Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost; Laity Sunday
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Job 38:1-7 (34-41).
A voice from the whirlwind (tornado) answers Job and the friends with a series of questions about their ability either to create or provide for the universe, the earth, and its inhabitants.
Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c (UMH 826).
A hymn praising God's work in creation. Since these are separated verses, you might print them in the bulletin or project them on the screen; or you might have a solo voice sing the Psalm text and have the congregation sing the response, "Praise to the Lord," after verse 9 and after 35c. On the latter, use Tone 5 in E minor, or following the contours of the response, use G-D-B-G; F#-E-F#-G.
Jesus exercised his high priesthood, established directly by God, as was Melchizedek's, through supplications, prayers, sufferings, and obedience.
The boldest misconstrual yet of leadership and position in the kingdom of God by disciples of Jesus. Leadership is service, not honor; and position is gained through suffering (cup, baptism, ransom) and God's initiative, not self-promotion or favoritism.
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Today is the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost on the Christian Calendar.
Today is the Third Sunday in this years's Season of Saints. Each week, we suggest a 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.
Since this is also Laity Sunday, and this year's theme is "Disciples Transforming the World through Service and Witness," this week's global and United Methodist heritage saints are laypersons who exemplify this theme. The global Christian saint is Monnica of Africa, born in Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) was the mother of Augustine, who would become bishop of Hippo (in present day Algeria) and a noted theologian in the church. In his Confessions, Augustine attributed his conversion in part to his mother's persistent witness and prayers for him. This week's United Methodist heritage saint is Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, teacher, activist, and journalist who was a tireless champion for the rights of African Americans and women in Memphis and Chicago.
Basic calendars of saints are available both 2012 and 2011 Worship Planning Helps are still posted and include suggestions for the 2011 calendar. The October 2012 editions of Worship Planning Helps contain more detailed suggestions for celebrating with this year's calendar of saints.
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. A copy of the study guide exploring this relationship, "Confessing Our Faith Together," is available.
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.
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Overall: Remember that throughout Ordinary Time, the three major readings are not chosen for their connections to each other. Hebrews and Mark today do have one thematic link-- servant leadership. The link is thin, however, limited ultimately to just a few words in Hebrews. Stay the course with the series you have been pursuing, whether concluding with Job and wisdom literature today, or continuing in greater depth with Hebrews or Mark.
Theodicy in Drama: Job
This week's reading from Job brings us the beginning of God's reply to the questions and challenges Job has raised throughout the book.
How you read this text aloud, or how you think you hear it -- the quality of the voice of the speaker and the motives you ascribe to the speaker -- will have a lot to do with how you and your worshiping community ends up interpreting God's reply.
Often, this speech from God is "performed" as a kind of majestic rant. God is fed up with all the questions and challenges, and now God is going to let Job have it. God is superior, and God is going to make sure Job knows it. Job and anyone else "uppity" enough to challenge God as Job has done must be put in his place.
Is that the intended effect, though? Is God's speech here best summarized as "I am God. You are not. Deal with it!"?
God's opening words in this extended speech, and then the content of the speech itself, may point in a somewhat different direction. "Who darkens counsel?" God asks, (verse 2). The word translated "counsel" in Hebrew is "ey-tsah." There are two primary contexts in which this word appears in ancient Hebrew. One relates to the advice peers share (their counsel) when they are trying to help each other make a good decision. The other relates to the courtroom, where a judge provides the final word ("counsel") about what happened and what is to be done.
It is the latter that seems to apply here. Job has been asking all throughout the drama for the opportunity to meet God in court, for God to hear his complaint, and for God to respond to it. The rhetoric of God's first response seems to indicate that that is exactly what God is doing in the chapters to follow. God has appeared. God is judge. And God will set the record straight.
