Rare opportunities, and the reminder that we are not in control

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Anyone that knows me well knows that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the lectionary.  If you’re not familiar with the lectionary, it’s a set of Scriptural readings (daily, and Sunday) that run on a three year cycle before repeating.  As you could imagine, the central idea is that the major themes of the Scriptures are covered; so Christians who follow the lectionary will have a higher Scriptural literacy and stronger foundation for faith.

That’s the idea, and I LOVE that idea.  In practice, the things come out pretty mixed.  In important times of the Christian year (Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc), the lectionary focuses us on the season pretty well. In general, it covers some important Scriptural territory.  However, the lectionary has a couple frustrating, even angering holes.

One intermediate problem is that the Sunday lectionary readings tend to hop all over the place during Ordinary Time, leaving churches and pastors that follow them to try to draw some kind of continuity from week to week.  As a result, worship on the lectionary tends to be whatever the church constructs.

One horrific problem is that the lectionary readings often omit the sharper edges of the Scriptures in favor of passages with vocabulary we can bend to fit what we want to say or do.  I’m very aware that “horrific” is a strong word.  I used it on purpose.  Systematically excluding parts of the Scriptures you don’t want to hear or have to explain is a living example of the prophetic critique that Jeremiah brings twice against the people of Israel, “Prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.  They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:13-14, 8:10-11)

Now, you may have several responses to my introduction here.

1. You may be skeptical about the accuracy of what I’m saying about the lectionary.  If you’re a part of a church that follows the lectionary, I would encourage you to take a three or four-month segment and read the passages.  Pay particular attention to what the lectionary leaves out.  Specifically, look for passages like “10-12a.”  You will often find that “12b” isn’t quite as comforting.  In addition, look for passages like 10-12a, 13-15, 19-21a.”  I’ve seen this multiple times in the last few years.  Take a wild guess at what is often repeatedly excluded in the skipped-over sections.

Maybe they’re just setting it up for a simple message to be taken away from the reading, Nathan?” you might say in response.  Yes, maybe.  Sometimes simplicity is helpful, and complexity muddies the water too much.  I get that.  But again and again?  One begins to see a troubling pattern that leads to troubling conclusions.

2.  You may think it’s entirely appropriate to skip certain sections of the Scriptures, because they’re not relevant anymore, or even may be destructive to read and follow.  I’m sympathetic to some of that belief, and deeply aware of the darker implications of that kind of commitment.

I’m sympathetic to that belief, because the Scriptures are a set of living, evolving, progressing writings that emerge from a living, evolving community.  I very much take a narrative approach to the Scriptures that proclaims that God is meeting God’s creation where they’re at, connecting with them, and taking them a step further.  Sometimes those steps are smaller, like the call of Moses to speak up, and sometimes those steps are bigger, like the advent of Jesus; which was such a big step that Israel killed him off as quickly as they could.  Because of this narrative approach, if we happened to read, “Happy is the one who seizes (Babylon’s) infants and dashes them against the rocks,” (Psalm 137: 9) or “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.  They are to be put to death,” (Leviticus 20:13), I would refuse to say our typical response,

“Reader:  This is the word of the Lord.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God.”

I would refuse to say this not because I confidently believe we know better than our ancestors, but because both of those sentiments (vengeance against enemies, and the death penalty for homosexuality) are contradicted explicitly by Jesus and therefore no longer the truth we turn our life upside-down to follow.  I don’t know exactly what the proper response to a reading of those Scriptures would be.  Maybe,

“Reader:  The story of the people of God.
Congregation:  Damn, that’s different than Jesus,”

or

“Reader:  God’s word to Israel then.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God for the way of Jesus now.”

or whatever else would better fit.

Now, the darker implications of our belief that certain parts of the Scriptures are no longer relevant or helpful is that we presume to believe we know better than our ancestors what faithfulness is and how to live.  In other words, we don’t really care deeply about the narrative progression of the Scriptures unless they reinforce what we already believe about ourselves and the world.  When the Scriptures present a situation that offends us or present a hard boundary on our behavior, we go out of our way to minimize, spiritualize or otherwise metaphorize (is that even a word?), or ignore the passage.  Conservatives and liberals both do this in our society.  Conservative American christians often minimize or relativize Jesus (as crazy as that sounds), while Liberal American christians often minimize or relativize the Old Testament and/or Paul and/or the Scriptures period (to give several quick examples).  In our church family here in Norwood, I often sense the greatest tension in the room when we read passages that challenge a more liberal perspective on the world.

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All of the above is a prequel of sorts for a simple observation I made last Sunday.  The lectionary’s outline highlights certain themes because it has to pick something, and the lectionary very rarely includes “sharp” words that challenge and offend.  Yet for some reason, the shapers of the RCL, in tune with the Lenten season, chose to include last Sunday some very strong Scriptures that were BEGGING, JUST BEGGING, PLEADING, to be central in the time of worship.   Our church family is focusing in the Lenten season on the appropriate themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation.  We read from:

Isaiah 55:1-9 (theme: Listen to the Lord and obey, and you will live!)

Psalm 63:1-8 (theme, devotionally: “My soul thirsts for God!”)

