Pericopal politics

liturgical calendarConsidering how many Christians follow the liturgical calendar, the media seem not to get it. In a news environment that seeks change and conflict, the liturgical calendar is a constant.

Each year, liturgical congregations — which include, Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches — work through every major part of the Holy Bible and the story of salvation accomplished through Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The church has, through tradition, assigned Old Testament, New Testament and Gospel readings that are to be read to the congregation. Each week also has its own Psalm and other liturgical elements unique to the day. The sermon is built around these readings.

Keep that in mind as you read this Los Angeles Times report of Barack Obama’s visit to a church yesterday:

Barack Obama began his campaign day in Eau Claire, Wis., surprising most of the congregation at the town’s First Lutheran Church by attending service there. But Pastor John Kerr had been tipped that his listeners might include the almost-official Democratic presidential nominee, and he was ready with an on-point message.

Obama brought his own Bible and settled into an aisle seat in the fourth row. Kerr’s then offered as his first reading Romans 12:1-8 — which preaches humility.

Indeed, according to pool reporter John Broder of the New York Times, Kerr summarized its thrust as counseling against cockiness because one is a good singer or public speaker. And the passage urges one “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

In his 13-minute sermon, Kerr refrained from any mention of Obama or politics.

Um, no, the pastor didn’t include Romans 12: 1-8 as his “first” (first?) reading because he’d been tipped off that Obama might attend. I’d be willing to wager that the pastor follows a three-year lectionary. Some congregations, like mine, follow a one-year calendar. Others use a three-year cycle so that you repeat the readings every three years. Anyway, it just so happens that the first year of the three-year lectionary lists the following readings for August 24, the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:

Is. 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Rom. 11:33-12:8
Matt. 16:13-20

Liturgical calendars are created precisely to help pastors avoid preaching on whims or fancies that may detract from the overall message of Christ and his crucifixion. And while I’m sure any pastor and congregation would be excited to have Barack Obama or any other major political figure in their midst, sermons aren’t supposed to be composed for one individual. Lutherans believe that the Romans passage applies to everyone, not just high-profile members of the day’s congregation.

I know that reporters like to think that everything is about politics. But some things are more important than politics.

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  • Don

    It’s true the journalist didn’t get it, but I confess that I’d have been sorely tempted to pick a “free text” for the day if it had been me. I can think of a number of choice verses.

    (closes eyes – wry smile appears on face)

  • Julia

    That’s one of the most bone-headed examples to date of not getting religion that you guys have featured.

    The liturgical calendar and its associated pericopes also seems not to sink in with people who say that Catholics don’t know or pay attention to the Bible.

    Here’s the Catholic readings for August 24, 2008 from USCCB website:

    Reading 1
    Is 22:19-23

    Responsorial Psalm
    Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8

    Reading II
    Rom 11:33-36

    Gospel
    Mt 16:13-20

    It’s very similar to the Lutheran Missouri Synod readings listed by Mollie and is also part of a 3 year cycle.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I should note that the second link I provided for the lectionary goes to Episcopal lectionary and is also similar or the same to the readings provided by Julia and listed in the post.

  • http://orrologion.blogspot.com Christopher Orr

    …liturgical congregations — which include, Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches — work through every major part of the Holy Bible and the story of salvation accomplished through Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The church has, through tradition, assigned Old Testament, New Testament and Gospel readings that are to be read to the congregation. Each week also has its own Psalm and other liturgical elements unique to the day.

    This is an inaccurate statement regarding the pericopes and other readings in the Orthodox Church, the second largest body of Christians in the world and a heavily liturgical church that is not even mentioned in this analysis of the media’s understanding of the liturgical calendar.

    In the Orthodox Church there is not always a reading from the Old Testament specified for a given feast day, much less for each of the many services that might normally be found in parishes (much less monasteries). If there is, it is usually read as one or more of the three Scriptural readings read at the evening service on the eve of the feast – but the readings are not all always from the Old Testament. A particular Psalm is also not assigned to each week, though particular parts of various Psalms may be used liturgically throughout the services of a particular day changing day to day, not week to week.

    “Every major part of the Holy Bible” is also somewhat unclear. Does this mean that every “major part” has some part of it read throughout the year? What constitutes a “major part”? Is this breaking down the Bible into Law, Prophets and Psalms? Do the historical books count? What of the ‘Apocrypha’, which are assigned for liturgical reading in the Orthodox Church but unlikely to be read publicly in a Protestant church? Is a particular book of the Bible itself a ‘major part’? If so, then the Orthodox Church never reads publicly from the book of Revelation, and I would be there are other books that are either not read or provide very small portions to the public reading in the Orthodox Typikon of Services.