What may seem like an endless barrage of almost taunting interrogations that follow in the next four chapters serves a different purpose. There may indeed be a bit of "rant" here, but this isn't about God letting off steam. The God revealed here has no need to do so! Instead, rather than taunts, God's questions are revelations. The questions God poses open up the hearers to the wonders of the earth and the universe (chapters 38-39) and to the extent of God's power in human and heavenly affairs (chapters 40-41). The effect is not to bully Job into submission but to enlighten his "darkened counsel," not to subdue Job but to blow his mind -- and, consequently, ours. It is not to assert superiority, but rather to help Job know God and God's work more than he (or we) could have done before. The desired response is not cowering in terror or humiliation, but standing in awe.
So while this text may seem to cry out for a "booming voice from the thunderclouds" kind of soundscape ( la "The Great and Terrible Oz"), perhaps there is a better way, a way more likely to promote awe than humiliation. Discuss in your worship planning team what visuals and soundscapes with the reading of this text might help support this kind of reading. Would it be the turbulent edge of the storm, or its still center? Or perhaps a move from turbulent edge to still center? And what kind of voice or voices (old, young, female, male, of an accent other than the dominant one in your area, perhaps?) can best embody God's voice doing what God does here so your congregation can experience God's voice in the way the writer of Job intended?
Job and "A Season of Saints"
People who read today's text merely as a rant to get Job to shut up and sit down may be misreading the witness of the rest of the Old Testament, not to mention the New. It never was those who "sat down and shut up" who seemed best to exemplify God's work and will for the world. Consider Moses, who stood up to Pharoah until Pharoah, after a final "push" from God, set the people free. Consider David, who stood up to Goliath, or the prophets who stood up to king after king and even some of the religious leaders of their day to declare God's call for true worship and true justice. Consider Jesus, storming the strongholds of Galilee and Jerusalem with the gospel of God's coming kingdom, and sending his apostles to call and form disciples who would do the same through all the nations, wherever they would go or live. And the list goes on.
On this Laity Sunday, we remember that the principle ministers of the gospel have always been the laity, and that it is primarily the laity who are called to "stand up." After all, in our baptismal vows, vows which help establish us all as "laity" -- the people of God in Jesus Christ -- we all vow to "stand up," accepting the freedom and power Christ gives us to "resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves."
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was just such a laywoman, accepting the freedom and power of Christ to stand up to evil, injustice and oppression wherever she was, however she could. Her earliest social witness reminds those of us in the twentieth century of the witness of Rosa Parks. Like Rosa Parks, Ida Bell Wells (she would marry later) made a witness on public transit (a train in her case) by refusing to move to a segregated car (1884). Though she was eventually forced off the train and lost the lawsuits she filed against the train company for sustaining segregation at a time when that was explicitly forbidden to public transit providers by U.S. law, the incident opened the door for her to begin a career in journalism, exposing and continuing to speak against such injustices to an ever wider audience over time.
One can almost imagine Ida Bell Wells-Barnett addressing owners of white companies, "Where were you when God created us all? Who are you to treat any of God's people any differently than you treat those you think are more like you?"
Perhaps in a service linking Job, baptismal vows for all the laity (including clergy!), and Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, there would be few hymns of sending more appropriate than "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (UMH 519).
A Priestly Covenant: Hebrews
Hebrews makes a clear distinction between the form of priesthood exercised by Aaronic priests and that exercised by Jesus and his antitype, Melchizedek. Jesus could not have been an Aaronic priest because he had the wrong bloodline. He was not a descendent of Aaron. Thus the only way he could exercise priesthood before God would be for God to appoint him directly to this role, just as God had appointed Mechizedek. Hebrews claims this is exactly what happened (5:6, 10).
And there's an important distinction in the kind of offering and ritual these two different ancient orders of priest led.
The Aaronic priests exercised their priesthood by offering ritual sacrifices of grain, oil, wine, and various animals. The fulfillment of the Aaronic sacrifices happened not at the killing or the pouring out of the blood, but rather when the smoke of the sacrifice rose to heaven from the altar (a large, outdoor brazier).
By rather stark contrast, Melchizedek's "sacrifice" was bread and wine with a prayer of blessing to God as deliverer and blessing for Abram (see Genesis 14:17-20). Hebrews parallels these sacrifices with Jesus' own sacrifice throughout his life and in his last hours: "prayers and supplications with strong cries and tears to the one who could save him from death" (5:7).
