Friday, March 7, 2008

Thoughts about Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary

First of all a confession: There are scores of far more brilliant and creative-minded and hearted scholars and preachers who have waxed eloquently on this subject. Here are a few of my thoughts on it, and I invite you to share some of your thoughts and insights too by leaving a comment.

The Revised Common Lectionary and its predecessors—e.g. the three year lectionary in LBW (for you non-Lutherans, that’s Lutheran Book of Worship)—have helped my preaching in countless ways. I know that without a lectionary, I’d likely grind my own axe far more than I do now (we all still do, you know, that’s the old sinful nature at work within us), and stay within the comfort level of my favourite biblical, theological and liturgical motifs. It, more often than not, can be a helpful thing to preach on appointed pericopes every week. The opportunity to expand one’s biblical, theological and liturgical horizons are immense thanks to the Revised Common Lectionary and its predecessors. It is a humbling journey to stand under the authority of pericopes that one would rather argue with ad nausea or even dismiss on the basis of one’s own logic. It is also a faith-expanding process when one is instructed by the Holy Spirit to preach on passages that are difficult or obscure or “go against the grain.” I deeply appreciate many appointed lections because they capture the ebb and flow, the salient and inspirational, nuanced motifs of the liturgical church year. The lectionary also creates and maintains a comfortable order and decorum for the worshipping community. Perhaps one of the most significant advancements in the long quest for Christian unity is that there presently is a sense of unity among mainline Christians who follow the RCL around the globe, and this unity has been inspired by the reading, study, preaching of the Bible, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Christ himself has been and is present in the reading, study, preaching, hearing and doing of the Word. For all of this and more, I am most grateful to the folks who prepare lectionaries and to our Lord who inspired such folks to complete these projects.

However, that said, I still have some concerns and critiques of our present Revised Common Lectionary. For starters, we Lutherans really do need to get our act together. In North America at least—I cannot speak for other Lutherans—we have far too many variant pericopes to regard it as a common lectionary. For example, I am in an ecumenical lectionary study group. More often than not, our ELCIC lectionary has more in common with Canadian Anglican, Presbyterian and United Church lectionaries than we do with our sister church, the ELCA. For a lengthy portion of the church year, ELCIC and ELCA first lessons are not the same. Moreover, when I extended an invitation to our local LCC—Lutheran Church Canada (Missouri Synod)—pastor to join our ecumenical lectionary group, he told me that he was following another lectionary used I believe in Germany, which is not on a three year cycle.

Another critique I have is that of late, it seems we Lutherans are moving away from the tradition of providing the number of the Sunday after Pentecost to the mundane “Time after Pentecost—Lectionary 23,” which is actually the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (although one can still go to the ELCIC Lift Up Your Hearts web site and download a version of the RCL with the older nomenclature); why all of this confusion and disorder? If we Lutherans really want to change from “17th Sunday after Pentecost” to some nomenclature more common ecumenically, then why not go with providing the number plus “Sunday in Ordinary Time,” which is familiar to several mainline denominations? Although theologically, there may be some fine reasons to keep the old numbering system plus “Sunday after Pentecost.”

Another criticism I have of the RCL is the reading of lengthy pericopes—I have noticed this especially during this year’s cycle A Lenten Gospels. I don’t mind hearing or, for that matter, reading these pericopes, most of which are marvellous stories. However, for practical purposes as a chaplain worshipping with seniors in a normally one-half hour time frame, it is very difficult to keep many of my people attentive for such readings and it usually means that the sermon is more brief—I know, that may not always be a negative thing! In the congregation I serve, also mainly consisting of seniors, it is very difficult for them to remain standing for such lengthy Gospel readings, so I encourage them to remain seated—actually I am of the opinion that there should be more consistency concerning when we sit and stand, if we stand for the Gospel, then why not for the other lections as well? Or perhaps we could remain seated for all of the lections—this is the tradition I know in some Danish Lutheran congregations and it makes sense to me, this indeed is the practice in the home where I serve as chaplain. Even in the congregational setting, especially during Holy Communion Sundays, when lengthy lections are read, I suspect the preaching suffers and it is often more difficult for pastors to prepare and deliver brief sermons—although I do admit this can be a fine discipline for us at times, since the act of preaching often invites us to say more with less words rather than the other way round!

