Seasonal

Preparing for Autumn (Year A)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons: Year A 2020, copyright © 2019 Augsburg Fortress.

Preaching

Autumn brings a return to school and the resumption of a fuller schedule of congregational activities. It’s an opportune time to wonder where we stand before God. What is it that God wants from us? How can we be shaped again and again by God’s word in our worshiping assemblies? What is this life with God that Jesus came to bring?

As fall rhythms return, in addition to backpack blessings or lifting up various people’s occupations in prayer, Evangelical Lutheran Worship’s “Affirmation of Christian Vocation” could be used at a sermon’s beginning or conclusion to punctuate the commitment to living a life of faith together. And preaching could be framed from this question in the rite: “Will you endeavor to pattern your life on the Lord Jesus Christ . . . all the days of your life?” (p. 84).

In the gospels, Jesus tells a series of parables to describe this life with God that in Matthew is called “the kingdom of heaven.” In Jesus’ parables we find that mercy meets justice head on. In one parable, a king is the model of unexpected forgiveness for a great debt (Lectionary 24, September 13). In another, a landowner hiring day laborers pays the same wage to all, no matter what time of day they began their work (Lectionary 25, September 20). And in yet another, a king extends a wedding invitation to those in the streets when others more likely to respond reject the initial invitation (Lectionary 28, October 11). Jesus’ stories surprise his listeners, causing them to rethink their place.

Effective and faithful preaching captures the surprise that God’s ways are not our ways. God surprises those who are on the outside and invites them in. In what ways have we found ourselves on the margins, or noticed others who are neglected? God also surprises those who are on the inside, confronting them with their privilege. In what ways have we exploited our status at the expense of others? In Philippians, Paul the apostle puzzles about his own elevated station in life as a Pharisee, but then rethinks everything that might be considered “gain” now as “loss,” “because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:7-8; Lectionary 27, October 4).

Classic Lutheran preaching of law and gospel pairs well with autumn’s readings. In preaching the law, we find ourselves tangled in a web of judgment and cannot make our way out. We feel convicted. In preaching the gospel, we recognize that Christ’s death and resurrection, his teaching, and his pattern of life break open the ways of God’s mercy and forgiveness to those who need it (which is all of us).

Mercy might be the joyful refrain for our communal lives with God. We can laugh at Jonah, and at ourselves, as we say along with the reluctant prophet, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2; Lectionary 25, September 20). Can we imagine a church named “The Church of Second Chances” (or third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh)? Are there stories you can tell or invite others to tell about starting over that might be connected to renewal of ministries in your congregation? In those stories, and in the readings that shape this season, we can come to realize that the adage “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” is just right for us!

Intercessory Prayer

The readings for September and October touch on mutual forgiveness, laboring in the vineyard, loving God and neighbor, service, and who is really doing the will of God. Put that together with the fact that the school year and the congregation’s program year are newly begun, and it might make sense to emphasize the theme of vocation in the intercessory prayers. All of the months between Pentecost and Advent are in some sense about living out our callings, our mission in the world. The new beginnings of the early fall are especially a time when we may consider who we’re called to be and what we’re called to do.

If you have laypeople who craft the petitions each week, suggest to them that most petitions could be written with a two-part structure: asking God to do something about a concern, and praying for people (categories or named individuals) who are called to address that concern, either officially by job role or less officially (such as people who demonstrate or volunteer, or people who have to deal with a situation by virtue of their life circumstances). This shouldn’t have to make the petitions excessively long. Instead, the focus on praying in each petition for one group of people with a relevant calling can make the petitions more specific and vivid. “Protect people who have fled their unsafe home country and are trying to make a new life here. Support the folks of Lutheran Social Services who are helping to resettle them.” “Make our schools, playgrounds, and online spaces safe for the children who gather there. Support kids and adults who speak out against bullying and value kindness more than popularity.”

In the Summer section we discussed having people in the congregation speak aloud the names of persons or places in a category mentioned in the petition. In fall, some of these categories could relate directly to specific vocations. For instance, godparents could name their godchildren. Caregivers could name the persons they care for. Kids could name adults who show them how to do stuff: teachers, coaches, scout leaders. People undergoing medical treatment could name doctors and other medical professionals. Anyone could name political leaders, sheriffs or police commissioners, judges or justices.

You could choose a vocational group within the congregation each week, people who share a certain relational, occupational, or volunteer calling. That group could be asked to contribute to a petition in the prayers. The person writing the prayers could contact them the week before and ask them, “From your point of view as a [scientist, stepparent, farmer, school athlete, IT person, food service worker, activist, artist, caregiver for an elderly person], what does your calling make you aware of that we need to pray about?” Write a petition based on what they say, and identify the petition as coming from people with that calling.

Assembly Song

Autumn brings us back into what some might consider the normal rhythm of life. School has started, regular programming has begun, choirs are back in session, and the excitement of a new year is upon us. Take advantage of this energy and enthusiasm and fire up your musicians. Make a list of every musician in your congregation, and then try to use every single person this fall. If you have a beginning band or orchestra student, have them join in on a simple hymn to build confidence and trust. Tap that newly retired musician who has more time to attend rehearsals. Spend some time this autumn doing inventory and using all your resources! Start small if you haven’t done this before. And if you aren’t sure how best to use an instrumentalist, just ask them; chances are they can help you!

