The Discipline and Art of Lectionary Preaching
At the heart of vocational Christian ministry is the responsibility to faithfully proclaim the Gospel of Christ crucified and to administer the Sacraments of the Church. In the Anglican tradition, we depict this solemn duty at ordinations by presenting the ordinand with a copy of the Bible alongside a paten and chalice.
In a liturgical settings, one tool used to more effectively preach the Gospel is the lectionary. A lectionary is a cycle of readings based on the Church year. Today, the Revised Common Lectionary, produced in 1994 by the North American Consultation on Common Texts and the International English Language Liturgical Consultation, is the most commonly used. Some denominations, like my own (the Anglican Church in North America) opt to produce their own. Every Sunday, most mainstream lectionaries—whether the RCL or a denominationally specific variant—include a reading from the Old Testament, Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel.
While I was growing up and attending seminary in a non-denominational/Baptist setting, the age-old debate for preachers centered on whether we should preach exegetically (that is, verse-by-verse through a book) or topically. The lectionary solves this dilemma: it provides readings from biblical books (often related to the previous week’s selections) while allowing the preacher the freedom to address topics which may be connected to the various readings in a given week. Lectionary preaching makes the most sense because it eliminates the tyranny of choice and enables preaching to truly be both a discipline and an art.
Lectionary Preaching as Discipline
Discipline refers to any practice aimed at forming us into the people we hope to become. It could be argued that both the act of preaching itself and the research a pastor has to conduct to produce the sermon are highly formative. Any time people are grappling with Scripture and proclaiming the Gospel, there will be an unseen shaping of the preacher and hopefully, by extension, the congregation. There are three main reasons that the discipline of lectionary preaching does this in the best way possible: lectionary preaching forces us to be rooted in the calendar of the Church; the lectionary prevents us from establishing a canon in canonem; and the lectionary keeps us moving.
Lectionary Preaching Forces Us to Be Rooted In the Calendar of the Church
Old Testament worship is rooted in time. Rituals were placed in a calendar rhythm. Jewish people still celebrate a weekly Sabbath and major yearly festivals like Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacle. The Early Church did not develop in isolation from these practices, initially considering itself a sub-sect of Judaism (Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History, 96). As the Jewish community became increasingly hostile to the burgeoning Christian movement, however, Christians were forced to develop their own identity based on the radical actions of God in Christ. This was reflected in the development of Christian liturgy and, in a related manner, the Christian calendar (Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 52).
The purpose of the Church’s calendar is to form Christians by walking them through the seasons and feasts that speak to the necessary parts of the Christian life. As Robert Webber explains, there are three reasons the calendar is important. First, it revolves around Christ, specifically his incarnation (Advent and Christmas), death (Lent and Holy Week), and resurrection (Easter). It emphasizes the importance of baptism and the sacramental community, the Church. Finally, it focuses on the Paschal mystery of the Eucharist, the culmination of catholic worship services (Webber, Ancient-Future Time, 32-3). All this is strengthened by the fact that, while the calendar has developed in some ways over time, the Christian calendar has always been central to Christian worship.
A good lectionary-based preacher will intentionally ground their sermons in the theme of the liturgical season in which the Church finds itself. Advent and Lent are times to emphasize our sinfulness and need for a savior. Christmas is a time to meditate on the Incarnation and its consequences. Easter is a time to highlight the triumph of Christ in the resurrection. And ordinary time should be used to help the congregants grow in their faith. None of these themes are exclusive to a particular season (hopefully, a lectionary preacher will always emphasize our inability to save ourselves, no matter the season) but they are augmented by them.
The Lectionary Prevents Us from Establishing A Canon in Canonem
It is very easy for a church or tradition to unwittingly establish a canon in canonem (“canon within a canon”). I have remarked elsewhere that:
The Anabaptists have the Sermon on the Mount, or so they claim. The Reformed supposedly have Romans. Catholics will always (falsely) accuse Protestants of reading Paul at the expense of James and Protestants will always (falsely) accuse Catholics of reading James at the expense of Paul. Some progressives have gone so far as to overtly embrace this propensity by calling themselves Red Letter Christians. To a certain degree, this tendency [to establish a canon within a canon] is inevitable regardless of [one’s particular] tradition. Yet it can hamper our ability to engage in effective biblical interpretation.
A canon within a canon does not allow all of the parts of Scripture to speak for itself. Whether knowingly or not, a canon in canonem enables preachers, theologians, and the laity to use a passage or book of the Bible to beat meaning into the rest of the texts. Certainly, good readers should be attuned to the significances and contributions various texts make. Yet, at the same time, the tendency to establish this sub-canon needs to be resisted.
Fortunately, the lectionary provides a great help. As a minister in a lectionary church, I do not have the luxury of deciding to go “off-script” one week unless I have my bishop’s permission. I have to preach the lessons for a given week. This is true even if the lessons are not from the parts of Scripture I may naturally—or unknowingly favor—over others. The lectionary forces me to take a balanced approach. While it does not completely eliminate our propensity to construct our own Scriptural holy of holies, it does provide an effective limitation by forcing preachers to preach from all of God’s Word.
