Sunday, June 20, 2010

Current Sunday lessons - a rant

I've had some positive things to say about The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides shared sets of Bible lessons across Christian denominations each Sunday.

But the current cycle is really, well, what's the theological term? Pissing me off.

Instead of a set of lessons built around a common theme for the week, we have two competing cycles running. The wonderful Old Testament lessons on the Prophet Elijah do not have common themes with the wonderful New Testament expressions of God's grace in Paul's Letter to the Galatians and The Gospel of Luke. The options are to force a cheap theme that isn't true to the texts, or to leave the people wondering why you avoided the challenging passages in one of the readings.

Current Sundays frequently juxtapose violent Old Testament passages with New Testament words of mercy, and reek dangerously of the historic stereotype of "that ugly Jewish religion which our beautiful Christian faith came to replace." It is a perception that has aided and abetted anti-Semitism over the centuries.

Then there's the sheer length of the readings. Even with some suggested (and, to most readers, confusing) sections to omit, there's a mind-numbing jumble of words that drop on the congregation. One of my parishioners came up with her lesson leaflet and asked me, "Is the font smaller?" Sure enough, it is. There's no way to make the long selections fit on the sheets, so the publishers are just throwing them on with dinky, eye straining letters.

Today sported a silly didactic use of Psalms 42 & 43 in combination. Usually, there is a single Psalm or even a short portion of a Psalm for congregational responsive reading. But somebody among the Illuminati decided that we needed to make the big, impressive point that two Psalms share a refrain and we should throw down all twenty-one combined verses to teach our people about poetic devices of the Old Testament. I am sure that there were pathetic sermons all over the mainline church world today - "Speaking these two poems as one teaches us that they were once of a piece. We reclaim an ancient beauty lost to us when we omit one or the other." Now we have a lectionary supporting the worst kind of preaching - the factoid crammed crap that somebody mouths after running to a reference book instead of actually reading, praying, and seeking God's word for the people.

'Til next time, Rant Off.


caheidelberger said...

It won't get me to the pew, but I do respect a pastor who will pull no punches in his criticism of bad preaching... or in this case, bad lectionary. Keep that rant button handy -- it's good for us!

The Archer of the Forest said...

I agree that if all a preacher does is use the second OT track as a "fill your sermon with ivory tower factoids and conjecture" or ignore it completely, then, yes, it leads almost automatically to bad preaching. However, I actually think the two OT tracks can lead to better preaching, if utilized correctly.

I particularly like the second track with the linear following of an OT story. I think the finest sermon series that I have done is on the Track 2 OT lessons in ordinary time. I can engage the story and build on the inherent themes of the OT story from Sunday to Sunday, and don't have to begin with remedial information with the next Sunday being a completely different set of readings and themes. With the theme of the week lectionary, preachers, unless they want to preach an Evangelical style 45+ minute sermon, won't ever get past the surface of the riches of any given text.

What I absolutely detest is when the Lectionary tries to force all the readings into a (oftentimes) artificial theme that takes a lot of the epistle and OT readings out of context to make them fit. This ends up making the preacher spend half his time giving the background on a reading, or otherwise the text as presented makes no sense, especially when verses are omitted I particularly hate that, but then the Lectionary redaction based on the fruits of various biblical criticisms is the subject of a completely different rant of mine which I won't go into here.

This is why I generally do not tend to preach on the epistles because they are such in depth theological trains of thought that Sunday theological lectionary tourism (as I call it) butchers them.

I think a set of OT readings that forces the preacher to preach on something other than the Gospel story is actually a good idea. (I know we probably disagree somewhat on this point.) But I believe Christ and God's grace is found all through the stories, even those "violent ones" like Elijah, or two years ago in the Abraham readings.

Granted, this system in essence makes the preacher make a conscious choice of which passage to focus on. Like today for instance, I focused on the Elijah story. I hated to short change the Demoniac story from the gospels, but I think good preaching can't be all things to all stories in the Lectionary. You either end up with a muddle or a gloss that never goes deeper than the surface in any one of the texts.

I think this two tract thing also allows for greater biblical knowledge and biblical literacy in the congregation, which is particularly lacking in many mainstream churches because the preachers are trained to always preach/focus on the Gospel story, to the exclusion of every other story in the Bible. And there are some incredibly rich and powerful tales in the Old Testament.

