Planning - The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17.
Naomi guides Ruth through the customs of Hebrew culture to enable her legitimately to find a husband, home, and children. In this way, Ruth becomes the great grandmother of Israel's future king, David.
Psalm Response: Psalm 127 or Psalm 42 (UMH 777).
Psalm 127 is not in The United Methodist Hymnal (its Psalter was from the earlier Common Lectionary), but is a more appropriate response to the first lesson. Verses 1-2 focus on the emptiness of life without trust in God's presence and provision. Verses 3-5 speak of the blessing of having children. The theme that binds these two together is the term "house" in verse 1, taken figuratively in the second part to refer to a "household." Here is a version from The Book of Common Prayer (1979, Public Domain), slightly altered for inclusive language and with a proposed refrain and chant pointing added.
A New Setting for Psalm 127
REFRAIN: First and last stanzas of the first verse of "When Love Is Found" (UMH 643)
Chant Tone (G Major): G-A-G-B; E-F#-D-G
1 Unless the LORD builds the house,
their labor is in vain who build it.
2 Unless the LORD watches over the city, *
in vain the watchman keeps his vigil.
3 It is in vain that you rise so early and go to bed so late; *
vain, too, to eat the bread of toil,
for God gives to the be-lov-ed sleep.
4 Children are a heritage from the LORD, *
and the fruit of the womb is a gift.
5 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior *
are the children of one's youth.
6 Happy are they who have a quiver full of them! *
they shall not be put to shame
when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
OR Psalm 42 (UMH 777).
"Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God." If you plan to sing this Psalm, use Tone 2 in C minor with the sung response.
Unlike the Aaronic priest who enters annually into the Holy of Holies with the blood of a bull and a goat to make ritual atonement, through the incarnation and his life of intercession and obedience even unto death, Jesus Christ entered into heaven itself, offering himself once for all to remove sin, not merely "cover" it (the word usually translated "atonement" in Hebrew means "cover"). At the judgment, Christ will acquit those who have eagerly waited for him.
The story of the "widow's mite" comes immediately after warnings by Jesus about the "home-devouring" practices of the scribes who were expected to use the temple treasury funds to support widows and orphans but used it to support their own lavish lifestyles instead. That is why the widow has only a penny to give, but also why she gives it all that perhaps others might still be helped, even if meagerly, by what she can offer. Her situation is also a sign of the corruption of this present age and the need for the arrival of the age to come.
Back to top.
Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday is November 25, 2012. "Normal" Advent (Year C) begins December 2. However, if you are following the "Restored Advent" calendar, Advent begins today! For this and other Advent and Christmastide options, see "Restoring Advent and Christmas 2012/2013."
On the denominational calendar, today (November 11) is also Organ and Tissue Donor Sunday, (National Donor Sabbath). The General Board of Church and Society is the contact organization for this special day. For more information, see www.organdonor.gov or http://calms.umc.org/2008/Text.aspx?mode=Petition&Number=575.
November 12 is Veterans Day on the U.S. civil calendar. See "Suggestions for Observing Veterans' Day in Worship" for resources and guidance for recognizing this day as part of Sunday worship. If you are following the theme of "basic hospitality" from Ruth, be sure to call attention to ways your congregation can be (or maybe already is) practicing basic hospitality toward people newly arriving or returning from any kind of service or stay away from your local community. See also the resources for welcoming persons returning from war or praying for persons deploying to war from the GBHEM chaplains worship resources website.
November 18 is Bible Sunday, the kickoff to National Bible Week organized by the National Bible Association. While appropriate recognition of the role of Scripture should be part of worship weekly, and perhaps especially on this day, the Scriptures already set for this day should take precedence in your planning.
November 25 is Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, as well as United Methodist Student Day, which includes a special offering. While the special offering should be taken, the celebration of this day should be woven into the larger themes of Christ the King Sunday, which takes precedence on this day.
Back to top.
