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WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
JANUARY 18–25, 2018

PRAYER / WORSHIP: Homiletic Notes for the Week of Prayer

2018 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

By The Rev. Dr. Shauna K. Hannan
Associate Professor of Homiletics
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

The following recommended progression of a sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is attentive to the particularities of the occasion, the primary scripture passage in Exodus 15 (with an eye toward the other readings: Psalm 118, Romans 8 and Mark 5) and, to some degree, the daily Scripture and prayer guide. The primary motif throughout is the week’s theme: “Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power” (Exodus 15:6).

Since the preacher of the day is the local expert in any given context, it is assumed that the most faithful content for that context will be added by that local expert. In addition to supplying the particularities of the content, preachers should also feel free to rearrange the order of the major moves if a different progression makes more sense. The recommend progression of major moves is as follows:

(Major Move 1) Begin with the Occasion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
(Major Move 2) Highlight Moses’ and Miriam’s Songs in Exodus
(Major Move 3) Lift Up Examples of Triumph over Oppression in Your Communities
(Major Move 4) Identify Oppressed Situations and Peoples in Your Communities and Beyond Who are Still in Need of Liberation
(Major Move 5) Invite Us to Harness God’s Invitation to Participate in God’s Mission to Liberate

Preparation note: I recommend engaging in intentional conversation with some of your congregation members before crafting this sermon. (I recommend this for any sermon, but especially this one.) Doing so will yield more engaged hearers and perhaps, ultimately, more active participants as we seek Christian unity. The conversations could be intentional one-on-one or small group conversations. You might consider adding one or two of these questions to the daily studies offered in the resource materials. The following prompts directly serve the recommended sermon movement.

  1. Where do you see signs of Christian Unity?
  2. Can you think of any examples in your lifetime where and when you have seen or experienced triumph over oppression?
  3. Who and/or which communities of people are still experiencing oppression?
  4. How is God at work in the situation/with the people in need of freedom from bondage? How do we celebrate God’s work?
  5. How does/might this community participate in liberation from oppression?

Begin with the Occasion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
(Major Move 1)

Sub Moves
Identify places in the world where Christian unity is visible
Identify places in your local communities where Christian unity is visible
Proclaim God as the one who has made such unity visible and such celebration possible

Begin with an explicit recognition of the occasion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (WPCU). Indeed, this is the week in which we have joined many others for decades to pray that all may be one and for visible unity among Christian churches around the world. The WPCU website will greatly assist with some of the wording for this opening.

Identify places in the world where Christian unity is visible

Given the recent commemorations of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, consider highlighting recent Lutheran-Catholic dialogues. The intent of the statement of agreements found in the Declaration on the Way is to “help inspire continuing work toward the visible Christian unity, which is Christ’s prayer.”

Next, highlight the ecumenical initiatives of the 33 members of the Caribbean Conference of Churches, especially since representatives of a variety of Caribbean church communities selected the theme and are the authors of much of this week’s resources. Again, the WPCU website will be helpful.

Identify places in your local communities where Christian unity is visible

Take this a step closer to home (if the two examples above are “close to home” for you, considering fleshing these out a bit more or naming others), by identifying your community’s efforts in making visible Christian unity. This is one concrete place to insert the stories your people share with you in your preparatory conversations. (Of course, you’ll need to ask permission to share them.) For example, I recall a community in which the homeless shelter and other services for those without homes was owned and operated by the community’s various Christian churches. I would highlight this ministry if I were to preach in that context. In my current community in Berkeley, CA the anti-alt right demonstrations have been led by church communities despite denominational (and faith community) differences. Highlight situations in which hopes for liberative outcomes are clear.

