“Something Other Than the Lectionary”

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Some years ago I attended a session of one congregation’s long-term visioning project. When the gathering was discussing hopes for the church’s future worship  and preaching, one 40 year old mom spoke for her small team and said, “We really think that we should have more preaching on contemporary topics — something other than the Lectionary — so that we can learn to live in today’s world.”

Intended or not, that comment sparked a spirited and nearly nasty argument. One person responded, “We already know how to live in today’s world — but it’s not good. We work 50+ hours a week so we can make enough money to pay tuition, build additions or new houses and take luxurious vacations.” The talk went downhill from there for a bit. Thank goodness, though, the meeting’s able facilitator finally managed to shape that scene into a constructive conversation.

Surprisingly discussion about Lectionary use can be spirited in other places.  During the sermon evaluation at a classical examination, a synodical deputy asked the candidate why he picked this given passage. The candidate honestly said that the Classical Interim Committee had assigned him to choose a text or texts from the Lectionary for the Sunday he was to present the sermon.

The synodical deputy then proceeded to lay into the Interim Committee for using a resource that was not part of Reformed heritage. He then boasted, “Why, I have preached for over 40 years and never once used a Lectionary. You’ve got to be free to choose what the Spirit tells you to preach.”

To that one smart aleck delegate quipped, “So, you never used the Heidelberg Catechism?” Good point, I thought as I recalled a late 1970s’ preaching class at Calvin Seminary. At that time Dr. Carl Kromminga was lecturing on preaching resources. He spoke about the Lectionary. Anticipating some opposition, he reminded us callow youth that the Catechism is a Lectionary too. It behooved us to learn to use both our lectionary and the Common Lectionary. We are, after all, part of the universal church and Lectionary preaching has a rich history of keeping preachers disciplined not to ride their own hobby horses.

For many years Roman Catholics, Anglicans, most Lutherans, many Presbyterians, Methodists and even some Baptists have followed some form of “The Common Lectionary.” This selection of passages varies slightly from one Christian tradition to others. It is “common” in that it runs in a three-year cycle, telling the Gospel from Old and New Testaments, thus unifying the church year beginning with Advent through the church “seasons.” 

At different points in worship an Old Testament passage, a psalm, a New Testament epistle, and a gospel passage are read. One would normally be used as the main preaching text; skillful preachers have been known to connect all readings within the sermon without confusing worshipers. As well the other readings can be woven into the fabric of the day’s liturgy, as some worship teams do.

Until the last 30 years or so, Christian Reformed preachers rarely attended to those four thematically-linked Bible readings to shape weekly liturgy and preaching. More do these days, partly because Reformed Worship, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (along with its annual Worship Symposium) and Calvin Seminary’s Center for Excellence in Preaching have provided helpful articles and resources for Lectionary preaching.

So, whether you are a preacher or one who listens to sermons, I wonder about your experiences with Lectionary preaching. Do you use it (or hear sermons preached from its passages) always? Regularly? Occasionally? Never? If you preachers respond to that first question, please explain why or why not you do or don’t use the Lectionary. 

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Community Builder

Jim,

I appreciate the post.  While I have not followed the lectionary through an entire liturgical year, I have found it particularly helpful during the seasons of Advent and Lent.  The collection of texts:  OT, Psalm, Gospel, and Epistle follows the moves weaves together the texts that lead us from God's promise to the Incarnation, from ministry in Galillee to the empty tomb on Resurrection Sunday.  

What I have particularly appreciated about the lectionary is that it is a faithful guide to lead preacher and congregation through the major themes of God's salvation plan.

I point the finger at myself as I share that the lectionary also keeps me from what I perceive to be the tempation of putting together the gimmick sermon series all done with the intent of keeping things "fresh."  As one parishoner shared with me during this past Christmas season, "Sometimes we forget, but it is is the 'old, old story' that we need to hear.  Everything else is tinsel and ornaments.  It's nice for a while, but after a few weeks, we put it back in a box and forget about it for another year."

