Lillian Daniel: The lectionary is great. Except when it's not.

Lillian Daniel, a teacher of preaching, responds to first-year pastor Tom Arthur's question from last week.

In the ancient church a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba may I have a word.' Tom Arthur, in his first year out of seminary, seeks advice from elders in these letters. The letter to which Lillian Daniel replies is here.

Dear Tom Arthur,

In my tradition, the United Church of Christ, we are often asked whether or not we follow the lectionary. Folks from more liturgical traditions are sometimes surprised to discover that we do. Yes, we strictly follow the lectionary, absolutely. Unless we have a better idea.

I, like you, was taught in divinity school that lectionary preachers were more faithful to the text than topical preachers. Supposedly, by following the lectionary, we would be less tempted to preach on our pet themes or pet scriptures over and over again. We would be forced to view the church and the world through the word for that day. By following the lectionary, we would be less likely to sprinkle scripture, like seasoning, over what we were already planning to say.

For much of my ministry I bought into this. To be honest, I also appreciated the structure. I work much better with an assignment than with a completely blank page (which reminds me -- thanks for writing and giving me an assignment for this blog post). I like having four readings to choose between, rather than the entire book. And I found what many lectionary preachers find. The word for the day often speaks right to the heart of what is happening.

But sometimes there might be other scriptures that speak to the heart of the preacher as well. Maybe the lectionary passage “works” while some other passage might allow the sermon to truly soar. In cases like these, I will deviate from the assigned text. Having an idea for a sermon before getting to the texts is not a sin. It may be God working through you in a different and surprising way.

Let’s not confuse the lectionary with the Bible itself. The lectionary was put together by a bunch of guys in the last century, who appeared to have a real distaste for divine judgment and therefore, left most of it out.

They sought to take us through the Bible in three years, but it was through their version of the Bible. Some preachers speak of the lectionary like it is some sort of canon that will protect us from our own subjectivity. But the lectionary is a product of human subjectivity. Let’s face it. The lectionary is not the last symphony that ever needs to be written, sufficient for all the ages. It’s more like a really good mix tape.

There are lectionary-preaching clergy who would sooner die than be called fundamentalists and who would laugh at any one who believes Moses actually wrote any scriptures. Yet these same people judge the non-lectionary preacher with disdain, with an attitude that looks a lot like fundamentalism. Apparently we are not to take scripture literally, for that would be anti-intellectual and naïve, but the lectionary may not be questioned. Who’s being naïve again?

So I deviate and play with themes and topics on occasion, partly to keep myself fresh and challenged. I am sure I will hear back from people who find the lectionary offers them endless opportunity for excitement. It just doesn’t for me. And I will also hear back about the cheesy topical sermons out there, particularly the ones that read like the latest psychological self-help book with scripture added as a condiment by the preacher as iron chef. But sometimes those preachers get to play with a deep idea several Sundays in a row, or delve deeply into a practice or concept that the lectionary would not permit. Topical does not mean shallow, any more than lectionary guarantees deep.

And perhaps the biggest temptation to give a shallow sermon comes to those who insist on weaving all the texts into the sermon. Not content with the challenge of relating to one, they try to fit multiple texts into a basket that doesn’t have enough room and by necessity must therefore become wide and shallow. I suspect these preachers are preaching to some invisible and remembered seminary professor, who is checking off references to each one in the lectionary book of life. But trust me, no one in the congregation is impressed. They’re just bored by a lowest common denominator message that seeks to include texts that certainly God did not link together, and wondering when the preacher will get to the point.

Having said that, the lectionary is like a restraint that I don’t always care for, but still believe that I usually need. I wear it like a winter coat, something I suspect is good for me, but that also makes me feel hemmed in when the weather suddenly changes.

It also occasionally forces me to deal with Biblical stories that are difficult to preach. But given that I always have three other choices, I’m not sure I take on those hard texts with more enthusiasm, or practice, than the topical preacher. Just as fine preaching comes out of many methods, so does poor preaching.

God and the devil both seem to be enormously flexible.