Thursday, October 13, 2016

RCL coverage

I recently had this question from, and an interesting conversation with, a friendly inquirer into lectionary design, a Princeton Seminary graduate who has been through the RCL some 10 times, and who now works in Protestant campus ministry in NY.

"If people only hear/read the Bible during Sunday worship, and attend churches where the RCL is used, how much of the Bible will they never hear? And how much of the gospels will they never hear?"

At least that is the simplified version of the question that the Rev. Dr. Laurie Tiberi sent my way. In its original form, her question drew a fairly stark contrast between the Daily Lectionary and the "Sunday only" RCL. Here is my response, some of which will be familiar to those who have read Year D.

Hi, Laurie:
Thanks for the question. 
Before I respond, I should say that when "Sunday only" is distinguished from the Daily Lectionary, there are some dozen events or so that are independent of the DL, but tend to fall on weekdays (fixed feasts, fasts, and other weekday events), like Christmas Day, Epiphany, Ash Wed, MTW of Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday (Vigil), Ascension, Thanksgiving. 
My hunch is the question was put to set the DL apart from RCL, which consists of some 70-72 events total. Some 60 of these are what we might call "Sunday only," combinations of texts that would fall on a Sunday, but obviously not every year. While there are only 52 weeks a year, [the Ordinary Time after] Epiphany, e.g., rarely gets all the Sundays assigned to it, since that only happens when Easter comes really late. 
With all that said, I will admit the "Sunday only" question in the purest sense [RCL minus the fixed/weekday feasts] has been of concern to me, since many Protestant churches (I see you are laboring specifically in Protestant ministry) have not always done much historically with weekday services, even with Good Friday and Maundy Thursday. So I have often wondered, what will "Sunday only" attendees hear, and what will they miss, if they only hear the Bible in Church and never crack their own copies at home? 
I have not crunched the numbers myself very precisely on the Bible as a whole (66 books of the Reformed/Protestant canon), but I believe David Ackerman's estimate of 24.9% coverage by the RCL is about right (see his book, Beyond the Lectionary). That figure, as I understand it, would include Sundays, plus those dozen or so high holy days. So, slightly less than a quarter of the Bible is covered by RCL. 
Another figure that might be of interest: Dennis Olsen, Prof of OT at Princeton Seminary, has calculated that less that 20% of the OT is represented in the RCL. 
As for the Psalms, my Presbyterian BOCW prints just the "semi-continuous" track through the RCL (as opposed to the complementary track that uses typological associations, allusions, and quotations to pair OT and NT readings). That semi-c track leaves 50 psalms completely untouched, to say nothing of omissions of verses from others psalms that it only reads partially (e.g., 78, 119, etc.) The RCL (semi-c + complimentary tracks, taken together) leaves more like 40 Psalms untouched. So between 26% and 33% of the Psalms are completely untouched by RCL. Again, the factor is higher if you count omitted verses from psalms that are used. 
But you asked about the Gospels. When you asked specifically about Sunday only, I calculated that literally (and did not include the dozen feast/fast days), and came up with this: vv. used on Sundays / total vv. in Gospel = % used on Sundays ... 
Matthew: 631 / 1071 = 58.92% 
Mark: 461 / 678 = 67.99% 
Luke: 690 / 1151 = 59.95% 
John: 490 / 879 = 55.75%
Total: 2272 / 3779 = 60.12% 
Now, two considerations need to be taken into account, one that would suggest significantly higher coverage and another significantly lower: 
Higher: Bear in mind that the synoptic gospels often duplicate, even "triplicate" some material. I think the designers of RCL assumed that if we hear a parable in Matt 13, we do not necessarily need to cover it again in Mark 4, and any significant differences can be dealt with in a sermon. So, e.g., it may be Year A, but I think bringing in Mark's and Luke's take on the same text is fair game, esp. if their versions are not in RCL. That may not be of much help if we are interested in the overall structure of the particular gospel in question, but I think it is safe to say that the sayings of Jesus get better than 60% coverage. One exception that seems important to me is his saying about the narrow gate. Neither Matthew's nor Luke's version is ever touched. John's version of "I am the gate for the sheep" is used in RCL, but there is no mention of narrowness or the life or death ultimatum, so that seems to me a very different text. [UPDATED: Hence the two sermons on these texts in Chapter 4 of Groans of the Spirit.] The synoptic issue is also the reason I have tried to give John better coverage in Year D, since his material tends to be quite unique and does not have the benefit of synoptic redundancy. 
Lower: If we really do stick with "Sunday only" (thus, setting aside the long Good Friday readings of the Passion Narratives), and if we assume (as is the case in most churches) that we opt for Palm Sunday, not the Passion Sunday read-through of the PNs, then nearly two whole chapters of the Gospels (Matt 26–27; Mark 14–15; Luke 22–23; John 18–19) are not in fact covered on Sundays at all (except for a few selected verses here and there). Those tend to be very long chapters. My calculations are a bit roughshod here, but that would drop the coverage factor by as much as 10%. So, arguably, the Gospels are only about half-covered (50%) when one drops out all the passion material that is unlikely to be read. Moreover, if it is read all in one clip (Passion Sunday), that leaves little time for preaching. This latter consideration I find particularly ironic in light of Martin Kahler's oft-cited description of the Gospels as "Passion Narratives with extended introductions." Such a definition, though hyperbolic perhaps, suggests the Gospel lections in RCL, in a sense, consist almost entirely of introductory material. 
Again, thanks for the question. I hope you find this helpful. 
Peace in Christ, 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ - 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Proper 23]

