Planning - Third Sunday after the Epiphany
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." A word of hope for a land where Israel (Samaria) and Syria had fought most of their major battles in the past and were about to fight (or had already begun fighting) Judah without regard for the good of the people who called that land home.
Psalm 27:1, 4-9 (UMH 758)
This Psalm works as a response to the first reading if we hear it and join it as a prayer of those who live in a "land of deep darkness." With the sung response sing the psalm to Tone 2 in D minor or another minor key setting.
1 Corinthians 1:10-18.
Paul says, "I appeal to you ... that there be no divisions among you ... be united in the same mind and the same purpose. ... Has Christ been divided?"
Jesus begins to announce the kingdom of God by the Sea of Galilee, healing, teaching, and calling fishermen to be his disciples.
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We arrive at the Third Sunday after Epiphany. The texts today start their turn away from Epiphany proper into two distinctive streams (OT/Gospel and Epistle), either of which your planning team may wish to adopt as the "theme" for worship from now until February 27. If you're following the OT/Gospel stream, the focus is on the teaching ministry of Jesus, and perhaps especially on "What God's kingdom requires and blesses." If you choose to follow the Epistle stream, the focus is on coaching the worshiping community to live out its calling to be the body of Christ where you are. Choose 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 arrives on March 9).
On the denominational calendar, today is Ecumenical Sunday (January 23) in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. If you don't already, consider including the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle as part of your worship on today, and keep it as part of your intercessions throughout the year. The weekly listing of nations to pray for is always included in these helps (below) and a full list of prayers for each nation is included on the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle website, usually posted about two weeks before the given Sunday.
On the denominational calendar, February is Black History Month. Resources are available from the General Commission on Religion and Raceand through the 21st Century worship resources on the Discipleship Ministries website.
Scouting Ministries Sunday is scheduled for February 13. Since the alternate date for Scouting Ministries Sunday falls on the first Sunday of Lent this year, a significant day in itself for the life of the church, strongly consider consolidating all scouting-related celebrations into a February commemoration, or schedule them during Ordinary Time after Pentecost. As you plan for this day, while it would be appropriate to include participants in the five youth development programs United Methodists recognize as leaders in worship (readers, acolytes, Communion servers), turning worship into a Boy or Girl Scout program is not recommended.
On the U.S. cultural calendar, Super Bowl Sunday is February 6 (the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany). What impact is this likely to have on worship that day? Whichever stream of texts you choose as your focus, how might they address how disciples of Jesus approach the day?
St. Valentine's Day is February 14, the day after Scouting Sunday (6th Sunday after Epiphany). If you include recognition of this day in worship, consider how you might remember the witness of the third-century martyr or martyrs named Valentinus rather than the cultural celebration of romantic affection. Note as well that St. Valentine is no longer part of the sanctoral cycle (the calendar for remembering saints of the church) for the Roman Catholic Church or The Episcopal Church, owing in part to the lack of historical clarity about who this person (or persons) may have been or what he or they may have done.
As with all Sundays that have some cultural or programmatic 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 -- What God's Kingdom Blesses and Requires
If you follow the OT/Gospel Stream through these coming weeks before Lent, this week is the necessary introduction. This week's OT and Gospel texts provide the background needed to understand and then live out Jesus teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, which we begin reading next Sunday and the four Sundays after that.
This week's reading from Isaiah may seem very familiar, not only because the text itself is familiar, but also because part of this same text was included in the first reading for Christmas Eve just one month ago. In the Christmas Eve setting, it is paired with the reading from Luke describing the birth of Jesus and the coming of the shepherds. On Christmas Eve, we hear this text describe Jesus as the light in the darkness, a child born for us who will deliver us from bondage and uphold the kingdom forever, with emphasis on the birth of the child.
Here, however, a shorter selection from the same text (verses 1-4) supports this week's gospel in making a different point. Matthew quotes this text from Isaiah (4:15-17), not to describe the importance of the birth of Jesus, but to announce the significance of the beginning, the primary location, and the major theme of his public ministry. Light begins to dawn now that Jesus has headed directly into "Galilee of the Gentiles," the region controlled by the tetrarch Herod who had just arrested John the Baptizer.
