We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, June 8, 2012

Lectionary Rant

Yesterday's posting quoted Jesus as asking scribes who were critical of his forgiving the sin of a paralyzed man, "Why let all of this wickedness fester in your hearts?"  I took it from N.T. Wright's recent translation of the New Testament,  The Kingdom New Testament (HarperOne, 2011).  The quotation comes from the story of Jesus' healing a man virtually in defiance of the religious authorities, and it concludes with the people feeling fear of Jesus while thanking God for him (Matthew 9:1-8).  It is a beautiful story and an important one, but here's the thing: it is not in the Revised Common Lectionary, which (for the uninitiated) is the list of weekly scripture readings used by most denominations and a large percentage of mainline Protestant preachers.  The Catholic Church has its own lectionary.  The common lectionary runs through a three-year cycle, and if a passage, such as Matthew 9:1-8, isn't in the lectionary it won't be preached on in that cycle.  For preachers who stick to the lectionary, this means that they will never reflect on this passage with their congregations—this one and many other important passages that failed to "make the cut" of the lectionary.

Evidently, mainline seminaries are pushing the use of the lectionary, and many liturgical resources websites tailor their contents to the lectionary.  It has become almost ubiquitous in the mainline denominations.  That means that in a pastoral career of 30 years, a preacher will "work through" the lectionary 10 times, basically going over plowed ground again and again.  There are two things that I personally really, really don't like about the lectionary: first, as I've already suggested, it leaves out much of the Bible including many important passages; secondly, it focuses the preacher's attention on the text in the context of the lectionary rather than the context of the congregation.  Preaching should always be in, to, and for the congregation hearing the sermon.  There are times when a church needs to hear a particular message, and sometimes the lectionary passages for that particular week might prove useful to that end.  Other weeks, the preacher has to ignore the needs of the church, or mangle scripture to make it fit those needs, or ignore the passage.  All of these are bad choices.  They are lazy choices.  The lectionary, if used slavishly as evidently many do, can create a barrier between the preacher and parish.

It can also relieve the pastor of the necessity of wrestling with the meaning of the Bible for the church.  The Monday morning question is not what parts of scripture are relevant but rather what are the lectionary readings for this week?  Now, it is true that one rationale for the lectionary is that it keeps preachers from just going back to their favorite passages and narrow parts of the Bible week after week.  It "forces" preachers to  preach from many parts of the Bible.  That is a problem,  but this particular solution is no better than the disease itself.  In fact, it is a palliative approach.  It also limits the preacher to what parts of the Bible are used for preaching, and because it always includes passages from the gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and the Old Testament, preachers can focus on what type of material they like to preach from—the popular choices are the gospels or the letters of Paul.

At the end of the day, however, the key point is not whether or not to use the lectionary.  The point is, rather, that preachers preach a message relevant to the current life and needs of the congregation based on relevant passages.  It is not "wrong" to use the lectionary frequently or even regularly so long as the option to ignore it for a week or a year is always on the table—and so long as the preacher is ready to use non-lectionary passages that are equally as valuable and pertinent as those contained in the lectionary.  Used circumspectly, the lectionary can be an aide to worship rather than a crutch or like blinders.  That's the point.