The lectionary is a group of readings—four biblical selections for each Sunday of the church year. The readings are ecumenically determined, providing the consoling thought that on a given Sunday ministers all over the world are grappling with the same material. Each Sunday the lectionary offers readings from both the Hebrew scriptures as a whole and the Psalter in particular, as well as readings from both the Gospels and the Epistles.
- Robert McAfee Brown
Confessions of a Lectionary User
In the short article below, Robert McAfee Brown recounts how using a lectionary helped him as a minister. His words ring true to me as a layperson. I use the daily lectionary of the Catholic church. Although a Protestant, I am an oblate for a local Benedictine monastery in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and I try to pray and study with my sisters in the faith. Each morning I read something from the Hebrew Bible, some Psalms, something from the Gospels, and something from the Epistles. I picture them, eighty miles away, doing the same.
I must confess that sometimes I find what I'm reading off-putting, irrelevant, tedious, or boring. And often, a little like them I'm sure, I'm in a hurrty. Still, I read, trusting that the living spirit of God can work in my life through texts that are foreign to me, at the very least because they take me beyond my self-centered world. And sometimes, of course, I find passages that are obviously relevant to my life and the world around me, and occasionally inspiring.
Besides that, I find it valuable to discover voices that are not relevant to me, and that speak in their own terms. Too much of my own life circles around, well, me. My voice is the dominant voice in my head and other voices, from spatial and historical distances, remain unheard. It's so nice to be taken out of my own world, remembering that God's world is so much more than my own.
Of course I can get the same lesson from visiting friends in prison, or taking care of friends in the demential unit of a local nursing home, or listening lovingly to someone whose political views differ from own. In the world of not-me-ness, there are many rooms. Biblical texts are doorways into some of them. It is an introduction to strangers.
For me as for so many Christians, the Bible is not a rule-book or an authority that cannot be questioned, but a dialogue partner. I think the living Spirit of God is found in dialogues of many kinds: dialogues with ourselves, dialogues with our neighbors, dialogue with strangers, dialogues with animals, dialogues with the earth, and dialogues with the Bible. Sensitive readings of sacred texts, where we listen to voices from afar, in biblical texts, can be especially valuable ways of receiving and responding to the living Spirit of God. I am a big fan of lectio divina, too: reading the Bible with a quiet heart, letting the words wash over you, and listening for the Spirit in promptings from the heart. Sometimes I meditate, Zen style,before reading the Bible. The Bible always speaks more clearly in these contexts, and I am not so rushed. The Spirit has time to find me.
By the living Spirit of God I am speaking literally. As a process theologian I truly believe that there is a creative and healing spirit at work in the world and in my own life, and that this Spirit both comforts and challenges. If is often said that Jesus of Nazareth, like so many Jewish prophets, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Like far too many Christians, I prefer to be comforted rather than afflicted. That's one reason I use the lectionary. I sense that there's something holy when I am not comforted.
Being not-comforted by the Bible is itself part of God's grace. We can be challenged to get out of our self-contained shells, especially if we are among the privileged and powerful, and we can find ourselves sensitive to life itself, in ways too often repressed. Robert McAfee Brown writes: "I discovered that our human story, no matter how immediate and apparently brand new, is made out of the stuff of the centuries, and that everything in our experience rings a bell with biblical experience—adultery, doubt, testing in a refiner's fire, suffering or death; and grace offered beyond any calculation." The grace is in our encounter with the stuff of life.
But there is indeed the comforting side of things, too. Like others who want to help heal a broken world, I am sometimes tempted to read the Bible primarily with ethical issues in mind, as if they are what truly matters. But there's so much that matters in life that is far beyond the ethical issues. There's the personal side.
Brown discovered this when he began preaching from the lectionary: "By looking into people's faces I discovered that I'm not faithful to the gospel if I preach only judgment and social concern week after week. Not only do members of any congregation need to be roused out of complacency; most of them are hurting and need support and comfort, not an unwavering diet of chastisement. Time in the pulpit sensitized me to the lives of those who are not in the pulpit. A rousing denunciation of the gulf war isn't necessarily what a couple needs when they've just learned that their daughter has cancer."