    Also, why the distinction between New Testament and Gospel, which is itself a part of the New Testament? In the Orthodox Church ‘epistle’ would be a misnomer, because non-Gospel readings from the NT also include the Acts of the Apostles, which is an ‘historical’ book rather than an ‘epistle’ (letter). In Orthodoxy, a reading from the Apostolos (lit., “The Apostle”, containing Acts and the Epistles, but not Revelation) and the Gospel are appointed for the Divine Liturgy, but other regular parish services (Matins, Vespers, the Hours) one may encounter do not have readings from both prescribed.

    I get the sense that the liturgical rules mentioned here may be the common rules of the LCMS and perhaps other liturgical Protestant communities, but they are not necessarily common to all (most?) liturgical Christian communities.

  • Julia

    Christopher Orr said:

    I get the sense that the liturgical rules mentioned here may be the common rules of the LCMS and perhaps other liturgical Protestant communities, but they are not necessarily common to all (most?) liturgical Christian communities

    The liturgical rules are similar, not identical. For one thing, the Catholics also have weekday daily readings, in addition to other short Scriptural citations throughout the Mass that change daily. These non-Sunday readings and citations usually relate to the saint or commemoration of that day.

    And I’d guess each church has its own rules for how to progress through psalms in the Liturgy of Hours (or Office);and not all liturgical churches recognize a Liturgy of the Hours, only the Sunday/weekly Liturgical calendar.

    Also, I think Mollie used “New Testament” to mean “other than the Gospels”, which would include Epistles, Acts and Revelation.

  • Jerry

    I know that reporters like to think that everything is about politics. But some things are more important than politics.

    Amen, sister. Testify!

    (I’m not commenting on the various variations of Liturgical Calendars here. The point Mollie makes is fundamental.)

  • Pingback: GetReligion gets it right. « A Blogspotting Anglican Episcopalian

  • http://orrologion.blogspot.com Christopher Orr

    Mollie’s point is very good, I am just noting that it is hard to get details like this right. Even Mollie, a knowledgeable religion writer, can be imprecise in her writing about something she knows something about. Christianity, even “liturgical congregations” (whatever that means when the Catholic and Orthodox churches are taken into account), is a large and varied beast and it is hard to get the specifics right so everyone feels like the truth was told. It is a perfect example of how difficult it is to write about religion and “get it”. Kudos to Mollie, Terry and others that seem to be able to do it so well so often, if not always.

  • http://www.GetReligion.org Mollie

    I think all liturgical church bodies have daily readings as well.

    Also, if I’d known that, judging from my hate mail, leaving out Orthodox, Methodist, Presbyterian and other liturgical church bodies would cause so much consternation, I might have spent more time on this post.

    I don’t think we need to mention the particularities of a the various Orthodox groups here in America every time we discuss something that could relate to them — but I appreciate the additional information.

    I specifically avoided talking about Eastern Christians because of the differences. Perhaps I should have added, as I often do, a mention of the West.

  • Julia

    Methodists and Presbyterians are liturgical?
    Do they have liturgy in the sense of rituals and a calendar of prescribed readings or just the prescribed readings?

  • Pillsbury Doughboy

    Well, you could argue that all churches are liturgical in a sense. Both Methodists and Presbyterians are liturgical.

  • Dave2

    If I’m not mistaken, this post of Mollie’s redeems the blog.

  • Eli

    Aye. What Jerry and Dave2 said times two.

  • liberty

    This reminds me of the time that journalists were reporting on the Pope. They said that he expressed his concern for the environment by wearing ‘green robes’. Of course it had nothing to do with the environment… it was because we were in ordinary time in the liturgical calender.

  • FW Ken

    Julia -

    Methodists and at least some Presbyterians have fixed liturgies and lectionaries. I don’t know about the latter, but the Methodists are not bound to them in the same way as a Catholic priest is bound to the Order of the Mass.

  • Julia

    FW Ken:

    Thanks. I sure learn a lot reading this blog.

  • http://rub-s-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    I specifically avoided talking about Eastern Christians because of the differences.

    I had assumed as much. No skin off my nose.


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