I Love the Lectionary... But It's Not Always Helpful.
Don't get me wrong. I love the lectionary. Its use in most liturgical churches ensures that God's people will enjoy a steady diet of Scripture instead of randomly selected verses copied and pasted to support the pastor's sermon. The threefold repetition of Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel (as well as the Psalms either sung or spoken) reflects the best practice prescribed by the Apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy - "Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture" (1 Timothy 4:13). And with beautiful rhythm, the church's historic selection of readings rehearses the divine drama of salvation over and over. We learn to live according to an economy of salvation calendar rather than one marked by the school year or Hallmark inspired holidays.
However... with that said... I have to admit that I'm not convinced that the lectionary is always as helpful as it was intended to be at the ground level of our congregations. For those who have a firm grasp on Scripture and theology, all the pieces fit together well (most of the time - sometimes the lectionary's selection of texts makes me scratch my head). However, for those who are learning how to be literate in the Scriptures, the dots don't connect so easily.
I understand that this post is potentially controversial. I know that in some circles there exists an ongoing controversy over whether the three year or the historic one year lectionary is the most faithful way to read and preach God's Word each Lord's day. I know that some churches even ditch the lectionary and select readings according to upcoming theme-based sermon series. I'm sure (or at least hoping) that whatever place we find ourselves on the spectrum between historic and sporadic, we at least have come to that place of practice out of sincere prayer, reflection, and desire for the long term well being of God's people (and not as slaves to either tradition or needless innovation).
This post represents more or less my informal leanings on the matter, poses some questions, and offers some reflections on how we might use (or not use) the lectionary better for the sake of our contexts. My aim is not to pick a fight or conjure up the ire of blog sites in the LCMS (if more than ten people actually read this!). My goal is conversation.
Concern #1 - Are We Offering Too Much?
My first concern is that perhaps we give people too much Scripture in the lectionary readings. It was hard for me to write that sentence. I don't believe in offering filler instead of substance. I want to give people all the Scripture I can. Thankfully, the liturgy and our hymns do a great job of weaving the Word throughout the whole Divine Service. However, during our reading of God's Word, we might be overdoing it.
Once again, context is key here. If your congregation is well-catechized and biblically literate, then go for it. But here's the issue - the Scriptures do not work ex opere operato. Simply reading a large portion of Scripture from the lectionary does not ensure understanding, faith, or growth. After Paul calls Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, he also calls him to exhortation and teaching. The Word must be proclaimed and taught clearly.
Are we really doing people good if, because of the number and length of readings, we only have enough time to proclaim and teach the Word for ten minutes? I think it would be more helpful if we chose two manageable portions of Scripture, and then spent more time teaching and preaching on one or both of those Scriptures in greater length and greater detail. More time should be spent fleshing out the context of the chapter, the book, and the place the text occupies in the whole narrative of God's story of salvation. Furthermore, pastors should provide recommended biblical reading for the rest of the week, or in preparation for the coming Sunday.
Here's an example of how this can be done. I'm not suggesting this is "best practice" for everyone, but in our context it was for a season. Our congregation recently spent almost all of Epiphany and Lent in the Sermon on the Mount. In other words, we devoted about three months to three chapters of the Bible. Why? For one, the lectionary gave us the idea. Series A had numerous readings from the Sermon on the Mount. Second, we came to the conclusion that given our current political and cultural "tone" of division, as well as a general lack of knowledge and application of this key part of our Lord's teaching, we thought it was beneficial to treat the text as a whole, part by part.
How did we adapt the lectionary to our needs? First, we decided to break Matthew 5-7 into small, doable sections. This meant departing from the lectionary's suggested divisions, as well as filling in where it left some parts out. Next, for a season we removed the Epistle readings, and found alternate Old Testament readings that paired well with each section in the Sermon on the Mount. We spent less time reading Scripture in worship, but I believe scriptural learning and retention were higher because the sermons were more focused.