These are among the many reasons I use a lectionary. And these are among the reasons that, it seems to me, Christian clergy of all persuasions (Catholic, Orthodox, Progressive Protestant, Evangelical, African-American, Native-American) can do the same. Like Brown, they can find the lectionary a helpful guide for preaching the gospel from the pulpit. Many might benefit from commentaries on a lectionary, too. That's why, at the bottom of this page, I offer a helpful source for clergy interested in incorporating process themes into their preaching: namely the process commentaries offered by Process and Faith. But first things first. Enjoy Brown's essay. It's the most important part of this page.
- Jay McDaniel, January 4, 2022
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pulpit
by Robert McAfee Brown *
During most of my professional life I have exercised my ordination through classroom teaching. The preaching I've done could be said to follow the "in and out" approach: a quick entrance to the local pulpit and a quicker exit, leaving the host pastor to pick up the pieces. But then my pastor asked if I would take on about half the preaching assignments while our congregation was searching for a new associate pastor. We were thinking of six to eight months, but by the time a new minister was secured, three and a half years had passed. Thus did the Lord try the endurance of the congregation of First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, California.
When I decided to take on this task of "short" duration, I decided that I should go all the way from podium to pulpit. I imposed two basic conditions on myself: there would be no warmed-over sermons, dragged from my files, and I would take my text and topic each week from the lectionary. It was surprisingly easy to fulfill the first promise, for no sooner did those old sermons emerge from the file drawer than their manifest shortcomings eloquently demonstrated to me that if publicly exhumed they would embarrass me much more than they would enlighten anyone else.
As for the promise to abide by the lectionary, a funny thing happened on the way to the pulpit. I found the use of the lectionary not only not constricting, but liberating.
At the start I did a little informal canvassing, asking our parishioners if I should use the lectionary. About 6 percent responded that I should, 19 percent responded that I could but should not be bound by it, while 75 percent responded, "What's the lectionary?" We rehearsed again that the lectionary is a group of readings—four biblical selections for each Sunday of the church year. The readings are ecumenically determined, providing the consoling thought that on a given Sunday ministers all over the world are grappling with the same material. Each Sunday the lectionary offers readings from both the Hebrew scriptures as a whole and the Psalter in particular, as well as readings from both the Gospels and the Epistles.
To be sure, this arrangement still provides a great deal of latitude in choosing a text, since every Sunday offers four sets of possibilities for a sermon. So the arrangement hardly boxes one in. It does ensure, however, that from time to time one will be forced to consider passages that don't seem to lend themselves to the creation of a sermon. My experience was that in ways little short of amazing, a theme or text would emerge from the lectionary readings and speak to the human condition at the moment. I can recall only one time when the lectionary failed me, although perhaps what happened was that I failed it. This was the Sunday after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles. Nothing seemed to "fit" that event, so we had to repair to Amos and be reminded that justice must roll down like waters, and righteousness must flow like a mighty stream. That was the exception that proved the rule.
My three and a half years with the lectionary taught me a number of things about the faith and its proclamation. First, I was always reminded that my task in the pulpit was not to give a little talk that might be called "Bob Brown looks at life," and might be characterized by an opening phrase like, "Here are some things I've been thinking about this week." No, I was called to wrestle with two apparently unlikely realities, the world of the Bible and the world of the here and now. No matter where one started, the sermon was not a sermon until those two worlds finally came together, each illuminating the other until they could not be separated. Karl Barth's famous aphorism vindicated itself dozens of times: "The Christian must always read with the Bible in one hand and the morning paper in the other." I discovered that our human story, no matter how immediate and apparently brand new, is made out of the stuff of the centuries, and that everything in our experience rings a bell with biblical experience—adultery, doubt, testing in a refiner's fire, suffering or death; and grace offered beyond any calculation.