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 (theme: Warning, continue to choose disobedience and idolatry, and God has every right to end you)

Luke 13:1-9 (theme, from Jesus’s lips, “Repent, or perish!”  Perish.  Spiritually: unsatisfied, unfruitful.  Physically: Wasting away, death.  Again, God has every right to end you if you aren’t serving the purpose you were created for).

What important passages to be reminded of!
How appropriate for the themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation!
How timely and needed for a congregation that tends toward liberal perspectives!
What a gift from a lectionary prone to avoidance of passages like these!

We read the passages near the beginning of our worship gathering.  Tension developed in the room as the passages were read aloud one after the other.  I looked around and could see faces responding in certain ways, some seeming to cringe in embarrassment at what they believed to be the provincial backwardness of the passages, some seeming to cringe at the starkness of “Repent or perish!” because there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room or room for mystery or complexity, others offended with some masking it better than others, some wondering how to respond faithfully to such stark words, others grudgingly hearing the passage as a surprising and hard teaching, and others seeming to come alive in response to the words!   A spectrum of responses.

In other words, a ripe opportunity to be reminded in practical, meaningful ways that we are not the authority.  A ripe opportunity to listen to the testament of our ancestors in thinking they could construct their own ways of defining good and evil.  A ripe opportunity to consider how the grace and compassion of God lives alongside the wrath and judgment of God; with both being vital parts that make up God’s love.  Ripe, ripe, ripe, RIPE, RIPE!

The simple reading of the Scriptures gave us the opportunity to begin this importance reflection on God’s authority, that in fact, our belief that we are free to construct our own understanding of truth and life is a central component of the chains that enslave us as God’s creation.  It is a twisted, wicked lie passing as truth that constrains, sickens, and ultimately destroys us.  And yet God compassionately, graciously, patiently waits for extended periods of time for us to abandon this false pretense. God forgives a thousand, a million times over as we offend and rebel against him.  And eventually, because God cares more about his kingdom breaking out in this world, a kingdom of people under his authority bringing healing and reconciliation to that which is twisted almost beyond recognition, God is willing to end us, to destroy those who would militate against his purposes.

We don’t want to hear this, whether liberal or conservative.  We would rather plug our ears, sing comforting songs, read books that reinforce our beliefs, continue constructing our own world, and only read Scriptural passages that feed our perspectives.  And thus we remain ignorant, but willfully so.  And God will not stand for willful ignorance. God will eventually act, and do it because of His great love for this creation that with agonizing groans begs for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed.

Lent is Lent for a reason.  It is a season we still set aside to focus on our need for repentance, our desire to rule our own lives, our sense of justification for rejecting and excluding others from our love.  I needed to sit and reflect with my brothers and sisters on the FACT that God is the authority, that we are NOT, and that that fact is GOOD, GREAT news.

I know we will have more opportunities during Lent to dwell deeply in our sinfulness and rebellion, to dwell deeply in God’s long-suffering patience, compassion, and just judgment.  I sincerely hope we take those opportunities, because after Lent, the lectionary will return to its old ways, release us to resume building our own world and religion the way we please.

I lament.
I hope.
I thank you, God, that you are awakening me to see the chains wrapped about my arms, legs,
the fog slowly clearing from a mind clouded and confused by my sin.
Thank you that your Way is good and right.
Thank you that we have a role to play,
that you have invited us to collaborate with you,
under your authority
for the healing of your world.

One thought on “Rare opportunities, and the reminder that we are not in control

  1. Thanks for those reflections. Despite its limitations, the Lectionary does offer us the opportunity to not just focus on our favorite passages of scripture, but to be challenged to deal with some of those that are more difficult for us. As you have illustrated, that remains a potential even though some difficult verses have been excluded from the Lectionary. Obviously we can try to escape really wrestling with them even if we use them.

    The traditional “word of the Lord” response to reading from scripture is somewhat problematical. I do believe that all scripture is useful, as 2 Timothy 3:16 states, but not that each verse is speaking the will of the Lord for us. In the Psalms for example, which has that jarring verse about beating children against a rock, I believe they show us that no matter what our feelings or attitudes we can bring to God in prayer. That is wonderful, but if we try to interpret them as every feeling expressed is the Lord’s will, we have gone terrible wrong IMHO. I would be nervous about selectively using the traditional response to the reading of the scripture. That puts us in too much control. It would be better to omit it or change it to avoid its sometimes wrong implications to the hearer.

    I have struggled with my own use of the Lectionary, which is as a source from which to draw the scripture selection (which is quite brief) for my weekly email messages for Friends in Christ. I don’t necessarily limit myself to the selected verses but may include something before or after when it seems appropriate, which may sometimes be something the Lectionary omits. Because of the very brief format of my messages, many Lectionary selections just don’t fit. A long story won’t work, for example. I have to be able to grasp an insight from the scripture to do my brief commentary, so if I can’t succeed in doing that with a scripture, I won’t use it. And now that I’ve gone through a number of Lectionary cycles, I often reprint one from many years ago.

    The Lectionary, like anything else we use in religious/spiritual life and like theology itself, is a tool. It is to be used where we are so led in the Spirit, but realize it hasn’t been handed down from God as a rule which must always be used.

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