A Case for the Revised Common Lectionary
I recently returned from a week at Preacher Camp. There are many things to recommend about the experience of retreating with excellent colleagues to plan preaching, and I’ve often written about the gift of this kind of collaboration and support. But the growing interest and questions related to Preacher Camp have invited me to revisit another part of my preaching practice: preaching from the lectionary.
Why do you preach from the lectionary? Have you always preached from the lectionary? What is the lectionary? Isn’t that practice tedious/constricting/lame? As the questions kept coming into my inbox, I stopped to think again why preaching the lectionary has been a powerful tool in my own professional life and personal spiritual practice.
We Baptists may be less familiar with the lectionary, taken as we are with our bent toward nonconformity. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of recommended texts for use in worship or study on a particular day of the year. The texts lead the reader through much of the Bible, streamlining themes and emphases as they relate to the different seasons of the church year.
While preaching the lectionary might not be the best practice for every preacher, here are some reasons I think it’s worth a try.
One lesson a good preacher must learn early and regularly is the lesson that preaching is not about me. I’ve found that, when Sunday’s pulpit is looming and I have no idea what to say, the assigned lectionary texts help me remember that those 20 or so minutes in the pulpit every week are not either an opportunity to showcase every single thing I learned in seminary, nor an occasion to hog the microphone for the purpose of pontificating on whatever happened to be on my mind when I woke up that morning. Instead, good preaching is one of the most effective leadership tools a pastor has at her disposal, a perpetual opportunity to open the text and invite the people of God into regular conversation about eternal truths that speak to immediate concerns.
And since the texts cycle in a three-year pattern, any preacher who preaches the lectionary for any length of time will circle back to the same texts. While some may find this practice tedious, for me it has been enlightening and even expansive. I’m on my fourth time preaching the lectionary cycle, and the rhythm of the cycle has become an excellent discipline for my own spiritual practice. When I am invited to return to a familiar text and place it within a lived reality that has shifted since the last time I read it, I inevitably discover again the layers of meaning and depth in the sacred text. Who knew the same Psalm or parable could offer an entirely different perspective on a situation?
Providing this kind of structure can also be a benefit for congregations in their regular practice of corporate worship. I’ve found the lectionary builds a sense of comfort within the congregations I’ve served, a shared touch point that communicates stability. That is, in the middle of inevitable challenges that emerge whenever a group of people gets together, we share a known framework of texts that call us together for ongoing reflection about our own lives, and our shared expression of the gospel message. In short, everybody knows what’s coming. Predictability in congregational life? Who wouldn’t want it?
Finally, it must be a universal truth that local congregations constantly face the challenge of moving beyond immediate conflict, concern and maintenance to think about the work of the Church in the world. The rhythm of the lectionary cycle broadens our understanding of ourselves to include the Church Universal, congregations of Christians all over the world who gather the same exact Sunday to read the same texts and to explore their relevance for the context in which they live. The lectionary has the potential to be a force for unity amidst diversity, because when we share experiences, even if those experiences are reading the same text thousands of miles apart, we break down barriers that would not be broken down otherwise.
You may have noticed that I’m a fan of lectionary preaching. For all of these reasons and more, the lectionary has been a gift to me, both personally and professionally. But what about when the lectionary doesn’t work? What happens when Nepal is buried under a devastating earthquake or a gunman enters a church and commits racially motivated mass murder? Don’t you find the assigned texts constraining?
Maybe. Sometimes. But often, not. Eternal themes of scripture, the ongoing call to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God, the universal pain of human living — all of these are addressed throughout scripture, and a good preacher can find these themes and weave them together.
At the end of the day, God is always speaking. It’s up to us to listen. And since some of us need a little more guidance than others, the lectionary can help. Try it, and let me know what you think!