The conference I attended this summer called “A Festival of Homiletics,” introduced me to a new approach to preaching which I plan to give a try beginning the Sunday after Labor Day. If I didn’t tell you about it you might never know it, but then again you might, so I’d like to give you a heads up.
So first let me give you a little history lesson as to how things have been done in the past. Our denomination endorses the use of what is called the Revised Common Lectionary in preaching and worship planning. It is not required that it be used, and it can be used in a variety of ways.
Here is how it is set up. There is a full three year cycle – Year A, Year B, and Year C. We are currently on the home stretch of Year C. The lectionary lists four Scripture readings for use every Sunday and every special occasion in the church year. Ordinarily one reading is from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from a Gospel, and one from an Epistle, or letter, of the New Testament. Each year one of the three so-called “Synoptic” Gospels – Matthew, Mark, or Luke – is the featured Gospel of the year. John is never featured, but Is worked in at various places over the three years.
The church year begins with Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. The life of Jesus is closely followed from Christmas through Pentecost. Sometimes the four readings all seem to relate to each other and complement each other in a sermon. Sometimes they just seem like four different options of different directions to go for a sermon. Sometimes there are several weeks in a row devoted to a book like one of Paul’s letters or Revelation or the life of David.
The good thing about following a lectionary in preaching is that it forces you to tackle passages that you would not ordinarily choose, maybe even some that you wish were not in the Bible. I have used the lectionary a lot, though there has never been a year when I have used it every Sunday. There are always occasions or events in the world which call for a different word than the lectionary offers, and there must be freedom for that. I have also enjoyed doing series of sermons on topics or books. But by and large the lectionary has been a friend and faithful guide. I have used the Revised Common Lectionary since it came out in 1994, so I have gone through seven full three year cycles with it, six of them while here at Central. It has gotten to the point where I turn to the lectionary passages and it seems like just a few weeks ago that I tried to find something new to say about it.
Prior to the Revised Common Lectionary it was, naturally, the Common Lectionary, which was in use from 1983-1994, and before that the Consultation on Church Union Lectionary which came out in 1974. I even had a year or two with that one when I was starting out.
Interestingly enough, these Protestant lectionaries grew out of the Ordo Lectionum Messae of 1969, a three year lectionary produced by the Roman Catholic Church following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. This is all part of what is known as the liturgical renewal in the church beginning at that time.
There have been cycles throughout the history of the church – periods when preachers were expected to let the Spirit lead them to the Word they were to preach that Sunday and periods where a disciplined approach to cover the whole of Scripture was preferred. At the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s, the Protestant Church rejected the Catholic Church’s lectionary of specific readings for specific days which were used every year in favor of a lectionary which went continuously through the Scripture from beginning to end.
One of the good things about widespread use of the Revised Common Lectionary by Protestant mainline denominations is that if you were traveling and attended worship in such a church several states away there is a fairly good chance that the congregation there would be focusing on the same portions of Scripture that your congregation here was focusing on. The Feasting on the Word curriculum which some of our classes have used has been based on the lectionary, which has provided some continuity between Sunday School and worship.
Part of the reason for all this background is to show you the rich and varied history of how seriously the church has taken the task of the proclamation of the Word in worship. Methods have changed from time to time, and this is really how things stay alive and lively by not becoming too rote.
So now let me give you an introduction to what we are moving to. It is called the Narrative Lectionary. You are familiar with a narrative – it tells a story through from beginning to end. It doesn’t skip around in the story and it doesn’t assume that you know the story.
Obviously the story of the Bible begins with the Old Testament, by far the longer and more complex of the two parts of Scripture because of the scope of history covered and the variety of sources and types of literature in it. When the church year starts in Advent, you are thrust almost immediately into the birth and life of Jesus and have skipped over the story which leads up to that.
Well, the church year will still begin with Advent, which is at the end of November, but from a preaching and worship perspective our calendar will begin the Sunday after Labor Day. This is a reasonable cultural shift given the school calendar. Summer is vacation season with people in and out of town so it is hard to do anything that has continuity from Sunday to Sunday during that period.
But by the end of Labor Day weekend people have settled back into the routine of school and work and activities. We still have the obstacle of getting football fans in church after a big day Saturday cheering on the team, but we still have a better chance for some continuity in attendance beginning at this point.
