Planning - 20th Sunday After Pentecost
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Job 23:1-9, 16-17.
Job tells his "friends" he is earnestly seeking God, trusting that God will listen to his arguments that his suffering seems unjust. Despite his seeking, God has been absent or non-responsive.
Psalm response: Psalm 22:1-15 (UMH 752).
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Do not be quick to apply this to Jesus. This is an ancient lament of a people seeking God in the midst of suffering they cannot explain. That is why it is such a fitting response to the reading from Job. If singing the Psalm, use Response 2 with Tone 2 in D minor (see 736-737, UMH), or use the response to "Canticle of Redemption"" (Psalm 130) on UMH 516, with G-Bflat-F-G, G-F-Eflat-D.
The word of God is not words in a book, but a living, energetic, and powerful force that exposes everything in our "interior" lives to God's omniscient judgment. That's why having a great high priest who has passed through the heavens and who has experienced what we have is vital for us. Jesus thus enables us to stand before God boldly, even as we seek mercy.
An encounter between Jesus and a fairly wealthy man who has been faithful to the core principles of Torah toward other people seeks the secret of eternal life. Jesus tells him he need do only one more thing sell all he has, distribute the proceeds to the poor, and come follow him. He goes away disturbed by what he hears, and his disciples are left wondering how anyone can be saved if a person so clearly "blessed" won't be.
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Today is the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost on the Christian Calendar.
Today is the Second Sunday in this years's Season of Saints. Each week, there is a suggested global Christian Saint and a United Methodist heritage saint, and we invite you to think of one living and one past saint from your congregation or community as well to lift up in worship or in stories you share throughout the coming week.
This week's global Christian Saint is Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (sometimes known, though in very different form, as Santa Claus). This week's United Methodist heritage saint is Samuel Checote, Methodist Episcopal Church South preacher and Chief of the Creek Nation (1867-1875).
Basic calendars of saints are available both 2012 and 2011 Worship Planning Helps are already posted with suggestions for the 2011 resources. More detailed helps for 2012 are coming soon. The October 2012 editions of Worship Planning Helps will contain more detailed suggestions for celebrating with this year's calendar of saints.
Children's Sabbath is also observed today. Keep in mind that Children's Sabbath is designed primarily as a day for the congregation to become more aware and committed to addressing the particular needs of children worldwide, rather than a day to showcase children in worship or have worship designed by children. Resources for keeping this day are also available from the sponsor of this observance, The Children's Defense Fund. You may note that United Methodists celebrate the Children's Sabbath one week earlier than the suggested dates from CDF. We do this so as not to interfere with our scheduled observance of Laity Sunday, which is always the third Sunday of October.
Hispanic Heritage Month (US) continues through October 15.
Laity Sunday is October 21. October 31 is Reformation Day. Though this day appears on the United Methodist program calendar, it does not take precedence of a Sunday or of All Saints Day. However, given our full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, you may wish to find ways to partner with a local ELCA congregation for their celebration of this day.
All Saints Sunday is November 4.
As you begin your planning for Advent and Christmastide, consider how you will enable the unique emphases of both seasons to be fully expressed. The focus of Advent is on the second coming of Christ, new creation, and the culmination of all things in him. The focus of Christmastide is far less about the circumstances of the birth of Jesus and more about the significance and challenges of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. See "Restoring Advent and Christmas 2012/2013" for three proposals for helping both seasons have the impact for which they were originally designed.
Which stream of readings are you focusing on during these weeks? Job and the problem of suffering? Hebrews and the high priesthood of Jesus? Or Mark and the events leading to Jesus' arrest and execution? However you have chosen to focus, consider how the arrangement of the worship space, the presence of art, the play of light and shadow, and soundscape might best support your ongoing theme.
Theodicy in Drama: Job
Job speaks boldly to God and his friends from the ash heap. In the intervening chapters, three of Job's friends have tried to convince him that he must have done something to deserve what has happened to him because God is just. For them, that means that God blesses the righteous and brings suffering and punishment to the wicked.
Job will have none of that. His words ring with questions still being asked today. Where is God? Where can one go to speak to God and know that God is giving a fair hearing?
Job is at the edge of atheism. His questions spring from a genuine search that has so far come up empty. And in the last two verses we read today, he says he is weary, and he blames God for the weariness. What he wants most of all is to be in such thick darkness that even God could not find him and continue to inflict such pain on him.
The experience of intense suffering draws some people into a sense of deeper trust and peace in God. But that is not everyone's reaction, and here it is not Job's. Still, he has not given up and walked away from God. Instead, he is driven by a desire to meet God before a fair judge and plead his case. He rages against his suffering and against the absence of any meaningful response he can perceive so far. Some might say, he's "rarin' for a fight" with God.
