Seasonal

Preparing for Autumn (Year B)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons 2018, Year B, copyright © 2017 Augsburg Fortress.

Autumn comes as a signal that inevitable winter lies ahead. To many, especially those of us in the northern hemisphere, autumn’s cool, crisp air is a welcome relief from summer heat, and its brilliant colors are a thing of beauty. In our congregations and communities, this season is also a gathering back in from summer activity, the start of a new school and church program year. The outside air is different, and so is the pace. But just when we think the earth is undergoing its seasonal death, seeds are being planted for new growth—in the soil and in the people.

In an autumn reflection for the Fetzer Institute, Parker Palmer writes that faced with inevitable winter, autumn “scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring—and she scatters them with amazing abandon.”

Palmer, a writer, speaker, and activist, admits he is rarely aware of the seeds being planted—that he is more focused on the green growth of summer browning and dying: “My delight in the autumn colors is always tinged with melancholy, a sense of impending loss that is only heightened by the beauty all around. I am drawn down by the prospect of death more than I am lifted by the hope of new life.”

His essay “The Paradox of Fall” (fetzer.org/blog/paradox-fall), explains what might be true for all of us: “how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to discern meanings I needed to know. On the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.”

In a paradox, opposites don’t negate each other, he reminds us. “They cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. . . . We live in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking, and have a difficult time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter.”

As we move into autumn, let us allow the paradox of darkness and light to just be. The two will conspire to bring wholeness and health to every living thing. As we experience living and dying, dying and living, our lives will be real and colorful, fruitful and whole.

Lectionary

Mark’s gospel stories for September and October cheer us on toward lives that are more real, fruitful, and whole. From September—even through November—we read from Mark 7 through 13:8. It’s a good time for preachers and educators to teach about Mark, whose urgent pace follows Jesus’ ministry as we move with him.

The assembly will hear stories of Jesus teaching and healing, exorcising demons, and challenging believers to live lives of service and sacrifice. And throughout Jesus’ travels and our hearing, we are reminded of God’s abundant grace—fitting for a land and people experiencing the harvest of the earth and the beauty of nature, and for a broken world longing for wholeness and promise.

In week one (September 2), Jesus defends the disciples who were “eating with defiled hands” (Mark 7:2), giving preachers the opportunity to speak a word of forgiveness, love, and mercy. Jesus urges us to remember that impurity is a matter of the heart, not the mouth. And that impurity dwells in all of us.

Jesus encounters the Syrophoenician woman and a deaf man with a speech impediment in our second week (September 9), the start of a new program year. Matt Skinner, professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, says in his commentary on this story, “Tell your congregation to stay expectant; their persistence just might pay off and uncover grace flowing in new directions this autumn.”

In week three (September 16), Peter—like an eager confirmand—declares Jesus the Messiah, and Jesus tells the disciples and us what sort of sacrifice is involved in following him. And like confused confirmation students, in week four (September 23) the disciples still don’t get it—as they quarrel over which of them is the greatest. Jesus tells them the way to be great is to serve, and he puts before them a child to make a further point of welcome, belief, and equality.

In the final week of September (September 30), Jesus affirms the good being done in his name, even when it’s out of his control. For those of us with control issues (“Who, me?”), we are reminded that so much good, so much ministry, goes on in our congregations and communities in a way we might not do it, by people we don’t even know.

October begins with the challenging and uncomfortable text about divorce (October 7). Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples who are fending off children challenges us as well.

In the second week (October 14), Jesus goes deep into our relationship with wealth and possessions when he encounters the rich man who wants to know what he should do to inherit eternal life. We are reminded that we find our life by giving it away.

The disciples are again obsessing over who is number one in the third week (October 21), giving Jesus the opportunity to remind them that wielding power is not what’s important, and that when we pray “your kingdom come” we pray for an end to tyranny and oppression.

In our final week of October, the assembly will either celebrate the Reformation (reading from John) or be invited to pray fervently and faithfully with Bartimaeus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (October 28).

During this season, we also have the opportunity to hear from James, who reminds us to be doers of the word, not just hearers; to use our speech wisely; to feed the hungry; to care especially for orphans and widows; to honor the earth, give generously, and live in peace. A multitude of themes rises from James’s teachings in this season when many congregations focus on stewardship.

Visual Environment

Possibilities for September and October environment and liturgy could be called “the three Bs”: Beauty, Bounty, and Blessing.

The earth may be dying, but there may actually be no better months than those in autumn to beautifully decorate church space. Consider the harvest—fruits of the earth no matter what area of the country in which we live. Cornstalks, root vegetables, hay bales, fall flowers, and even the bounty of home canning—use it all!

Invite families to donate the bounty from their gardens or leftovers from the farmers’ market—both for decoration and to donate to the local food pantry. Look for ways your space can communicate to the community and to worshipers the abundance of the ground and the abundance of God’s grace.

There are at least three opportunities to provide blessings in your sacred space—four if one of your congregation’s traditions is affirmation of baptism (confirmation) in the fall, perhaps on Reformation Sunday. First, how about blessing backpacks as children return to school? (Unless you did this in August.) Invite students (of all ages) into the chancel with their backpacks and ask worshipers to hold out their hands in blessing as you pray for students. Then have teachers stand, and pray for them. Close out your back-to-school blessing by having parents and caregivers stand for another brief prayer. Check the seasonal rites section for examples of these kinds of blessings.