The Narrative Lectionary, then, begins the Sunday after Labor Day and continues through Pentecost Sunday in telling the narrative story of the Bible. This is basically the nine month period in which school is in session. I’ll tell you about what happens during the summer in a little bit. First let me give you some details about the nine month narrative journey through the Bible, which is divided into three segments.
The first segment begins the Sunday after Labor Day, September 11 this year, and runs for fourteen weeks. This is a journey through the Old Testament, hitting the high points chronologically. This year it starts in the Garden of Eden and continues with stories about Abraham, Joseph, Passover, the Golden Calf, Hannah, David, then stories from the time of the prophets, concluding with the prophetic expectation of a Messiah who would redeem Israel. This leads us into Advent and the turning of the page to the New Testament. This will happen in each of the years in the four year cycle. Each year will feature different stories, so over time there will be a weaving together of a fabric of stories telling the story of Old Testament Israel leading up to the coming of the Messiah. I love the Old Testament and think that understanding it is crucial for understanding Jesus and the New Testament, so I am very excited about this.
The second segment begins in the middle of Advent and runs for 23 weeks through the Sunday after Easter. This is a journey through one of the Gospels, this year the Gospel of Luke. It begins with the angel telling Mary she will give birth to the Messiah, and ends with the Resurrection and the Emmaus Road story. The 23 texts go straight through the Gospel of Luke. Not every story is told, but the high points are hit and the narrative continuity is sustained. In each week’s bulletin the text for the next week will be listed so that you can read and study it ahead of time, and if you’d like you can read from where this Sunday’s text left off through next Sunday’s so that by the end of the 23 weeks you will have read the entire Gospel of Luke. Each year one of the Gospels will be featured in this way. Next year it will be the Gospel of John, so going through that in a systematic way will be new for all of us. Over a four year period, then, you will have the opportunity to work through each of the Gospels. The Narrative Lectionary avoids repeating the same stories that are found in different Gospels and highlights what is distinctive about each one. It is most appropriate that the longest segment, just short of half the year, is devoted to the story of Jesus. Calling ourselves Christians should mean we are quite interested in knowing the teachings and observing the life of the One who is at the center of our faith so we understand the meaning of discipleship.
The third segment and by far the briefest, begins the second Sunday after Easter and runs six weeks through Pentecost Sunday. The texts are from the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul, and they recount stories of the early church and the giving of the Spirit on Pentecost. So as school winds up each year we will be winding up our nine month narrative journey through the whole Bible, and we will make four different journeys through that story over four years, stopping at different overlooks each year.
The summer gives an opportunity to do some different things and to zoom in on a specific book or topic. The summer just ending offered three series of several weeks each: one on II Corinthians, one on Job, and one on the Lord’s Prayer. Next summer we will have a series on Psalms, one on Ephesians, and one on the Sacraments. So in the same way that summer gives a change of pace in the school calendar, so it does in the Narrative Lectionary as well.
That’s a bit of background about how the Narrative Lectionary works. If you are interested in where it originated, here is some of that information. It was put together by professors at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and it has been in use since 2010. Their concern was that church members, generally speaking, don’t know the Bible as well as church members did a generation or so ago. That probably sounds funny, but I think it is true. There is so much more competition for our time at home with our various electronic devices and a thousand television stations, the schedules of children and families are packed with activities beyond school, 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 this and that. 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.
At any rate, those who put the Narrative Lectionary together said it is no longer reasonable to assume that those in the pews have 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 hitting the high points and connecting the story week by week. Here is how they describe the approach: “The texts include the major episodes in Scripture. They are arranged in a narrative sequence to help people see Scripture as a story that has coherence and a dynamic movement.
There actually is a Sunday School program that goes along with it, and the program staff is going to use it for our Monday Bible study this year. I’m excited about this approach and I hope you will enjoy it and will benefit from it. Hopefully the continuity of it will make you not want to miss a week, and if you cannot be physically present you will take advantage of the fact that you can watch the service anytime or read the sermon on our web site in order to keep up. We will start two weeks from today in the Garden of Eden, of course. The text will be listed in next Sunday’s bulletin.
Let the story begin, let it be fresh, let it become our story so that we can share it with others. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
August 28, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church