Proclaim God as the one who has made such unity visible and such celebration possible

Since we often forget to celebrate progress, even baby steps, this would be a good place to remind hearers of the ways you celebrate such experiences. Do you sing? eat? dance? Very importantly, highlight ways you remember to praise God for the ways God acts to liberate in these situations. This moment is to be accentuated, for the proclamation that God is the primary change agent is the connector in this sermon between the visible signs of Christian unity and the particularities of this year’s theme for the WPCU. God is the one who makes such unity visible. God is the one who has makes celebration possible.

Introduce a call and response refrain that will be repeated throughout the sermon.

Preacher: “Your right Hand, O Lord . . .”
Congregation: “Glorious in power.”

Transition: Of course, we are not the first to proclaim these words. Moses did before us. (Note that this is your transitional phrase. I do not recommend either explicitly naming that we are moving to the next section or saying the title of the next move.)

Highlight Moses’ and Miriam’s Songs in Exodus
(Major Move 2)

Moses knew how to celebrate, as did his siste, Miriam. Identify the characteristics of their celebratory songs. For example, they remember; they remember where they had once been and affirm where they are now. They proclaim that they have been liberated from their oppression through the mighty acts of God. Moses and Miriam give God the glory for God’s agency in their liberation; God’s right hand is at work. They praise God through song, dance, playing instruments.

Preacher: “Your right Hand, O Lord . . .”
Congregation: “Glorious in power.”

The commentary and the daily Scripture readings and prayer guide can be helpful here. See especially the daily prayer and study for Day 7 (Exodus 2:1-10, The Birth of Moses) and Day 3 (Exodus 3:4-10, God frees those who are in human bondage).

Then, make explicit the connection between God’s hand in liberating the oppressed and the pursuit of Christian unity. In fact, it might be the other way around, the pursuit of Christian unity is not an end in itself, but a goal for the sake of liberation from oppression in this and in every age. Again, from the website:

In witnessing to this common hope, the churches are working together to minister to all peoples of the [Caribbean], but particularly the most vulnerable and neglected. In the words of the hymn, “the right hand of God is planting in our land, planting seeds of freedom, hope and love.” With this explicit connection, the sermon can progress to the next major move.

Lift Up Examples of Triumph Over Oppression in Your Communities
(Major Move 3)

Sub Moves
Identify how you see God’s right hand at work in these situations
Celebrate by praising God

Identify places/situations of liberation from oppression. This is another place to highlight those stories your people share with you in your preparatory conversations. Again, you’ll need to ask permission to share them. Better yet, invite them to name these places at this point in your sermon. If you have so many stories that you have to prioritize, choose those stories that explicitly highlight the ecumenical work of various faith communities. After each story, proclaim that refrain:

Preacher: “Your right Hand, O Lord . . .”
Congregation: “Glorious in power.”

Identify how you see God’s right hand at work in these situations

Be explicit here, preacher. Dig deeply into how you understand God to be at work in situations. A place to start is with Dr. Rafferty’s “Commentary on the Scriptural Text” where he reminds us that God’s “right hand” is “an OT metaphor for power. But it must also be remembered that the right hand was the metaphor for relationship, hospitality, providence as well as power in battle.” Tell us what you see preacher. What are the relationships in your community that reveal God’s agency? Where have you seen hospitality manifesting itself as the power of God?

The healing stories in the Mark 5 can be helpful here as we think about power not necessarily as power in battle but as relationship and hospitality and connection. Indeed, something changes with Jesus who dares to touch the untouchable, for example, and in so doing heals. Jesus represents a different kind of power of God’s right hand! In these stories we discover the extent to which Jesus exudes healing power. It wasn’t Jesus who reached out his hand to the hemorrhaging woman, but the hemorrhaging woman who reached out and touched Jesus, which led to her healing.

Preacher: “Your right Hand, O Lord . . .”
Congregation: “Glorious in power.”

Celebrate by praising God

In this section, take us from remembering where we have been to affirming where we are now. The Psalmist’s words (Psalm 118) resonate with the experiences of Moses, Miriam, the little girl and the hemorrhaging woman and, perhaps, us:
Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place . . .
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
but the Lord helped me . . .