Put these together -- bread, wine, blessing to God, blessing for the people, fervent intercessions -- and you have a picture of early Christian practices of the Eucharist with Jesus as the great high priest. Christ is the great high priest after the order of Mechizedek, and we are his body -- all of us who are baptized into him. This is why we offer the gifts Melchizedek offered, bread, wine and blessing, just as Jesus also offered these when he told us, "Do this in remembrance of me."
Every time Christians celebrate Holy Communion, as Paul reminds, we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. The proclamation of the death of Jesus is not simply repeating the words "Christ has died." It is also the church, as his body, entering into the sacrifice of Jesus once offered. This is not re-presenting Jesus to the Father, as if Jesus has to be sacrificed again and again. It is rather embodying our own priesthood before God in Christ. This is why we pray in the Great Thanksgiving, "And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ's offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith" (UMH p. 10).
You might illustrate this text using a split screen. If you wish to provide images to illustrate the first verses of the text, be sure to focus on the altar at its full and proper use with smoke rising to the sky, not the slaying of animals. Place this image perhaps on the left side of the screen (left, since in English we read from left to right; if the culture of your congregation reads from right to left, consider reversing this).
On the other side of the screen, show images that reflect the text's description of the high priestly work of Jesus not material sacrifices smoking on an altar, but prayer, supplications, loud cries, tears, suffering, and willing obedience to the way of God's kingdom. Conclude, perhaps, with an image of a Melchizedek, the "pagan" high priest to El Elyon, or more simply, the gifts he offered bread and wine (see Genesis 14:17-20).
But Hebrews today reminds us Jesus in his priesthood offered more than bread, wine, and blessing. He also offered prayers, "fervent supplications with loud cries and tears," and obedience even in his sufferings (verses 7-8). While bread and wine and blessings are part of how we enact our priesthood in him when we worship, earnest intercessory prayer, suffering and obedience are portrayed here as features of his daily life, and are intended to be features of ours.
So how are fervent intercession, obedience and suffering part of the daily life of the people in your worshiping community? What steps can you take in worship today, and follow up with in the coming weeks in other ways, to help worshipers take up their priesthood in these ways, whether they are lay or clergy?
Hebrews and A Season of Saints
Both of the saints selected for today, though in different ways, are known for their lives of faithful "lay" priesthood in Jesus' name. We have explored how Ida Bell Wells-Barnett "learned obedience through what she suffered" in the comments above. The primary story we know of Monnica is the story of her prayer life. Indeed, it was her persistence in "earnest supplication with tears" for which she is best known. Augustine tells us she prayed for him every day for seventeen years prior to his conversion, both privately and as part of the intercessions at Holy Communion, which she attended daily. So famous were her tears in intercession, that centuries later one of the rumors that surrounded the reasons for the naming of the city, Santa Monica, was that the priest at the time of its founding had seen a natural spring there, had called it "The Tears of Saint Monica," and the settlement then took its name from that spring. That story was an eighteeth-century "urban legend," but the fact that it was told at all says much about the ongoing importance of the story of Monnica's fervent prayer life across the centuries, and in this case, even across two continents (Africa to Europe to the West Coast of North America).
Who is known for a life of fervent intercessory prayer where you are? Here I speak not simply of individuals, but also of congregations or prayer groups. How might a word from one of these folks or groups today help some in your congregation take some positive steps toward incorporating fervent prayer as a part of their and your congregation's typical practice of "lay priesthood"?
Mark: Discipleship Everywhere
Discipleship everywhere means service everywhere, not titles, not honorifics, not positions, and not self-aggrandizing power.
That the disciples just don't get it about their relationship with Jesus or his teaching couldn't be much clearer than in this week's reading from Mark. James and John are disciples, and Jesus is their master. Disciples don't do what these two did. Disciples learn to live like their master. They do not make demands of their master. Yet that is exactly what we see them doing here. "We want you to do for us whatever we ask you" (verse 35). Jesus does not agree to their impertinent request, but he does let them proceed to spell it out. "Give us the seats at your immediate right and left in your glory" (verse 37). They don't even say, "Please." Just, "We want it. Give it to us."
