Sunday, February 7, 2010

Lectionary Pros and Cons

When I was ordained, the process of preaching included searching out that passage of Scripture that had the Good News to be announced the following Sunday.

I was aware that the Book of Common Worship (1946) had a lectionary in the back, and I knew what it was to be used for if anyone wanted to use it. As far as I knew, there were few takers. It seemed that most preachers picked the text for the sermon and went from there.

I did that for years and remember agonizing over finding that choice passage that demanded to be preached. I was greatly relieved when along came the lectionary in The Worshipbook (1970). The Revised Common Lectionary, as it is now called, is currently widely used, although at the start there were serious reservations.

Some preachers back then found it objectionable that anyone else should dictate the text for their sermon. Of course, the list of readings was not required in any sense. For us Protestants, the sole responsibility for selecting Scripture continued with the preacher—that’s part of the “freedom of the pulpit.”

Others felt that the choice of passages for the lectionary was arbitrary, and traditionally well-known and beloved texts were missing. Still, any preacher always has the prerogative to amend the list at any point. A special congregational need or public crisis would certainly call forth appropriate passages.

I found those objections to be minor. The virtues of using the lectionary, for me, far outweighed the possible problems.

For one thing, I appreciated the discipline the lectionary involved. It set a schedule and, what is more, kept my eye on the ball of the Scripture. I’ve noticed that preachers who don’t use a lectionary may be inclined to set out a mere snippet of Scripture as a springboard from which to dive into their chosen subject. Sizeable passages keep such leaping into the shallow end from happening.

There are four passages set for each Sunday which give a slab of Scripture cut through both Old and New Testaments. I find value in seeing the uninterrupted connection between the Christian proclamation and the historical and prophetic message in our Jewish roots.

The use of the psalm in the lectionary has great appeal to me. It is set among the designated passages as a response to the Old Testament Lesson. That suggests to me that it should be sung as psalms were originally.

One of the most important advantages of the lectionary is in how it lays out the church year. From season to season, the progression of the Year of the Lord is mapped out in the lectionary. For the preacher this offers continuity—each sermon is not a stand-alone, but one in a series continuing through the year.

An added bonus to the use of the lectionary these days is that it is a common lectionary. It’s not just for any one denomination, but shared by many, with a few minor adjustments. Which means that preachers, Presbyterians Roman Catholics, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran or whatever, can share in study groups as part of their preparation.

The greatest asset of using the lectionary is that it makes the Scripture readings available to the whole congregation in advance. Classes, study groups, families at home are all possible groups of folks who might preview the lessons. Therefore, the people come to worship prepared to participate in the sermon. So they should, for they are not passive witnesses to the preacher’s performance. They are there to do the “work of the people” and take an active role in the drama of worship.

Finally, I offer a couple of caveats to the preacher, lessons learned out of my own experience.

First, if the temptation comes upon you to dig back in your files and read the sermon you preached three years before on the same date, at all costs resist it. It’s old stuff, dead as yesterday’s mashed potatoes. Even if you think it’s surprisingly good, it’s still old, and not worth using a second time. Someone may remember it, and notice that you did a re-run. Or worse, no one may remember it at all. Even just reading the old one over before you start working on the current one is a mistake—what was hot and relevant then may not be now. Stay in the present.

Second, beware relying too heavily on the lectionary. There are lots of good resources for preaching the lectionary, and it is easy to fall back on them and neglect doing your own thinking. Read the texts weeks early, over and over again, and live with them before you ever crack a book of commentary or homiletical insight. Let the Scripture speak to you, listen, and listen some more. The Spirit will speak to your heart for your time.

How do you see the challenges and blessings of using the lectionary in your preaching? If you are a lay person, do you follow the lectionary at home the week before? Are there Bible study classes or groups in your church using the lectionary?


  1. Over and over I hear that the psalms are to be sung. The hymnal contains a few; some use obscure or unsingable tunes, some (Gelineau 23) work with solo plus congregation on the refrain, others are familiar hymns.
    Any other suggestions for singing the psalms? Here, on most Sundays, the congregation sings the refrain as indicated in the Book of Common Worship and alternates reciting the text with the leader.

  2. In our church's monthly newsletter we list the lectionary readings for the upcoming month; ditto each week in the worship service bulletin for the weekly Bible study group. As a computer person, I like to cut and paste from Vanderbilt university's online site to get the list as well as the actual citations for our readers on Sunday morning.

  3. I appreciate the lectionary for the discipline aspect, in that it forces me to select texts that I might have overlooked. The question becomes, then, what do we do with the texts that the Lectionary overlooks? When I find that a story - such as Job - gets short shrift, then I plan to work up a sermon (or even a sermon series) on that.

  4. I also use the lectionary, for the fullness of scripture it includes, and because I value its attention to the liturgical year. I have often thought, however, that someone should compile a list of texts that aren't included in the Lectionary. Or perhaps some of us should get together and share texts we know are left out. Some of Phyllis Trible's "texts of terror" or the woman "taken in adultery" come to mind (we don't know what happened to the man).

    I think of going off the Lectionary in Ordinary time, though I don't do so very often.


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