Friday, August 15, 2008

What the Lectionary Doesn't Let Us Read

In preparing for my homily for Proper 20, I found myself once again frustrated with the Revised Common Lectionary. Throughout the summer I have been preaching on the The Epistle to the Romans. For Proper 20, Year A, the lectionary appoints Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, to be read, thus skipping over a large portion of chapter eleven. This happens several times with respect to Romans. On Proper 9, we read 1:16-17, 3:22b-28, thus skipping much of chapters one and three, and all of chapter two. Similarly, much of chapter nine is missing later on in the cycle. As a result, we are carefully directed away from passages that might lead us in the direction of sermons that address themes and concepts such as homosexuality, knowledge of God through natural theology, supersessionism, predestination, and yes, sin). Careful readers of the lectionary will note that considerable portions of the The Revelation to St. John are also absent, as well as several unpalatable passages from the Old Testament. This is only to scrape the surface.

As I explain in my Sunday homily (click here), I first encountered this problem some years ago when I was preaching on the The Book of Revelation and noted that all the nice “pie-in-the-sky” passages and glorious eschatological hymns were included but difficult passages, such as a series of “woes” in Revelation 22, were not. I asked someone with whom I worked, who had been a member of the lectionary committee, why this was the case, and was told that many difficult passages had not been included because preachers would have to spend so much time explaining the difficult pieces that they might never get to preaching the Good News.

Well, I’m sorry, but this has always stuck in my craw. Just who are the lectionary editors to judge that preachers are incompetent to exegete the text responsibly? This is not to say that the state of preaching in the Church is not in a sorry state. I have heard many sermons that have left me positively unedified, but not because the text of Scripture was unedifying. I am not above being the object of the criticism, either. I have preached some bad sermons in my time. I suggest, though, that our congregations should be the judge of our preaching and not the lectionary people. Furthermore, I would suggest, in opposition to my colleague on the lectionary committee, that excising difficult passages may actually inhibit the preaching of the Good News.

If we consider ourselves to be believers in the Incarnation, we must face the brutal but glorious reality that the Incarnation occurred in the muck and mire of our human existence. God in Christ redeems us in our brokenness and brutality because that is precisely what needs to be redeemed. God did not do a clean-up job before the Incarnation; the Incarnation occurred in the midst of a mess. I suggest that we need to approach the Scriptures through this same incarnational lens. The Scriptures speak of and to the muck and mire of our world, and often times reflect it. The question to ask these difficult texts is the incarnational question: What does a belief in the Incarnation teach us as we approach a difficult text from Holy Scripture. In any given difficult text, what is the human brokenness in search of divine healing? How does the God’s grace provide a context for this story or passage?

Last Sunday, we found ourselves responding to the story of the sons of Jacob selling their brother Joseph into slavery with, “Thanks be to God.” But as I pointed out before I began my sermon, the Psalm appointed for the day was a portion of Psalm 105, which sung about the wonderful works of God through Joseph in Egypt and ends with an “alleluia!” I tried to make it clear that our “Thanks be to God,” is only uttered in the context of the whole story in which God’s grace is revealed. The psalm provided this context. In this instance, the lectionary editors got it right – a difficult text was included, but given its proper context. What we learn is the truth that even in (and especially in) the muck and mire of our human existence God can work mighty acts of grace. This is the reality of the Incarnation.

There are, of course, those passages that are difficult and seemingly without context. Sometimes, we simply need to name the horror of the text and stand in silence before it. This is, of course, why we value our tradition of preaching. It is the task of the preacher to help the congregation interpret the text, understand its difficulties and perplexities, live within the tension of certain texts, and most importantly, to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in the text.

The Revised Common Lectionary offers us grand possibilities and a wide selection of Scripture over the three-year cycle. Indeed, as Anglicans we are reading more Scripture than ever before (much of the Old Testament was left unread in the old BCP lectionary). We have the opportunity to follow large pieces of text sequentially, week after week, as well as hear thematic selections at particular points during the festivals and seasons of the Church Year. Believe it or not, as mainstream Christians, through the gift of the lectionary, we actually read and hear much more Scripture in worship than many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters! Yet, the lectionary is not without flaws. I believe the courageous preacher will address these gaps and take up the task of preaching the difficult pieces of Scripture that have been excised, and work toward their inclusion in the difficult journey that we call the way of faith.

Copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.


David Brainerd said...

Why can't you just read the whole chapter? Afraid a parishioner is going to tattle on you?

David Brainerd said...

If my comment sounds rude, please understand its not intended that way. Its true ignorance on my part of the dynamics of how a lectionary using church works.

Daniel Graves said...

Not rude at all, David. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! In our tradition, we are required to use the lectionary. We are basically free to deviate from time-to-time, but if we want to make a major departure (i.e., a six-week series on a particular topic or book of the Bible), that requires permission from the Bishop. Generally the lectionary works very well as it forces me to preach on passages I might not choose. However, as I mentioned in the article, sometimes passages are left out for a variety of reasons. If it is a small section, then sometimes I will often have the reader include it. At other times the passage might be very lengthy (say, a major portion of a whole chapter, for example). In such a case I might simply note in my sermon what has been left out, maybe read a selection, or give a brief summary. We have four readings in each service (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle & Gospel), so you can see that there is already a lot of Scripture read and adding a large omitted chunk might just be a bit of overload. It simply involves the judgement of the cleric with respect to the given situation. I can't think that anyone would actually get in trouble for reading more of the Bible in church, rather than less, though! That's a good problem to have.
Fr. Dan