I shall now end as I began, with a confession: During the longest season of the church year, “Sundays after Pentecost,” I often do not follow the RCL. Rather, I choose to prepare and preach a thematic series of sermons on e.g. the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, etc. I have found this quite challenging and enriching; congregants have also expressed their appreciation for such sermons and have, on occasion, offered their suggestions for the future. If you are a preacher, what do you think? Please leave a comment. Thank you and God bless you in your preaching!


Gene said...

My main beef with the RCL is the way whoever prepares it "protects" me from passages which are not politically correct. I find that offensive. I heard of a guy who makes a point of preaching on the verses which are left out.

Dim Lamp Two said...

Point well taken Gene. Political correctness can inhibit maturity and growth in our faith and preaching.

Anonymous said...

I like what you have to say. I agree with the positive things about the lectionary. However I too have some problems with it, many of the same as you.

1) They leave out certain texts -- why? For instance, how many passages on wisdom and the need for it are found in the lectionary? Compare that to the number of passages on Wisdom and the need for it in the Bible itself. Wisdom in the Bible is a huge theme. In the lectionary it isn't.

2) They skip various verses in the middle of texts. The ELCIC lectionary is especially bad that way. This summer in the middle of a Revelation passage the ELCIC group skipped a reference condemning the sexually immoral, whereas that passage was included in the LBW lectionary. Again the choosy-ness of these passages reflects the theological biases of the ELCIC's lectionary committee.

3) Sometimes the OT text is not an accurate link to the gospel one. For instance, while doing my ThM I studied John 4 for a summer. Most scholars say that the real OT precedent for that text is a) the passages where the OT heroes met their wives at wells. Then the contrast is with Jesus who discovers that his "wife" to be has had 5 husbands. And b) the passage in Hosea 2 where the people of Samaria, portrayed as a woman who has had many different lovers, are brought out into the desert and fed real water by her true husband Yahweh God. In other words John 4 is a fulfilment of the OT prophecy of Hosea 2. The woman represents her people, the people of Samaria, deserted by their lovers, and Jesus represents God.

But one totally misses that fact if the Lectionary folks put Exodus 17 opposite John 4, which they do.

4) Sometimes the lectionary group does overkill. Year B during the summer is the worst. Is it 5 or 6 Sundays in a row on the breaking of the bread miracle in John? Also the number of passages on John the Baptist in and around Advent, Christmas & Epiphany, is a bit much too.

I agree, in general the lectionary is a good thing but we should feel free to choose our own passages too.

Yes I'm all for series sermons too. If a great preacher and theologian like Thielicke can do it, then we can too.

Pastor Bart Eriksson

Dim Lamp Two said...

Thanks Bart for your most eloquent reply. I agree with you, and say Amen!

I have heard the rationale given for the first lesson not linking to the gospel as: the committee who chose the pericopes employed the criteria of continuous OT stories over and above emphasising complimentary motifs in the pericopes. Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending this, only stating what I've read and heard on the matter. I can appreciate the advantages of hearing the whole story over jumping around all over the place without much continuity. I wonder on some Sundays how the pericopes link together, if at all.

Your point on 2 is well taken--alas, sometimes it seems we may be selling our souls to the devil in the name of political correctness!

I, like you grow weary at times of the overkill on some motifs and the avoidance-overlooking of others! That's likely one reason why I choose to preach series sermons for a while—and yes, point well taken, Thielicke has been, and still is an inspiration to many a preacher.

Thanks again Bart, and happy preaching!

Dim Lamp Two

Eric Lemonholm said...

Very interesting! I am really in my first go around as a weekly preacher with the RCL, and the idea of sermon series during the summer months is wise.

You've got me thinking - I am going to look ahead in the Lectionary, see what's overdone, see what's missing, and perhaps put in some special sermon topics/series. I do think of the RCL as more of a guide and an ecumenical bridge between churches. As preachers, we have to do our homework and be flexible, and remember that the RCL is not Scripture itself.

Dim Lamp Two said...

Thanks Eric for your contribution to this discussion. Yes, the Word of God calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the Churches into a deeper unity in Christ.