Monday, May 2, 2016

Why I'm Sticking With the Revised Common Lectionary

Now and again, I reconnect with colleagues and look at the latest trends in the church via the sometimes controversial ELCA Clergy group on Facebook.  One subject that comes up periodically within that group is the lectionary - specifically, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which is the series of readings used by churches during Sunday worship services.  The RCL has been an ecumenical success, as it is used widely by Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and churches from other denominations.  Even more importantly, from my perspective, it is largely in sync with the Catholic lectionary - therefore, even though we are not yet at the point where the Eucharist is shared, we at least share in the same readings from Sacred Scripture most weeks.

As I noted in my last post (back in March, sorry- I'll try to do better!), I am now 1/2 time at an Episcopal congregation, in addition to my 1/2 time call at a Lutheran church.  Since the Episcopal Church values a common liturgy (hence, the Book of Common Prayer), it is a given that congregations use the RCL. 
Based on what I read on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page, however, it appears that in the ELCA we are far from unity in our Scripture readings at worship.  Some pastors feel free to change the readings at will, or develop their own sermon series, based on their own choice of readings.   As a Lutheran with Benedictine tendencies, you can probably guess that I'm not a big fan of that practice.  
Furthermore, a whole new lectionary has been developed by Luther Seminary, the Narrative Lectionary, and a sizable contingent of congregations appear to be using it based on what I am reading on the Facebook page.  Why was a new lectionary developed when we already have one that has been widely used in the ELCA and in our ecumenical partner churches? This is the reason given:
"Though the Revised Common Lectionary has united the church in its reading of scripture and has given much-needed structure, it doesn’t present scripture -- especially the Old Testament -- in a way that helps people to become fluent in the first language of faith. The Narrative Lectionary is an attempt to take nine months to do just that."  
When I read this statement, it made me wonder  - what is the primary purpose of Scripture reading during worship?  Are Scripture readings and sermons supposed to be like Bible studies?
No.  The purpose of Scripture reading during worship is to proclaim the mystery of the faith and the presence of Christ in our midst.  
Through the magic of Google, I found an article called "Explaining the lectionary for readers", which contains a beautiful explanation of how and why the Catholic (and therefore, RCL) lectionary readings are put together.  Although it is from a Catholic website, this language strikes me as being very much Lutheran as well, with its primary focus being on the proclamation of Christ: 
 "[W]e can think of the readings at the Eucharist as a series of concentric circles:
• at the centre is the gospel which is a recollection and celebration of the mystery of Jesus, the Anointed One;
• this recollection is given added dimensions by readings from the Old Testament: the Law (such as Genesis or Exodus), the prophets (such as Amos or Joel), the Psalms, and the Writings (such as the Book of Wisdom or the Books of the Maccabees);
• then there are the readings of the great early Christian teachers’ letters to churches, such as those of Paul.
The purpose of the readings is that, in the words of the General Instruction on the Lectionary, in accordance with ancient practice there should be a ‘re-establishing [of] the use of Scripture in every celebration of the liturgy’ and that this should be seen as ‘the unfolding mystery of Christ’ being ‘recalled during the course of the liturgical year’ 
If the readings at the Eucharist are there to help unfold the mystery of Jesus Christ, then several important consequences flow from this:
• We are not reading the Scriptures simply to get a knowledge of the Bible.
• We are not reading these passages because many Christians consider reading the Bible a valuable activity in itself.
• This action is not part of a Bible Study, nor should it resemble the classroom atmosphere of a study group.
•The focus of all our reading is not an abstract understanding of the scriptural text – such as would be carried out by a biblical exegete in a theology course – but to see what each portion of text (whether from the gospel, the Old Testament, the psalm, or the epistle) reveals to us about the Paschal Mystery.
• Our reading is not book-focused; it is not text-focused; it is focused on Jesus as the Christ.
• The gospel is the primary focus on the mystery of the Christ in each celebration; the Old Testament and Psalm relate to it as background, example, context, or elaboration; the epistle is a separate attempt to focus on the mystery of the Christ through the help of early Christian teachers.
• The readings are to help us encounter the person of Jesus Christ in whose presence and name we have gathered.
‘The word of God unceasingly calls to mind and extends the plan of salvation, which achieves its fullest expression in the liturgy. The liturgical celebration becomes therefore the continuing, complete, and effective presentation of God’s word’." 
During worship, Christ is truly present in our midst.  Therefore, don't we want our readings to be aimed at proclaiming that mystery in union with the Body of Christ around the world? 

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