Jesus going to Galilee thus has a two-fold purpose. First, it is a fulfillment of this text from Isaiah. Light does shine precisely in this region formerly known as the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, places where Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fought their wars so "nothing important" was disturbed, and places later which became the target of "ethnic dilution campaigns" of one conqueror of Palestine after another. Keep the mix of languages and cultures there mixed enough and oppressed enough, and no one of them will have the strength or the urge to resist the new overlords. This is why this place was known to Isaiah as "the land of deep darkness," and this is why it still had that nickname in the time of Jesus. If light is to shine in deep darkness, this is where Jesus must go.
But in the narrative itself, we see how this place continues to live up to its ancient reputation. The darkness at the heart of Galilee wasn't satisfied to keep to its own borders. The tetrarch Herod, like his namesake who ruled at the time of Jesus' birth, was noted for over-extending his power. John the Baptizer lived and worked primarily in Judea, not Galilee. Despite the fact that John was openly critical of Herod's taking the wife of his dead brother as his own wife, Herod had no real jurisdiction over John. And yet he had John arrested, jailed, and later, we learn, beheaded in Galilee.
That John was arrested and taken to a dungeon in Galilee becomes part of why Jesus headed there, too. He was not running away from Herod, as the phrase "he withdrew into Galilee" (fairly common in English translations) may suggest. Better would be something like "he made his home in that region again." Galilee would be "home base" for Jesus' public ministry not just because an old prophet said it, but because the people there, governed by a man like Herod who had sought to silence John, desperately needed good news.
And that is what Jesus began to give them. Verse 17 represents the core of every sermon, every teaching and every action Jesus took in his public ministry there. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven [God] has drawn near." (Matthew uses "heaven" in place of "God," a sign of his Jewish heritage in what is unarguably the most Jewish of the gospels).
The fishermen he calls to join him as disciples (verses 16-22) respond immediately and dramatically. Why would they do that? Why would they leave nets, boats, livelihoods and family at the simplest of calls from Jesus? "Follow me!" It's not because these men were especially sensitive to the voice of God or Jesus. Their dullness, resistance, contradiction of his teaching, denial and desertion of him later on show what was special wasn't their faith. It was Jesus' message, a message he'd been proclaiming in the area for a while before he called them. "The kingdom of God has drawn near." If that message is true, if Jesus is right about that, that's a message worth leaving everything for. Why wouldn't you want to be in on the ground floor of what would happen next?
And what was already beginning to happen next was remarkable. Jesus was on a traveling mission, making stops in synagogues to teach on Sabbath days (where they'd have him) and to preach (mostly outdoors!) this same message: "Repent! God's kingdom has drawn near." And whether he was teaching or preaching (just in terms of time, it was more of the latter, since Sabbath falls but one day a week), he was constantly healing people of "every disease and every weakening affliction."
If we are "the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood" as we pray in the Great Thanksgiving, and if Christ is the light of the world as we confess in the reading of Scripture and in song, where does our redeeming light shine?
In all of our larger cities and in some of our more rural places in the United States, there are identifiable places where "one doesn't go" and yet where many people live. You can identify them by the state of the buildings, roads and sidewalks (if there are any sidewalks), by the boarded-up buildings, by what the billboards advertise and what the remaining businesses do: Pay-day loan shops, rent to own, maybe a convenience store but no real grocery store and no fresh produce in walking or near driving distance.
These places are the result of years of oppression -- some by "outside forces" and some by "us." We are called to witness to the outside forces, but we are equally called, as light of the world, to dismantle the ways "we" participate by action and inaction in keeping these places under oppression.
No doubt, there are people in your congregation or community who are already doing this very thing in small ways and bigger ways. Sometimes their voices are considered nave or silly -- why invest in the people and places that have no future but misery? Why? Because this is where God's light shines. These are the very kinds of places Jesus declared the kingdom of God drawn near. Some of the people already living there will tell you that, if you stop to listen. They're not happy about the misery of their place. But they're happy in the hope they have in God. Hope -- that joined with the witness and work of Christ's body, your worshiping community, will show that indeed God's light does shine there, and that God is breaking the rod of more oppressors than we ever knew were oppressing us.
Last week, I noted that you might offer some before and after pictures, artifacts and sounds of people and places in your community or around the world that used to be glorious but became dilapidated over the years. This week, consider using pictures, sounds, and artifacts of those places "no one goes now" and the stories of those who call those places home. The point here is not to pity these people, but to join their hope and God's promise to shine the light, even and especially there and among them.
There's another important atmospheric here as well -- the Sea of Galilee. Most of Jesus' public ministry was offered along its shores and among the people who lived near it. Consider how sights, sounds and smells of the sea, or whatever waters you regularly encounter, might be incorporated in worship today. Here's a reflection to help get you started.
Today is a day to hear the waters flowing:
The waters of the sea of Galilee full of fish,
a reminder of the places around you
full of people to be caught up
in the love of God,
not with hooks, one by one,
but with nets, en masse,
as those first fisher-disciples would have known.
Today is a day to hear the waters flowing:
The waters that move through the pipes,
Some fresh, some polluted,
Some falling from the sky, some rising from the earth,
Waters bringing life and hope,
Waters bearing waste and loss,
Waters cleansing and being cleansed.
Today is a day to hear the waters flowing:
The waters of baptism with which God birthed you,
Birthed us all anew in Jesus Christ,
And bids us come, and drink,
To slake our thirst,
And bids us go and share,
That thirst may be fulfilled for all.
Today is a day for hearing Christ's call,
like those fishermen heard Jesus calling long ago
to hear and to decide:
are we ready to follow Jesus,
ready to declare his truth,
rejoice in his love,
and reveal his glory in the world?
Today, may all who gather hear God's waters flowing, and be saved!
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Atmospherics: I Corinthians
Many, if not most, approaches to addressing problems begin with identifying the problem and focusing on fixing what is broken. Paul has not used that approach in I Corinthians, despite (as it becomes clear throughout the Corinthian correspondence) the fact that the problems there are serious, indeed. Instead, as we saw last week, he begins by identifying the sources of giftedness and strength the community possesses, thanks to the gracious and abundant provision of God.
And then, and only then, does he get the to core challenges this community is facing. "Now, I appeal to you," he says. You have these gifts, these sources of strength. Now use them to God's glory, and trust in the strength already given you to address these vexing and serious problems that threaten your witness, your mission, and even your continued existence as a community in Jesus Christ.
Paul is not shy about naming the core issue they are facing, right off the bat: Division. They have divvied themselves up into little factions based on which leaders they wanted to align themselves with.
You don't know any Christian communities where that still happens, do you?
Maybe this is not the core challenge to your witness and mission as body of Christ in your setting. There may be other things. Paul is not at all saying this is the only or the worst possible challenge a Christian community can face. Nor is he saying this was the only problem in Corinth. (You will see many more in the following weeks!) Rather, he is identifying it as the core issue that Corinth faced when he was writing to them. Whatever else they may have to deal with, first of all, they have to remember that they are, by God's grace and baptism in water and Spirit, made one body in Jesus Christ, not a grouping of political factions who happen to worship and perhaps engage in some forms of missional activity together.
Now, what makes for unity? Is it the entire absence of all conflict? Hardly! Conflict is a sign of health. We cannot grow and we cannot engage in God's mission without both encountering and -- to some degree -- stimulating conflict. What makes for unity isn't the absence of conflict. It is the presence of the love and power of the Spirit revealed in the message of the cross, the very power of God (I Corinthians 1:18).
Last week, you may have included in your worship space signs of the strengths and giftedness present in your congregation and community. If this is the stream you are following, leave those signs in place! This week, add to them signs or symbols of the core challenge or challenges you are facing as a congregation.