While I am glad that I am not bound to the lectionary as some other religious traditions might be, I am thankful that I have the lectionary as a resource to enrich my preaching.

Community Builder

Good points all, Jim and Todd.  Thanks for a thoughtful discussion!

I'd rather talk about the 40 year old mom's cry of the heart.  

 

Community Builder

DK, I want to think that competent preaching using the lectionaries would in fact speak to the 40 year old mom's heart.  Would you agree?

 

It certainly can.  I just think we overestimate how much our preaching connects with people's lives. I thought it was interesting that the post begins with her cry of the heart and then all of a sudden we're talking about lectionary instead of what she might have to teach us about preaching that engages (or doesn't engage) people where they are.  I have no strong opinions about lectionary.  I have very strong opinions that we need to listen to that 40 year old mom a lot more.  I can't put my finger on the data right now, but there has been plenty of survey data over the years to support the assertion that most people do not believe their preacher really understands their life.  That's my concern.  

 

Community Builder

Yes, I see.   The data you cite is heart breaking.  It make a giant leap in my mind to the question of why the increasing numbers of article 17s....   could it be that the loving relationship between pastor and flock gets weakened by preaching that seems disconnected, and then flaws take center stage and resentment follows.... 

There are benefits to lectionary preaching.  However, I find lectionary preaching insufficient if we truly want to preach the whole Bible to all of God's People.  The lectionary leaves out significant and important chunks of Scripture (notice how few passages there are from Revelation) and its pericope divisions don't always make sense.  Furthermore, follwing the church seasons/calendar makes much more sense in a rural setting than in most urban settings.  For a banker or a single mom there isn't much difference between December 18, March 18 or October 18.  The rhythms of the lectionary are beautiful for people who relate to them, but it was written for a different time and place.

Since we must preach a text in its context, following the lectionary is additionally hard because it necessitates significantly more background study week after week. 

My practice that has worked very well is to follow John Stott's pattern in "Between Two Worlds."  Preach through a book of the Bible.  Alternate between an Old Testament book and a New Testament Book.  Then on the last Sunday of each month take a break and preach from God's word about a contemporary issue.  It's amazing how many life issues are addressed in the pages of scripture when we simply let the Bible speak to us as it was written.

Duane, I fully agree with you that most parishioners don't believe their pastors understand their concerns.  That doesn't mean however, the author of scripture doesn't understand their concerns.  Our challenging task is to understand the text in its context and help our audiences grasp that while we as preachers may not understand - God understands.  I love the illustration from Haddon Robinson who related the following story.  His son was just ordained as a pastor.  He said to his son.  "What does a young guy like you have to say to an old guy like me that I don't already know."  His son responded, "Nothing dad.  I don't have anything to say to you - but Scripture does, that's why I preach from the Text."  AMEN!

Jim, how good to hear from you again.  I remember when we often talked before or after worship in our University days before I used the commoon lectionary in preaching. This is what I learned since then.

In 1983, 26 years after ordination, I was allowed a six-month sabbatical for study and writing.  Three months were spent at Princeton Seminaray.  For the final 15 years of my ministry I preached from the lectionary in the morning service and mostly taught from the Confessions in the evening.

I experienced freedom and discipline in a new way.  Each week I started with the four texts given by the ecumenical church instead of my choices of the "right texts."  That plunged me into the discipline of preparing to preach from less than familiar texts than I would have chosen.  I also learned the discipline of taking "contemporary situations" or congregational tragedies and setting them in the context of the text(s) for the day to listen for the Word.  And, knowing my own limitations and the "light" that a given text yields.  I also learned when and how to "punt," meaning, when to depart from the lectionary as a servant for the day.

I also enjoyed hearing a parishioner who, having missed worship in our church on a Sunday, report that "We heard a sermon in Georgia on Sunday from your lectionary text."

Thanks, Jim.  How abouat lunch on High Street Again?

Roger