Planning -Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost
After Ehud's death, the Israelites again began to "do evil." The narrator tells us this is why they fell into the hands of the Canaanite king, Jabin. The Israelites prayed for God's help. God used Deborah, a judge, and Barak, a military leader, to free them.
Psalm 123 or Psalm 76 (UMH 797).
For Psalm 76, use the Response with Tone 4 in F-minor (p. 737).
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.
The Day of the Lord will come at an unexpected time. Therefore, Paul exhorts us to remain sober, faithful, and hopeful, and to continue to build up and encourage one another.
Jesus uses a provocative, even offensive story in his description of the kingdom of heaven while teaching in the temple. For the LolCat Bible translation of this passage (to which yours truly contributed), click here.
For Leccionario Comn Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes (pdf), click here.
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As Ordinary Time comes to its conclusion, the readings are already taking up the Advent themes of expectant waiting for the age to come. If the Sundays regularly scheduled for Advent in the Christian Calendar must be over-run by Christmas themes where you are, for whatever reasons, consider the possibility of beginning Advent early. See our Article "Restoring Advent and Christmas" on the UMC Worship Blog for three different approaches that may enable your congregation to experience a full Advent AND a full Christmastide. Also see The Advent Project website for full resources to support a restored 7-week celebration of this season, truncated to four weeks in the 11th century by act of Pope Gregory VI.
Looking Ahead: November 20, 2011, is Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, a major feast day in the life of the church since its founding by the Roman Catholic Church in 1925 in response to attempts by governments in Mexico and elsewhere to declare themselves the ultimate authority in the lives and even the religions of their subjects. Plan to celebrate Holy Communion on this day. See "A Great Thanksgiving for Christ the King Sunday." See also this Call to Worship and this Service of Scripture and Song that recapitulates the whole Christian Year on this, the last Sunday of the standard Christian calendar.
Thanksgiving (USA) will be observed on November 24, 2011. See the United Methodist Book of Worship and the Planning Calendar of the Discipleship Ministries website for a selection of resources. See also "Musical Thanksgiving," Hymns for Thanksgiving Day, and "Traditional Hymns for Contemporary and Blended Worship, Volume 7: Thanksgiving."
The First Sunday of Advent is November 27 this year, and we move into Year B of the lectionary (focus on Mark's gospel, the stories of David's family, and the epistles of Ephesians, Hebrews, and James).
Remember, Advent isn't about Christmas -- mangers, shepherds and Magi-- but about its eternal context, the promised inbreaking of God's reign into the powers of this world and the fulfillment of that promise begun in God's incarnation in Jesus. For more specific guidance for Advent, see "Planning Advent for Year B" on this website.
Judges: The Cycle of Fall and Redemption
Judges marks the last of this year's readings from the "patriarchs/settlement" cycle. It also marks the first reference we see in the lectionary readings to the "sin-downfall-outcry-redemption" cycle that marks the telling of the history of the settled peoples from judgeship through kingship and into exile. "The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord" will later be replaced by the repeated opening line "King X did what was evil in the sight of the Lord."
In Judges 4, it is King Jabin of Canaan who reaps the benefit of Israel's evil. For 20 years he was able to hold sway over the people by the strength of his military personnel and technology.
The way the story is told, it would appear that the "outcry" cycle did not begin until 20 years into Jabin's reign. Once the outcry did occur, their judge, Deborah, summoned a military leader from Naphtali, Barak, to lead a battle that she would arrange between the Israelite and Canaanite armies at the Wadi Kishon. As she gives instructions to Barak, she is clear that these come from the Lord (YHWH), and that the Lord will grant Barak the victory.
We do not see the battle itself in this week's reading. The battle is not the point in selecting this text. The battle is the Lord's. God wins, of course, and as is also usual, by unusual means. The point of this week's text is the sin-downfall-outcry-redemption cycle, or, put another way, God's faithfulness, human unfaithfulness, and God's willingness to wait for the covenant people to recognize their need to cry out to their God for help before providing it.
This text suggests several different directions for worship planning, depending on which of these themes your congregation most needs to connect with this day.
Are you as a congregation stuck in your own sin-downfall-outcry-redemption cycle, getting it right only for a while and then falling back into old, self-destructive and God-dishonoring patterns of life again and again? If so, what are the images from your own congregation's or community's life that reflect this? What might the arrangement of worship space, or art in the space, or movement throughout worship suggest about where you are in the cycle right now? The point of these questions and your design decisions is toward honest acknowledgment -- not blame, not judgment, but reality check. Once you've thought through the reality check, ask yourselves who are the people or what are the stories in your congregation's life that reflect breaking out of this cycle altogether. Who has a witness, a testimony of life that no longer "backslides"? There's victory in Jesus! There really is -- for individuals and congregations. Acknowledgment of our state in the face of the reality of our hope for deliverance -- offering the outcry -- can begin to unlock God's way through and beyond the cycle.