Then move us to where we are now by prompting us to give thanks and praise to God, Miriam and Moses style. Sing. Dance. Play instruments. Yes, instead of telling us how to praise God in the future, do it! Now! Yes, right in the middle of the sermon. Choose that hymn that gets everyone moving! “We are Marching in the Light of God.” “Amazing Grace.” “Your Right Hand, O God.” “Leaning on the Everlasting God.” “Cantad al Señor.”

Bring us back together with the refrain:

Preacher: “Your right Hand, O Lord . . .”
Congregation: “Glorious in power.”

Transition: Despite occasions to celebrate, we remember that many continue to cry out in distress.

Identify Oppressed Situations and Peoples in Your Communities and Beyond Who are in Need of Liberation
(Major Move 4)

Recall that in the first move you began broadly and moved in closer to home. In this move, begin with the local places and situations where people continue to cry out for liberation, then move from the local to the regional, followed by global situations. Sadly, there could be no end to these examples. This may be another place where some of your preparatory conversations are highlighted. It might also be a place for a more intentional invitation for congregational participation. For example, have people write down a name of someone or a group of people in need of liberation and bring these names to the front as an offering. The leader of the prayers of the church can integrate the names into the prayers later in the worship service. You could also have a prayer station where people light a candle and prayer for those who have been named. Be creative here. If at all possible integrate the whole body; that is invite us to get up and move as a symbol of our capacity and willingness to “get up and move” beyond the church walls for the sake of liberation.

Preparation note: Consider prioritizing doing what the biblical text does over saying what the biblical text says. If we think God’s word has the power to do things (transform, console, motivate, challenge, comfort, invite . . . unify!), aim big. Identify what you hope your sermon would for your hearers. I recognize that much of what is being suggested here may not be a typical progression of a sermon; but neither is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Take advantage of doing a new thing, of inviting your hearers’ participation in new ways. Above all, instead of just talking about praying for Christian unity, this sermon’s function will be doing it!

Transition: Even as we recognize the present sufferings of this world, we also recognize with the Apostle Paul that the present sufferings of this world are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. We wait in eager expectation for something else to be revealed. (Rom. 8).

Invite Us to Harness God’s Invitation to Participate in God’s Mission to Liberate
(Major Move 5)

We do not just wait idly. Instead we are reminded that God has invited us to participate in God’s mission to liberate. That God liberates by working through God’s children is as true for us as it was for Moses. Recall Moses’ story in Exodus 14.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. . .” Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.

It was Moses’ hand that was raised, but Moses proclaims it as God’s right hand: “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them” (Ex. 15:11b-12).

God and God’s people work together. Our efforts toward Christian unity with its effort toward liberating people from oppression make visible God’s right hand.

Preacher: “Your right Hand, O Lord . . .”
Congregation: “Glorious in power.”

Close with a bold invitation to move beyond the church walls and into the world, to move beyond praying for Christian unity and its potential to participate with God in letting the oppressed go free, and into living it! And just as boldly, affirm that God is at work in these efforts.

Jan Schnell Rippentrop teaches homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and serves as Director of the Master of Arts Programs. She did her doctoral work at Emory University, studying liturgical theology and homiletics. Most of her research revolves around the way God’s living Word is heard, which has led to specific research in pneumatology, political theology, and eschatology. In both her teaching and her research, she is committed to interdisciplinarity, theories that have street cred, and pedagogies or methodologies that recognize the inherent value and wisdom that each participant brings. A conference speaker and preacher, she delights in God’s spirited movement in the fabric of our daily lives and on the streets of our public spaces.

Before Emory, Rippentrop served as pastor among the incredible people of Zion Lutheran Church in Iowa City, Iowa. Rippentrop holds an M.Div. from Wartburg Seminary.

In addition to her teaching and research, Rippentrop is also passionate about visual and performance arts, perennial gardening, sustainable practices, and slam poetry.