The Archer of the Forest said...

This is a continuation of the previous post. Apparently you can only have 4000 characters per comment. (I didn't know that...)

This story today, for instance, with Elijah and the sound of sheer silence was dynamite. If you really engaged the text, you learned that God was speaking in every way possible to get Elijah back to grace filled ministry, and Elijah was too stubborn and ignored every single way God was speaking to him. But the Christ filled Grace in that story was that God was stubborn too and didn't give up on Elijah, even though Elijah rejected God over and over. I thought that pared incredibly well with the messages of grace and redemption of the Demoniac and what Paul was getting at in the NT reading.

I have my issues with the Revised Common Lectionary as well, but I applaud the longer OT readings in the summer time because I firmly believe if we are trying to foster mature Christian faith, then we need to be able to engage the entirety of the story of salvation, not just the comfortable stories in the Gospel readings. Like CS Lewis described Aslan, "sometimes He's not a tame lion...but he's good."

I also think if preached correctly, and not boringly or pedantically, that congregations can handle longer readings. Before I was ordained, I was always completely and utterly disgusted when preachers would treat us in the congregation like biblical simpletons that could not handle, remember, or process a reading of more than 5 or 6 verses. The most knowledgeable people I have ever met on sheer biblical knowledge and understanding were not seminary trained, ordained people. (Again, I'm looking as CS Lewis.) I always found that a very patronizing form of clericalism. I always swore that when I became a regular preacher, I would err on the side of high expectations and not low expectations of my congregation. Study after study has shown that students learn and retain so much more if the teacher has high expectations.

Ok, I'll end my rant as well. Just a few thoughts.

Happy Father's Day by the way!

TLF+ said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. And belated Father's Day bests to you both!

Archer, I agree that the OT series could provide its own set of sermons. I don't think the Gospel lesson has to be the sermon text every time.

And the people can stand one long reading, if that's the one on which you preach.

Yesterday had two long readings, both of which were wonderful in which they provoked questions about God's nature and action. Better to have just one such and give it full attention.

When there's a very long OT lesson or series, it would be fine with me to accompany it with very short Gospels pointing us ahead to the Eucharist - like the set in "Communion Under Special Circumstances." We are gathered by the grace of the Lord, in his presence, while we learn more of God through the stories of Elijah. (I am a big fan of John of the Cross so I would gladly hear a sermon series on the Prophet who inspired his spiritual model!)

Maybe the RCL "fix" is to really give two tracks - an alternative Gospel would be necessary just as it provides OT alternatives.

The Prayer Book, of course, allows us to drop the OT lesson or Epistle altogether, as well as the Psalm, so yesterday at 10 we went Epistle - Sequence Hymn - Gospel.

The Archer of the Forest said...

Well, that is the rub with having a lectionary at all. If you start to have all sorts of optional readings, then you face the problem of the main Sunday Eucharist no longer being Common Prayer, but Congregational pick'n'choose liturgy, following the more Protestant "let the preacher pick his text" mentality.

That loss of commonality is something I am sensitive to. When I was living in England, there had ceased to be Common Prayer in the sense of everyone coming together to do the same liturgy, or pray in common, at least as I saw it. On the one hand, you have extrememly evangelical C of E churches that won't touch a Book of Common Prayer with a ten foot pole. One of which in Cambridge that I am thinking of was using Willow Creek stuff. Then on the other hand you have some churches using the 1662 BCP, others using the Common Worship amalgam with its ten optional Eucharistic prayers, and the Anglo-catholic parishes using the old Catholic or even the Sarum Rite missal.

Most folks in the C of E were quite happy with this live-and-let-live arrangement, citing theological diversity, etc., etc. But I posed the question when I was there, and I never got a good answer, of if prayer shapes how we believe, and every congregation is doing its own thing, is there really anything, other than establishment, that is holding the C of E together? If the C of E loses its place as the established church (and it will one day), is there anything that will hold it all together? I don't see how its possible. If the jolly old C of E can't hold it together, what hope is there for the even more diverse Anglican Communion?

I think the two track thing was a compromise that allowed more denominations to sign onto it. Some likes the "all the readings have a singular theme" lectionary, and some of the more Bible-based Protestants liked reading through the books of the bible straight up, particularly if large sections of the OT were never read on Sundays because certain readings could never be pigeonholed into "theme of the week" lections.