Ruth: Basic Hospitality
As we noted last week, a significant purpose of the book of Ruth was to speak out against a rising xenophobia in Judean culture at the time by reminding its readers that the great-grandmother of their illustrious King David was a Moabite. Last week's reading from Ruth helped us to appreciate that this "foreigner" could be as faithful and loyal, or maybe even more so, than a "homegrown Judean." This week's reading reminds us how basic codes of hospitality and family, built into Judean culture from of old, also call for an end to the extreme "us versus them" mentality and policies of the day.
Most of the Near-Eastern and Middle-Eastern world of that day had strong and traditional hospitality codes in place that generally required people to welcome strangers and foreigners into their homes under certain conditions. Likewise, nearly all of them had "emergency back-up family codes" to ensure that a widowed woman was able to find a new husband to provide for her and start a new family. However, just what those conditions were, how the hospitality codes could be invoked, and how the back-up family codes worked varied from culture to culture. This is why Naomi's instruction is critical here. Naomi knows the codes and folkways of her people well enough to navigate her Moabite daughter-in-law through them, even if by an unsual path, to find a spouse and start a new family among Naomi's people.
To be sure, some of these codes would seem strange, and even immoral, by some standards. If today's reading from Ruth were made into a movie accurately, it might be rated R or NC-17. To "uncover the feet" was typically a euphemism for uncovering the genitals. People in this culture did not typically sleep with their feet covered. Meanwhile, Ruth's words (verse 9) make this even clearer: "I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next of kin." While the text appears to preclude the notion that Ruth and Boaz had sexual intercourse that night, what did happen was a clear declaration of both loyalty (as Boaz notes in 3:10) and sexual intent.
To be sure, Naomi's advice in this case was not quite usual. It was a bit of an improvisation, one that depended on the normal rules of "kinsman-redeemer" relationships (the next of kin is to marry a widow to continue the line of the deceased husband). It was a rather daring improvisation at that. This is why Ruth rises to leave so early and why Boaz insists no one can know about what had happened (3:14). The gift of six bushels of barley (3:15) was another improvisation -- a kind of dowry paid by Boaz to Naomi, signaling to her his intent to accept the kinsman-redeemer role if he could (since there was another who was closer in kinship3:12 and 4:1-11). Of course, the only way Ruth could have transported this much grain (six bushels) to Naomi would be if she were not wearing her cloak (the implication being she was perhaps only wearing her undergarments when she lay at Boaz's feet!). This would be another compelling reason for travel by dark.
What happened the next day followed standard procedure to the letter. Boaz, now functioning as Ruth's protector, if not yet her spouse, wanted to ensure this "transaction" was entirely above board and publicly legitimized. That standard procedure involved a right of refusal symbolized by the removal and transfer of a sandal (a foot covering)! This public act symbolized the transfer of sexual rights from one man to another. When the "most legitimate" kinsman redeemer discovered that a Moabitess was part of the property he was asked to redeem, he refused, noting that she would "harm my own inheritance" (4:16). He thus takes off a sandal and gives it to Boaz, with the town's elders as witnesses, signaling that Boaz will function as the legitimate redeemer of both the land and the woman (4:8-11).
Note the social critique happening in this simple recounting. The "most legitimate" heir refuses for reasons of "impurity." He believes the Moabitess, the foreigner, would adulterate his inheritance. He can't have her in his lineage if he hopes to maintain the moral, cultural and religious purity he believes to be paramount. This would be simply too "irregular."
Yet, was not his own refusal itself irregular? Was not the the "most legitimate" claimant expected to "do his duty"? Which codes should trump which? The codes of family obligation and hospitality to foreigners, grounded deeply in Torah, or the more personal and perhaps cultural codes of xenophobia and concerns about "purity" of the family line?
We know the end of the story. Ruth and Boaz were immediately blessed with a son, Obed, father of Jesse, father of David, the great king of Israel who united the tribes and established the religious, military and political basis for Israel's nationhood. And of course, David's own selection as king by Samuel, as everyone would know, was just as irregular, as he was the youngest, not the oldest, of Jesse's sons.
