Next Sunday will begin our second year using the Narrative Lectionary here at Central, so today I want to give you a brief overview of what this year will look like and remind you why we have gone to this approach.
A lectionary is a structured approach to try to ensure that congregations are exposed to the full witness of Scripture over time. The lectionary we used prior to last year was called the Revised Common Lectionary, used by a number of denominations. It was organized in a three year cycle, with the church year beginning on the first Sunday of Advent, around the beginning of December, and ending with Christ the King Sunday around Thanksgiving. Each year one of the three synoptic Gospels is featured in that lectionary, Matthew, Mark, or Luke. For each Sunday there are four lections, or readings – ordinarily one Old Testament reading, one Psalm, one Gospel reading, and one from a New Testament letter. Sometimes they tie together in some way, but frequently preachers just pick one of the four texts to preach about. The Common Lectionary originated in 1983 and the Revised Common Lectionary in 1982, but the idea of using a systematic approach to regularly be exposed to all of Scripture goes back even to pre-Christian Judaism. This is a good thing, and going back to the Revised Common Lectionary might be the right thing to do at some point.
In 2010 several professors at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota devised a new approach known as the Narrative Lectionary. They were driven by two major concerns: a belief that most church members are not as well grounded in Scripture as they used to be; and declining church attendance and accepting the reality of the summer slump.
It probably sounds funny to hear me say that in our age of advanced knowledge and easy access to information people may not know the Bible as well as people did 50 years ago, but I think it is probably true. There is so much more competition for our time at home with our various electronic devices and a thousand television stations, surfing the net, the packed schedules of children and families, so sitting on the porch reading your Bible is not as common today as it used to be. People also travel much more than they used to, on vacations of course, but also for travel sports, travel cheer, travel dance, and so forth and so on. It used to be when you took a research poll about your church participation, you checked the “regular attendee” box if you attended church three Sundays a month. Now one Sunday a month puts you in that category according to pollsters.
At any rate, those who put the Narrative Lectionary together decided it was no longer reasonable to assume that the people in the pews come with the background Biblical foundation to be able to hear random texts and stories and put them in the context of the whole Biblical story. So the providing of four texts a week for preachers to choose from and jumping around through the Bible may be more confusing than helpful. Thus the simpler approach of working through the Bible front to back, beginning to end, hitting the high points and connecting the story week by week. A narrative tells a story. It doesn’t skip around and it doesn’t assume you already know the story.
The Narrative Lectionary is organized in a four year cycle. Each year begins the Sunday after Labor Day and ends with Pentecost, which is roughly the end of the school year. It starts at the beginning of the Bible and works chronologically through the Old Testament using different stories each year until Christmas, when it picks up the story of Jesus. Each year a different Gospel is featured, and from Christmas to Easter we go through that Gospel chronologically, hitting the high points and the stories and teachings which are unique to that Gospel. The third segment, from Easter to Pentecost, features stories of the early church from Acts and the letters of Paul. The summer gives opportunity for some variety and series – this summer we had a series on the letter to the Ephesians and a series on the Sacraments.
The theme for this year, as you see on the bulletin cover and banners, is “Called by God, Blessed to Serve.” The introduction to the year states that this year’s stories “tell of God’s invitation into relationship given to all people, and the ways in which God provides gifts of grace at every turn.” One of the recurring themes of Scripture is that God calls people, not in order that they be privileged people, but in order that they serve. We are blessed in order to be a blessing. Of those to whom much is given much will be expected. This is to be seen as a blessing itself, an opportunity. “Called by God, Blessed to Serve.”
Beginning next Sunday we have a five week unit reminding us of the many ways in which God blesses us. The gift of creation; God’s providing a lamb for Abraham to sacrifice rather than his son; Jacob receiving blessings despite his trickery; Moses receiving gifts to overcome his fear of speaking and leading; and manna from heaven to sustain pilgrims on their wilderness journey.
Next we have a four week unit on the ways God calls and learning to listen for it: the boy Samuel in the temple; the boy David, called for his heart not his kingly appearance; Solomon’s call to build a temple; and the still, small voice of God speaking to Elijah and calling him back to service.
Then we have a three week unit on God’s promises of hope to people in exile, looking at portions of Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel. The transition from Old to New Testaments comes in the Advent section, God’s presence brings life.