These are not comfortable words or typical expressions of feeling in many congregations. Often, it seems, we want to bring such harsh expressions to a quick "resolution," if not avoid them altogether. We might be tempted to follow this reading with a hymn or song that says things may be bad now but everything is going to be all right.
That is why Psalm 22, and just the first half of it, was chosen as the response to this reading. Like Job, the psalmist's questions are real, and the psalmist's agony is palpable. The part we pray today, like this reading from Job, ends before the resolution, leaving the questions and accusations out there, hanging. "Why did you forsake me?" (verse 1). "My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You lay me in the dust of death" (verse 15); we are asked to pray with this Psalmist.
Whatever else you do in worship today, plan to let your congregation pray these words. Perhaps the best "response" after both readings, Job 23 and Psalm 22, is extended silence.
If you are focusing on Job in these weeks, be sure your sermon or message or dialog with the congregation about Job's questions takes those questions seriously. At this point in Job, there are no answers to the questions. There is only the acknowledgment that these are the honest questions and feelings he has about what is happening to him. Do not try to "protect" your congregation from these questions and these feelings. The Bible doesn't. Instead, consider today an opportunity for folks to acknowledge similar questions and feelings they may have, or may have had. Offer them before God and one another. And entrust the outcomes to God.
Job and A Season of Saints
Like Job, Nicolas lost his family. Both of his parents died in an epidemic in his native town of Patara. We have no record of Nicolas's personal feelings or possible struggles about this loss. But we do have a record about what he did as he came into his Christian parents' sizable inheritance: whether at the direction of his uncle, the Bishop of Patara, who raised him, or not, he began to give his wealth away to any he encountered who were in need. It was this devotion to the needy, as well as his faithfulness to the church, that led his uncle to ordain him a priest in Patara, and shortly thereafter, the church in Myra, a shipping town east of Patara, to ordain him as their bishop.
It is very likely he was among those tortured, imprisoned, and exiled during the persecutions of Diocletian (ca. 303-312 in Asia Minor under the administrations of Galerius and Maximinus). But he survived this period to appear at the Council of Nicea (arguing on the side of the Athanasians against the Arians) and to continue his episcopate until his death around 343 AD in his early to mid-seventies.
For Job, there was no one to answer the question, "Where is God? Why is this happening to me?" For Nicholas, there was -- his uncle and the church. Their "answers" weren't delivered as long speeches condemning Nicolas's questions. From what we can see, their answers were simply about love. They were there for him. And so he was there for others, especially children, facing suffering or loss in their lives.
During his episcopate, stories of his generosity and even heroism, especially toward children in poverty, abounded. So Nicholas makes a great tie-in for Children's Sabbath as well, IF you tell the stories we have about the actual man, and not the flying toy-maker legends of a much later era!
Samuel Checote's story is also one of suffering and loss. His family and his whole people were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma, where his parents died not long after they arrived. It was Methodist schools that essentially raised him, and their influence in his life led him to become a pastor in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, with a particular outreach among his own "Lower Creek" people. He remained enrolled and served as a Methodist pastor except during the Civil War (where he served in the Confederate Army, with many of his "Lower Creek" brothers) and during his political career that followed.
After the war, it became clear that the two major factions of the Creek people ("Lower" and "Upper," or "Macintosh" and "Loyalist") needed to unite and function as one nation. When it was time to elect a chief to unite the two nations, Samuel Checote was the chosen leader. He served two terms (1867-75), lost a third bid, and was elected chief again in 1879 for a final third term. During this time, he continued to work for the unity and upbuilding of the people, especially through improvements in education, often against stiff and even violent opposition in his first and third terms. Losing the election in 1883, he served instead as official delegate from the Creek Nation to Washington DC until his death in 1884.
The tremendous challenge that Samuel Checote faced in his life, and faced with dignity and courage, was to bridge the cultures and customs of what were fundamentally the four worlds of his own Lower Creek people, the Upper Creek people, Methodist Christians, and the United States government to bring a greater possibility of harmony and hope to all involved. In the midst of his personal and political losses, he proved himself an Indian Christian statesman and leader, honoring his people, Christ, and the nations among whom he served and led.
A Priestly Covenant: Hebrews
The reading from Hebrews today is one source of the ancient English Christian prayer for purity that has opened worship in countless English-speaking congregations for roughly a thousand years, and that appears in a similar role in Word and Table I (UMH 6):
unto you all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hid;
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord.
If you are focusing on Hebrews through these weeks, today's reading would provide a good occasion to begin worship this way as well.
If you do, remember this prayer is not a confession of sin. It is an act of preparation to help the congregation praise God in song (see UMH 6). The confession of sin in most orders of worship developed in response to the recovery of early Christian examples, and particularly since Vatican II (including our own ritual!) appears after the sermon, as part of the response to the Word and in preparation for Holy Communion.