The Lectionary Keeps Us Moving
Lectionary preachers can learn from preachers who use other forms of preaching, particularly expository preachers. Often, that type of preaching is rich and dives deep into the biblical text. However, it can also drag. There was a church in the area where I grew up that took over four years to go through the book of Romans. A book like Romans is vital and deserves our full attention. Yet, it is possible to go so slowly through a book in an expository context that the pastor and/or the congregation risks losing the forest for the trees. The pulpit is not a place to lecture, nor is the church an academic conference where we present papers. The pulpit is a holy place in that it is set apart for the preacher to proclaim the Gospel.
In order to best preach the Gospel, it is helpful to balance both breadth and depth. Sound preaching should engage with the entirety of God’s Word. The lectionary is a helpful tool in this regard. While readings are picked for the liturgical season in which they fall, the three year cycle of readings does an excellent job of making use of a wide sample of Scripture. At the same time, often the readings are focused on certain books during certain seasons. For example, this summer and fall, the lectionary has us spending a lot of time in the Gospel of Mark. On top of this, there is a Daily Office lectionary which is used during the week for Morning and Evening Prayer and compliments the Sunday lectionary nicely. Rather than just skimming the surface or getting bogged down, the lectionary keeps us moving at a steady pace which allows us to absorb the texts without getting beat down by them.
Lectionary Preaching as Art
All of the prior reasons for preferring the lectionary were related to the concept of discipline in some way. Yet preaching from the lectionary is not just a discipline. In many ways, preaching is an art. Every week, pastors are responsible for crafting a message to be delivered to Christ’s Church. It requires creativity and imagination. The juxtaposition of texts with each other on a given Sunday can provide“fresh insights into the classical proclamation of the Gospel. Lectionary preaching is very much an artistic endeavor for three reasons: it provides structure, it forces us to think canonically, and it forces us to communicate the Gospel.
The Lectionary Provides Structure
We may initially assume that a discussion of structure is a matter of discipline rather than art. While understandable, this assumption reflects a postmodern shift in our understanding of art that downplays the importance of structure. Yet God’s artistry in the creation poem of Genesis 1 is manifest precisely in the way he orders the world. Structure is a priori to good art.
While lectionary preaching is not the only structure one can use to produce the art of the sermon, it is the richest because it is inherently conversational: the sermon text is brought out of the pastor’s private study and placed in dialogue with other Scriptural texts, against the backdrop of the Church community.
The Lectionary Forces Us to Think Canonically
The rise of critical biblical scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries initiated a wider quest to ascertain historical and contextual meaning within the pages of Scripture. The historical-critical method, along with source criticism, launched important but often vacuous discussions about how Scripture developed and what could be drawn from it in light of those speculations. These are important questions, but routinely leave readers feeling as though there can be no stable or truly objective meaning in the text—a conclusion antithetical to the broader Christian tradition.
Fortunately, a scholar named Brevard Childs (1923-2007) developed a method for reading Scripture called canonical criticism which enables readers to find more stable meaning in the text. Rather than focusing on the evolution of Scripture into the canon, Childs posited that what was more important was the final form. Perhaps, for example, Genesis really was compiled from the JEPD sources over a long period of time. Yet instead of bludgeoning the texts through hypothetical deconstructions in a misguided quest for meaning, the reader should look to the way the text has been arranged in the canon of the Church.
Lectionary preaching is an exercise in canonical criticism. Ideally, it drives preachers to address the congregation using biblical theology: engaging the texts not as isolated pericopes, but as points in an intricate and beautiful network of texts in conversation with themselves. An astute lectionary preacher will draw out the themes of that discussion so the texts might speak to each other and to the congregation.
The Lectionary Enables Us to Communicate the Gospel
Modern sermons risk slipping toward two extremes: a dry, academic presentation or a stand-up comedy routine mixed with a motivational speech. Sadly, these kinds of sermons are not really communicating “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) who is the center of our faith. A sermon should be closely tied to the administration of the Sacraments.
While the lectionary engages all the parts of Scripture, it does so with a telos. The Old Testament reading does not stand alone, but rather paves the way for the New Testament readings which culminate in the Gospel. The Old Testament lesson shows us how God has acted throughout salvation history. The Epistle tells us how we are to live in light of God’s culminating actions through Christ on the cross. The Gospel points directly to the Incarnate Lord. In such a milieu, the focus should be clear and concise: God in Christ has done what we could not and reconciled us to himself.
Lectionary preaching is not a perfect system, and lectionary preachers are not perfect communicators of the Gospel. Nevertheless, there is wisdom in the tradition of lectionary preaching. It forms us by plugging us into the Christian calendar, it prevents us from constructing a canon within a canon, and it forces us to engage with all of Scripture. It fosters our imaginations by providing necessary structure, forcing us to think canonically, and be effective communicators of the Gospel. For these reasons, I submit that the lectionary represents the pinnacle of Christian preaching.