Haggai 2:10-19
Psalms 3 AND 134
Matthew 26:36-56 OR Mark 14:32-52 OR Luke 22:39-53 OR John 18:1-12
Romans 7:1-12


Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,
who stand in the house of the LORD!
         You, O LORD, are a shield around me,
         my glory, and the one who lifts up my head!
Lift up your hands to the holy place,
and bless the LORD.
         I cry aloud to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy hill.          
I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the LORD sustains me.
Be not afraid if ten thousands of people set themselves against you all around.
May the LORD, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion!
Rise up, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God!
         For deliverance belongs to the LORD!
May your blessing be on your people!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Christian education and liturgical resources

Advent is coming, and with it a new liturgical year, and for RCL users, a new cycle. If you plan to use Year A at all, you may want to have this on hand:

After a long year and an ugly election season, you may also be ready for something lighter this Advent and Christmas. Written to "delight," this story is probably most suited to a family night or fellowship gathering, but perhaps it has been adapted for pageants; you might also think of it as an extended Christmas card for a congregation, a thank you gift for key families, a welcome gift for visitors, etc. However you use it, know that it will remind people of the Christ of Christmas.

Where worship is concerned, if you haven't looked into Year D yet, it is not too soon to plan ahead:


Meanwhile, if you still have any adult ed courses to plan, imagine 6 or 7 weeks in the study of the Lord's Prayer ...

and 6 to 9 weeks rediscovering an important, but forgotten Reformer.

The seventeen chapters in this piece are very short and could easily be read two or three at a clip. For many an adult ed class or book group, you could well spend a whole semester on these two studies alone.

These are just a few — hopefully helpful — pieces developed over the years in small church ministry, and one (the translation) that has arisen from the nagging sense that we still have a lot to learn about our identity and mission as Christians in the Reformed tradition from the actual Reformers (there are more than just Luther and Calvin) who got the ball rolling. In short and paradoxically, clues to the way forward always seem to demand attending to the past, if we are patient and teachable enough to search out the great treasures of the tradition. Obviously, that applies to scripture above all, especially to those basic, but neglected essentials like the Lord's Prayer.

Spread the Word!

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ - 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Proper 22] (World Communion Sunday)

2Chronicles 7:1-22 (OR Haggai 1:15-2:9)
Matthew 26:20-35 OR Mark 14:17-31 OR Luke 22:14-38
Colossians 3:18-4:18


O God our Father, who sent Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, to fulfill the Passover through his suffering, coming among us as one who serves, giving his body and shedding his blood in order to establish a new covenant with all who are called by his name: Strengthen us, we pray, that our faith may never fail. Nourish us, that we may encourage one another. Help us to recognize the many assets and provisions with which you have blessed us, and teach us to dedicate and use them to the service of your kingdom. Neither let us overlook or neglect or shy away from the offering of ourselves. For truly you, our Passover Lamb, have provided all things needful, giving even of your flesh and blood for our salvation, thereby showing your grace and goodness to sinners. Thank you, O LORD, for the body and blood of Christ, by which your Spirit imparts grace to us and builds us up to be the body of Christ. Come, O LORD our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, come and receive our thanks and praise!       

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

An Invitation

There is a time for everything: a time to preach more broadly from the canon (Year D) and a time to preach more narrowly on those chief "heads" or matters of first importance. The latter is a matter of catechetical preaching, a subset of doctrinal preaching, itself a subset of topical preaching. At least that is how I see and would map the concentric relation.

Why not join me for a five-week (asynchronous) discussion of Catechetical Preaching, Part I — The Lord's Prayer, starting next Tuesday, September 20. We will be discussing my recent book, Our Father Knows: The Prayer that Jesus Taught. Perhaps it will goad your thinking and planning toward preaching the essentials. After all, for many adult Christians today, confirmation ... was a long time ago!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ - 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Proper 19]


Deuteronomy 16:1-17
Psalm 92: (1-4) 5-11 (12-15)
Matthew 26:1-19 OR Mark 14:1-16 OR Luke 22:1-13
1Timothy 5