement away from grief toward mission, and the movement of discernment toward anointing. Think about which of these two (if not both) your worshiping community needs most to focus on today, and then consider how the anchor image you have selected may be complemented by other imagery or soundscapes.
From Grief to Re-engagement
Whenever we face a significant loss, disappointment, or a dramatic change in our lives, there is a need for a time to sit with the pain of it. Samuel had already moved past the rejection of judgeship and had anointed and -- for several years coached/counseled -- the new king, Saul. He had done all he could, but it was not enough. God, and presumably many of the people, had rejected Saul as king. The realization of this was another significant blow to Samuel, one that had led him to withdraw to his home in Ramah for a time.
But from God's angle, it was time to begin moving on to anoint the next king, and Samuel was still the person to do the anointing. There was nothing more Samuel could do to repair the damage caused by the failure of Saul. But there was something he could do to open the way to different leadership and a different future. He could take up his horn of anointing oil and head to the home of Jesse near Bethlehem to anoint the new "shepherd over Israel" that God would select.
This was a risky act, to be sure. Saul was still on the throne and becoming more paranoid about possible challenges to his power by the day. But God assured Samuel that it was the right act and that God would provide a means to protect Samuel as he carried it out.
Who in your worshiping community has experienced a similar calling in their lives to start afresh after a major loss or disappointment? How did a call from God or a new opportunity, even if a risky one, help these persons to move from grief to re-engagement in ways that would eventually bring life and hope to others?
Discerning God's Way
The second movement in this week's story is a movement of discernment. Samuel knew that the next king would come from Jesse's household. But he arrived there without clear guidance about which of Jesse's sons it would be, apart from God's promise, "I will show you what you should do; you will anoint for me the one I name for you" (16:3).
God did not name the one whom Samuel was to anoint. Instead, God required Samuel to remain attentive to God's voice and direction as each of the sons of Jesse passed before him. He was not to rely on his own insight about God's choice, but only on some sense of affirmation or rejection by God in the moment. After God had rejected all the older children, Samuel asked Jesse to call for the youngest, David, who was out with the sheep in the fields.
About this one, the last, but perhaps also the most physically attractive, God said, "Rise up and anoint him."
Samuel did. The story records that the Spirit acted mightily upon David from that day forward.
But whatever that may have meant over a period of time, on that day, at the anointing, there was no fanfare. There were no parades to welcome or celebrate the new king. There is no record even of any sort of celebration by the family to accompany the anointing. Samuel was asked to anoint a son of Jesse. He did that and went home.
Samuel was open and obedient to the guiding voice of God over time and in the moment. He neither added nor took anything away from God's call. This was how keenly discerning of God's will he had become.
If you choose to focus on this second movement in today's text, who in your worshiping community or in the broader communities in which you and your worship planning team take part has developed such a commitment and sensitivity to following the voice of God, both over time and in the moment? What testimony might such persons have to share with your worshiping community today?
Epistle: Forging a Way through Deep Church Conflict
Last week we saw Paul using an argument against his legitimacy as an ongoing voice of authority for the Christian community in Corinth precisely as an argument for his legitimacy in a way that would easily have subverted the cultural values of Corinth even as it focused intently on the Christian values of this nascent congregation.
This week, we have two verses that have often been quoted separately out of context, becoming almost taglines or slogans in their own right: "We walk by faith and not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7) and "Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. All former things are passed away. Behold, all things are brand new" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Either of these verses could make a fine focus for worship or preaching today in its own right. Indeed, that has often been done. But to use them in this way would be missing the point each of these "famous lines" is making in the context of Paul's larger argument in this letter to this Christian community he founded and still loves, despite its deep troubles and now its apparent rejection of him as a legitimate guiding voice in their ongoing life.
In a very real way, both of these "famous lines" are zeroing in on the same problem. Apparently, folks in the Christian community in Corinth, perhaps reflecting shared values with the larger cultural context of Corinth, have come to believe that Paul should be ignored or rejected because he doesn't look or sound impressive (we walk by faith, not by sight!), may be a bit of a ranting lunatic ("if we are beside ourselves, it is for God," 5:13), and perhaps, even, that he seems too "heavenly minded" in light of the very real, concrete human realities these people are facing in Corinth ("we regard no one from a human point of view," 5:16).
The ground of Paul's argument here seems to be that Corinthian culture is simply not a helpful matrix, at all, for discerning the way and will of Christ in their midst. This is why he concludes this section with, "Anyone who is in Christ is a new creature. All former things are passed. Behold, all things are brand new!" (5:17).
Within that last verse, a key phrase is "in Christ." Though Paul had not baptized many of them, Apollos, who succeeded him, had. It was through the Spirit-anointed waters of baptism that these persons had moved from being learners outside of Christ to being "born anew to a living hope" in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Being in Christ made them brand new creatures, and the church was to be the brand new environment that supported their brand new way of life. As brand new creatures in a brand new body in which Christ was head, they were no longer to adopt and live out of the values of the Corinthian culture as means of evaluating what was good or legitimate, but only the values of Jesus himself and of God's reign.
In H. Richard Niebuhr's typology from Christ and Culture, Paul here advocates openly for a "Christ against Culture." It would not be reasonable or fair to state that Paul thought or taught that Christ was against all forms of human cultural expression, but it probably would be fair to say the Corinthian culture, with what we might today call its intensely consumerist values toward just about everything, was in many ways diametrically opposed to the way of Christ.