The last time we worked our way through the year A lectionary we were busily preparing for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Now beyond that milestone and those celebrations, we can explore other themes in this season that we might have missed or set aside three years ago. For example, the assembly’s song this season might center on vocation, creation, stewardship, or love.

The energy and recharge of autumn make this the perfect time to explore some of the lesser used and known hymnody in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. For example, look closely at the global music in each thematic section, and consider teaching an unknown hymn to your assembly. Reach outside your comfort zone and ask for help in leading an unfamiliar musical style. Have the choir, band, or even a soloist offer it the first week as a prelude. Then build each week to include the assembly as able. It is wonderful to repeat a song over several weeks, and it builds trust and partnership between the song leaders and assembly—just try it! Autumn is also a perfect time to harness fresh energy and teach the assembly to sing in a language other than its primary one. Evangelical Lutheran Worship contains many hymns with one or more stanzas (provided phonetically) in a language other than English.

The stewardship theme present in many autumn lectionary texts makes this a good season to sing an offering hymn, especially if that is not your normal practice. The communion table may be set as the assembly sings a song of feasting and abundance such as “Let us go now to the banquet” (ELW 523) or “The trumpets sound, the angels sing” (ELW 531). If these are unfamiliar, what a perfect season for the assembly to learn the notes, words, and rhythms. Keep it simple and highlight the melody as you start; then add percussion, perhaps inviting all the children forward after the sharing of the peace and giving them egg shakers or simple percussion instruments (even sets of keys from other worshipers) as they surround the table and participate in the excitement and action of the feast.

Autumn is generally accompanied by a return to regular educational and faith formation programming for children, youth, and adults. Consider including in worship some beloved Sunday school songs/hymns that have been passed down for generations, as well as songs that might have been used in previous years. Let the children teach a beloved Sunday school song. If that isn’t possible, or your congregation doesn’t have a Sunday school, everyone loves to sing “Jesus loves me!” (ELW 595).

Worship Space

September and October bring about a shifting of gears for families with school-age children, for programmatic ministries in the church, and in the outside environment especially in northern climates. Reflect this shift; reconfigure the worship space if you downsized or upsized seating for the summer. Reset music areas to signal that choirs that have been on break are back in session.

The green season, liturgically, might be feeling long. Find ways to refresh the space. If you have more than one set of green paraments, change them out at the beginning of September. If you have a quilting group, ask them to create an altar parament using various shades of green fabric.

If you have a back-to-school Sunday or a blessing of teachers and students, plan for some visual enhancement. Ask educators to bring their lesson plan books (or another symbol of their role) and kids to bring their backpacks to worship. Have students and teachers stand with their backpacks and school materials as you pray for them. Or call up students and teachers for a prayer and final blessing at the sending, and then have them recess during the sending hymn carrying their school items, representing their heading out into the world and the new school year. Repurpose the popular Dakota Road “Kyrie” from Holy Communion Setting Eight (ELW, pp. 184–185) as a sending hymn for the recessional (“Kyrie eleison, on our world and on our way. Kyrie eleison, every day”).

Labor/Labour Day is a wonderful opportunity to give thanks to God for the gift of work and purpose. Invite worshipers to pin a business card or a note card describing what they do for paid or unpaid work onto a bulletin board. Invite children and youth to add their vocations (student, household helper, volunteer, babysitter, caregiver of pets, school newspaper). Invite those who are retired to share the ways in which they continue to live out their vocations. Give thanks for all the work listed on the board that gives us purpose and meaning, a way to provide for our families and contribute to the welfare of our communities.

The gospel readings for the last two Sundays in September and the first Sunday in October include three different parables, all set in vineyards. Bring in a potted grapevine or other vine-growing plant as a visual for these three weeks. If you live in an area where wine is produced, use local wine on these Sundays for holy communion (if you don’t already do this year-round).

The commemoration of Francis of Assisi (October 4) falls on a Sunday this year. Invite people to bring pictures of their pets to worship and provide a way to display them. Include an icon or other artwork depicting St. Francis if you have one. Prayer petitions can include thanksgiving for all of God’s creatures, including our pets.

If you celebrate affirmation of baptism/confirmation on Reformation Sunday, visually center the font and table. Gather the students around the baptismal font for the affirmation of baptism, and then invite them to gather around the table during the eucharistic liturgy. Reformation Sunday can also be a wonderful day to give first Bibles to children. When you call the children up and present the Bibles, share how Martin Luther was passionate about putting the word of God into the hands of the people.

Seasonal Checklist

  •  If you are returning to a school-year worship and education schedule, update websites, social media, newspaper listings, answering machine messages, outdoor signs, and internal publications such as a newsletter.
  •  If a blessing of teachers and students will be held, see possible forms in the seasonal rites section (p. 255).
  •  Some congregations present Bibles to young readers at the start of Sunday school. If that is part of your tradition or one you’d like to start, make sure Bibles are ordered, delivered, and inscribed, and that parents and baptismal sponsors have been notified and invited. A blessing to accompany a presentation of the Bible is available in Evangelical Lutheran Worship Leaders Edition (p. 594).
  •  If you intend to have a pet blessing on October 4, get the word out now. This is an ideal opportunity for community outreach. See a form for blessing animals on pages 255–256.
  •  Begin asking for “harvest” contributions to enliven the worship space, interior gathering spaces, and exterior areas. Cornstalks, pumpkins and squash, fall flowers, and produce that has been canned can all be gathered during September for a colorful autumnal display.
  •  Begin planning for Advent if you have not started already.

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From sundaysandseasons.com.

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