A Better Righteousness: Four Services: World Communion to Reformation Day, page 1 of 2

We are off on a journey—a four-week venture into familiar and unfamiliar territory. What follows are a series of suggestions for sermons, liturgies, and bulletin covers for the month of October, beginning with World Communion Sunday and ending with Reformation Sunday. The familiar part of our journey is our chosen theme, "A Better Righteousness," suggested by the lectionary lessons of the current year (cycle A). This theme will strike Reformed/Presbyterian congregations as entirely appropriate as we move towards the commemoration of the Protestant Reformation.

Less familiar is the beginning of our journey, the celebration of World Communion Sunday. In spite of divisions, the church intentionally celebrates its unity. We are one body—brothers and sisters all—for we find our life and sustenance in Christ. And there's the rub: we end the month with the commemoration of a "divorce" (as Dr. Henry Wildeboer pointedly referred to the events of 1517 in the Christian Courier, a Reformed weekly published in Canada). It is this movement from the universal to the particular, from the celebration of the church's essential unity to the commemoration of an ecclesiastical divorce, that will challenge worship planners.



In all my travels the thing that has impressed me most is the universal brotherhood of man—what there is of it.
-Mark Twain

Ever the cynic, Mark Twain puts his finger on a painful reality: in spite of the common bond we all share, its painful absence is only too obvious in many situations and places. In these places, parched and dry from lack of human love and care, miscarriages of justice and neglected stewardship set brother against brother and sister against sister. This first in a series of four services turns us to Christ, the well-spring of living water, who nurtures a new life of true fellowship.


Old Testament: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9

We begin our journey at Mount Sinai. God has just saved his people, set them free from slavery. The message is that God's saving grace and loving faithfulness precede the obedience he requires. The prologue to the law makes this abundantly clear: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."

God saves because he is Yahweh, because he keeps covenant and does not abandon his people or creation.

What, then, is the point of the law? The law is both prescriptive and descriptive. The law describes "the redeemed of the Lord," the people living in community, with whom God renews his covenant here at Mount Sinai. The law's prescriptive function lies in its intent to shape the people of God—to sculpt a people or community of great beauty, the envy of all peoples. Unfortunately, the prescriptive function of the law, misunderstood and misapplied, came to be seen as a means to gaining freedom, deliverance. Incredible, but true.

Psalter: Psalm 19 (see hymn and anthem suggestions in the service)

Epistle: Philippians 3:4-14

The apostle Paul juxtaposes righteousness based on law and righteousness based on faith: the law as negative, a burden (as we try to save ourselves and inevitably lose sight of God), or positive (defining who we are by God's grace). Paul mocks those who place their confidence "in the flesh" as he recites his own religious pedigree. According to the law, he suggests, he has it made. But his "credentials" are mere garbage when measured against the astonishing reality that God has come in Christ to take our place, to do and to be our righteousness.

As in the Exodus lection for this Sunday, grace is central here. God in Christ saves, and that salvation is a gift to all who have faith in Christ. The preacher/liturgist will recognize the possibilities of celebrating these emphases on this World Communion Sunday.

This passage also highlights the "already-but-not-yet" aspect of our salvation (see v. 12). Since this emphasis provides a strong incentive to be nourished with the body and blood of Christ, it's especially appropriate on World Communion Sunday.

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46

The gospel lesson calls for balance. Works are important! As we move toward Reformation Sunday, the celebration of "salvation by grace, through faith, apart from works," we may need to temper anti-Roman Catholic, self-righteous denunciations of salvation by works. This parable, actually an allegory, reminds us that the vineyard, Israel's special place and role in God's redemptive work, was taken away and given to the gentiles. The implied message is this: if the present tenants (Christians today) do not produce fruits (for example, righteousness—see Matt. 25:32 ff. for a powerful description of righteous living), then God will again give the vineyard to others. Scientists speak of an expanding universe. This parable teases us with the vision of an expanding kingdom: God will not be stopped.

