Thursday 20 October 2011

Preaching on every book of the Bible: or, the problem with the lectionary

Speaking of those Bibledex videos: if I ever get the chance to preach in the same place for 66 consecutive weeks, I'd love to do a series of sermons like this – one on every book of the Bible. It would be an exciting, demanding discipline to have to identify one theme for each biblical book – not only its internal theme, but also its location and function in the wider canon – and to proclaim the subject-matter of that book in one simple address. (I'm talking here about a sermon, which by definition can have only one point, one Word – not a lecture, which might have various different points and themes and observations.)

There's a lot to be said for the use of a lectionary cycle. But the lectionary tends to presuppose, rather than to foster, a broad understanding of the biblical story. Lectionaries were designed for use in societies that were already implicitly Christian – societies in which the rhythms of the liturgical year, and the broad sweep of the biblical narrative, could be more or less taken for granted. In the Revised Common Lectionary (which my own church follows), just look at the theological subtlety with which the OT and NT readings are often connected: a subtlety that is quite lost on anybody without a good working knowledge of scripture and liturgical tradition. And preachers only exacerbate the problem when they take these subtle liturgico-theological connections as the theme of their proclamation, instead of preaching from the texts themselves. (Preachers, please note: the content of your proclamation is not the liturgical calendar, but the Word of God!)

For many congregations today, it would be better to interrupt the lectionary cycle so that specific books of the Bible could be expounded in depth. I once attended a church where the minister interrupted the lectionary for some months in order to preach all the way through the Epistle to the Romans. It was a transformative experience. And alongside depth, our congregations need biblical breadth. Imagine preaching for a whole month on the broad theme of "the Prophets": from that time on, all those weird lectionary readings from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jonah would actually start to make sense. (If the lectionary is a sort of doxological hermeneutic, don't forget that the shaping, selection, and arrangement of texts into a scriptural canon is already its own liturgical hermeneutic: with this difference, that the canonical hermeneutic is confessed to be divinely given, so that all subsequent interpretive frameworks are answerable to this "inspired" framework. So the way the Book of Jonah functions in the lectionary is derivative of its function as part of the canonical collection of "the Prophets".)

If you're a congregational minister today, I reckon one of your tasks is to cultivate the sort of catechised community in which the lectionary cycle can be used with profit – in other words, to foster enough biblical literacy for the congregation to be able to participate meaningfully in the church's tradition of doxological reading. 

That's why I'd love to spend 66 weeks preaching on every book of the Bible: not instead of the lectionary, but for the sake of the lectionary's proper and fruitful use.


Matt said...

Our church is in the middle of a series on the minor prophets, I imagine in the same vein of what you're referring to... one prophet per week. Last week was Jonah this week is Micah. It has certainly been a great series and very interesting. You can check them out at We are a church in Red Bank, New Jersey.

Chad Brooks said...

I understand lectionary frustrations, but I admit to dabbling in it. I think the lectionary has pros and cons. My own tradition (UMC) uses it, but I have heard some pastors desire to tweak it a little to have time to focus on more passages of Wesleyan merit. I do like the lectionary though because it forces me to preach places I wouldn't naturally fall too. I like to use it to thematically shape services instead of the old read 4 sections bit.

I haven't used it at all during ordinary time, but I plan to for Advent and Lent.

I think it does sound like a great idea to preach through all the books in 66 weeks. I have found lately that the various OT books most people don't read or hear about leave pretty big holes in their biblical awareness.

Thanks for the thoughts.

Jeff Carter said...

I've been doing just that this year with my congregation. We've been exploring the writings of the prophets all year - even the ugly yucky ones like Nahum.

Greg Colby said...

Break the Lectionary cycle? NO...say they didn't. Did the world stop?

Greg Colby said...

Being in a series of minor prophets is certainly better than a series of major losses

Ashley Lovett said...

Thanks for these thoughts Ben. I value the Lectionary because it keeps us reading the biblical story and specifically Jesus' story, so that it becomes the story we find ourselves in (apologies to Brian Mclaren), and because it saves the congregation from just hearing sermons on my favourite texts. Of course it doesn't stop them hearing my favourite themes being brouhgt out but I try hard to let the text speak for itself!

Having said that I agree that it has its limitations and I think there is lots to be said for your suggestion of breaking away from the cycle from time to time. I think you're right that the lectionary presumes an awareness of the story and I am discovering that in an increasingly biblically illiterate world that is forcing me to educate when I think the imperative is to proclaim God's word for his people today. Simply hoping that repeating the cycle will enable people to catch hold of the story isn't proving to be enough.

As far as preaching each of the 66 books in the Bible goes, I like the idea, but the thought of trying it is overwhelming. I can imagine starting well, fading quickly, getting a second wind (maybe around the time of the OT prophets), looking forward to the gospels - but then realising my naivete when I try to find one thing to say (ok, the it's Jesus, but...), and limping on from there towards the finish, with the book of revelation portrayed not as a vision of apocalyptic wonder but as a 'thank goodness we've come to the end!' anti-climactic climax!

How about asking your erstwhile readers to submit a sermon (not an essay) for one book and then select the 66 most challenging to be posted on this blog (or another) during the coming year? I would be willing to give it a go and not too offended if my offering on a minor prophet was considered less Habakkuk and more bunkum! Alternatively I'm sure Kim could offer us ten theses on each one.

Keep up the good work!

Alan K said...

Great comments, Ben. An interesting study is to see exactly what the lectionary leaves out. As a minister I'm convinced that at times it seeks to save me from having to work extra hard and/or preach something that may be embarrassing.

John Stamps said...

I would think it depends on how strictly you follow the church's liturgical cycle. I'm an Eastern Orthodox layman, with the attention span of a gnat. The lectionary gives me a fighting chance at least once during the week to figure out where I'm at during the church year and what I'm supposed to be doing. The lectionary isn't for the benefit of the preacher, but for the people. We need a predictable diet of Scripture rather than regurgitations from the last book that the priest read.

My $.02 worth.

Ben Myers said...

A thoughtful response here.

Chris Budden said...

I find it helpful in my preaching to move away from the Lectionary soon after Pentecost and explore books and themes, beore returning in Advent. Seems to work OK. Chris

Johnmeunier said...

I struggle to imagine what a single sermon on Genesis would look like.

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