Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lesser Lament For the Lectionary

I love the lectionary.  Really I do. To have a three-year cycle of readings that leave me with a plethora of preaching opportunities is pure gold as far as I am concerned.  I simply do not know what I would do if I were part of a tradition that did not take advantage of the lectionary.  Trying to come up with sermons week after week where I needed to pick the texts would likely result in me preaching on my favorite topics. I love that by using the lectionary, I am forced to address texts that I might otherwise avoid.  And by using those texts, week after week, year after year (I am now in my third trip round the lectionary preaching weekly with almost eight years under my belt as a pastor), I have come to love those texts that force me to wrestle with law and gospel, our situation and God's good news in Jesus.

That being said, sometimes I wish the lectionary was not so chopped up.  It is the very nature of the lectionary to give us self-contained stories, units of the text that can be read independently and still make sense.  Pericopes, we call them, from the Greek word that means to "cut around."  We cut the stories out of the larger flow of the book that they are in. Ultimately the pericope is chosen because the larger framework would be too long.  And sometimes that's workable.  Trying to take the full Sermon on the Mount in could be overwhelming in one sitting.  That allows the preacher to deal with various themes and issues in a series of sermons. 

But some weeks, it proves much more difficult to cut apart texts.  It seems to me this week is one of those weeks.  The Revised Common Lectionary appoints Matthew 21:23-32.  Jesus is tested by religious leaders when they ask by what authority he does these things and what then gave him that authority?  Jesus and his opponents have a standoff, but then Jesus continues with three parables. Two sons and their father. Workers in a vineyard whose greed leads them to murder the son of the owner.  A wedding banquet for a son where the father's invitation is ignored by many.  Each of these parables deals with a father and sons, and a response to said father's authority. 

This larger narrative flow will be lost as we stretch those parables over three Sundays.  In our setting, one reality that we must face is that when regular church-going is defined as once or twice a month, how many will be able to hear the full flow of the narrative?  Another issue that we must face is the episodic nature of other entertainment.  We digest a great deal of entertainment.  Very often, particularly with sitcoms, there is little narrative flow between episodes.  Sometimes there might be a recurrent theme but it is almost never necessary to know that to watch an episode.  Even in most dramas, each episode is crafted to be watchable without a large investment.  Only occasionally do serials, that is shows with an ongoing storyline between episodes, succeed.

The lectionary plays into the independent storyline and we are likely to miss larger arguments.  For Matthew, these parables are not just serial images, but a continued and sustained proclamation of who Jesus is.  Now as preacher, I am stuck.  When my focus in drawn to this defense of Jesus' identity, do I try to preach each story?  Or do I wait a few weeks and try one big sermon that tries to encompass the whole argument?  It certainly depends on my own situation.  I suppose if I cannot shake the question of authority and the overall flow of Matthew's gospel, I wait.  And certainly I must wait.  It is easier to point back to previous readings than point forward.  If I point forward, folks might not be familiar with the text, but even worse, I might dig myself a hole by taking any good preaching material from those following weeks. 

This entire dilemma could be resolved if the lectionary were read in larger chunks, but that is unlikely.  Our attention spans are shorter.  Television has changed us so that our attention spans are right about that twelve to fifteen minute block of show in between commercials.  C'est la vie.  I won't trade in the lectionary any time soon.  I do love it.  And thankfully whether I wait or just preach each text, I do get four texts to choose from every week.  And they are each beautiful and wondrous and challenging in their own right.

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