Or maybe you're not yet at the place of acknowledging where you are in this cycle. Maybe you've been stuck in the "downfall" for so long that it looks normal to you. Maybe it's been 20 years, so why expect anything different? The story does not tell us what it took to get the Israelites, finally, after all that time, to offer their outcry. It just says they did. So what ought people be "outcrying" about where you are? Who's already crying out? How can these voices be heard and magnified in worship today? And then how can these heard and magnified voices be joined by many more in your congregation, and maybe community, to begin offering an outcry from your whole people? The psalms are full of such outcries. Psalm 123 is one of those -- though brief. Consider using it more than once, praying it over and over and more intensely each time, until the congregation rings with the outcry "We have had more than enough of contempt!" Cry out! Then watch out. Our God will act!
Or maybe, like the Israelites in this story, you're scared of the symbols and implements of force, the "900 iron chariots" of the occupying army. What are the powerful symbols of "the occupation" where you are? Have you given those symbols too much power over you and the life of your congregation? Who is really in charge -- your fear, or God's grace? What are the symbols of God's grace in your midst? How do these already undo the clasp of the occupation? Where is Christ reigning, judging, in the face of the occupation?
Or maybe there are some Deborahs in your midst, wise women or men already trusted and now called to declare God's will for deliverance. Who are the Baraks ready to answer that call? And who will be the footsoldiers in God's victory?
One last approach, and not a "politically correct" one, perhaps: The Scripture's perspective is clear. God sold the covenant people into the hand of the Canaanite king. They didn't just fall. This was no accident of history. God dealt them away.
What might it mean, or what does it mean, when your congregation or people in your community find they have been dealt away by God -- or at least think they have?
That's why this is a story of redemption. God dealt them away. But God bought them back, too. That's the good news in this, one of the first of many such stories in this ongoing cycle. God is ready to buy us back. What are the stories of being bought back by God in your congregation or community? If you are currently being dealt away somewhere, who sustains the faith in the One who redeems? And what does that faith look like in the face of the present consequences of having been sold?
I Thessalonians: "Strength for Today, Bright Hope for Tomorrow"
Living in the Day Without Fearing the Night to Come
The readings from I Thessalonians conclude today, continuing one of the two themes (concerns about eschatology), that inspired the writing of this letter in the first place. Last week's beginning of the eschatology discourse focused on the certainty of Christ's return, the resurrection of the dead, and the dramatic deliverance and eternal presence with Christ of those alive on that day. That certainty of "the end of the world as we know it" through the coming of Christ our Judge can sound like bad news to many. As was noted in last week's text, and even more so in this week's, however, Paul meant it as good news and positive encouragement for the Christians who would receive this letter.
He begins here a theme sounded throughout the New Testament. No one knows the day or the hour of Christ's return. It will be like "a thief in the night." But for those who are in Christ now, this does not need to be a bad surprise. We are those, Paul says, who know how to be ready. We are "of the day," he says. We don't "live for the night" of partying, dissipation, and drunkenness. We live for the day, sober, alert, watchful, not in fear but in readied, joyous hope. He addresses them as soldiers: put your armor on! These are soldiers of Christ, wearing a breastplate of faith and love, a helmet of hope for deliverance, for salvation. Our lives in the world are to be characterized by faith in God through Jesus Christ and active love toward God and all. Our minds are to be dominated and protected by hope -- not fear, not judgment -- hope in God's salvation.
But Paul reminds them these words are not just admonitory. He's not just saying they should act this way. He reminds them they already do live this way, and encourages them to encourage one another to keep it up.
So who's wearing such armor where you are? What does moving forward in faith and love, filled with hope in God's salvation, look like, smell like, sound like in your congregation and community? How can you plan worship today in ways that magnify these good examples to encourage more of the same?
Matthew: On Mission with the Master
Playing by the Master's Rules
Our second to last Sunday reading from Matthew's gospel until Epiphany Sunday (the first Sunday in January) brings us close to the end of the public ministry of Jesus. Christ the King Sunday, next week, concludes his public teaching.
The parable of the talents has become a perennial "favorite" for "stewardship Sundays." It has perhaps become so connected to church budget appeals over the years that its radical message has become domesticated among us. The issue in this story is not how much people were willing to risk. The two issues in this story are about what God is ready to entrust to us and what kind of master we think God is.
The opening line of the story should be a shocker. No significant property holder would entrust the entirety of one's property to slaves in Roman culture, not even for a short period of time. This man was giving these three slaves the equivalent of 120 years of daily wages to manage. This man is either crazy or incredibly trusting of his slaves to do the right thing.
What two of the slaves did next was also shockingly offensive to a Jewish audience and could have felt uncomfortable to many Christian audiences until well into the sixteenth century, when some Protestants began to relax laws against earning interest on loans. Indeed, these slaves committed a grave sin, called usury, by making money with money. Worse, they did it with relish, taking the money and working it "immediately" until they doubled their investments. The third acted in the most morally, even "biblically" appropriate way -- burying the money (fifteen years worth of wages in his case) to protect it.
