This message is primarily directed to my friends for whom the word “lectionary” sounds like a disease. I, too, once shared your visceral shudder when someone uttered the phrase “lectionary preacher.” At the time, my cursory thoughts about lectionary preaching were that it was too routine, too dated, too incomplete, and too lazy. I know that for some of my colleagues and acquaintances, it was also too catholic, but with a capital “C”, and last but not least, too progressive. I know that is a mouthful of “too this,” or “too that,” but it was my experience.
I have since come to a clearer understanding of the use of lectionary preaching in the history of the Church. The lectio continua (continuous reading) that the 1st through 3rd century Church modeled after the pattern of the Jewish synagogue, contextualized this tradition with the additional inclusion of accepted Christian texts. The subsequent creation of a liturgical calendar in the 4th century onward became the scaffolding on which to hang lectionary readings. These are the predecessors to our modern lectionaries.
Of course, I am aware that some Reformers jettisoned the use of the church calendar and its lectionary while others found it beneficial or created their own form of lectio continua divorced from the Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar. All that to say, I know a bit more now than what I thought I knew then and a robust appreciation has formed.
As a minister, I was an aficionado of expository preaching, but not a big fan of topical series. I was under the naive impression that expository preachers always let Scripture speak, i.e. they really got to the true meaning of Scripture while topical preachers let their personal eisegesis give free reign to any interpretation they so desired. Experience taught me, though, that sometimes the opposite is true.
There are plenty of expository preachers who plumb the depths of Scripture for the purposes of plying their own doctrinal goods upon their congregation and there are just as many topical preachers who take seriously the meaning and message of scripture on a particular subject.
What I also learned from my experience is that both styles of preaching have an inherent difficulty. They each depend upon the selective power of the preacher. They rely on the preacher’s ability to choose one book of the Bible and one topic over another.
While both forms of preaching have their merit, over time, I found it nearly impossible to give rightful credence to all of Scripture or to every topic that beset the life of a disciple of Jesus.
Enter lectionary preaching.
I want to share what I found beneficial about lectionary preaching first.
I’d rather accentuate the positive before addressing those objections that I once made and some of you may still have.
Rooted in the Gospel Story
The lectionary is rooted in the Gospel Story and the overarching narrative of scripture: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.
The liturgical calendar and the lectionary that accompanies it tell this story to us, to our children, and to our children’s children. The Gospel narrative which is related through the liturgical calendar and its accompanying lectionary for preaching and prayer, become our Christian version of instruction as outlined in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 that retells God’s deliverance of his people throughout our diurnal rhythms. These rhythms and routines shape and form us.
Freed From Producing The “Wow” Factor
We are never off the hook to clearly and winsomely communicate the scripture to our people as best as we possibly can. But, I think that taking some pressure off the preacher to “wow” with a slick series or cleverly crafted calendar of sermons is a healthy goal.
The focus of our preaching should be the overarching redemptive message of scripture and the retelling of the story that all of us continually need to hear. It isn’t about the preacher as some topical and expository series seem to indicate, but about the power of the Gospel narrative.
For me, the lectionary provides just such a stripping away of ego. It forces me to tackle texts I frankly would shy away from, especially texts that may not be my go-to at certain times of the year and it pushes me to emphasize texts that follow a rhythm of Gospel story-telling when I’d rather default to my favorite text.
I have found that the rhythm of lectionary preaching has oftentimes surprised me, how a particular text for a certain Sunday just seemed to fit like a glove. Chalk this all up to the Spirit. That goes for all preaching styles, but in my own carefully planned and creatively worked series, I have never felt the surprise that I do when preaching through the lectionary because I frankly planned it that way, to have no surprises!
But Wait, What About the “Too This and That?”
Too routine? As a busy pastor most of us need a measure of routine in our lives. The lectionary provides a helpful routine that isn’t staid, boring, and uncreative, but thoughtful and deliberate in its outline.
Too dated? I would say a tradition that has stood the test of time over two millennia is quite relevant. The fact that it has seen a resurgence of use not just in the Mainline Churches in North America, but also in many Evangelical communities is a testament to its tried and true flavor.
Too incomplete? It is what one makes of it. There are editorial decisions that were made that exclude certain texts in the three-year lectionary cycle, but it doesn’t indicate incompleteness. The use of abbreviated texts implies a larger context in which they live and it is our opportunity as preachers to broaden the net to include that span.
Too lazy? Just because I didn’t plan the schedule, doesn’t mean I’m being lazy. The hard work is not the decision on what to preach, but the heart and soul work of wrestling with the meaning of the text and its implication for us and our community. For me, the lectionary structure frees me to do that since I don’t have to worry about what specifically to preach on any given Sunday.
Too catholic, but with a capital “C”? No one is forcing a Protestant to preach the Apocrypha and frankly, aren’t we far enough removed from the 16th century that we can better appreciate the places of commonality between Protestant and Catholic communities? The Common Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary are both modeled after the Roman Catholic Lectionary for Mass of 1969.
Too progressive? This goes back to the argument about completeness.
Decisions were made by the editorial board of the Revised Common Lectionary to exclude passages that would be deemed anti-Semitic or that referred to homosexuality, among others.
Such passages in isolation and out of context, I, too, would find troublesome. Texts with more sensitive subjects should be in the purview of our preaching, but included in a larger context and not in isolation. Like Luther, I find the lectionary baby worthy enough to keep even if I find some of the water it is bathed in either incomplete or lacking.
Lectionary preaching retells the story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, and takes the pressure off a preacher to “wow” the congregation, but it also plows through all of the canon: Jewish historical books, Wisdom Literature, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles in its three-year cycle. Its routine is helpful, its use is tested by time, it includes the whole counsel of God even in its abbreviated texts, it makes it easier for me to do a deep dive into the text without having to worry about what to preach, it is not too Catholic, but rather very catholic, that is universal in its breadth and usefulness, and its editorial decisions do not preclude me from preaching the excluded texts in their larger context.
Why not give it a try? The Pastors Workshop provides a helpful lectionary guide that follows the Revised Common Lectionary. We provide a summary of the text, key illustration, key quote, key themes, and a liturgy for the day.
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California.
He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
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