This year’s Gospel is the Gospel of John, which was never featured in the New Revised Lectionary. We will travel through it from Christmas Eve to Easter, looking at themes like “encountering the Messiah, the invitation to abundant life, following Jesus, and God’s kingdom revealed.” I’m looking forward to that new journey a lot.
From Easter to Pentecost there will be two units, one about the spread of the Good News and the other about what it means to live in hope. Possible series for next summer are one on the Ten Commandments, one on I John, one on Ruth, and one on Stewardship and Generosity.
Here is the summary of the year provided by the compilers of the Narrative Lectionary curriculum. “While Abraham seemed too old to father a nation, Moses too quiet to lead a people, and David too young to take over Israel, we see throughout the Old Testament that God repeatedly calls the unexpected to step out in faith. As the people answer God’s call, God never fails to equip them for the journey. Throughout Scripture, gifts of grace are given to those answering God’s call, especially at some of the most trying moments. From gifts of manna in the wilderness, to God’s presence in the fiery furnace, to the promise of new life for the struggling Israelites, God’s call to discipleship is never without God’s blessing and provision each step of the way.
“As God chooses to dwell among us in Jesus Christ, God’s commitment to relationship is distinctly clear. Jesus’ invitations to abundant life reveal a relentless love that desires that all people know and serve God. His teachings reveal a kingdom that opposes traditional expectations of power and importance, always calling the least expected into God’s mission of redemption. As the hope of the resurrection spreads, God’s grace abounds in everyday moments and throughout the significant challenges of the early church. These early churches learn to rejoice, even in trials, always trusting in God’s provision. All of us are invited into a life of discipleship by our loving creator. God’s continued presence and abounding grace allows us to answer God’s call, and through those blessings, to live in hope as we serve Jesus through our neighbor.”
So that is a bird’s eye view of what is in store for us this year. As with last year, there are some tools you can take advantage of to go deeper. The first, and best, will be the daily Bible readings which will be published beginning next Sunday. Our text next Sunday is the very beginning of the Bible, the first creation account in Genesis 1. The daily Bible readings will hit the high points of the story between Sundays. A lot happens between Genesis 1 and Genesis 21, so following the daily readings will help you connect the dots even better. This year, rather than just a list of readings for the week, it is a devotional guide called “Sharing God’s Story at Home.” It includes the readings, prayer, conversation starters about Sunday’s story/sermon and next Sunday’s text, and a service idea. It will be emailed out to everyone on the email list. If you are not currently on that list and would like to begin receiving this, contact Sandy in the church office with your email address. We will also have copies in the narthex each week, but the obvious benefit of receiving it by email is for those Sundays when you are not at worship. I’d encourage you to print it out and keep it on your table where you will see it regularly. Those who used the daily Bible readings last year got a lot out of that practice.
We also have Sunday School classes which are using curriculum based on the Narrative Lectionary, including the Vision Class, the Journey Group, and the Genesis Class. If you would enjoy the practice of studying the passage in a group and then coming together in worship to reflect on it, give one of these classes a try. The Youth Sunday School class will also be following the narrative lectionary materials. If you’d like more variety in what you study, the Fellowship and Koinonia Classes continue to use the Uniform Lesson series which are based on the common lectionary, and the Seekers’ Class tackles a variety of themes through the year. Talk with me or Noelle for more information or directions to a class room.
In talking about the Reformation last Sunday I mentioned that part of the Reformation motto was “Scripture alone,” meaning that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are sufficient for Christians in ordering their faith and practice. It was therefore essential to the Reformers that the Scriptures be available to people in their own languages, not only the dead language Latin which was known only by the clergy. They taught the priesthood of all believers, meaning that each person is capable of studying and interpreting Scripture with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. My number one goal as a pastor is not to be the “go to” Bible authority for everyone. It is to help you enter the world of the Bible yourself so you can grow to love it and know its stories and teachings well enough to draw on them when you need them.
It’s easy to take for granted the freedom we have to read and study the Bible. It’s easy for the Bible just to become another thing to collect dust on the coffee table or the shelf. But those who continue to read, to study, to discuss, to wrestle with this ancient book will find that it yields wisdom, insight, truth, and blessings. I hope you will commit to join me this year in a journey of learning how we are called by God and blessed to serve.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey Central Presbyterian Church
September 3, 2017