In some sectors of today's leadership culture, the question Jesus asks next would be to test whether James and John are really "hungry" for what they're asking. "You don't know what you're asking. Can you drink the cup I will drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?"
But watch Jesus' language here. He is not trying to see if they're hungry. And he's not asking them if they can lead. He is asking them if they can follow.
"Yes, we can," they say.
They still don't know what they're saying.
"You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism with which I have been baptized. But to sit at my right and left is not mine to give."
We know what James and John did not know at this point in the story. The cup Jesus referred to was not the cup of victory and glory, but of suffering. The baptism Jesus referred to was not a seal of righteousness or a badge of honor, but a drowning death on the cross. You will experience those things, Jesus tells them. But I can't give you what you're asking for.
There are intentional analogs here as well to the Christian rites of baptism and Eucharist. Baptism points us to the reality that following Jesus means death to sin, renunciation of evil, and embrace of our own death when required; we're all in or we're not. It's not about God's "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." At the Eucharist, we remember Christ's suffering and pray, "that we may be for the world Christ's body redeemed by his blood." That means, at least, that we will enter the world's sufferings as he did, and both take them on and take them upon us. Victory is God's gift of resurrection when we have died, not the outcome of our own demand to be named victors.
When the others hear of James and John's question, they show their own ignorance of the nature of leadership in God's reign. In pack animals, if a non-alpha tries to take on the alpha and loses, the rest of the pack usually piles on and demotes the loser even further. The alpha usually approves of this or at least does nothing to stop it. That's what we see the other disciples doing here to James and John.
So Jesus has more to teach all of them. This pack called his disciples isn't to play by wolf rules. God's reign establishes that the way to leadership is by serving others, even by being their slave, and this applies to the alpha of the pack, too! "The Son of humankind did not come to be attended to but to attend to [others] and to give himself as a ransom for many" (verse 45).
Two questions for you and your worship planning team:
- By whose rules does the leadership culture in your "pack" operate? The wolf-rules of this culture? Or the rule of Jesus?
- How does the culture of your "pack" show it values the cup and the font, both ritually (in the celebration of worship) and in its community life (in embracing suffering and death as part and parcel of attending to and offering ourselves for the life of others)?
These questions aren't aimed at identifying where your local congregation's "pack culture" has gone astray. Every congregation and Christian community has veered from the way of Jesus. We do not confess our corporate and personal sins weekly in vain! Instead, these questions are intended to help you and your worship planning team have a conversation about where you see the rule of Jesus actually happening and encouraging more of that to happen wherever you can. After you've discussed that, talk together about ways worship centered around this text today can both support the congregation where it's doing well and challenge them to do this everywhere.
This message is hard to hear. So if you plan to use images, keep them simple perhaps as simple images of the cup and the font as they appear in your worship space.
A Season of Saints and Mark
Service, not control, is the substance of leadership in God's kingdom. Suffering, not "success," is often its reward. Monnica served through her prayers and in the way she functioned within her household. Ida Bell Wells-Barnett served and suffered as she resisted and helped others resist unjust control by those who were in leadership.
How about in your congregation and community? Who stands out as a true exemplar of leadership through service? Who has persevered in service to others even through suffering for the sake of the gospel?
- Greeting: BOW 452 (Job, Psalm)
- Call to Prayer: BOW 194, "Teach Me to Hear in Silence" (Job)
- Opening Prayer: BOW 464, (Job, Psalm)
- Prayer of Confession: BOW 478 (Job, Mark)
- Prayer: UMH 570, Prayer of Ignatius of Loyola (Mark)
- Prayer: BOW 530, A Prayer of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Job)
- Intercessory Prayer: BOW 418, For Others (Mark)
- The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: India,Pakistan,Sri Lanka
- Litany: BOW 432
- Prayer of Thanksgiving: BOW 556 (Job, Psalm)
- Great Thanksgiving: BOW 70-71 or 78-79 OR "Great Thanksgiving for Laity Sunday"