On this Sunday, as we celebrate Christian solidarity and acknowledge our weakness (Phil. 3:12), this parable presents an unlimited number of possibilities for preaching. If your congregation celebrates communion, the parable, in conjunction with the epistle lesson, sets the stage for a truly rich experience of God's grace as he nurtures us with the Word (verbal and sacramental).


Introit: "Lord, Who Are They That May Dwell in Your Courts" (Psalm 15) PsH 15

Call to Worship

Praise the Lord; praise God, O my soul.
Let us praise God as long as we live.
God has heard our cries, he has seen our tears,
he has prepared for us a table—a rich banquet.

God satisfies us in the morning with steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
As we participate in the Spirit,
our selfish conceits give way to unity: for we are one in the Spirit;
one in the Lord.

Then let us worship God with joy and praise,
knowing our salvation is in Christ.

Hymn: "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" PsH 470-1, PH 142-3, RL 593-4 TH296-7

A Time of Covenant Renewal

Prayer of Confession

Assurance of Pardon

Scripture: Exodus 20:1-18 (read, or framed by the choir singing st. 1 and 9 of PsH 153)

Response of Gratitude (suggestions based on Psalm 19)

"The Law of the Lord Is Perfect"TH 152

"Lord, You Have the Words"(Haas, in Gather, GIA Pubilcations)
Anthem: "The Heavens Are Telling" (Haydn, from the Creation)

We Hear God's Word

Scripture: Matthew 21:33-46; Phil. 3:4-14

Text: Phil. 3:9

Sermon: "The Faithfulness of God"

We Respond to God's Word

Hymn: "I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord" PsH ,169

The Lord's Supper

Communion Hymn: "The Church's One Foundation" PsH 502, PH 442, RL 394, TH 347

Communion Anthem: "Draw Us in the Spirit's Tether" (Harold Friedel)

Commission and Blessing

God has placed us in the vineyard
not as owners, but as loving caretakers.
The grace of God sustains us;
the Spirit rouses us to loving service.

God met us when we gathered for worship;
he goes with us as we leave to serve.
We are amazed that God seeks our service;
we will exalt his name among the nations.

The Benediction


Hymn: "As Stewards of a Vineyard" PsH 611



Tilley Endurables are all the rage with people who enjoy both rugged outdoor activities and semi-formal dress activities. Alex Tilley, the Canadian founder of the company that makes this all-purpose clothing, boasts that Tilley clothing can be eaten by elephants, retrieved from their droppings several days later, and, after a good rinse in a creek, worn to a banquet. No wonder Mr. Tilley's wonderful garb holds special attraction for travelers— especially those who always want to be dressed for the occasion.

In this second week, the focus is again on a better righteousness. The passages for the week reveal that we are clothed in this righteousness—dressed for the occasion—as we travel onward.


Old Testament: Exodus 32:1-14

Comments on this lection will be brief since this passage will likely serve as secondary material for this Sunday. But notice that the primary concern is the question "Who saves?" In verses 1-6, a weak-kneed Aaron gives in to the demand to create an image of God. When he finishes his creating work, Aaron solemnly declares: "These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up out of the land of Egypt" (v. 4, cf. v. 8). In the next section (w. 7-10) God adopts the faithless language of Aaron (and the people?) as he tells Moses to go "to your people, whom you brought out of Egypt." But Moses turns the clause around when he responds to God, returning to the language of the covenant and speaking of Israel as: "your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt" (v. 11).

This incredibly poignant interchange between God and Moses is concluded with the amazing words: "And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people." Why? Because, unlike Israel, God keeps covenant. Unlike Israel, God is unchangeably committed to his people.

Psalter: Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

Epistle: Philippians 4:1-9

The choice of this passage fittingly complements the Old Testament lesson today and last Sunday's communion theme: the faithfulness of God. Present, too, is the counterpoint of idolatry (last Sunday's reference to the idolatry of the law and self-salvation, and today's golden calf incident come to mind). Confidence in church membership/affiliation rather than a daily walk (communing) with God are present idolatries or "other gods." Self-righteousness (self-rightness) has also pitted two prominent women against each other in Philippi. Paul admonished them to be of the same mind—to seek unity actively.

