Liking the Lectionary
How sermon preparation can change for the better when you preach by the church calendar
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For 17 years I was an expository preacher at a midsized non-denominational church in California; however, after leaving pastoral ministry, I found myself increasingly drawn to liturgy. Though in guest preaching I often delivered expository sermons, on my off Sundays I slipped into a local Episcopal church just to experience the liturgy. Eventually I joined a church plant associated with the Anglican Mission in the Americas and Bishop Todd Hunter. Now I find myself preaching twice a month at that church following the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Along the way I am learning valuable lessons about lectionary preaching that build on my experience as an expository preacher.
Discovering the Lectionary A lectionary is a book that contains appointed Scripture readings for particular days coinciding with the Christian calendar. According to preaching historian Hughes Old, use of lectionaries originated in synagogues in the fourth century before Christ. By the fourth century after Christ, church leaders had adopted this Jewish practice in Christian worship. Christians have been using lectionaries for a long time.
The RCL is the product of the Consultation on Common Texts (CCT), an interdenominational Christian group that began meeting in 1978. Their first draft was released in 1983 and tested for six years. After considering feedback, the RCL was released in 1992. The RCL is used worldwide by English speaking Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and many other denominations. Some Baptist and non-denominational churches, as well as non-English speaking churches, also use the RCL.
In addition to providing a daily Bible reading cycle ("daily office"), the RCL assigns four readings (or lessons) for each Sunday: a Psalm, an Old Testament passage (sometimes two), an epistle passage, and a Gospel passage. Year A covers Matthew, the Old Testament patriarchs, and the exodus narrative. Year B covers Mark and the Old Testament monarchy narrative. Year C covers Luke, Israel's divided kingdom, and Old Testament prophets. John is interwoven through all three cycles, especially Year B. Readings from Acts are substituted for the Old Testament lesson during the Easter season. The readings for the season between Pentecost and Advent provide two options for Old Testament lessons. Although the RCL does not include the entire Bible, the CCT committee's intent was for all the voices of Scripture to be heard by the church over the course of three years.
Appreciating Lectionary preaching
There are many aspects of lectionary preaching to appreciate. Foremost is that it roots preaching in the broader Christian story. This is done by correlating each week's readings with the Christian calendar, especially during Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter. Previously in my pastoral ministry, the only seasons I observed were Christmas and Easter. However, more recently I have discovered a new depth in keeping time with the entire Christian calendar. The Christian calendar retells the story of Jesus each year, beginning in Advent with its anticipation of Christ's coming, to Christmas with its emphasis on the incarnation, to Epiphany with its focus on Christ's revelation to the nations, to Lent with its emphasis on Christ's prelude to suffering, to Holy Week with its emphasis on his passion, to Easter with its 50-day emphasis on resurrection, to Ascension with its focus on Christ's exaltation as our high priest, and finally to Pentecost with its focus on Christ sending the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower the Church for mission. The Christian calendar retells the story of Jesus each year.
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