In the ancient English prayer at the beginning of worship, we ask the Spirit to begin the work of opening us to hear God's word. Then we praise God and hear God's word read and preached. Having heard, we are indeed, as Hebrews tell us, "naked and laid bare" before God. Then we are ready to "make an account" by confessing our sin and receiving God's pardon (Hebrews 4:13).
In the course of all that, we need to remember as well that when Hebrews refers to "the word of God" it is not referring to the Bible per se, and certainly not to the New Testament. (It hadn't even been collated as such yet!) It is, rather, referring, as Scripture itself consistently does, primarily to an event: God speaking in the midst of God's people. This is why our doctrinal standards do not say the Bible is the word of God, but rather, in the language of the Confession of Faith, "the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the word of God" (2008 Book of Discipline, p. 67). The Bible is an authoritative source for us for how God speaks and contains many examples of God speaking among God's people. But it is still the act, here and now, of God speaking in the midst of the gathered assembly through Scripture, sermon, prayer, song, and perhaps prophecy, which Hebrews, with the majority of Scripture, calls "the word of God."
This is why reading the Bible aloud is so vitally important in Christian worship. The Scriptures read in the congregation are one vehicle for hearing God speak. This is why it matters that the reading (or interpreting) be done well, so all can hear (or see) and all can understand the importance of what is being said (or signed). This is why we suggest a period of silence for reflection after each reading, and a response in some form (Psalm for Old Testament, perhaps a hymn or anthem for Epistle, alleluias or responsive song or sermon after the gospel) that picks up on key themes of the reading or readings just heard. This is why the church developed some sense of ceremony around the reading of Scripture, because the reading aloud of Scripture merits that level of group attentiveness.
This is also why "the preaching moment," in whatever form it takes, is so vitally important, and why it takes up the time it does in worship. It is a time to make whatever connections the congregation may have made with the word read in their midst more complete, to "make the way plain," as it were, for the Spirit to do its work of piercing our best defenses against the word of God, and letting that word be planted, grow, and yield its harvest within us. Because of the word of God read and preached, we can confess our faith. Because of the word of God read and preached, reminding us that in Jesus we have a great high priest, we can pray as we ought, approaching the throne of grace boldly. Because of the word of God read and preached, we can confess our sin to God, receive God's pardon, and seek peace with one another. Because of the word of God read and preached, we can offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving, a holy and living sacrifice, around the Table of the Lord and receive his body and blood to live renewed as his body in the world.
So consider in your worship planning team today how the design of your worship helps the word of God be fully heard and do its fullest possible work. And then design worship in ways today that better allow the word sung, read, proclaimed, confessed, prayed and celebrated around the Font and the Table to do just that not just for today, but going forward.
Maybe, in addition to opening worship with the Collect for Purity today, conclude the prayers of the people, leading into Holy Communion, with a powerful litany, something along the lines of this:
Pastor: For the word of God is alive today,
People: God's word is alive!
Pastor: The word of God is active today!
People: God's word is active!
Pastor: Sharper than any sword, it pierces everything, and lays everything about us bare before God.
People: Holy God, we are an open book to you!
Pastor: You see everything we say, or think, even what we didn't know we thought!
People: Lord, have mercy.
Pastor: But we have a high priest, come down from the heavenlies, made just like us, tested just like us, yet without sin.
People: Jesus, Son of God!
Pastor: So when God's word lays us bare, we can confess without fear
People: No fear!
Pastor: Without any wavering.
People: No wavering.
Pastor: And we will dare to come boldly before God's throne People: Boldly!
Pastor: With absolute confidence
People: Confidently! Pastor: That we will find grace
People: We will find grace
Pastor: We will find grace
People: We will find grace
Pastor: We know we will find grace
People: Oh yes we will!
Pastor: In our every time of need.
People: Praise you Jesus! Praise you God! Halleluyah! Halleluyah! Amen!
And then it's time to confess, receive God's pardon, share God's peace, and celebrate around the Lord's Table.
Hebrews and A Season of Saints
There are few if any tie-ins between today's reading from Hebrews and the stories of Nicholas of Myra and Samuel Checote. Remember, you are invited not merely to use the suggested saints from the calendar, but to identify some of your own each week. So perhaps there are saints from your congregation's history or your congregation or community's present who are shining examples of what happens when the Word of God moves powerfully in our lives.
Mark: Discipleship Everywhere
A while back, while flipping channels, I came across a television preacher using the end of today's reading from Mark to justify his "prosperity wisdom" message. Certainly, one could take verses 29-30 out of the entire context of this section of Mark's gospel and do that fairly easily. If all you hear is "No one who has lost house or brothers or sisters or mothers or children or fields for me and the gospel will not receive back a hundred-fold, now in this life, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields," then, the "prosperity wisdom" teaching seems validated by Jesus himself.