As we travel on from World Communion to the commemoration of the Reformation—a celebration of a dispute that led to an ecclesiastical divorce—we will want to listen with care to Paul's words. The apostle reminds the congregation that this conflict, and all similar strife, must always reckon with the fact that the Lord is near (both temporally and spatially). He is close by spatially as God-with-us to help us, empowering us to image him; and he is near in time as the just Judge who will render justice at history's end, enabling us to turn the other cheek and live with certain unresolved questions and disagreements.

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14

This parable of the final eschatological banquet is a marvellous liturgical choice for today's theme. We note that merely heeding the invitation is not enough. One must be clothed for the occasion. Though a man responded positively to the host's invitation, his failure to arrive in the proper attire, the wedding garment, landed him in hell.

The wedding garment, especially in the context of the entire gospel, concerns righteous conduct. Be careful, Euodia and Syntyche and all modernday church quibblers! The final verdict is swift and merciless and utterly devoid of all modern niceties and sensibilities. One does not mess with righteousness.


Choral Introit: "O Praise the Lord, for He Is Good" (Psalm 106) PsH 106:1

Call to Worship

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God.
We come as children of God,
longing for a closer walk with our Creator.

God's name endures forever,
his faithfulness to all generations.
We rejoice in the gift of his Spirit,
we seek the righteousness that comes from God.

Bring thanksgiving and supplication to God,
who supplies needs and answers our prayers.
God has been our refuge and strength
and will supply our every need.

Hymn: "The Lord, My Shepherd, Rules My Life" PsH 23

Service of Reconciliation

Scripture: Exodus 32:1-14

Response: Psalm 106 (two suggestions)

"O Praise the Lord, for He Is Good" PsH 106:4, 7, sung by the congregation

Reading of Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, followed by the choral anthem "Offertory" by John Ness Beck

Scripture: Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Text: Matthew 22:11 (Phil. 4:4-7 could be sung rather than read, using the anthem "Rejoice in the Lord Alway," by Purcell)

Sermon: "Dressed for the Occasion"

Hymn of Response: "Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life" PsH 602, PH 408, RL 482

Commission and Blessing

We have experienced God's grace;
we have heard the words of life.
Now we are commissioned to do what we have heard;
we are called to serve in God's name.

Equipped with the assurance of God's presence,
we reach out to others.
Confronted by God's call, we seek the bond of unity.
We will praise God in our daily walk.
With every step, we remember God's faithfulness.

The Aaronic Blessing

The peace of God goes with us;
we will praise God in all we do. Amen



God told Moses to get on with his travels— "Leave this place" (Ex. 33:1). The journey begins for Moses, even as ours continues, with a word of promise from God. God assures Moses, as he assures us, that he is our constant companion. A tired old maxim says, "People are known by the company they keep." What a wonderful thought to keep in mind as we move on toward our celebration next Sunday of the truth that we are justified by grace through faith. We are not alone—not as stewards of the vineyard and not as citizens of a frequently anti-Christian world.


Old Testament Exodus 33:12-23

Moses asks to see God—actually to "know" him, which is infinitely richer than merely seeing. The exchange between God and Moses recorded in these verses is one of the most—if not the most—touching and gracious encounters between God and humanity in all of Scripture. Moses asks God, "Show me your glory," and God responds, "I will make all my goodness pass before you."

Only a very brave pastor would dare to use these words as a preaching text. These are words to be read, not explained; to be heard, not preached. They are words for quiet reflection and meditation. The liturgist will want to work creatively for a sensitive, dramatic reading of these words, followed by a carefully chosen anthem based on the psalter choice for today.

Psalter: Psalm 99

An "enthronement psalm" provides us with a fitting response to the Exodus 33:12-23 passage: "The LORD is king, let the people tremble! He sits enthroned upon cherubim; let the earth quake!" Psalm 99 requires that we think of God both as far-giver and avenger. We stand in awe, fearful but always hopeful.

Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

In the opening verses of Thessalonians, Paul expresses his thankfulness for their faith. The recipients of this letter, we learn, were converted only recently from idol worship. They are a living witness to the truth that the gospel is more than a lesson to be learned, a persuasive word to be savored, or fodder for arguments. The gospel transforms, reforms. It has creative power (v. 5). It is not the preacher who has a clever way with words, but the Spirit of God, working with and in the Word, who generates fruits of righteousness.

As we think about our walk with the Lord this month, we note just how concrete or actual such a faith is, even in its infancy. In this congregation of newborn believers, Paul celebrates works produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope (v. 3).

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22

Two opposing factions (the Pharisees, who contest the tax, and the Herodians, a Roman puppet-government who are therefore pro-tax) approach Jesus with a question. The choice of words is significant in this lection. The word "test" in verse 18 is the same word used in Matthew 4, where Jesus is tempted or tested by Satan in the wilderness; the word "malice" in 18 is also found in Matthew 6:13: "deliver us from the evil [or malicious] one." The choice is a kingdom choice: the kingdom of light versus the kingdom of darkness. God or Satan?

Living righteously involves painfully difficult choices for God's people every day. For those who recognize and submit to God as king (see Exodus lesson and the Psalm 99 response} the choices are never simple. If we can label Caesar either "Lord" (the Herodian position) or "Satan" (the Pharisees' position), the answer is instant and easy. But for God's people, the search for righteousness involves choices that are always excruciatingly difficult and never final. Our relationship to and our support of or opposition to Caesar must be constantly reexamined and rethought in community. Seeking righteousness and being righteous are no mere child's play.


Choral Introit: "Holy, Holy, Holy" Schubert(TWC 831; Oxford Easy Anthem Book)

Call to Worship

"I am your God, and besides me there is no other;
I gird you, though you do not know me."
We hear God's sovereign declaration over all things;
his promise to be with us in every situation.

From the rising of the sun, God will be known,
in both sorrow and joy; in prosperity and adversity.
God lifts up those who are bowed down;
prisoners he sets free; the blind eyes see.

Hymn: "How Vast the Benefits Divine " PsH 497, TH 470

Service of Reconciliation

The liturgist will seek to incorporate Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99, sung either by the choir or congregation ("The Lord God Reigns in Majesty" PsH 99; : "Psalm 99," in The Psalter, Westminster/John Knox Press)

Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22; 1 Thess. 1:1-10

Text: Matthew 22:16; 1 Thess. 1:3

Sermon: "Staying the Course"

Hymn: "Q Jesus, I Have Promised"PsH 285, PH 388-9, RL 471, TH 654

Choral Offertory: "E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come"(Paul Manz)

Commission and Blessing

Christ promises never to leave us;
we are assured that God's presence goes with us.
We face the world with renewed faith and hope;
God's Word endures and abides with us.

God watches over all of us, great and small,
upholding all in need, helping all who call on him.
All God's children are our brothers and sisters,
God's loving care is ours to pass on.

God reigns! Let the nations be glad.
God calls us the channels of his grace.
In every step of the way we will show our faith;
in all we do and say, may God be praised!

The Benediction

Hymn: "God Himself Is with Us" PsH 244, TH 382



With this last service we conclude our journey. We prepare for the celebration of Reformation Day, the rediscovery of a better righteousness, a righteousness by grace, through faith, apart from law. But like so many anniversaries, this one is marred by the continued brokenness of God's family. That brokenness hurts us deeply, for we painfully realize that the full reformation of God's church is still to come.


Old Testament: Deuteronomy 34

"Never since has there arisen a prophet . . . like Moses. He was unequalled" (w. 10-11). For God knew Moses "face to face" (v. 10). Furthermore, Moses was unrivaled for the "signs and wonders" he performed in the land of Egypt, and for "the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power" to Israel (w. 11-12). Yet Moses is not commended as an example to be followed or imitated. Though this last chapter is a eulogy to Moses, a prophet second to none, the unvarnished truth is this: Moses is a sinner who receives a glimpse of the land as a special act of grace (v. 4). The preacher will want to keep in mind the subsequent history of Israel, both in terms of Moses, the man, and the law of Moses (for example, in the the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: "You have heard it said ... but I say to you ...").