One has to be very skillful to keep the two stories from overlapping. One also has to take in the whole sweep of a passage, not just the "nice" parts. I was impressed during Advent each year with how easily we let the words of the last portion of the Magnificat (Luke 1:51-54) wash over us, so that we don't have to take it seriously: that the monarchs will be cast down, the poor lifted up, the hungry fed and the rich denied everything. That doesn't fly very well with our middle-class congregations; we have wonderful ways of deflecting its sting. But the words are still there, and will come back year after year until sometime, somewhere, somebody insists that we confront them.
Using the lectionary means that we can't confine our preaching to the "canon within the canon" that each of us erects with his or her favorite texts. (This is a great temptation to those of us who preach only sporadically.) My own penchant in this regard has been to tilt toward social-justice issues. But if I take the lectionary seriously, I can't get away with concentrating only on those themes, for the same people come back Sunday after Sunday, and they will yearn for and finally demand more. By looking into people's faces I discovered that I'm not faithful to the gospel if I preach only judgment and social concern week after week. Not only do members of any congregation need to be roused out of complacency; most of them are hurting and need support and comfort, not an unwavering diet of chastisement. Time in the pulpit sensitized me to the lives of those who are not in the pulpit. A rousing denunciation of the gulf war isn't necessarily what a couple needs when they've just learned that their daughter has cancer. Every week some worshipers are hurting and some are exultant; some have just lost their jobs and some are aflame with the need for justice in the workplace.
I also discovered that it is a personal enrichment for the preacher to live closer to scripture through the discipline the lectionary provides. The lectionary pushed me to parts of the Bible I hadn't looked at for 40 years: words of power from Malachi, of all places, and episodes of deep meaning in Samuel and Kings. My own greatest personal enrichment came from confronting a psalm every week. At a guess, I preached more out of the Psalms than out of any other book. What I liked about the psalm writers was their unremitting honesty. They knew all about anger and doubt and fear, and they shouted it out. They also knew about joy and compassion and trust, and they shouted that out too. Some of us can do one or the other of those things, but usually not simultaneously. We have to have time to shift gears. The psalmists, on the other hand, could do it within the confines of a single verse. They do not trust God, but they will again trust God. They are in pain? Joy will appear.
This is one reason the Psalms are so powerful for us. They do not simply "match our moods"; they challenge them. If we are downcast, the psalmist can lift us up. If we are too secure in a sheltered joy, the psalmist can quickly cut us down to size.
This led to a new recognition of the psalmists' authority, and through them to the authority of scripture itself. The authority does not lie in the preacher. Members of the congregation who were upset by something I said could not, at the end of the day, hold me solely responsible for upsetting them, unless I had grossly misrepresented the passage under scrutiny. Their quarrel was not finally with me, but with the Bible. I could gradually absent myself and leave the battle with the proper adversaries.
If someone was grasped by a word of healing and forgiveness, that was not my doing either, but the work of the One to whom the Bible witnesses. The healing power was not lodged in the preacher's frail frame, but in the stout and trustworthy authority of a script that had stood the test of time for 2,000 years. It could be relied upon long after the preacher had disappeared from the scene.
Stepping into the pulpit regularly did involve a funny thing, a sense of hilarity and mirth at the notion that God will entrust a human being with the opportunity to share something not of his or her creation, not something he or she had earned the right to share, but something that is pure gift, easily sullied except for grace, and sometimes, for a moment, shining clear and beautiful and beyond compare.
* Robert McAfee Brown, whose name is symbolic for engaged theologian and ethicist, is perhaps best known for being able to write clearly, for example, in Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Theology and Saying Yes and Saying No: On Rendering to God and Caesar. This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 27-August 3, 1994, pps. 723f. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Need Commentaries, Too?
Process and Faith is a multifaith network for relational spirituality and the common good. It is developing offerings for people of all faiths, including Christians. Below are screenshots of pages for lectionary commentaries available to Christians. Click here to see them "live," and, if you wish, join the Process and Faith network. It's free.