Why preachers might avoid difficult Bible passages
May 31, 2023
In many Christian churches, preachers use what's called the lectionary to decide which Bible passages to use to construct sermons.
The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), for example, offers passages from both testaments for every Sunday and for special holidays. What it doesn't do, however, is cover the whole of the Bible. That is, it leaves out passages, and that sometimes stirs debates about whether it's time to create a more complete lectionary so we don't miss some of the weirdest stories in the Bible.
I was thinking about this recently after reading this interview in The Christian Century with Amy-Jill Levine, the great New Testament scholar who spent much of her career at Vanderbilt but who now is a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Hartford International University. She's brilliant and, in person, lots of fun, too.
At any rate, at the end of the piece, which focuses on problematic passages mentioning Jews in the gospel of John, Steve Thorngate, the magazine's managing editor, poses these two final questions to Levine about the lectionary:
The RCL isn’t a canon, but it was arrived at through extensive ecumenical discernment. Is it useful for individual churches or denominations to modify it for their own use? Or is what’s needed nothing less than a major revision at an ecumenical level?
Churches over the past two millennia have changed their readings and their practices. Discernment continues. If it did not, churches would be putting the Holy Spirit out of business. If one church or denomination changes the lectionary and another does not, I doubt this will bring Christianity to a halt.
Others have proposed changing the lectionary for a very different reason: to include more or even all of the canon. Is this expansion something that should be resisted?
I see no reason to resist discussion about the lectionary, any more than there is reason to resist discussion about polity, ethics, the hymnal or the translation, which is about to change as Roman Catholic churches use the updated New American Bible and many mainline Protestant churches will shift from the NRSV to the NRSVue. Just as we in the US have expanded our notions of the canons of the study of literature, philosophy and art, I see no reason not to expand the lectionary to include previously unheard voices — and, perhaps, to retire others.
All houses of worship do well to consider what they promote, explicitly or implicitly, with their readings, art, music, polity, creeds, saints, fundraising, guest speakers and so on. All do well to consider what they teach their children, their new members, their congregations and their clergy. In all cases, we do well to determine how best to promote messages of love and compassion rather than of hate and damnation.
So if you are a churchgoer but aren't familiar with the lectionary and its uses, this would be a good time to learn. And a good time to think about what the lectionary leaves out. (Frankly, some of what it leaves out seems almost radically unsuited for use in sermons, but I bet there are preachers who could spin gold out of some of that apparent straw.)
And I would add my voice to those who think it's time for a new look at how the lectionary gets put together and how that might be different.
For the last several years, the preachers in my congregation have almost never used the lectionary but have, rather, preached on six- or eight-week themes that drive them to find texts to exegete. The danger in that approach is that preachers may end up simply preaching from their favorite biblical passages instead of being challenged to find meaning in a passage found in the lectionary. So there's no perfect system.
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TINA TURNER'S SPIRITUAL COMMITMENTS
Singer Tina Turner, who just died, was reared in a Baptist family but spent the last 50 years of her life practicing a form of Buddhism, as this Conversation piece reports. Specifically, she practiced Soka Gakkai International Nichiren Buddhism. (Yes, there's a Nichiren Buddhist center in Kansas City, too.) The author of The Conversation article has a new book about Turner's spirituality coming out, and writes this: "As I found while doing research for my forthcoming book, Dancing in My Dreams: A Spiritual Biography of Tina Turner, Turner’s religious influences extended beyond the forms of Afro-Protestant institutional religion."
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THE BOOK CORNER
The Power of Gratitude: Charting a Path Toward a Joyous and Faith-Filled Life, by Patrick M. Garry. This is a charming small book written by a law professor about his now-deceased parents and how their Catholic faith taught them a lifelong commitment to gratitude. It's the engaging stories that make the book something other than a preachy self-help book, which is what it easily could have turned into in other hands.
Garry worries that "true gratitude may be disappearing even faster than are peace, unity and tranquility. But true gratitude might underlie everything else: the ability to love without interruption, serve without expectation, persevere without anguish and find joy in every minute of life."
The author's parents, Liz and Mike Garry, reared their houseful of eight children in the small town of Fairmont, Minn., which today has a population of about 10,000, not much different from when the author grew up there. Both of Garry's parents had grown up in families of quite modest means and for much of their married life also were required to live in modest economic circumstances as Mike ran a small grain elevator company.
The story of the author, as a high school football player, not waking up from a nap at home in time to get to the start of a game -- and his mother's insistence that he go anyway (he had to climb over a fence in his uniform to get into the football field) -- reminded me of when my mother dragged me off the baseball field on which I was pitching at about age 9 or 10. I had failed that morning to feed or water the chickens I was raising as a 4-H project. Patrick Garry and I learned difficult lessons about responsibility from our mothers and, in the end, we learned to be grateful for our mothers' lessons.
The Garry house became kind of an informal and busy community center in Fairmont, and the author says that despite all the effort required to host many events there, his parents were simply grateful to find a way to serve their neighbors.
If something in the book seems either missing or passed over too lightly, it's an acknowledgment that a lot of difficult racial, social and economic history preceded the placidity and neighborliness in a town like Fairmont, more than 90 percent of the population of which is white. There's only minimal reference to the social stirrings that swept the nation in the 1960s and '70s and no real accounting of the role Minnesota and its residents -- either Indigenous or settlers -- might have played in an American history that began with the cultural and physical genocide of Indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans.
An accounting of how all of that helped to shape a town like Fairmont and people like Mike and Liz Garry would have added depth to this otherwise engaging book, all the while giving a proper sense of nuance and complication to the gratitude people like the Garrys in Fairmont (and the Tammeus family in Woodstock, Ill.) felt and expressed.
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P.S.: My latest Flatland column was published this past weekend, and you can find it here. It's about an independent Catholic Church led by a gay priest in Kansas City.