Seasonal

Preparing for Autumn (Year B)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons: Year B 2021, copyright © 2020 Augsburg Fortress.

Preaching

After a summer of discipleship through binary challenges and moments of decision, Mark’s gospel moves us into the mystery of Christ’s hidden work in the cross. Does Jesus intentionally hide his healing power from the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man? (Lectionary 23). We may never understand Jesus’ inner thoughts, but perhaps Mark is reminding us not to take Jesus’ presence for granted, especially among outsiders. Then comes the cross: Jesus speaks twice of his passion and resurrection (Lectionary 24 and 25; the third instance, 10:32-34, could be appended to the gospel for Lectionary 29). It’s a mystery the disciples can’t yet comprehend, but a mystery with consequences for discipleship: protecting and blessing the weak, especially children (Lectionary 26 and 27); giving up wealth for the sake of the poor, and becoming dependent upon the household of God whom Jesus calls family (Lectionary 28); seeking greatness through service and hidden acts of kindness (Lectionary 29).

At the heart of the gospel message is the mercy of Jesus: a merciful Messiah who is our blood ransom (Lectionary 29), a merciful healer and teacher who hears the begging of outsiders blinded by the world’s wisdom—including, ironically, the son of the famous Greek philosopher Timaeus (Lectionary 30). Mark’s narrative for autumn concludes with a Reformation-appropriate message of loving and sharing our whole lives with our neighbors in need (Lectionary 31), though it may be impossible not to observe the traditional Reformation gospel’s invitation to discipleship centered in the word (John 8:31-36). Reformation Day falls this year on Sunday, October 31.

Supporting the central proclamation of the gospel are heavy prophetic readings from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos, where God’s vindication and judgment loom large. Attention to the historical situation of Israel’s destruction and exile makes these powerful indictments against current injustices and oppression of the world’s poor. Since some of these readings are first heard in the incarnation half of the church year, their proclamation during the discipleship half of the church year challenges us to pay attention to the suffering servants among us. Alternative visions of a more just world are given in readings from Numbers, Genesis, and Deuteronomy. Here we see modeled a shared, rather than dictatorial, leadership (Num. 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Lectionary 26); dying to self and rising to a mutual relationship of love (Gen. 2:18-24; Lectionary 27); and the binding of God’s word to every aspect of life (Deut. 6:1-9; Lectionary 31).

Once every three years we have a series of second readings from James, historically a hard book for Lutherans. Any attentive interpretation, however, discovers that James stands in the centuries-old Wisdom tradition, especially that of Proverbs. At the heart of this ancient wisdom is the understanding that mercy triumphs over judgment, especially for the poor (James 2:1-17; Lectionary 23). If we take no account of the poor, our faith is dead. But when we drink from Wisdom’s eternal spring, we are like fig trees that properly bear figs (James 3:11-12; Lectionary 24).

The second half of autumn begins our long journey through Hebrews, extending into November. Other than Holy Week and Christmas (and two festivals centered on the conception and naming of Jesus), these readings from chapters 1–10 are only proclaimed here. Poetic language that rivals John’s prologue allows us to soar into the paradoxical and eternal heart of Christ (Heb. 1:1-4; Lectionary 27). The one who suffers for us is both our priest and sacrifice, the one who leads us gently and comforts our troubled conscience (Lectionary 29 and 31). The paradoxical truth of Hebrews is expressed in Sylvia Dunstan’s hymn “Christus Paradox”: “You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd. / You, Lord, are both prince and slave. / You, peacemaker and sword-bringer / of the way you took and gave” (Glory to God #274). One could not better summarize the themes of our preaching this autumn.

Intercessory Prayer

Autumn is a transitional time in our human schedules (school starts) and in nature (leaves fall). Because the people being addressed in the readings are also in transition, this is a teaching time. The intercessions are an opportunity to pray for healthy and faithful change, to ask God’s help in accepting what is unfamiliar and even frightening, and to welcome innovation and the hard work of finding ourselves on a new path.

From the Old Testament, Isaiah preaches hope, Jeremiah begs for help, Moses receives elders to help him lead the people, God creates humans, Amos calls the people to “seek good and not evil” (5:14), the righteous one intercedes for sinners, and the people are gathered to hear, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Deut. 6:5).

In the gospel readings, Jesus learns to care for people outside his tribe. He admonishes his followers: take up your cross, the first shall be last, whatever is offensive in us should be destroyed, enter the kingdom of God as a little child, the last shall be first, love God and love your neighbor.

In the second readings, James is full of admonitions and Hebrews woos its hearers to strength and conviction. The specific language in each can be used in the intercessions to echo the wisdom of these letters. James tells us: Faith without works is dead (2:17), the tongue is a primary source of evil (3:6), “cravings . . . are at war within you” (4:1), “prayer . . . will save the sick” (5:15). By showing the behaviors that proceed from ungodly desires, a life of faith is, by contrast, expressed. Intercessions that call upon the language of James can be turned to give thanks for the ability to care for those in need, to think before speaking, to be rid of base desires, and to pray. Better to give thanks than to give orders.

During the last five Sundays of this season, Hebrews gives these assurances: God cares for human beings; Jesus understands our frailty because of his suffering; Jesus is the source of salvation, intercedes for us, and purifies us “to worship the living God!” (9:14).

Just as there are different paths for following Jesus, the intercessions may be structured in a number of ways, tied together by language found in the readings and the concerns of the intercessions as presented in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (pp. 105–106). One approach to the intercessions is as a series of collects that have a certain structure apparent in the prayer of the day (ELW, pp. 18–63 and 72–87), naming:

who is addressed,

attribute of the one addressed,

thank you,

help us,

in the name of Jesus or the holy Trinity.