How did this help aid God's people in growth? For one, I think people were able to track with it well. Sermons often kept up the momentum of earlier themes, noting the context of previous and coming chapters. Congregants were challenged to read these three chapters of the Bible over and over as they anticipated the sermons. We made it a point to continually flesh out for our people the way in which Jesus' words connected with the the theology of Matthew's Gospel, as well as with the whole story of creation, fall, Israel, the coming of God's Kingdom, etc. This meant longer sermons, but they were also more focused. While the lectionary was helpful to a point, I'm not sure people would have had such a firm grip on the Sermon on the Mount if we tried to preach it from the way the lectionary divides up the readings.
Concern #2 - Are We Assuming Knowledge of a Narrative Still Unknown?
Sometimes I think people struggle to integrate sermons into the bigger picture of who God is and what he is doing in the world because they don't have a solid framework into which they can place each message they hear. One critical remedy is deep and ongoing catechesis (you can read about that here). Catechesis provides people with the tools they need to navigate the biblical narrative. But I also think that preaching is the place where we can work toward literacy in the biblical narrative.
One approach is to preach straight through books of the Bible in expository style. This doesn't necessarily mean verse by verse, but it does mean that the text sets the tone for the sermon, the structure of the text informs the outline, the content and context are continually drawn upon, etc., rather than allowing previously selected themes to inform the text (I've always felt awkward looking for a text to support my theme...)
This also means Bibles are brought to church and open during the sermon (a practice which I would argue is analogous to a gateway drug as far as biblical literacy goes - in other words, having the Bible open and being engaged with the text during the sermon often leads to deeper and riskier forms of biblical addiction- you may even start using in private during the week!)
Caution must be exercised here. I don't think it would be helpful for a body of believers to spend six months in the book of Esther. We need to prioritize. But what fruit would be born through a patient, determined preaching journey through the Gospel of John or Paul's letter to the Romans? As long as the text is preached faithfully, I can't imagine that experience lacking in benefit. Obviously adjustments could be made. For example, maybe you'll do Romans 1-9 or 1-12, or key portions in John's Gospel rather than focus on every detail.
The lectionary obviously affords these kinds of opportunities. But it often skips important texts or breaks up the flow of the narrative in such a way that the cohesive theology of the narrative or letter is obscured. I think a better approach is to tackle the whole book, all the while encouraging people to read the entire book a few times as it's preached. This allows listeners to better connect the dots and integrate each dose of preaching into a biblical framework.
As above, here's an example of how we've done this at the congregation where I serve. The three year lectonary's approach to the Epistles is often to walk through them part by part. Sometimes sections are omitted (often when applied to another occasion). Our practice has been to take one of the Epistle's prescribed for the summer and preach through it verse by verse during the summer (or at least section by section). One summer we did large chunks of Romans, the next summer all of Ephesians, then the following we did all of Galatians, and now this summer we anticipate preaching all of 1, 2, and 3 John, as well as Jude. In general, we do follow the lectionary, however, we adjust the readings to be in order, include the entire book, and be small enough sections to manage. Because the sections are often larger, we will reduce the other readings as well so we can focus in on the text we're preaching.
Overall, I think this has been helpful. We encourage everyone to read these portions of Scripture in advance and alongside the sermons. I would be confident in saying that most people feel more connected to the preaching, anticipate it on Sundays, and walk away with a firmer grasp of a portion of God's Spirit-inspired revelation. I would say that's worth tweaking the lectionary for.
Once again, I'm not suggesting this way is better. I'm just suggesting that we need to be sensitive to where God's people are at, how we all best learn, and what works toward our best grasp of the Word of life. And let me be even more emphatic that I am in no way saying I have this figured out. We're just pastors trying to figure out our context and feed God's people the best we can. Sometimes that means using the wisdom of past lectionaries. Other times it means making some adjustments.
Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church - South Windsor, CT