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(Maybe Not So) Radical Thinking: The Lectionary

June 14, 2012

A number of influences converged on me last night while I was leading our Wednesday night Adult Education class at church and, in the midst of speaking I had an apostrophe.  (Don’t you mean an “epiphany?”  Bonus points if you can name the movie reference.)  So I had an epiphany.  But I’ve got to explain the influences first before the epiphany can hope to make sense to you, and even then there’s a chance it won’t, not because you’re not smart but because it may not be all that epiphany-tastic.

Influence 1:  Parishioners who took our Introduction to the Bible course, all the way through, who repeatedly tell me how important that class was for them.  How they understand so much more about the Bible now, and how, particularly on Sunday morning when we only get snippets, they understand the context so much better and how everything fits together.

Influence 2: My listening to the sermon podcasts of an Episcopal priest who serves an unconventional church that doesn’t use the Lectionary.  Rather, they have one reading each week and they read through an entire book of the Bible contiguously.  Each week, the sermon picks right up from where it left off the previous week, highlighting the same themes and retracing ground often.  This provides for this priest’s congregation a deep understanding of and connection to the Biblical narrative.  And the sermons rock.

Influence 3:  By being influenced by #2, experimenting in my own congregation with a sermon series on one book of the Bible – the First Letter of John.  Now, in week 10 of that experiment, I am gratified to hear that people are enjoying it, don’t want to miss the next sermon because they’ll feel like they would if they missed an episode of a show they like, and share a grasp and an understanding of the letter of 1 John unlike any other Biblical text we’ve covered by using the lectionary, with the possible exception of Genesis and the Gospel.  Another interesting thing that’s happened is my sermons have gotten longer (now averaging 14-16 minutes, but some approach 20) and there has been a complete dearth of snarkily unsubtle comments or more direct complaints about sermon length.  I expect them to roll in now that I’ve said something about it.

Influence 4:  While preparing to teach a class on the Prayer Book to the Deacons’ School of our diocese, I’ve been brushing up on my BCP history.  While there has always been appointed texts for each Sunday, the 1928 BCP revision really addressed serious problems with the Lectionary, namely “vain repetitions.” This in turn gets tweaked in the 1979 BCP revision, and reworked for the Revised Common Lectionary.

Notice all the people in the pews…

Disclaimer:  All of these influences have led me to do some wondering.  Before I go any further, I want to make absolutely clear: I like the Lectionary.  I think the RCL in particular is a gift to preachers, individual congregations, but most important to the idea (and a step in that direction) of unifying the Body of Christ.  The Lectionary is a treasure and a gift of some really hard working and brilliant people through the ages.  I thank them and bless them for it.

But I wonder.  Going back to 1928 when the first serious revision of the lectionary was undertaken, we were, by far, a much, much more biblically literate society.  Just ask yourself this question – do your (great) grandparents know more about the narratives in the Bible and the Narrative of the Bible than you do?  Everyone I’ve asked so far who wasn’t a seminary trained clergy person and even a few who were have said yes.  The point is, people back then, by and large, knew it better than we do today.  I don’t think this is nostalgia; I really believe it’s just true.

So, when those people, back then, would have gone to church and heard a particular pericope or reading, selected by the Lectionary, they stood a far better chance than we do today of reacting with, “Oh yes!  This one!”  And they stood a far better chance than we do today of knowing the context of the story both prior to and following the selected reading that was actually heard.

They might have known, for example, that when on the Sunday of Proper 9, Year C, the story of Naaman’s healing is read from 2 Kings that this story follows right on the heels of the major miracles performed by Elisha (they would also have known that Elisha succeeded Elijah) and that right after it is the story of how the King whom Naaman served immediately attacked Israel.  (Some gratitude for getting his chief commander back, right!)  And to prove my point, I had to look all that up!

We are not so biblically literate these days.  Sure there are familiar stories, most likely in the Gospels, but we just don’t know the Bible like our forebears did.  There’s a whole host of reasons for this, but that’s for someone else to write about.

What I am wondering, given that we are not as biblically literate as we once were as a society, given that we’re unlikely to come into church, see what the lectionary has appointed for us on that day and react by saying, “Of course!  I love this story!”, given that our children are even more unlikely to react that way, is the Lectionary still the way to go about the reading of Scripture in the context of worship, knowing that is likely the only time and place most people will hear/read Scripture?

I don’t know.  I pretty traditional and I like the traditions of our church, including the Lectionary.  But is this one tired?  Is there a better way to do it?  Perhaps a more narrative way.  Focusing on one book at a time as we together explore God’s story and our place in it? I’m not sure, but I have been thinking about it.

I’d love to know what you’re thinking.

Fr. Ryan+

One Comment leave one →
  1. Ken Grabach permalink
    September 23, 2013 1:49 pm

    I am a participating worshiper at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Oxford, Ohio. My wife and I have begun a class (our rector calls it an Inquirer’s Class) in preparation to be received or reaffirmed as adults into the Episcopal Church. In my view there are two great advantages, maybe a third, to use of a common lectionary. It could be the current Revised Common Lectionary, or it could be the one as published in the Book of Common Prayer of 1979. The first, probably most important, advantage is that going through the cycle of three years of the lectionary, one gains that familiarity with the scriptures that you describe wistfully. I have attempted a full reading of the Bible, and not knowing where to start, began with Genesis 1 and tried to work my way through. Each time I have attempted it, I got lost before the story of Joseph began. I had no guide, no one more knowledgeable about a personal scripture discipline. Having a lectionary, that is used each Sunday, provides me with that guidance that I lacked on my own. And I am not alone.

    This brings me to the second advantage. It is a Common lectionary, meaning we are sharing in the same words from the same passages in a variety of parishes, dioceses, and even denominations. We are in communion as worshipers in the same way you have described in the instructional eucharist in sharing of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament lessons, we are hearing in our language the same lessons that have been shared in synagogues and temples as well as in Christian churches for more than two millennia. But the important thing is, again, that it is in common, shared together. And with guidance from a pastor, we can gain more insights into what these sometimes inscrutable or challenging lessons might mean for us in our time, let alone in some absolute sense.

    Our rector, when we met her early on in our attendance at Holy Trinity, pointed out another advantage. Following the lectionary is a discipline. It is a discipline for the parishioners, and also for the lectors, and finally for the priests. It provides a common basis for instructinal homilies and sermons. Or as she put it, “It prevents the minister from following a personal agenda.” Sometimes, as in your example of lessons from the Letter of John, that might work fine (I’m sure it does). But we had been at a church of another denomination, where each Sunday provided a new platform for the pastor’s own agenda, going down a road we found we were not interested nor willing to continue to follow. Pastors before him had used the lectionary, sometimes only the Gospel, but at least there was a common thread. And it was possible to hear some fine, unique, and insightful sermons or homilies without even one of the pastors going stale.

    In sum, I find much to be gained through a use of the lectionary on a regular, disciplined, and common basis. Again, I do not want to take away from a purposeful but different approach as you describe above. That, too, is good. The lectionary seems to me, however, to actually be a tool to introduce the range of lessons from all parts of the bible, from the Law, the Judges and Prophets, the Psalms and writings, as well as the Gospels and the Epistles.

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