Ruth thus turns out to be an explosive little narrative in its day. This story reminds its hearers that it was by means of one irregularity after another, though irregularities completely in keeping with biblical codes of hospitality and family life, that she and the nation of Israel were each established and redeemed. Naomi and Boaz, and not the kinsman-redeemer who thought the "Moabitess" would adulterate his inheritance, represent God's way and Israel's identity in the world.
That was a bold contention indeed while the official policy of the time, led by Ezra the high priest, called for ethnic purity, even to the point of requiring men married to foreigners to cast off their wives and all children who had been born through them (Ezra 10). Ezra had convinced practically all of the religious leaders (many of whom also had foreign wives and children with them) that if they did not separate entirely from these foreigners, God's wrath would destroy the people. Those who disagreed (only 4 names are recorded, Ezra 10:15) apparently had not married foreign wives, but their opposition could not stop the edict being enforced. The book of Ezra climaxes with the listing of all the families who sent away their foreign wives and "mixed" offspring.
Political influence could not stop this nationwide act of ethnic cleansing, prompted by fear of the wrath of God. But perhaps a reminder in story of the grace of God as the foundation of Israel's true identity, like Ruth, someday could.
A word about God's grace as revealed in this story and throughout Scripture. God's grace is never permissiveness or toleration. It is not God overlooking our failings and foibles. God is no grandparent in semi-demented dotage. God's grace is revealed in Naomi, seeking what is best for her daughters-in-law and here giving risky but wise advice to Ruth. God's grace is active in Boaz, committed to doing what it takes by following the rules precisely to redeem Ruth. God's grace is active in and through Ruth, great grandmother of David and bearer of Obed whom the barren Naomi is then blessed to nurse. God's grace is active in Jesus, eating with tax collectors and sinners, and in so doing not flaunting the law but fulfilling all righteousness by true love of God and neighbor.
Who embodies God's grace where you are? Ask your worship planning team to think about the people in your congregation or community who have determined to make a home and place for "outsiders" to your congregation, or in their families, the neighborhood, or community. As this Scripture is being read or proclaimed, project images of these people (with their permission!) as present-day reminders of God's grace embodied in such basic hospitality still at work in your midst today.
If you focus on Ruth today, consider a congregational renewal of wedding vows, or schedule a couple's renewal of vows, as a response to the sermon. If you go this route, use Psalm 127 and the suggested setting above built around the wedding hymn "When Love Is Found." See The United Methodist Book of Worship, 135-138 and 537, for additional resources. See The Faith We Sing, 2230, for additional resources and music for a focus on marriage renewal. See The Upper Room Worshipbook for additional hymns focusing on Naomi's hospitality (134) or Boaz's act of redemption (157).
Back to top.
Hebrews: A Priestly Covenant
Hebrews continues the contrast between the Aaronic high priest and the high priesthood of Jesus. Last week, the contrast was between part of the Yom Kippur (Day of Covering/Atonement) ritual and the red heifer ritual. This week the contrast is between the two different ritual actions of Yom Kippur itself: the atonement ritual proper and the scapegoat ritual.
As we saw last week, in the atonement or "covering" ritual, the Aaronic high priest enters the tabernacle and the Holy of Holies to place a small amount of the blood of a bull and the blood of a goat on the "holy things" to atone for (literally, cover) the "spiritual gunk" that has accumulated on them because of his own unintentional sin (bull blood) and the unintentional sins of the people (goat blood). See Leviticus 16. In the second part of the ritual, the high priest lays hands on the head of a second goat, confessing over it all of the unintentional sins of the people. The second goat is then driven out by another designated person into the wilderness. Importantly, this goat is not killed or sacrificed.
Put more simply, in the first ritual action, blood "covers" ("kippur" in Hebrew) the unintended sins of the people. In the second ritual action, the live goat "bears the sins" of the people and carries them away (forgiveness aphesis in Greek).
