One Last Post on the Lectionary

One Last Post on the Lectionary June 4, 2009

More good comments under the second lectionary post (and here’s the first). So here are my concluding thoughts (for now).

When I began working as a pastor at Colonial Church in 1997, David Fisher had just introduced the Revised Common Lectionary as the general guide for preaching. I loved it, and here’s why: As the minister to youth and young adults, I got to preach a couple times a year — often the Sunday after Christmas or Easter.  The potholes that preaching youth pastors must avoid are many. For one, with so few opportunities to preach, one is often tempted to jam three or four sermons into one. Another is that, in a series-based homiletical environment, one is often squeezed in between two series that the senior pastor has planned, leaving the erstwhile youth pastor with the entire canon from which to choose.

So, the RCL helped me immensely, for it gave me guidance on what to preach, and it placed my sermon in the flow of the liturgical year. In some sense, it meant that the preacher was less important, since s/he was not choosing the text but being chosen by the text.

That being said, I cannot help but agree with the commenters on the other posts that, for all of its merits, the RCL does work under the ecclesiological/theological/psychological assumption that some of the unsavory bits of the biblical narrative are not suitable for public worship. Maybe, as in the first chapter of Job, the mention of “the satan” will raise more questions than the preacher cares to answer; similar with the death of Judas, which prompted the first post on this. Or, in psalmic verses about bashing babies heads or killing enemies, it seems downright offensive.

But these very verses were sung by ancient Israel, and in worship.  And many of the church fathers preached on Job 1 and on Judas.

Thus my contention that, with all of its beauty, the RCL is somewhat captive to modern sensibilities.  I’m not arguing with Andrea or Taylor that some parts of the scripture need to be left out; I’m saying that what is left out tells us something, and what it tells us is that we have a tendency to want to “clean up” the Bible for public worship.

I think we should fight that tendency because it damages faith. I’ve met too many people who have left Christianity because they weren’t told the whole story of God when they were young, and when they confronted the ugly parts of the story later, they had no way to fit that in to their framework of who God it. Methinks that the young people in Nadia’s church won’t have that problem.

The committee that decides these things meets again in 2010. I hope they’ll consider putting some of the ornery passages in the RCL and thus challenge preachers and congregations to wrestle with them, even in worship!

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  • jestrfyl

    For a group that has as much to say about what is said in churches and taught in lectionary based curriculae, this is a fairly secret group. How does a person get selected or elected to serve, and for how long? What criteria do they use other than working through the three year cycle of the synoptics and the Big O.T. stories (Torah/Exodus, David, Prophets)? From what denominations do they come and to whom are they accountable? I would think that the represented denominations might want to be careful who gets onto this committee. How international, inter-cultural, mixed gender/generation, or theologically diverse are they?
    I use the RCL as a discipline so I am not preaching only what I know or find particularly challenging any given Sunday. This is perhpas the largest ecumenical project that most denominations and clergy actually follow. So I would think it would be more widely known than it is.

  • Andrea LaSonde Anastos

    I would briefly support one of the major points Taylor has made: the purpose of the lectionary is not to exclude anything. The purpose of the lectionary is to include as much as possible given the parameters of a lectionary format.
    Members of the CCT would strongly encourage other groups to engage in the process of creating a fuller lectionary in any way the group chooses to do that. It is a humbling experience to make the choices that need to be made if Sunday worship is to include anything beyond the reading of scripture. Remember that there are (basically) 65 or so holy days in which scripture is read in the Assembly.
    If it works better for you, by all means divide the Bible into 65 equal portions and try it out as a way of inviting the congregation into worship. My own guess is that it isn’t going to fly in most churches.
    But the very experience of wrestling with the issue and realizing that the end product will be used (or not) by thousands of Christians across the globe…and used without any chance to defend your choices to them…is an exercise in discipleship in its own right.
    Again, I am so grateful for this conversation.
    In peace,

