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Missing the Word in the Words
The Dangers of the Narrative Lectionary
Benjamin E. Leese

Since the earliest centuries, the Church has followed a pattern of reading Scripture, organizing the Bible into portions for proclamation at each gathering. A standardized one-year lectionary had become the norm in the Western Church by 1000 AD. The eastern churches have followed a separate one-year lectionary for many centuries also. However, the Second Vatican Council expanded the lectionary used by the Roman church, adding an additional scripture reading (often from the Old Testament) to the Mass and switching to a three-year cycle. With that move, other churches began re-assessing their own lectionaries. Working together across confessional lines, Protestant scripture scholars and liturgists proposed a lectionary similar to the Roman Catholic one. Its most recent iteration, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), was released in 1992. (Gail Ramshaw’s many works, some of which are cited below, are a treasure trove in understanding the internal logic of the RCL.) The RCL, across three years of readings, provides preachers and worshippers a rich diet of Biblical texts for proclamation, reflection, and prayer.

While popular, the RCL does not own the market. Other lectionaries, and even a proposal to add a fourth year to the RCL (Slemmons), appear from time to time (Thorngate). The alternative with the biggest following in recent years has been the Narrative Lectionary (NL), which has become a popular worship-planning tool in Lutheran churches and other denominations.  The compilers of this lectionary, Rolf Jacobson and Craig Koester of Luther Seminary, created it as a response to waning Bible fluency in our congregations and in our culture. Proponents of the NL identify the RCL as part of the problem and argue that the RCL does not “present Scripture—especially the Old Testament—in a way that helps people to become fluent in the first language of faith” (Luther Seminary). NL proponents maintain that the Old Testament readings in the RCL (even the semi-continuous option) do not adequately show the grand scope of salvation history. According to the Luther Seminary website, the NL seeks to “show the breadth and variety of voices within Scripture” and aid the proclamation of what God is up to in the world.

The concerns about biblical fluency are valid and well founded, and the NL helps the Church to think through its relationship with the Hebrew Scriptures. But in the way it addresses those issues, it creates other problems. Most importantly, it fails to keep Christ at the center of Christian preaching. The Narrative Lectionary’s assumptions about the goals of preaching create problems for Christian proclamation in general, and Lutheran preaching in particular.

All lectionaries bring assumptions to the ways that biblical texts are presented. Identifying those assumptions allow us to determine if they match the assumptions that our confessions ask us to bring to the task of preaching and interpreting Scripture. One assumption of the RCL— that it is good for Christians from various Christian families to hear the same or similar readings each week—has many defenders and does not need to be elaborated upon here. Instead, let’s focus on the assumptions of each lectionary about the interpretation of Scripture and the central function of worship.

Perhaps the fundamental difference between the NL and RCL is the assumption made about the reason for a lectionary.  On one hand, the NL exists for mainly educational purposes, to present the “breadth and variety of voices within Scripture” (Luther Seminary). Congregants in churches that use the NL can expect to learn about the shape of biblical literature. Certainly, the compilers chose particular texts to convey the depth of the human experience in the Bible, but the main problem and goal is educational. As this lectionary purpose suggests, the preacher should educate his or her audience. With more knowledge in hand, the assumption and hope is that they will be able to find themselves in the Bible story or discern what God is doing today. Folks may then find in Jesus Christ the fulfillment of God’s relationship with the world and enter into a fuller relationship with Him. Some may argue that the NL pattern of proclamation helps hearers to discover what God is up to in their lives and in the world, but without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the central event, hearers could miss the heart of the Christian story.

On the other hand, the RCL exists for preaching rather than teaching, and the proclamation that flows from its use is more likely to be centered on the Gospel message rather than on Bible literacy. Preaching is not teaching; preaching is about justification, especially when seen from a Lutheran perspective. The preacher preaches in order that God, through the preacher’s words, might justify sinners. Preaching is Law and Gospel. Preaching is accusation and promise. Preaching is about God’s great gift to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The RCL serves this purpose well (it is sometimes criticized for using justification texts too often, as if such a thing were possible). The RCL cycle of readings centers on the Gospel. There is no getting around Jesus and his work.

 

Another striking difference between the two lectionaries is the number of readings appointed for each Sunday. The NL proposes one preaching text for each Sunday, from the Old Testament from September to mid-December, from the Gospels from Christmas to Easter, and from Acts and Paul’s letters from Easter to Pentecost. Because some congregations “find it helpful,” the compilers assign a “complementary” or “accompanying” text that can also be used. But the assumption here is that one can have a full experience of God from any given passage of Scripture, and that all Scripture does not necessarily need to be read, learned, judged, and preached through the lens of the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus is pushed to the sidelines in favor of Bible knowledge. While there is some interaction implied between the main text and the accompanying text, the accompanying text is often so short that it is clearly subordinate. The NL holds the mistaken assumption that Scripture is the point of Scripture, rather than finding Jesus to be the point.

The RCL assigns four to six portions of Scripture for each Sunday, including one or two Psalms. For festival Sundays, the RCL appoints a Gospel reading, an Old Testament reading chosen to illuminate or deepen the hearing of the Gospel reading (a reading from Acts stands in that spot during Easter), a Psalm, chosen to match the Old Testament reading, and a reading from the New Testament that also correlates with the Gospel reading. During the time after Pentecost the RCL also provides a semi-continuous series of Old Testament readings that are not matched with the Gospel reading, as well as a Psalm to match the alternate Old Testament reading, in order to provide an option more amenable to the Reformed way of understanding Scripture. The readings from the New Testament letters are semi-continuous during this season as well.

