Worship Resources for September 10, 2023—Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149; Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Narrative Lectionary: Garden of Eden, Genesis 2:4b-25 (Mark 1:16-20 or Mark 10:6-8)

In the first selection of the Hebrew scriptures, we are following the stories of our ancestors of the faith. Exodus 12:1-14 contains the establishment of Passover. Moses and Aaron instruct the people, as God has shown them, that this is a new beginning: God is about to lead the people out of oppression and into liberation. The Passover commemorates the last plague, and how the angel of God passed over the people of Israel to pass judgment on their oppressors. The Passover is a day of remembrance to be passed down throughout the generations of how God delivered the people.

Psalm 149 is a song of praise for the congregation. The psalmist calls the people of Israel to give praise to their maker, for God delights in the people’s worship and praise. Probably sung as a song of victory after battle, the psalmist invokes the image of enemy kings and rulers as trapped by the praises of God, bound and in chains, with swords drawn by the faithful. The psalmist concludes with an image of battle glory for the faithful of God.

The second selection of the Hebrew scriptures turns to Ezekiel 33:7-11. The prophet has been called to speak on behalf of God as a sentinel, a watchman, to warn the people to turn from evil ways. If the prophet does not warn the people, God’s judgment is on the prophet’s hands, but if the prophet does warn them and they don’t listen, at least the prophet will have saved his life while others will perish. But the truth is God does not enjoy the punishment of those who do evil—it is rather the consequences of their own actions. God would rather that those who do evil would turn back to God’s ways and live.

Psalm 119:33-40 is part of an alphabetic acrostic poem. This section is a prayer to God to help the psalmist turn back to God’s ways. They desire to learn from God and gain understanding of the commandments and decrees. They long to turn their heart and mind to God’s ways, and away from the fleeting pleasures of the world. They call upon God to confirm God’s promises, and to find life in living into righteousness.

The Epistle lessons continue in Romans 13:8-14. In this section, Paul turns to the Christian life and how to live as part of the greater community—for the Roman church, that meant among the rest of the Jewish community for gentile believers. They are to follow the commandments, especially loving their neighbor as themselves. Paul writes that the fulfilment of Christ’s promises is coming but has not yet arrived. They are called to live as children of God and not to go back to their old ways and pagan practices. Instead, they are to live in community with one another and remain faithful to Christ.

Matthew 18:15-20 contains Jesus’s instructions to the disciples about how to deal with wrongdoing in the church, and how to start with the person who has offended you before going to others. This passage is followed by Peter’s question about forgiveness, and it is important to remember that these are bound together. When Jesus says that the one who refuses to listen to the church should be treated like a gentile and tax collector, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are to be kicked out. It means they are to be treated as those who do not understand. Boundaries are important, and forgiveness is an ongoing process. Sometimes people must be asked to leave, or victims may be harmed. Sometimes forgiveness is not possible. Instead, we must hold these passages in tension, knowing at times forgiveness is not the same as restoration to the community, and at times we have to live with the people we are in conflict with.

The Narrative Lectionary begins its Year 2 cycle with the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 2:4b-25, the second account of creation is told. A human being, adam in Hebrew, was formed from the dust of the earth, adamah. The Lord God (the term used in most English translations to designate that this is from the Yahwist tradition, originating in Judah rather than in the northern kingdom of Israel), took the human being and placed them in the garden planted in Eden, with all trees good for food and beautiful to look at, along with the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A continuous flow of water through the four river branches kept the plants watered. The Lord God instructed the human they could eat of every tree, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Lord God made all the creatures to be a helper for the human being, but none of them were suitable to be a partner so the Creator made a partner from the human being’s side, a man and a woman, who were naked and not ashamed. While this story is often used as a precursor to the institution of marriage, the story shows us that we are created not to be alone, to have a partner, and to help care for the Creator’s work.