The Sunday of Labor/Labour Day is an opportunity to honor and uplift the workers in your community. Invite them to bring an item that represents their work (e.g., laptop computer, shovel, work or cowboy boots, briefcase). Or make a display using items that represent labor in your community. Find appropriate scripture verses that refer to work. In blessing the workers or in the prayers of intercession, include those who are unemployed or underemployed and those who labor at home (such as stay-at-home parents). Evangelical Lutheran Worship includes an “Affirmation of Christian Vocation” (p. 84) and prayer for commerce and labor (p. 78) that may be used.

Francis of Assisi and Friends

The third opportunity for a special blessing lands on October 4, the feast day honoring St. Francis of Assisi. “All praise to you, O Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures,” wrote St. Francis, patron saint of animals, in his “Canticle of the Creatures.” Many congregations host a pet blessing or procession of animals on or near this day.

If your congregation has never held a pet blessing, try one this year on Sunday, October 7. Maybe you traditionally hold one in your church garden or yard. Be daring this year and invite worshipers to bring their animals to the liturgy. Pets will likely surprise you with how well behaved they are. It’s almost as if they know they are in sacred space and will quickly settle into that awareness. Proclaim this a day of welcome to dogs and cats, hamsters and lizards, birds and goats, and—for children who don’t have pets at home (or don’t bring them)—stuffed animals. If you’re in a farming community with the benefit of larger animals, let them linger outside for their own blessing, or bravely bring them inside.

Include the animal’s caretaker in your individual blessing: “Fido, may you and your family find joy in the God who created you.” Use the liturgy and preaching to reinforce our responsibility to be good stewards of all creation.

These weeks of Autumn also give us a chance to celebrate other saints, such as Michael and All Angels (September 29). This festival is an opportunity to talk about angels, something most Lutherans rarely do. Address some of society’s misconceptions concerning angels, compared to how they are actually portrayed in scripture and liturgy. Consider an angel hymn fest, with “Hark! The herald angels sing” (ELW 270), “Ye watchers and ye holy ones” (ELW 424), and “The trumpets sound, the angels sing” (ELW 531) leading the way.

Some lesser-known saints are commemorated in September—Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (September 2) and Dag Hammarskjöld (September 18). Congregations with Swedish and Danish roots may be interested in marking these days. Ask confirmation students to research any of the autumn saints and teach Sunday school classes or an adult forum. Gail Ramshaw’s book More Days for Praise: Festivals and Commemorations in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2016) provides many beautiful suggestions for celebrating the faithful and fascinating people commemorated on the church’s calendar.

It’s also a great time for fall housecleaning. Recruit a crew to do a thorough dusting, vacuuming, and polishing of altar ware. Notice where elements of the worship space are placed and ponder moving them around. Replace burned-out lightbulbs and order fresh candles. As daylight lessens and the community prepares to hunker down, let clean space, fresh air, and music and song lift your spirits and warm your hearts.

Music

With the crisp air and return of more bodies to the pews, autumn is a perfect time to breathe in the wonder of assembly song. Choices of hymns can and should reflect this new energy. If they are not already part of your September repertoire, “Gather Us In” (ELW 532) and “Earth and all stars!” (ELW 731) are fall favorites.

Your choir is probably back rehearsing, ready to support the assembly in song. It’s also time to recruit and train assisting ministers, cantors, acolytes/torch bearers, and crucifers. Likewise, refresh the ranks of ushers and the altar guild (consider all ages to serve—yes, even children). If your fall schedule of worship leaders isn’t done, you’re burning daylight.

After last year’s observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, what congregations do to celebrate this year may seem, and be, minimal. Keep the church’s ongoing understanding of Martin Luther in mind as you choose Reformation texts and music. Even as we celebrate what Luther means to us, be mindful of recent ecumenical dialogues and relationships with other denominations and church bodies in our own communities. Consider this an opportunity not just to celebrate the Reformation as insiders, but to look outward to our neighbors.

Seasonal Checklist

  •  Notify others if you’re returning to a school-year worship schedule and adding education hours back to the calendar. Update your website and church voice mail, and notify other places (e.g., local newspaper) that advertise your worship times. If you have a Facebook page, invite a young person to create a meme and post it the week after Labor Day (when most congregations change schedules).
  •  If you intend to have a pet blessing in late September or early October, get the word out now. This is an ideal opportunity for community outreach.
  •  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.
  •  If you intend to honor other occasions of blessing (a back-to-school blessing or workers on Labor/Labour Day weekend), advertise now.
  •  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. The seasonal rites section offers ideas for this presentation, including having parents present Bibles to the children.
  •  Reintroduce confession and forgiveness if this has been omitted during the summer months.
  •  Use the Kyrie and the hymn of praise (“Glory to God”) or a hymn equivalent.
  •  On Reformation Day, use the Nicene Creed; use the Apostles’ Creed for other Sundays in these months.
  •  Begin planning for Advent.

From sundaysandseasons.com.

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