Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Worship planning for fall

Labor Rally
September is a conflicted month in the life of many churches. On the one hand, it is simply the continuation of the lengthy “Time After Pentecost,” now plainly retitled “Lectionary.” On the other hand, it is the season for Rally Day, Labor Day, Comeback Sunday, School Year Blessings, harvest festivals, stewardship drives, etc. How to balance these competing forces? It is likely that many congregations simply repurpose the lectionary texts so that they preach the pre-selected message. As in, “Well, this gospel is really about the extravagance of forgiveness, but this is Rally Sunday, so let’s find a way to have it address the beginning of another Sunday school year.” This is not always a bad approach. Certainly, preachers and worship leaders always need to find creative ways to connect the lectionary (designed at a distance, by a heady group of people, a long time ago) to the local context. Life happens, and it is part of the creativity of reading Scripture to connect what happens daily to what we read in Scripture daily.
In fact, consider encouraging making connections between Scripture and life in your congregation this fall. Faith Inkubators has developed a model for five minute at home devotions that they call the Faith Five ( These are:

1. SHARE highs & lows of the day

2. READ and highlight a verse of Scripture in your Bible

3. TALK about how the verse relates to your highs & lows

4. PRAY for your highs & lows, for your family, and for the world

5. BLESS one another 
If we ask our parishioners to do this daily, it only makes sense that even the Sunday lectionary is read via this hermeneutical strategy. What are we up to this week? What are our highs and lows? Let’s talk about how the gospel relates to our highs and lows.
However, a danger in this approach is eisegesis. Eisegesis “is the process of misinterpreting a text in such a way that it introduces one's own ideas, reading into the text” ( One reason congregations use the lectionary is in order to avoid eisegesis. By adopting a three year schedule for reading, ostensibly the goal is to be read by the Scriptures, allowing them to imbue and shape our ideas, and inspire in us greater faithfulness and Christlikeness. 
This might be accomplished by giving Rally Day completely over to proclamation on the actual central theme of the gospel lessons for the first few Sundays of Autumn--forgiveness and reconciliation. What if the rally cry of the church is not, “Let’s get enthusiastic! Let’s kick off another amazing, successful year” but rather “Lord have mercy! Let us learn to forgive one another from the heart!” If the congregation is engaged in a stewardship appeal, imagine stewarding not only material gifts and spiritual gifts, but the gift the reformers called the Office of the Keys, based on Matthew 18:18, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” What if the congregation devoted itself to reviewing and reciting the section of the Small Catechism devoted to the Office of the Keys? What kind of rally might this be?

Christians learn to be Christian in Sunday school and confirmation, right? A pervasive myth in our churches is that Christian education is where faith is formed. This is why so many parents still drop their children off for Sunday school but do not attend worship with them. However, most experts in pedagogy will tell you that children learn by what they do, and what they see done, more than what they are told to do but seldom see. This pertains to worship in a profound way.
One of the most prevalent misconceptions in the church around worship practices, for example, is that in order to receive the Lord’s Supper rightly, one must understand it cognitively. So churches require children at some grade level or another to attend first communion classes before they receive their first communion. In the meantime, Sunday after Sunday, if the children are in worship with their parents, they see the host elevated, the words of promise spoken in relation to the meal, and an invitation extended to receive it, but then they themselves are excluded. They are crossed over and crossed out from receiving the meal, sometimes very literally when they have the sign of the cross marked on their foreheads. 
These congregations have not listened to Paul’s instructions, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:28), but have misunderstood its implications. They have misunderstood first how individuals come to discern the body rightly. Discernment is not ensured by attending a class and completing a workbook--discernment is learned through the order of worship itself, where the pastor declares what the meal is, and how to be prepared to receive it. Training in discernment is liturgical. Second, discernment of the body refers not necessarily (or only) to the body that is present in, with, and under the bread (real presence), but the body as the gathered community (ecclesiology, body of Christ). In this sense, it means discerning that all those who are in worship together, together with all those in every time and place who gather around this meal, are themselves the body of Christ, gathered in worship and praise of God the Father.
What if we re-thought this practice from a re-formation perspective, and realized that children are formed by worship practices themselves, and this applies at every level. If they receive the meal weekly, and hear the words, “This is for you for the forgiveness of sins,” they will learn through the actual worship practice what the meal is (the body and blood of Jesus in with and under the bread and the wine), why they are receiving it (for the forgiveness of sins), and what the outcome of receiving it is (incorporation into the body of Christ, strengthening and keeping us in God’s grace). Participation in worship and the sacraments is itself, then, in this sense, re-formation.
This applies not only to what is admittedly a matter of some dispute in our churches, but to our worship practices more widely taken. Children learn to worship God by worshipping God, not by being told about the importance of worshipping God. Children learn to pray by praying, not by being taught models and methods of prayer. Actually, we all learn this way, not just children, but it is in this autumn season that many congregations especially focus on children’s ministries like Sunday school and confirmation. So it is a good time to remind ourselves that worship is itself training in Christian discipleship, and formation in faith.
So, seek out and employ as many methods as you know how to encourage families to worship together, and to train (re-form) their children in faith through right worship. Offer ideas weekly on how children can be full participants in the liturgy of the church. Use hands, face, and body posture in ways that help the whole body pray. Practice singing and teach singing. Teach parents to point their way along in the hymnal with their children. If churches use projected words for the songs, give instructions to parents on how to direct their children’s attention to the proper resources in the sanctuary. Teach children to splash themselves with water from the font and make the sign of the cross, in remembrance of their baptism. Regularly offer ideas on how families can take these practices into their own homes. And extend the invitation to communion to all the baptized.