  • Andrea LaSonde Anastos

    Somehow, this posted and old post!
    Here is what I actually wrote in response:
    I appreciate the opportunity to respond to jestrfyl. Some of your questions have already been answered in earlier posts and are also part of the introductory material published by Abingdon Press (in the USA) and Woodlake Books (in Canada). There was a time — indeed, when the RCL was originally released — that there were no internet versions of it: everyone needed the book. As a result, everyone had all the introductory material along with the table of lessons.
    The book also listed the 19 denominations, associations, communions, and churches that worked as CCT members on the RCL. That does not include others who were consulted during the revision, which included Hebrew scholars and rabbis as well as some of the Orthodox traditions.
    Can I please say something one more time? The CCT has no say whatsoever about what is said in any church of any denomination, anywhere in the world. The CCT produced a resource called the RCL. Denominations, communions, associations and churches chose to use that resource or not to use it; it was always and always will remain the prerogative of the denominations to allow or disallow the RCL as a resource. It is also their prerogative to select and adapt. The various Lutheran churches do not use the readings from the apocrypha, but the alternate that is provided. The UCC uses the first set of readings in the Season after Pentecost (the semi-continuous ones) in its printed material, but any preacher is free to use the other set of readings if she/he prefers. Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who participated in the revision do not use the RCL and it doesn’t look like they will in my lifetime. And so it goes.
    Meanwhile, there is nothing secret about the organization: we have a website with names listed. If you go past the initial page in the site, you can find a listing of all those who have served since CCT’s founding over 20 years ago.
    Delegates are appointed by their denominations, communions, etc. Some do it through a Worship Office, other through an Ecumenical Office. Some delegates actually work for the national office of their denomination, others are pastors in the field and a couple were academics teaching in seminaries. Denominations are free to change delegates whenever they choose and completely at their own discretion.
    When it comes to diversity, I would remind you that we came together over 20 years ago before many of the bi-lateral and tri-lateral conversations were even taking place. At the time, the diversity of denomination and tradition were really pushing the envelope. When I was first appointed, I was one of only two women and shortly after I was appointed, the other woman retired. For 3 or 4 meetings, I was the only woman. But I was welcomed by many men serving denominations that did not even ordain women (some of which still don’t.) So, we weren’t as diverse in gender 20 years ago; now we are. When I was appointed, I was also one of the youngest members (at 35), now we have several at that age and several others have come and gone in those 20 years. All of our members come from the USA or Canada, but we were founded as a group to serve those two countries…the spread of the RCL was much broader, much faster than we anticipated.
    I would also like to say that our work has continued with many other projects once we produced the RCL. It has taken on a life of its own, while we have gone on to produce (among other things) a daily lectionary and a three-year cycle of collects, written by 23 people (lay people and clergy) from 13 denominations.
    Although I don’t speak for the CCT as a whole, my own sense is that it is unlikely that there will be a further revision in the near future since there have been a number of adaptations and revisions within various national churches already and individual pastors use the tables as allowed by their denominations or their personal conscience. I’m not sure what purpose a revision would serve at this point; it’s not as if there would be the expectation that all the churches currently using it would switch to the “new” RCL and drop all the adaptations they have made.
    This is why I continue to urge: if you or a group of which you are a part, want to suggest alternatives, do it! Print your alternatives and make them available as widely as possible. Some people will ignore them; some people will critcize them; some people will thank you heartily and use them; and some people will immediately start adapting them. If you want a place to start, I would like a set of alternative Hebrew scripture lessons for the Great Fifty Days…I don’t like using all Second Testament material during that time.
    I hope that helps,

  • jestrfyl

    Your response helps a lot. I have a raft of suggestions, but even more questions. I will check out the website and other material. I choose to use the RCL about 90% of the time simply because it does cause me to examine and discuss passages I might overlook or choose to ignore. But sometimes the choices do not make much sense (as in why rework John 3 so many times this year?) I also prefer to use the RCL because so many others do as well – it gives us a point for common discussion. I use the UCC calendar for my initial suggestions, but will then supplement with my own if I think there is a clearer partner passage in another section of the Bible. I do hope there will be more use of wisdom literature in the years to come – especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, simply because they are so under utilized. Also, I would like to see more of the Apocrypha included, or at least as alternative suggestions (like the Hanukkah story around Hanukkah). All in all, as with democracy, it is an imperfect system but it is the best system we have.

  • We are a church that is exploring the ancient paths. We use the RCL. I have noticed that the RC lectionary seems to be willing to include texts that are a bit harder on 21st century ears. One of the things i love about the lectionary is that we must hear all of the Bible and not the “favorites.” People have to think about what God wants them to think about.

  • Jonathan

    I’ve followed this discussion with interest. As an Episcopal priest (and a college professor who regularly taught Bible) I have found the RCL an enormous improvement over the Book of Common Prayer lectionary. Yes, it has its problems, and like Tony, I’ve occasionally been troubled by the politically correct omissions, but when it’s my turn to preach, I usually refer to the portions left out in the readings. What troubles me more is that preachers don’t face the challenges presented by the lectionary week to week. When I sit in the pew, and hear the readings, usually the difficult questions pop out at me. It is rare that I hear a sermon that deals with those questions. Many times, the preacher does everything to avoid dealing with the texts at hand.