The Lectionary: ordering the liberty of the preacher

I am a longterm lectionary devotee (as preacher, as teacher, as thesis supervisor, as blog writer). There is a richness in the lectionary that I appreciate. It has a clear structure, an observable order, a logic to its pattern, a rationale to the progress that it offers us, year by year, through the seasons of the (church) year.

There are also some frustrations with the lectionary: what stories are not included, what stories appear more than once (even if in different versions), where the passage starts (omitting verses that give “context”), where the passage ends (omitting significant follow-one verses), how the passage is edited (such as parts omitted), and so on.

But this is only to be expected: it is a human creation, subject to the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of its compilers, bound in many ways to the traditions of the church, limited by the number of Sunday’s that are to be found over three years. So I take it as it is, with its own biases as well as the benefits it offers.

Alongside this structure and order, the lectionary invites choice. It stimulates in me a consideration of the options available to me, and offers ways of using it that generates creativity in whatever I do as preacher, liturgies, or instructor. Every week, there are four readings listed in the lectionary. That itself suggests some choice (at least, in my denominational context).

However, the lectionary is far more than just four readings. It is a three-year creation, following a similar pattern in each of the three years, whilst still being designed to allow for a different focus each year.

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The lectionary is is based on a repeating year-long cycle, following a well-established tradition of tracing the Christian story through a familiar pattern. It starts by looking to the coming of Jesus (the four weeks of Advent), before celebrating the birth of Jesus (the twelve days of Christmas) and rejoicing in the revelation of God (a season of varying numbers of weeks during Epiphany–sometimes simply called Ordinary Time).

It continues by walking the pathway towards the cross (another six weeks, in Lent) and then remembering the pivotal events of the last meal of Jesus (Maundy Thursday), the death of Jesus (Good Friday), a time of waiting (Holy Saturday), and the empty tomb (Easter Sunday).

This is followed by a season celebrating the appearances of the risen one and the shaping of the early church (seven weeks in the season of Easter), reaching a climactic point of with the Day of Pentecost (the gift of the Spirit).

But this is only the halfway point. After these six months of richness, the ensuing six months (with the rather unfortunate name of Ordinary Time) allow time for tracing through in order the story told in one of the Gospels; or the narratives, prophetic works, and writings found in Hebrew Scriptures; or the string of Letters found in the New Testament.

So, whilst the first half of the year is based on key moments in the story of Jesus, the second half of the year is more devoted to follow through passages from a common source in their narrative order. It is sometimes referred to as a season of growth–growing in understanding of scripture, growing in discipleship and faith.

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The lectionary that we follow is the Revised Common Lectionary. You can access it at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/ and read responses to a whole range of frequently asked questions at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/faq2.php

This ecumenical lectionary is based on an earlier version, The Common Lectionary, which derives from the daily and weekly lectionaries used for centuries in the Roman Catholic tradition. And behind those lectionaries, there sits the Jewish custom of reading right through the Torah, the five Books of Moses, each year, with a particular selection of chapters set for each Sabbath day.

There are other options for lectionaries–the Narrative Lectionary, Uncommon Preaching, Beyond the Lectionary–but the Revised Common Lectionary is the most widespread, used across a good range of denominations, right round the world.

Christian lectionaries can be identified as far back as the fourth century. A lection is a passage to be read; a lectionary is thus an arrangement of passages to be read (and heard). Over time, in monasteries, lectionaries developed to provide sets of readings for the monks to hear and chant, as they gathered to worship at set hours throughout each day, and then further readings for worship each Sunday, right through the year.

The Jaharis Byzantine Lectionary,
held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, USA

Following a lectionary in our time is a good challenge to preachers—it invites them to step away from that clutch of familiar, beloved passages to which they would turn when considering “what shall I preach on?”, and challenges the preacher not simply to lapse back into familiar themes week after week.

It is also a fine resource for a community of faith. It clearly indicates “what is on next week”. It means that keen members can read the passages in advance of worship–perhaps even following a lectionary-based Bible reading guide like With Love to the World, for personal use or with a group. (See http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/).

It also means that visiting preachers can have an idea of what has just been preached on and what is coming after their visit, to avoid embarrassing “double-ups”.