All these readings together interact in rich and sometimes unpredictable ways. The juxtaposition (Lathrop) of these texts gives a richness to proclamation of the Word in the Sunday assembly. None of the texts is ultimately clear without the others. In the midst of many readings, the messy work of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ becomes much easier. Preachers have a greater opportunity to hit on the message of Jesus when using the RCL—although even then, congregations have been subjected to far too many lectures masquerading as sermons. While not perfect, the RCL, much more clearly than the NL, recognizes that Scripture points us to Jesus Christ and does not exist as an end in itself.

The great danger of the NL is that congregations, by using it, may come to adopt its assumptions, that all Scripture is knowable and understandable independent of the lens of Jesus’s death and resurrection. While many preachers who use the NL work hard to proclaim Jesus in each sermon, and the good news is certainly to be found on every page of Scripture, it is also true that preachers using the NL could preach a sermon without any reference to Jesus. A view of Scripture without Jesus is essentially non-Christian and is futile from a Christian perspective (2 Corinthians 3.14-16).  Worship and preaching are to be an encounter with the risen and living Christ, empowered by the Spirit and in the presence of the God who created the world. The RCL’s balance of readings flows out of and into this essentially Trinitarian nature of worship. But the NL, especially in autumn, creates the potential for worship in which Jesus is not necessary. Christian worship becomes hardly recognizable from Jewish worship in this model. Ironically, the NL commits an equal but opposite error during the winter, when it appoints only a Gospel lesson and not one from the Old Testament. The assumptions during that season hearken back to Marcionism, an ancient heresy rejected by the early Church. Scripture exists to lead its readers and hearers to Jesus, but the NL’s implicit assumptions distort that purpose. Jesus belongs at the heart of worship and preaching throughout the year, and the NL simply does not maintain Christ’s centrality.

In my own ministry, I have used a march-through-the Bible method (though not the NL) for preaching at our youth-oriented service on Wednesday evenings. While I worked in each sermon to connect to the death and resurrection of Jesus, I failed on many occasions, and my practice communicated that all Scripture is equally important in helping us to meet God in worship. I have since returned to the RCL for Wednesday worship services, sometimes using Gospel readings missed by the RCL if I feel the need for more depth or a different slant for folks who attend on both Sunday and Wednesday. The march-through-the-Bible approach simply risks missing Jesus Christ the Word for the sake of the word of the Bible. I cannot be confident that one who learns the Old Testament will necessarily have an encounter with the saving love of Jesus Christ.

If preachers still feel called to help their congregations grapple with the grand scope of the Bible, there are other options besides the NL. The most obvious, but perhaps most difficult, is through Christian Education. Many will wring their hands at the challenge of getting people to attend Bible study, but that should not stop us from offering substantive education for all ages. Nor should that challenge trick us into using the time for worship and proclamation as a time for teaching. If the best strategy is to use worship as an opportunity for education, a regular Bible highlight in the service might allow the preacher to present the biblical story in a linear fashion from one week to the next without losing the Gospel-proclamation function of the assigned readings. For instance, for the past three years I have added “Faith in Life Instruction” just before the Benediction. I have used that time to provide a homework assignment or application of the sermon just before sending the congregation into the world. It would be easy enough to turn that time into a Bible Snapchat of sorts and walk through the grand scope of Scripture at any pace one liked, perhaps even using the NL as a guide.

Ironically, the NL seeks to fight the crisis of biblical illiteracy, but it has ended up creating a defective means of interpreting Scripture. An interpretation of Scripture without Jesus at its heart leaves the Christian assembly starved for true preaching, true love, and an encounter with the Crucified One who yet lives. The RCL, by consistently offering Gospel readings bolstered by related readings from other parts of the Bible, helps preachers to preach and helps congregations to learn that Jesus is the center of Scripture and necessary to its interpretation. The greatest need of our time is not an increase in biblical literacy but for preaching that responds to people’s hunger for the mercy known in Jesus Christ.  The RCL  is still the best guide available to help preachers bring congregations into the presence of that mercy and to feed that deep hunger.

 

Benjamin E. Leese is pastor of Garden of Grace Community of Churches in York Springs, Pennsylvania.

 

 

Works Cited

Lathrop, Gordon. Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993.

Luther Seminary.“Narrative Lectionary FAQ.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_faqs.aspx (accessed November 8, 2016).

Ramshaw, Gail. Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002.

“Let Me Tell You About the Revised Common Lectionary.” http://leitourgia.org/onewebmedia/Lecture%20Ramshaw%202015.pdf (accessed November 8, 2016).

“Treasuring the Revised Common Lectionary.” Plenary lecture delivered at the 2014 Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University on April 29, 2014.

Slemmons, Timothy Matthew. “The Year D Project. http://theyeardproject.blogspot.com (accessed November 8, 2016).

Thorngate, Steve. “What’s the Text?: Alternatives to the Common Lectionary” October 16, 2013. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-10/what-s-text (accessed November 8, 2016).

 

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