What the master did in response to the first two slaves would have been seen as another offense. He commended the usurers, and even promoted them from slaves to, in essence, vice presidents in the family business. The third, who did the most morally correct thing, receives extreme condemnation. The master called him wicked and lazy, continued to treat him as a slave, took away what was given into his care, and split it as a bonus for the new vice presidents, and finally threw him out of the household altogether. The former slave was hardly free. Now he would be doomed to be a beggar!
How is a good first-century Jewish person supposed to hear this story and not cringe, or run away, or become convinced that this Jesus must be stopped?
Jesus was out to blow their minds-- and ours. He did. And he still does -- if we're listening to him and not to the conventions of this world!
Jesus' speech here, as elsewhere in these final discourses in the temple, was intentionally provocative. He was not doling out good advice for daily living. He was describing the new reality that has already hit, and that at his departure (through his execution, resurrection and ascension) would begin to multiply -- the reign of God. He was describing the way of the disciples trained in this new reality. And he was describing the character of the God whose reign was and is to come in ways bound to offend those invested in the way things are. Why? Because what God and God's reign would do undoes those invested in the way things are.
God, and more specifically, the Jesus who would depart and return after a long time, was and is as the third servant describes the master: tough, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not scatter. The third servant withdraws even from the gift that has been given (see verse 18). He will not act according to the values of his master, but according to conventional values he would have had every reason to expect a "normal" master to have. He can accurately describe the master's character, but he refuses to live the way this master does.
Not so for the "immoral" others. They see who their master is, they have learned how he operates, and they do likewise, right away. They have been true and eager disciples of their "non-normal" master. And they are rewarded for their faithfulness for what they have so clearly learned and taken to heart.
"Conventional values" around economics and investments have been in rather a turmoil in the world for a good four years now as this is being written. Do we invest with the bankers, and risk an even further erosion in our pension funds because of their risky and sometimes immoral actions? Were our ancestors who thought the stock market to be a form of gambling, and therefore sinful, right after all? And are we now continuing to reap the judgment for our sin? Don't avoid such questions as you plan worship for today, even if this parable may not provide any pleasing answers!
Listen to the conclusion the master comes to: "To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."
It's a remarkable and subtle statement. It describes the ways of the kingdoms of this world. The poor continue to get poorer. The rich continue to glide off on golden parachutes, even when they have run companies and economies into ruin. It's the world as we know it, when we think about money.
But it also describes the kingdom of God, and the way of Jesus. Look, more is given to those who have. More is given. It is not that they earn it. It's a gift, an overflow of God's abundance, which God -- like this master -- is ready to give to us to care for -- and indeed has done so in Jesus. Receive this lavish gift, this news and presence of God's kingdom, and live accordingly, and there will only be more to follow. Walk away from this gift, try to bury it and call it good, and you've buried your own future.
The end of the church year and the season of endings (Advent) is upon us. Already we taste the end in the readings today. How are folks where you are getting ready for the end, this end, God's end for the world as we know it? Where are the people who are eager to take what God has given them and "work it" at least until there is a doubling? Who is eager to plant where no seed has been seen (or sown) before? Who is out there with scythe in hand to harvest for God's way where no one has tried before? Who are the first two servants from this parable where you are? Get their stories, get their ideas, let them share their crazy dreams about God's abundance and readiness to give, to evangelize, to end poverty, to spread healing, to unbind the bound, whatever it may be. These are the ones living in the joy of our master, Jesus. Such joy may scare off a few of the timid in your midst who "aren't so sure." But it also may just convert them and reignite the fire in others.
Greeting: BOW 450 (Matthew, 1 Thessalonians)
Opening Prayer: BOW 460 (Matthew, 1 Thessalonians)
Acts of Response to the Word:
- BOW 188, "Senor, Apidate de Nosotros" ("O Lord, Have Mercy Upon Us") Psalm, Musical Response
- BOW 195, Musical Response, "O Lord, Deliver Us" (Judges, Psalm)
- BOW 201, Musical Response, "O Lamb of God" (Psalm)
- BOW 508, Psalm of the Woodlands (Matthew)
- 403 (UMH) "For True Life" (Matthew, 1 Thessalonians)
- 481 (UMH) "The Prayer of Saint Francis" (Psalm)
- BOW 476 (Matthew, 1 Thessalonians)
- BOW 478 (Matthew)
- BOW 480 (Matthew)
Concerns and Prayers:
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea
- BOW 540, Prayer for Those Who Work (Matthew)
The Great Thanksgiving: BOW 70-71, The Great Thanksgiving for the Season After Pentecost
Dismissals/Blessings/Benedictions: BOW 559 (Matthew, 1 Thessalonians)