Sunday, February 22, 2009

A long conversation about changing the way things have always been in church: the lectionary readings

Sometimes people ask: “Why don’t we follow the lectionary readings like many of the other Lutheran Churches?”

The common lectionary was developed long ago to be sure that all the churches were reading the same Scriptures every week. It’s like a special calendar for the church. It’s changed over the years but still retains the essence of what it was intended to be. It is currently composed of three one year calendars (aptly named years A,B, and C) which assign weekly worship Bible readings called pericopes (from the Greek word for mutilation) which include a Psalm, an Old Testament reading, an Epistle (reading from one of the New Testament letters) and a Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John). The Bible readings correspond to the liturgical year, also called the church year, which celebrates the major and minor feasts and fasts of Christianity. For instance, the liturgical year begins with the season of Advent (the four weeks before Christmas) and so the common lectionary includes readings having to do with the coming of the Messiah. The idea behind the liturgical year and the common lectionary is sound. This way we’re sure that every Christian is following the life of Jesus every year and so we become familiar with the Bible verses. Then there are feasts like Trinity Sunday which mandate a yearly discussion about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and their relationship. Very sound.

And in our sound-bite culture, wouldn’t you think three short Bible readings ought to accomplish more than one long one?

The liturgical year was also developed in order to take us out of ordinary time and make our “church time” special and different. The idea was that as you stepped into the church, you stepped out of the world. A season like Lent, for instance, on the Christian calendar helps us remember through prayer and fasting that we are sinners in need of a Savior. It takes us out of a world that is too busy and too into instant gratification and places us in a spiritual state of mind to remember how dependent we are upon the Lord for all things including forgiveness of sins and everlasting life which we receive because Jesus Christ died and was raised from the dead on Easter.

So if the common lectionary and the liturgical year are such good teaching tools and also take us out of the world’s time and put us into the church’s time, why wouldn’t you want to keep them? Why would you ever go off and create sermon series and such on your own?

Let me first say that we do keep most of the church year or liturgical year. For instance, we continue to observe Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. Last year we had a special reminder of All Saint’s Sunday, for instance. Every year we have Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and so on. These feasts and fasts are a part of who we are and will continue to be so. Recently, other non-liturgical churches have even begun observing these holy days and I’m sure that they are here to stay.

However, in the last 20 years, even the liturgical calendar has stopped observing the minor days such as Septuagesima Sunday. What is Septuagesima Sunday? Well, it’s the ninth Sunday before Easter, the third Sunday before Lent, and it’s the Sunday on which Roman Catholics and others stop saying “Hallelujahs” in church. Prior to the Green LBW hymnal which was introduced in 1978, we kept such holidays as Septuagesima on our calendar.

I guess that shows that we do make changes or adjustments from time to time, apparently. Since the liturgical calendar no longer is common for all of Christianity because of individual denominational choices, it has become clear that it is perfectly acceptable for us to use the calendar as a tool rather than having the calendar control us.

Now that you understand that we keep all the major Christian observances (although we have stopped keeping many of the minor ones) lets talk about the common lectionary.

Remember that the lectionary was not an early church tool but a post Constantine tool. In other words, it is something that comes to us after Christianity becomes the preferred religion of the Roman Empire. To go from an underground, outlawed movement to a state church is a huge move and so there were many issues about power and control. Including, but not limited to, keeping worship the same in all the churches the same.

Here is my objection: no church (congregation) is the same. For instance, St. John’s downtown is a very different Lutheran church in personality, presentation and focus than Zion. Our congregations are made up of different types of people who are asking different types of questions from the Bible. The needs of each congregation are also somewhat different and so the things that might need addressing on any given day are also different. (For instance, Zion is a much younger congregation demographically). Maybe we are struggling with a spiritual issue as a congregation and need a special emphasis on some topic. That’s essentially what we’re doing with sermon series’. We are addressing what we feel the spiritual needs of the congregation are.

Another observation about the liturgical year and the common lectionary is this: Has the use of these tools made us better Christians? Are we more mature in our faith in churches that keep the lectionary than churches that don’t? In other words, has having Trinity Sunday helped us to understand the Trinity better? My observation is that no, in fact this is not the case. I think we all understand the time line of Jesus’ life but I’m not sure it has helped us to understand the Gospel as a whole or how having a personal relationship with Him is life changing or transforming. I’m not sure the use of a calendar or lectionary has helped us resist sin or become more loving or godly. When I look around North America at the liturgical church, I don’t see many congregations that are alive, healthy, and doing amazing transformative things in Jesus’ name. In fact, I wonder if preaching only from the lectionary hasn’t kept us from addressing many of the evils in our society or even kept us from encouraging people to grow and stretch in their relationship with Christ. Now this is a value judgment on my part and somewhat subjective. You are free to have a different assessment. I merely observe that the lectionary following denominations such as the Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians and so on are not really known right now for their faithfulness to the Bible or for leading people to Christ.

Now I admit, in matters of faith, I’m results oriented. Show me you are in love with Jesus, don’t just tell me. I think in the past many preachers would preach for three years (A, B, and C) and then they could just go back and use their old sermons. That may have given them more time to be with their congregations during the week but it may not have helped them in addressing current needs or situations in our world. In fact, it may have hurt the church in keeping us from being relevant.

So that begs a question: “Pastor, without the lectionary, how do you decide what to preach about? Wouldn’t you just preach on your favorites and deprive the congregation of the whole picture of Scripture?” The answer to that is in my blog of January 8, 2009 (which you can find under "older blogs" by scrolling to the bottom of this page). But here my answer in brief: I pray and ask the Lord and listen to his voice and I watch what is going on in the congregation and what kinds of questions people are asking and based on these two activities I determine what we need as a congregation. In such a way I believe that we are addressing the issues before us and adjusting our teaching so that it meets the needs of where we are as a congregation.

I think things have changed in the last 1500 years. I think many of the things we used to be able to take for granted have changed. Maybe it’s time for a new liturgical year. What would that look like? What concepts would it seek to teach? Instead of “the Presentation of our Lord” maybe Biblical Marriage Sunday? Godly Family Sunday? Christlike Parenting Sunday? Biblical Understanding of Sexuality and Relationships Sunday? Absolute Truth Sunday? These are certainly some of the things that we would need to discuss as we seem to have lost our way within the main line church and in the world in general. These are the things we need to be hearing about today.

For example: Do we know our Christian doctrines? Isn’t a sermon series on doctrine the best way to address this? Do we understand what Jesus meant the church to be? Isn’t teaching specifically about this the best way to address this?

So those are my thoughts. And that explains why we do what we do at Zion at this time. As always, we remain open to the guiding of the Holy Ghost. Thanks for reading.

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