So how about the culture where you are? And how about the ways of your particular Christian community? If you are working through significant spiritual challenges or conflicts just now, how do you know where to turn for reliable guidance or even, at times, correction and encouragement to change? Where do influences from your surrounding cultures reflect the "new creatures" way of Christ? How does your worshiping community function as a thriving ecosystem that births, raises up, nurtures and sends out healthy "new creatures" in Christ, equipped and ready to transform the world as the Spirit leads?
Or maybe today is about recognizing and admitting you may be in a mire at the moment, confused, unsure where to turn, over-run by conflicting forces and opinions, and needing more than anything else for the one who made you into new creatures to begin to show you a better way.
You and your worship team know your community. Pray well, listen well for the voice of the Spirit as you pray and plan, and follow where the Spirit leads.
Gospel: Discipleship by the Sea
It is perhaps unfortunate that the Revised Common Lectionary essentially skips the Parable of the Sower as Mark tells it (Mark 4:1-9). Mark tells this story more compactly and evocatively than any of the synoptic writers. If you wish to follow the course of Discipleship by the Sea (pdf) we took at General Conference, the Parable of the Sower is the text that lay behind the theme "Listen" for the fourth service of our gathering (Act of Repentance).
If you are following the lectionary, however, today's reading is still part of the same extended teaching series Jesus was offering from a boat at the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It includes two smaller parables with similar motifs of planting seeds and what happens when the planting is done.
And both of them are parables in the truest sense: They mess with our usual ways of thinking about things, leave us perplexed, scratching our heads, if we hear them carefully and take them seriously.
The first of these is sometimes called "the seed growing secretly." The usual counsel that comes out of such a title seems to be that God will take care of the growth of God's kingdom and bring about the harvest in due season. While that is not an entirely inaccurate reading, the text itself is rather more shocking than that, at least to its first hearers.
Simply put, almost no one would think about a kingdom as being merely "scattered" like seed on the ground. Kingdoms don't "just happen." Kingdoms are exercises in sustained organization and all kinds of human effort. When we think of God as King, we tend to translate the idea of God's kingship looking like the kingships of the world -- sustained and growing by means of force, planning, and diligent effort.
Yet here, Jesus says God's kingdom is nothing like that. It is planted. It grows organically. Fruit emerges. There is little planning or effort we or even God does to bring about its result -- an inevitable and abundant harvest. So what may seem random, hidden in the earth, and even of little significance ends up becoming sustenance for God's new world.
Here is a deep lesson for disciples of Jesus to learn. We do not build God's kingdom. At most, we scatter its seeds. Then we watch and bear witness to what God does with it all, over time. And whenever harvest comes, we go in and reap. The kingdom, like the random seeds, has its own logic for growth and fruitfulness that will out.
The second parable is even more bizarre. It was odd enough for Jesus to compare the kingdom of God with a seed crop randomly scattered. Now he compares it with the seed of mustard weed which, in fact, no one would try to plant at all. Mustard weed was the kudzu of Palestine (hence the image above!). It grew wild, taking over and sometimes choking out the crops the farmers did want to plant. Its seeds were spread by the birds that ate them and deposited them from field to field. Farmers would do their best to get rid of it from their fields, but the more mustard weeds, the more birds would come by, and the more birds, the more mustard seed would be spread. And, Jesus says, the kingdom of God is just like this.
A huge nuisance?
An interrupter and interferer in what we actually want?
Reproducing and multiplying despite our best efforts to stop it?
Oh, and worse, doing exactly what mustard weed does -- attracting the "birds of the air" -- a profound metaphor for non-Jews, or people "not like us," in Jesus' day-- to nest in its branches. And of course, when they do that, to eat the seed and spread it even more.
Bad enough that the kingdom of God seems to grow in ways we can't predict or understand. But now Jesus teaches the crowds and his disciples that God's kingdom happens in ways that most of Jesus' own contemporaries, including his disciples, and maybe including some of us, if we hear him as they did, may only experience with some feeling of disgust.
Messy, noisy, disliked, irritating, taking over, unstoppable as mustard weed (or kudzu in the US South, or pokeweed in the US Midwest!): This is what the kingdom of God is like. No fancy parades or "mission accomplished" banners unfurled. Just ongoing persistent undercurrents that transform the world.
If we're to be disciples of Jesus, prophet of this kingdom, we'd better learn to get used to that -- and so, in following in his way, have our spiritual senses retuned so that that which most normally may provoke disgust in others becomes for us the way of justice and joy.
- Background for the Season after Pentecost (Ordinary Time, Kingdomtide): BOW 409 (consider sharing some of this in your church newsletter, website, or bulletin)
- Greeting: BOW 240, 451 (1 Samuel, Psalm)
- Opening Prayer: BOW 468 (Mark), BOW 466 (2 Corinthians)
- Scripture Response: UMH 694 (stanza 2), "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come" (Mark)
UMH 275, "The Kingdom of God" (Mark)
- Prayer of Confession and Pardon: BOW 478 (2 Corinthians) add pardon
BOW 487 (Mark) add pardon
- Concerns and Prayers: BOW 544 (I Samuel), BOW 527 (2 Corinthians, Mark)
- Great Thanksgiving: BOW 70-71 or BOW 78-79
- Dismissal with Blessing: BOW 559 (1 Samuel, 2 Corinthians) and BOW 565 (Summer Solstice)
- The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Brazil
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