15 January 2010

Lectionary Reflections, Part II

In Part I of this series, I asked a series of three questions. In today’s article, I intend to reflect on the first two:

1) What is the value of reading four passages of Scripture, two or three of which are ignored, marginalized, or even misappropriated to a specific theme?

2) What good is including such a significant amount of Scripture in the Liturgy of the Church when/if people largely tune it out?

The First Two Questions

Shortly after the interim edition of the Book of Common Prayer of my Synod was released, I got an e-mail from my bishop asking about the connections I saw in the readings for a particular day. To be fair, on that particular day I found the connections to be readily apparent. Yet a few months later, as I sat down to prepare for the coming Sunday’s homily, I read, re-read, and re-re-read the four passages appointed in the proper, to find that I couldn’t put together a cohesive homily on the readings.

Going back to my days as a server, I remember having the idea drilled into me that the homily pertained to the readings. A cardinal sin in homiletics is to start introducing tons of additional readings into the mix. It’s one thing to cite and share portions of other texts, but the pericopes of the Lectionary are present for a purpose – to be preached upon! I always found it odd when I would visit a congregation where the Lectionary was used for the readings, and then the preacher mounted the pulpit and read yet another reading, which had nothing to do with the preceding three or four, and which was to form the basis of his sermon (the only thing more pointless was re-reading the Gospel of the Day a second time before commencing the sermon, but I digress!). I wanted to scream from my pew “Preach what you’ve already read!” but I dutifully held my tongue.

Looking back, I can’t begin to count the number of times I have tried weaving tenuous threads together to form a cohesive homily on the texts, and I have to admit that it is very possible that, in doing so, I have fallen into the trap of crafting God’s Word to suit my thinking. This is an alarming prospect, for if I have misled the flock, I am a thief and a robber… which leads to the dilemma of how to handle lectionary preaching.

The problem is largely non-existent in thematically united times of the Liturgical Year. Certainly it would be difficult to argue that there was a discontinuity of message in the pericopes assigned, for example, to the Paschal Triddum or Ascension Day. But in the large ‘green’ swath of the year – and, to a lesser extent, on the Sundays within the preparatory/celebratory seasons of Advent, Lent, and Easter – the discordance between readings become more and more apparent.

The pericopes of the festal times, however, presents another problem – the regular association of specific texts with one another, which often results in the people being exposed to a single aspect of the text itself. Further, it does not allow for the introduction of other texts (perhaps lesser known ones) that serve to equally embrace and enhance the message found in the controlling text (usually the Gospel) for the day.

The result of using disconnected and discordant readings is less than appealing to me from a pastoral perspective. In a post-modern world, Christianity needs to fight the trend to multi-task in the midst of its own worship. Central core messages need to be exposed and explored for the benefit of the people. Many modern Church-goers cannot tell you what their pastor preached about, or what the readings were about, during their Sunday worship service. For some, it is because the pastor meanders between texts, displaying little or no unity, and confusing folks mightily. For others it is a result of a lack of attention. Admittedly, I have had such lack of attention when sitting in a pew. Heck, for that matter, I have had such a lack of attention from time to time when sitting in the pastor’s chair!

While I would strongly argue that abandoning the lectionary altogether is not a tenable solution (in spite of arguments to the contrary, I still believe that the lack of a lectionary allows pastors to cherry-pick favorite texts, much to the detriment of their parishioners), I cannot ignore the fact that neither the historic one-year or the contemporary three-year lectionary systems are optimal ways to present the Word of God in its fullness to God’s people.


All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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