But the very next words (conveniently left out by the "man of God" onscreen) are "with persecutions." (Remember the persecutions Nicholas endured?) And of course, Jesus is saying all of this after just having said that the rich have next to no chance of entering God's reign.
Jesus meant all of it. Yes, we gain back much in this life. But this isn't "sow your $1000 seed of faith into this ministry and God will give you back $100,000." No. Jesus wasn't talking about personal wealth multiplying in ways not even Bernie Madoff could have claimed to be able to do. He was talking about the shared wealth of the Christian community. Keep following me now, keep making disciples, and all of you will become part of more wealth than you can imagine, because all of you will be gladly sharing it with all. (Tie in with Nicholas of Myra!) Luke records one later instance of the fulfillment of these words in Acts 2:43-47.
The sharing of resources with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46) is, indeed, as Jesus points out earlier in this week's text, nearly impossible for the wealthy to do. Most of the time they just won't do it. (Nicholas was an exception!) And they'll be "shocked, shocked I tell you," just like the rich young man in today's reading (Mark 10:22), if you asked them to do so. After all, "I've worked for what I have, and I've earned the right to keep it or do whatever I chose to do with it. You nor anyone else has the right to tell me what to do with my money!"
If Jesus is Lord, he does.
And he is. So he does.
And then he stuns his disciples, too, by making it clear that rich folk have little chance of entering God's kingdom. Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, he says. (And no, that isn't talking about a short gate in the temple; that's an old commentator's "urban legend.") When his stunned disciples ask "Then who can be saved?" he puts it even more bluntly. "For humans, impossible."
"But not for God," he continues. "For God, everything's possible."
We've seen this before in Mark's gospel. In the parable Jesus tells, seed scattered creates a miraculous harvest in good soil; and in the stories that follow it, the dead are raised, the barren can conceive, storms are stilled and demoniacs are set free. People can't do these things. God can, and God does.
The point? From one angle, that wealth is every bit the impediment to fullness of life in God's kingdom as illness, deadly storms, death, and demon possession/mental illness are to fullness of life on earth. Wealth can be just that dangerous. It can derange us that much. But God can deliver us even from its incredible power over us so that it no longer controls us and (like Nicholas!) gladly share it, and even go out of our way to look for new ways to share it, however much or little we have, with all who can use it.
It was that very thing Jesus offered the rich man that day -- God's salvation from the power of wealth. The wealth he had and the status and the culture that came with it may have kept him "law-abiding." After all, God blesses the righteous with wealth (the same deuteronomic canon the book of Job rips to shreds!). So if you're wealthy, you must at least appear righteous. Trouble was, all of that also made it nearly impossible for him to follow Jesus. Let it all go, Jesus says. Then you can follow me. Then you'll experience eternal life.
A word that cuts to the bone, "piercing to divide soul from spirit, joints from marrow," this is.
And he is our high priest who knows our lot and experiences our temptations, yet without sin -- so we can approach boldly, asking exactly for the grace we need to be set free from the power of wealth, like Nicholas, and unlike the rich young man in this story.
We won't set ourselves free. Won't happen. Impossible. But God can.
And probably God has for at least someone in your congregation or wider community. Don't leave your congregation hanging with a demand they know they can't meet. Be sure to have time for stories and testimonies from people who have seen what God does when they do walk away from hanging on to their wealth, and instead try to find every way they can to bless others with everything they have.
Then celebrate the one who gave his all for us around the Table, and, fed by him, go forth to give yourselves away for others.
And so begin to live as saints.
- Greeting: UMBOW, 451 (Hebrews)
- Litany: UMBOW, 520, "For Peace" (Job, Psalm)
- Song of Response: UMBOW, 195, "O Lord, Deliver Us" (Job, Psalm)
- Prayer of Confession and Words of Assurance: UMBOW, 477 (Hebrews)
- Prayer of Confession: UMBOW, 485 (Mark)
- Prayer: UMBOW, 547, "For a Victim or Survivor of Crime or Oppression" (Job)
- Poem: United Methodist Hymnal, 595, "Whether the Word Be Preached or Read" (Job, Hebrews)
- Prayer: United Methodist Hymnal, 597, "For the Spirit of Truth" (Hebrews)
- Prayer: United Methodist Hymnal, 403, "For True Life" (Mark)
- The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal
- Prayer of Thanksgiving: UMBOW, 550 (Psalm, Hebrews, Mark)
- Prayer of Thanksgiving: UMBOW, 557 (Job)
- Great Thanksgiving: UMBOW, 70-71
Opening Words Sentence (Job)
O LORD, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
Psalm 22: 19-21, NRSV
Call to Worship (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Since, then, we have a great high priest
who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are,
yet without sin.
Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,
so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.