The assembly offers its assent: Amen.

If you have this outline in your heart, any time you are asked to pray you will readily be able to offer a five-line prayer that speaks to the moment.

A thanksgiving and interceding structure is modeled on page 304 of Evangelical Lutheran Worship. It first lists those things for which we give thanks and then lists the needs of the world, ending with a closing collect. The lists can be changed but most important is that people know they may add their own thanksgivings and intercessions. The structure of each list begins with the word “for,” not needing to repeat the “we thank you” or “we pray.” This simplicity is a good change from praying in the form of collects, if that has been the congregation’s pattern.

Assembly Song

Think about how some of the fall rituals in the life of your congregation might relate to the music in the service. Do you bless backpacks? Distribute Bibles? Participate in “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday? Install teachers or youth mentors? Bless new drivers? How might assembly song connect everyone with these various occasions in a cross-generational way? Is there one song that might tie together these events, such as “Blest be the tie that binds” (ELW 656)?

Several gospel readings in September and October specifically address the inclusion of children (Lectionary 25 and 27). How might people of all ages be especially drawn together through the music selected for these days? If a sermon series emerges as part of these common themes, is there one song or hymn that might be used each week? Could conversations grow out of this, such as making space before or after worship to allow people of all ages to share favorite songs from their childhood or Bible camp days and tell their stories? What if each of these Sundays included at least one youth in an intentional leadership role? They could lead the psalm, chant the Kyrie, or introduce a new hymn by singing the first stanza alone.

Along those lines: If your congregation has a Sunday school program with a musical element, are there songs that might be shared? What are some of the common songs used in both Sunday school and worship? Are there songs that one group might teach the other?

If you haven’t done so in the past, consider offering a Blessing of the Animals service around October 4, the commemoration of Francis of Assisi (for an example, see the seasonal rites section, pp. 259–260). What songs might be sung easily by people who are also holding on to dogs and cats and other furry friends? This might be a time when a printed service folder including all of the music is especially helpful so no one has to find pages in a hymnal. “All creatures, worship God most high!” (ELW 835) is attributed to Francis and would be most appropriate.

October 11 is the Day of Thanksgiving in Canada. How is this day observed in your setting? Is there an ecumenical community service? A service on Thanksgiving Day, or perhaps the night before? As a way of involving people of all ages in worship, some churches have started the tradition of a prelude provided by youth. It is advertised as such, and people come early to hear the offerings of young musicians.

Reformation Day (October 31) falls on a Sunday this year. What Reformation-era hymns does your assembly know especially well? It has been a few years since the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What hymns from that era can you teach to make this year’s observance even more meaningful? If you always sing the isometric version of “A mighty fortress is our God,” what would happen if you sang the rhythmic version instead? What if you taught “Our Father, God in heaven above” (ELW 746/747) and sang it this day? “O Lord, we praise you” (ELW 499) could be sung and/or taught by a group of children, who will appreciate the driving rhythm. Percussion and woodwinds can transform this melody into a fun Renaissance-style dance.

Worship Space

Even though ordinary time continues through autumn, many churches begin a new year of programming in September. Consider how your worship space can embody the ministry happening with children, youth, or adults by displaying words or images being used by your ministry areas. Children have an especially prominent place in the gospel readings during September and October. Take Jesus’ words seriously, that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15; Lectionary 27).

  • Allow the children of your congregation to take leadership in adorning the worship space. Ask them what they like about the space and what they would like to see. Give them space to dream and imagine!
  • Commission your children or youth to create banners that can be used during this time of year. If you have older students with gifts in the visual arts, give them the responsibility of designing the items, and help the younger children paint/draw/fill in the designs of the older students.

The gospel passages also stress themes of humility and commitment to living out Jesus’ words. Many of these passages take us by surprise in that they seem to turn conventional wisdom on its head: “sell what you own and give the money to the poor” (Mark 10:21; Lectionary 28), “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43; Lectionary 29), and “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34; Lectionary 24). For longtime churchgoers, these statements may have lost their initial impact. How can you use the configuration of your worship space so that your congregation can experience Jesus’ message anew in a visual or physical way?

  • The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has a door of humility, which is purposely shorter to force entrants to bow when they enter the building. While not everyone may be physically able to enter that way, if you have multiple entrances to the worship space, you may consider temporarily shortening the doorway for the season.
  • If the offering is usually collected while the assembly is seated, consider placing receptacles around the worship space so that worshipers have to move to give their gifts. If possible, add photos of local ministries or mission partners to create a sense of connection with the people with whom you are building the kingdom.

On Reformation Day, go all-out in celebrating your church’s heritage. Make use of both historic expressions of the Reformation tradition and the heritage of your local congregation. How could you display photographs of your congregation in a way that demonstrates its commitment to Reformation ideals? Can you symbolically display Luther’s five solas (faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, scripture alone, to God alone be glory) in your worship space? Take the opportunity to explore biblical imagery of these Reformation concepts. Some of the solas are more easily represented—a Bible for scripture alone or a cross for Christ alone—but others, like grace and faith, are more difficult. Jesus describes faith as like a small mustard seed (Mark 4:31; Lectionary 11); grace is a gift (Rom. 3:24). Is there a way you can open up your study to the rest of the congregation? Invite them to explore the Bible with you; lay out a long sheet of butcher paper on which they can write or draw what they learn. Use this paper to adorn your worship space so you feel surrounded by your heritage!

Seasonal Checklist

  • If you are returning to a school-year worship and education schedule, update websites, social media, newspaper listings, voicemail messages, outdoor signs, and internal publications such as a newsletter.
  • 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 or near October 4, get the word out now. This is an ideal opportunity for community outreach. See a form for blessing animals on pages 259–260.
  • 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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