The common link between the bull and goat of the covering of sin and the goat of the forgiveness of sin is the ritual work and leadership of the Aaronic high priest. Jesus, the Great High Priest, Hebrews tells us, enters not the tabernacle but heaven itself, bringing not the blood of goats and bulls, but his own life and ministry before God, not simply to cover sins (a temporary ritual fix that has to be repeated annually) or even to forgive them, but to remove or break or nullify (athetesis in Greek a different and more comprehensive action than either covering or forgiveness) not just unintended sins, but sin itself (the word is singular here!), once and for all.
This is all very technical, but so is the point of the contrast that Hebrews is making between the ritual effectiveness of the Yom Kippur for the people of Israel and the actual effectiveness of the life, death, resurrection, and intercession of Christ for the whole world that we celebrate ritually at the Lord's Table. "He breaks the power of cancelled sin," Charles Wesley wrote. That's what Hebrews is saying here. That's part of what we enact at the breaking of the bread as well. Christ's body broken and shared among us is Christ's presence and power breaking sin's power over our lives.
So as you think about imagery around this text in your worship planning team, focus particularly on what would best communicate each of these ritual actions (kippur, aphesis, athetesis) effectively where you are. How would you show or help folks embody "covering"? How would you demonstrate "forgiveness" (literally, "release")? And then how might you help the congregation experience both the importance of these two, but the fuller liberation that comes with removing or breaking sin's power entirely? Have your planning team listen over the next week or two for how folks in your congregation imagine or speak about these concepts, and draw the imagery you select from what you hear them saying or describing.
Mark: Discipleship Everywhere, or The Beginning of the End
The reading from Mark today brings us to the very edge of the "apocalyptic" sayings of Jesus about the end of the world as we know it a world centered around temple and the powerful institutions that support it. Jesus is about to say, "It's all coming down." And this woman's generosity in the midst of her victimization by the temple system is a clear sign of it. It's a most fitting way to begin Advent, if you choose to do so today. It's also a most fitting way to expose the potential true cost of loving God with all we are and neighbor as ourselves in a world as broken as ours is.
Think carefully with your worship planning team about how you wish to portray this woman in images and in the reading of the text. Especially in Mark's gospel, this is no "precious moments" scene. This woman is not to be sentimentalized or idealized, but simply seen in the full context of her gracious response in the face of the oppression she experiences from the very people who are supposed to be caring for her. This is why she is Advent's harbinger, marking the beginning of the end. She is also to be seen as an embodiment of the teaching of last week's text -- a woman who loves God above all with all she has and neighbor as herself.
Which of these aspects do you want to focus on? The way she's been cheated and barely supported by her caregivers? The fact that she remains committed to participating in worship in a ritual system that appears to be completely corrupted? That she will do what she can to support other widows, even though the system to support widows is also corrupt, as she knows directly? The way in which her act of giving all she has is a sign of the end of things as they now are, because it is the way of love of God and neighbor, not the powers that be that now establish reality?
Talk in your worship planning team about ways you can illustrate the beginning of the end in this small and seemingly insignificant gift. Perhaps, if you have the capacity to do this, you might develop an animation in which a woman places her coins in the temple treasury box and the whole temple starts to shake and collapse. Or perhaps you could do this with a drama in which others place large sums in a box, then the woman places her small sum, and the scenery around the box falls down.
Prayer of Great Thanksgiving: UMBOW, 124-126 (Ruth, Wedding, Renewal of Marriage Vows, or Blessing of Anniversary. Be sure to adapt the words to suit the occasion.); or 70-71.
Offertory Hymn: UMBOW, 179, "For the Gift of Creation"
Doxology: UMBOW, 180, "Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow"
Dismissal: UMBOW, 559
Suggested hymns and acts of worship from The Advent Project (note: as of October 1, resources posted were generally for Year B. Expect Year C resources to be posted shortly).