Psalter: Psalm 90

On this Reformation Sunday we note the opening words: "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations." Not Moses, not Luther, not even John Calvin, but God! The second section of this Psalter selection is once again a fitting corollary to Deuteronomy 34, as it speaks of the brevity and the fleeting character of human life, creating a sharp contrast between God and human saviors. (And a cold shower too for any preacher pressed for time, who spotted a possible solution here for a Reformation Day sermon in a parallel drawn between Martin Luther and Moses. No dice!)

Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

For the church of Thessalonica—and for us—the apostle paints a touching picture of the faithful pastor ("we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children"). Authority is played down. Gentleness is honored, rather than force and intimidation.

At a time when there are many longing sighs for strong (if need be, even dictatorial) leaders, this picture strikes a balance. Behind it lies the truth that God's people have come of age. A celebration of reformation is not a celebration of Luther—though we may thank God for human instruments—but a celebration of universal priesthood, of God's Spirit and Spirit-anointedness rediscovered. We recognize human frailty and human foibles (in Moses and Luther and every child of the king), for God's power is made evident in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:5-10). While we decry and lament an ecclesiastical divorce and earnestly pray for healing, at the same time we celebrate the triumph of faith and righteousness. For the Reformation is about the rediscovery of living righteously by grace, through faith, apart from the law. And so it is a celebration of good works.

Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46

The question of the "lawyer" appropriately takes us to the summary of the law: the summons to love God above all else and my neighbor as myself. This is gratitude concretized.

The Matthew lection also concerns the question of Jesus' claim to being the Messiah. The liturgist/preacher may well wish to take this and relate it back to Exodus 34. In Christ one greater than Moses is with us—Immanuel! Being David's Son, he has authority. As the author of our salvation, he "author-izes" his people by giving them his Spirit.


Choral Introit:"How Amiable Are Thy Dwellings"
Ralph Vaughan Williams

Call to Worship

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
God's love surrounds us every day;
our God is merciful and gracious.

Turn your backs upon idols,
worship the Holy One of Israel.
Blessed are all who stand in awe before God;
happy are all who walk in his ways.

The love of God has chosen us,
the love of God unites us with all his people.
God is our judge and our source of life;
God is our comfort and our refuge.

God's Greeting

We will magnify the name of the Lord.

Hymn: "We Praise You, O God" PsH 237, RL 62, TH 97

Service of Reconciliation

The liturgist is encouraged, noting the theme of the Scriptures for this Sunday, to formulate prayers and appropriate responses that focus on God's abiding presence, often through sinful people, in the life of the church. Acts of confession and rededication to obedient service should include petitions to God for healing where willful ecclesiastical brokenness undermines his intent to heal and restore and sound a message of hope in the world.

Choral Anthem: "Loving Hands" Cary Ratcliff(Available from Kairos Music, Box 10165, Rochester, NY 14610, (716] 244-7895)

Scripture: Deuteronomy 34; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Text: 1 Thessalonians 2:7

Sermon: "A Faithful Pastor and a Faithful Church"

Hymn: "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" PsH 568, PH 376, RL 464, TH 529

Commission and Blessing

God sends us out with encouragement and a challenge:
Lead lives worthy of God's reign and glory.
We desire to live as God intends;
we will work and rest in God's care.

Live in faithfulness to one another
and to God who calls you forth in his service.
The Word of God is at work in us;
in him we witness and are more than conquerors.

Blessed are all who seek their strength in God alone,
happy are they who live the gospel.
May God be praised in all we do and say;
may we be gentle apostles and courageous disciples.

Homer Samplonius is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.


Reformed Worship 40 © June 1996, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.