It’s also fascinating to note just how often a passage that seems to be quite unrelated to the current context can “come alive” and offer striking or unforeseen insights into that situation. That’s a real gift that the lectionary offers!

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Sometimes, people talk about what is “set” in the lectionary. (I confess to have been guilty of this on occasions.) That seems to be the expectation, even the requirement, in some denominations with a highly structured (and some would say inflexible) approach to worship.

But my own denomination has roots traced to the “non-conformist” section of the church: protestants emerging from the Reformation, pietists flowing from the Wesleyan revival, a congregational emphasis growing from anti-establishment commitments of the past. Perhaps it is better for us to describe the passages available each week as being “offered” to us. They are offered; we need to consider how we accept them, how we use them, what they each offer to us.

In Year A, the focus is on the first Gospel, attributed to Matthew, alongside the ancestral narratives and account of the formation of Israel in the first five books of Hebrew Scripture. Following one or the other of these threads over a number of months can be an enriching experience for a community of faith.

In Year B, the focus is on the shortest Gospel, attributed to Mark, paralleled with passages drawn from the Writings of ancient Israel, whilst in Year C, the third Gospel, attributed to Luke, alongside a series of passages drawn from the prophetic tradition of Israel. These years each offer their own distinctives. There is enriching variety across the three years.

The fourth Gospel, attributed to John, is spread throughout these three years, at designated places throughout the year, whilst passages from the book of Acts are offered each year in the season of Easter (the weeks following after Easter Sunday). And passages from the various Letters found in the New Testament are spread across all three years.

In each of the three years, on every Sunday and special feast day, a selection from the Psalms is also offered. This ensures that over the course of three years, virtually all the Psalms are offered for Sunday worship.

The same can’t be said, unfortunately, for many other books of scripture. There are some striking omissions from the lectionary, when we look at the whole set of offerings. Many of the stories relating to women, for instance, do not appear. Some of the more difficult passages (the “texts of terror”, as they have been called) are missing. Some of the juicy parts of certain letters are missing.

Even with four readings each Sunday, 52 times each year, over three years, there still is not time for everything to be included. The only way to deal with “the whole Bible” is actually to undertake one of those “read the whole Bible in one year” programmes. That will mean reading quite a few chapters each and every day! (For instance, I found this website, that offers a range of possibilities: https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-reading-plan/)

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How do we respond to the offering of four Bible passages each and every Sunday? There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than a sermon that stodgily treats the OT, then the Epistle, the Gospel (and sometimes even the Psalm), all with 20 minutes! This slavish, literalist use of the resources provided in the lectionary is inevitably (in the negative sense) utterly deadly. It deadens my mind and depresses my spirit.

Likewise, there is nothing inviting or encouraging in a preacher who starts, “this week the lectionary offers hopeless passages, but I have to follow it, so here goes nothing”. It offers a structure and an order, but it is not a demand and a non-negotiable requirement, surely.

There is actually an abundance of choices when I consider the lectionary: do follow the Gospel? or take a pathway though the OT readings and the enriching theological ideas they offer? Might I focus on the psalms for a season, or a month? Should I take a letter when it appears, and examine it with care over 4 or 6 or 8 weeks? Or is it best, in this age of small attention rates and high expectation of novelty, simply to change it up week by week?

Of course, there is also the option to follow the lectionary in the key seasons—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter—then after the Pentecost celebration, in the long stretch of six months leading up to Advent, reshape worship with a local focus, or topical issues, or even a series on a theme or a book, and so on.

After 43 years I still find enrichment, challenge, and stimulation, and frustration, when I turn to the lectionary each week. And because the UCA is committed to “ordered liberty”, in worship, and in preaching, I am grateful for the order offered by the lectionary and the liberty possible in considering whether, why, and how the lectionary might shape what I end up doing.

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The Revised Common Lectionary can be accessed at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/

See also https://uniting.church/2020-2021-lectionary-is-available-for-free-download/

There is a rich collection of resources to assist anyone using the Revised Common Lectionary, at The Text This Week, http://www.textweek.com/

A useful daily Bible reading guide, based on the RCL, is With Love to the World, at http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/