The Autumn Leaves
The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold....
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburned hands, I used to hold
Since you went away, the days grow long
And soon I'll hear ol' winter's song.
But I miss you most of all my darling,
When autumn leaves start to fall.
Since you went away, the days grow long
And soon I'll hear ol' winter's song.
But I miss you most of all my darling,
When autumn leaves start to fall.

This jazz standard, originally a French song, Les feuilles mortes (the dead leaves), is a touching evocation of the spiritual and relational longing of this season. Some congregations encourage the offering of special gifts during the offering. Consider finding a singer or ensemble in the congregation that might perform it around the time the leaves begin to turn. It might be an especially fitting song to sing on one of the Sundays leading up to All Saints Sunday (November 6).
There are many beautiful ways to weave the autumn leaves into worship art and space. Gardens and yards have come to the end of their cornucopia-like productivity, and many gardeners may be looking for ways to make use of this abundance. Consider constructing a large harvest display of produce, flowers, and plants that can then be donated to a local soup kitchen or pantry. Set up a bulb exchange in the narthex or church parking lot. There are many resources available for designing plant displays, wreaths, etc., with which to grace walls, doors, and windows.  And although green is still the liturgical color for the season, many stoles, altar frontals, and banner patterns appropriately mix the darker hues of fall into patterns and weaves with green to match the deepening (and also fading) colors of the season.
Avoid treating autumn like a second spring, as if all these colors, or even all of this abundance, is full of new life comparable to the spring of the year. The abundance of fall is the richness of the end of life. Many people find their latter years abundant indeed, rich in convergences, sometimes in wealth, relationships, and time. But this wealth comes at the end, and in complete knowledge that the end is near. The end of the liturgical year is approaching. Most plants harvested in the fall give up their life in the process of bringing the fruits to fulness. 
So sing songs in this autumn season that accentuate the loamy wealth of death, such as “As Saints of Old” (ELW #695), “For the Fruit of All Creation” (ELW #679), “We Give Thee But Thine Own” (ELW #685), or “Sing to the Lord of Harvest” (ELW #694). In fact, many of the hymns located in the “Stewardship” section of ELW are appropriate and worthy of consideration during this season, as are hymns recommended under “Growth” in the Topical Index of Hymns, such as “God, Whose Farm Is All Creation” (ELW #734).
The Churchbook
Frederick Dale Bruner divides his commentary on Matthew into two volumes, the first volume, on chapters 1-12 has the subtitle “the Christbook,” and volume two on chapters 13-28 has the subtitle “the Churchbook.” During the summer months, the gospel lessons for each Sunday had already introduced worshipers to the “Churchbook,” but now in these autumn months, the theme of “church” truly comes to the fore. In September and October, the gospel lessons for each Sunday continue to be from Matthew, chapters 18-23. Since this is such a coherent series, congregations may wish to keep the series and use the lessons for Lectionary 31 (October 30th) rather than the lessons for Reformation Sunday. 
Here’s the internal coherence. Chapters 18-20 of Matthew can be considered sermons on community, what Bruner terms “the little sermon on the mount” (ix). Chapter 18, read the first two Sundays of September, focuses on the doctrine of Christian community, especially issues of confrontation and forgiveness. Chapter 20, read the third Sunday, is clear proclamation on vocation. All three function as a unit, proclaiming how to reprove sin, how to forgive, and how to work and earn without envying others. Underlying it all are expressions of God’s grace.
The lessons from Chapter 21 and 22, read the fourth through sixth Sundays of this season, offer parables on true faith. The emphasis here, a topic often neglected in church proclamation, is that what has been given can also be taken away and given to others. And in point of fact, many of those who are already convinced that they have the gift and are secure in it, but then neglect it, can actually lose it. Here are the significant “red letter” quotes from each lesson: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (21:31); “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43); “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’” (22:8-9). 
Finally, the final two lessons (Matthew 22:15-46 split into two sections) emerge out of a conversation on how to be thoughtful and faithful people. First, the political question--what should we do about taxes? Second, a hermeneutical question--what is the greatest commandment? Third, an eschatological question--how can we identify the Lordship of the Christ? 
Furthermore, if worship leaders and preachers choose to read the lectionary text for October 30th rather than the Reformation Sunday text, they will still have a gospel lesson well-suited to the theme of reformation, precisely because in this section of Matthew, Jesus teaches about false and true religious leadership, certainly a Reformation theme if ever there was one.

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