Now, a word to the wise here. Don't decide what that core challenge is yourself (pastor!) or as a worship planning team! Decide it for yourselves and you will likely be inviting conflict that is not necessary! Instead, start listening widely. Don't prime or pre-load the questions! Listen for ways people naturally describe the core challenge or challenges you seem to be facing. Take a few weeks to do this. As you listen, feed back to folks what you think you're hearing and let them help you name it accurately. Maybe even consider inviting some of them to help you make the signs or images you will add today. Use this text as an occasion to admit that the challenge you name is real, as well as to confess that the power of God revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ is more than able to help you move from fear and anxiety to confidence and trust in God and one another -- even where you may express sharp disagreements with one another.
You are a spiritual community. You are empowered by the Spirit. You are no less than the body of Christ who is not divided and will not be divided by us except to make us one in him around His table.
If you celebrate Holy Communion today, do so not simply remembering what Christ has done in the past, but the power he gives us now to keep on being his body, united in him, blessed by the Spirit and addressing your actual challenges in community and mission with God.
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Embodying the Word: "Collecting" for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
True Light that has come into the world, shedding your radiance upon all you have made, and especially upon the poorest and most oppressed, grant us, your children, courage to walk into every darkened corner where the world fears to tread that we may see your glory in the face of the least of these and bear witness to them and to the world of your saving love; through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, with whom we give all glory to you, now and ever. Amen.
Blessed, dear Uniting Love, who through your church has drawn many blessed stories and abundant gifts into the story of your redeeming grace, grant that we, Christ's body gathering in this place, may have the courage and humility to name what besets us, and the confidence to trust in your power to help us overcome it for the sake of your kingdom and our witness; through Jesus Christ whose cross saves us all with the Spirit who spurs us on, we offer our lives, our hopes and our praise to you, now and ever. Amen.
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- BOW 306 (Isaiah, 1 Corinthians)
- BOW 456 (Isaiah, Matthew)
- BOW 459 (Isaiah, Psalm, 1 Corinthians, Matthew)
- BOW 309 (Matthew)
Prayer of Confession and Pardon
The invitation (UMH 7) should precede the confession and words of pardon should follow it.
- BOW 476 (Isaiah, Matthew)
- BOW 488 (1 Corinthians)
- BOW 492 (1 Corinthians)
- Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
UMH 205, "Canticle of Light and Darkness" (Isaiah)
Litany of What We Can Agree To Do (1 Corinthians)
This could be used following the epistle reading, as response to the sermon, or at the rear of the church as the closing action before the sending forth:
On the boundary of assembly and dispersion we,
Christ's priestly people,
face our powerlessness, our divisions, and our vocation.
We can't do everything, but we can love.
We can't speak the final word, but we can love.
We don't quite feel like we belong, but we can love.
When better days are a faint memory, still we can love.
When we don't have the answers, still we can love.
When we can't agree about gay and straight, still we can love.
When we feel awkward and restless, still we can love.
We're frustrated with the constraints of youth and aging, but we can love now.
We let petty irritations trip us up, but we can love.
We choke on our faith songs, but we can love.
We limp in our worship and service, but we can love.
We are embarrassed at how messy our lives are, but we can love.
Here a solo voice initiates the singing of "Ubi Caritas" (TFWS 2179) and gradually the assembly joins in singing it repeatedly in the Taiz style.
Written by Daniel Benedict. Copyright 2001, 2004, 2011 Discipleship Ministries. Used with permission. Congregations may adapt the litany to fit their context.
Concerns and prayers
- BOW 312, (Isaiah, 1 Corinthians, Matthew)
- BOW 503, For the Church (1 Corinthians)
- BOW 505, For the Church (1 Corinthians)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden
The Great Thanksgiving
- UMH 13-14, adding appropriate insertions related to the readings and focus of the day
- BOW 78-79
Dismissal with Blessing (Benediction)
- BOW 560 (Psalm)
- UMH 224, stanza 3, "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice" (Matthew)
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