The supplementary verses contain two options. Mark 1:16-20 contains an account of Jesus calling Simon and Andrew, James and John from their fishing boats to follow him and fish for people. James and John even left their father Zebedee who was mending nets with other hired men to follow Jesus. In Mark 10:6-8, Jesus uses the end of Genesis 2 as his argument against divorce. Genesis 2 shows that God’s intention is for marriage to be a partnership, two becoming one. Nonetheless, we must always be cautious in preaching from these passages, knowing that divorce is a reality for many people. Divorce often causes harm, but sometimes it is necessary in a harmful marriage. What we can preach is that God’s intention is for us to not go through that harm. God’s intention for us is to be in partnership with one another, but we are human beings with faults and flaws.

God’s intentions for the people about to go into exile in Jeremiah 29:11 is often a verse shared out of context: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” However, in the broader context of all of scripture, we can say that this is God’s intention for us: plans for welfare and not for harm, a future with hope. Nonetheless, our own actions can derail us. In scripture, the consequences of the people’s actions are often coined in terms of God’s wrath and judgment—but it is always the consequences of bad decisions. When the people began worshiping other gods and following the ways of other nations, they made poor political choices and neglected the most vulnerable. They were overrun by invaders and taken into exile. If they had turned back to God’s ways, they would have turned away from other nations’ ways. God’s intentions for us are collective: they are for the good of humanity. We are responsible for our own actions, but we also suffer the consequences of our leader’s actions. One reason God cares so much for the poor, widow and orphan is that they were among the most vulnerable of society and suffered the consequences of the actions of those who should have protected them. The same goes today, in that our most vulnerable—our elderly, disabled, houseless, refugee, suffering from mental illness, LGBTQ+ youth neighbors—are the ones who suffer the consequences of our leaders’ actions with laws, policies, and funding (or lack thereof. Ezekiel was warned by God of what would happen if the people turned from God’s ways, but also encouraged that if they turned back to God, they would find life. Paul reminded the Christians in Rome that they needed to be neighbors of each other and to love one another, to live as if Christ’s promises were already fulfilled. Jesus taught the disciples that we have to live with people who wrong us, and that there are no easy answers, but we must try to work for restoration. For this is God’s intention for us: a future with hope. Restoration and reconciliation. Loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.

Call to Worship (Psalm 139:33-37)
Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes,
And I will observe it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
And observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.
Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.
Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;
Give me life in your ways.
In this time of worship,
Call us into Your way, Your truth, and Your life. Amen.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Merciful God, we confess that we often desire justice that is retributive and not restorative. We want those who have wronged us to suffer, while we desire mercy for ourselves. We confess that at times we shirk our responsibilities for other’s suffering in this world, and at other times we do not hold those in power accountable for injustice. Forgive us and call us into Your ways. Teach us how to begin the work of reparation and restoration. When we seek forgiveness, remind us to forgive others who wrong us in the same way. Teach us how to do better and guide us in living into Your righteousness. Call us to seek justice for the most vulnerable among us. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.

God hears our own cries when we have been wronged. God knows our inmost hearts and knows our hurts. God knows the hairs on our heads and restores us when we have been downtrodden. God grants us forgiveness when we seek it and when we work to repair what we have wronged. Know that when you seek forgiveness, it will be granted, if you work for restoration. Know that when you have been wronged, God knows your wounds, and will aid you in healing. You are not alone in your suffering. You are not alone in your pain. You are not alone when you have wronged another, unintentionally or intentionally, and forgiveness is possible in the work of reparation and restoration. Roll up your sleeves. Be prepared to do the hard work, whether you need forgiveness or are seeking it. But know this: God loves you, and nothing anyone has done or will do, and nothing you have done or will do, can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

God of our Ancestors, we give thanks for the stories we have in Scripture, stories passed down to us through word and song, through geography and archaeology, in myth and legend. We thank You for the stories shared to us by our elders. Guide us in how we shape these stories to the next generation, so they might not repeat the mistakes our ancestors made, or the ones we have participated in, but that they may learn and grow. May we not water-down the lessons but be truthful in the harm some stories have caused and in the misuse of others. May we embrace our ancestors as part of who we are, and yet not all of who we are becoming. We are made in Your image, O God, an image that is ever-changing and renewing, day by day, and we are ready to pass on what we have learned for a new generation to live into Your ways, better than we did. Amen.

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