Why Preach from a Lectionary?
by Brad Estep
A lectionary is an organized set of scriptural passages that are recommended for each Sunday (or even each day) of the year.
Some lectionaries have a three-year plan and cycle. Others are arranged for two years. My guess is that there are many more options and plans than I am even aware of. For most of my 23 years of pastoral ministry, I have utilized the Revised Common Lectionary, which works on a 23 cycle (Years A, B, and C) and includes four suggested passages from the Bible for every Sunday and holy day throughout the year. There are two readings from the Old Testament, one of which is always from the book of Psalms. Then there are two readings from the New Testament, one of which is always from one of the Gospels. In the Revised Common Lectionary, one of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) is emphasized in each of the three years of the cycle, with readings from the gospel of John suggested every year.
A lectionary is a helpful tool in long-term sermon planning for a variety of reasons, and using a lectionary to plan your preaching will help you, as a pastor, avoid some pitfalls and temptations. In thinking about my own use of and experience with the lectionary over the years, I have found that I have preached both from passages that have been challenging or traditionally neglected, and others that have been familiar, loved, and cherished.
So, why preach from a lectionary?
The primary and basic reason to invite a lectionary to help guide the selection of passages from which you will preach is to avoid what I call, me-ism. We all have our favorite stories and passages. In a pinch, or in a week in which our time has been crunched from every side, it is tempting to go to our favorites. I’ve done that from time to time, and it’s okay, but the temptation is for that to become the status quo rather than the exception. I love the story of the anointing of David as a child by the prophet Samuel. It’s a great scene. Samuel comes to town, and Jesse lines up the candidates without even including his youngest, David. Time after time, each is rejected until somebody fetches David from the fields. I could preach that story multiple times in a variety of different ways. But the lectionary helps me avoid
always turning to my favorite stories. If I allow me-ism to determine my preaching schedule, I will likely avoid tough passages and difficult stories. I will shy away from passages I don’t easily grasp or which are hard to form sermon titles from. Of course, the Spirit can and will direct us away from a lectionary-based plan from time to time, but more often than not, I find the Spirit working through a long-term preaching schedule that pushes me into territory and passages I would
not normally choose on my own.
Another reason to preach from a lectionary is to avoid Marcionism. Marcion was a second-century heretic who believed that the God of the Hebrew Bible was wrathful and vengeful, and not the same God as the God of the New Testament. Marcion formed his own canon of Scripture and rejected from it all of the Old Testament.
Although we would never embrace Marcion’s position theoretically, our practice of preaching might suggest that we are closet, or practical, Marcions. In the hundreds of sermons I have preached over the years, I wonder sometimes what percentage of them have been drawn from an Old Testament text. A lectionary presents you with an Old Testament passage every single week, inviting you to preach from it or, at least, to incorporate some of its meaning into a sermon focused on one of the other passages.
We tend to be much more familiar with the world and context of the New Testament, so it’s tempting to make the mistake of embracing a latent Marcionism; a lectionary-based preaching plan helps prevent that from happening.
A lectionary also helps avoid a third danger in selecting the passages from which we will preach, and that danger is Jeffersonism. I do not reference a political philosophy or theory but, rather, the decision by Jefferson to cut out portions of the New Testament that he disliked or thought irrelevant. This, of course, was long ago and literally required a sharp blade that Jefferson used on an 1804 printing of a King James New Testament. What was left of the New Testament was ultimately printed as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (or, The Jefferson Bible). Jefferson’s goal was to clarify a code of morals that would be applicable to all
people. And when the lectionary I utilize suggests that I preach from one of those difficult stories in the life of Jesus or one of His end-times sayings, I’m tempted to practice Jeffersonism. I’m tempted to simply cut out what I don’t like or ignore what is difficult for me to preach because it cuts so dramatically and painfully
across the grain of my sensibilities. A lectionary won’t allow preachers to simply be moralists or proclaim Jesus as primarily a moral teacher. That aspect of Jesus cannot be denied, but it is far from the full picture. It’s like a book with sections or pages excised from it. It’s narrow and too convenient.
The fourth reason to utilize a lectionary is to avoid what call theological simplism. This may be a subset of me-ism because it is a form of the temptation to select only the passages we like or find theologically favorable. The best historical example that comes to mind is Martin Luther, although it’s probably evident in many. Luther, of course, staked his life on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone, and there were key verses, primarily in the Pauline epistles, where he lived and meditated (see Ephesians 2). Any mention of “works” was difficult for Luther, particularly if attached in some way to faith. For this reason, the book of James, with its emphasis upon works in tandem with faith (see James 2), was subject to removal from the canon. Luther referred to it as an “epistle of straw.”
So, what do we do when invited by a lectionary to preach from a passage that challenges some of our theological affirmations? Do we avoid it and simply re-affirm a theological simplism, or do we allow it to teach us and our people and refine the complexity of our theological articulations?
Finally, lectionary-based preaching grounds us in the Scriptures and pushes us away from relevant-ism. By relevant-ism, I do not mean that preaching should be irrelevant. By no means! Good preaching should address major events or tragedies in the life of the world or your community. Such things demand to be confronted
by the Bible and its challenging or comforting word. Neither does use of a lectionary prevent preaching in thematically based or book-based series. There are times throughout the lectionary cycle where this is possible and even encouraged. But, ultimately, lectionary-grounded preaching calls the preacher to begin in a scriptural text or texts rather than beginning in some current event, felt need, movie premiere, or political explosion that seems at the moment to be particularly and overwhelmingly relevant. To put it another way, relevant-ism can lead to proof-texting, which often results in poor theology and scriptural misinterpretation.
Grounding our work in Scripture, produces confidence that the outcome will coincide with Scripture. Sometimes relevant has become a euphemism for popular or entertaining or Instagramworthy.
These kinds of things are certainly fodder for fleshing out the meaning of a text or illustrating the implications of it, but relevant-ism should not be the starting line, nor should it be the goal or finish line.
A lectionary is a meant to be a tool to help us proclaim the broad and deep riches of God’s Word. It should not be a straitjacket or handcuffs that bind our preaching or somehow squelch the voice of the Spirit. It’s a tool I have often found, with the Spirit’s help, to be something that opened up my preaching to new vistas
and new encounters with passages, stories, and wisdom that I would not have naturally or readily engaged. A lectionary will help us and our congregations grow in the Word and in the Lord, rather than stagnate in the places where we have become familiar and comfortable.
BRAD ESTEP serves as senior pastor of Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene