Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4, Season after PentecostEdited by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor (Westminster John Knox, 2010).

This volume, the latest in a projected total of twelve, is part of an ambitious undertaking to cover all the texts in the Revised Common Lectionary, a set of Bible readings for use in worship in many North American denominations—Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, American Baptists, Reformed Church in American, etc. The prescribed readings include, in addition to a Psalm, a text from the Old Testament, and two from the New Testament—a Gospel pericope and one from the Epistles or from Revelation. There is a three-year cycle of readings, primarily to do with the Gospel text involved: Year A—Matthew; Year B—Mark; and Year C—Luke (John is read on special days—Easter, Advent, Christmas, Lent, etc.).

What really sets this series apart is that each text has four (yes, four) commentaries—“theological,” “pastoral,” “exegetical,” and “homiletical.” Each of the four is written by a different individual; for instance, the authors of each of the four dimensions on Luke 14:1, 7–14 are not the same as the four commenting on the subsequent Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke 14:25–33. Thus there is a considerable disconnect. That, however, is the nature of the game, when one follows lectionary texts—each pericope tends to be considered almost exclusively on its own merits, without much linkage between it and what preceded it or follows it. So for any given Sunday, one is looking at the offerings of sixteen authors—four for each of the readings from the OT, Psalms, Gospel, and Epistles! The suggestion for preachers, of course, is not that all four texts and all sixteen authors must be consulted before a sermon on any one text is written, but that one text and at least one of its four commentators be attended to. Such a process is not very satisfying to those preachers who prefer lectio continua, the preaching of biblical pericopes in sequence. (One also notices that not every pericope in a given biblical book or every verse in a given pericope is utilized. For instance, the sequence of Gospel readings are as follows: Luke 14:1, 7–14; 14:25–33; 15:1–10; 16:1–13; 16:19–31; 17:5–10; and so on: lots of gaps.

The layout of the material is also quite unusual. The four perspectives on any one text are laid out in parallel on facing pages, rather than sequentially, one after another, “to suggest the interdependence of the four approaches without granting priority to any one of them” (viii). This, I confess, makes for less than easy reading. I would rather the editors had given priority to ease of reading, than to egalitarian design.

I also found it difficult to distinguish between “theological,” “pastoral,” “exegetical,” and “homiletical.” Granted, of the four in any given set, the “exegetical” was the most exegetical and text-grounded, but the other three appeared to be mutating often into each other; the “pastoral” and “homiletical,” especially, seemed quite indistinguishable.

Take the first Gospel reading (Luke 14:1, 7–14: Jesus’ logia on humbling oneself as a guest at public dinners) as an example. The “theological” perspective took off on the concept of “blessing”—“Receiving a blessing that invites us to grow into a deeper relationship with God is not something we can work our way into through acts designed to display our worth” (22). I was not quite sure how this “theology” was derived from the text in question. The “pastoral” perspective meandered through Barth’s interpretation of hospitality and fellowship, for reasons that were not very clear. On the other hand, the “exegetical” perspective was quite helpful, laying out the text’s instruction against hubris: “it serves to dissuade Christians from all presumptions of privilege, noting the vanity of self-aggrandizement in the kingdom” (25). The “homiletical” perspective, though grasping the “ethical admonition to underestimate oneself,” makes what is explicitly labeled “theological” points—Jesus’ own humbling (Phil 2), the banquet as a symbol of the kingdom of heaven, etc. The dangers of multiple authorship are thus clearly evident—disconnect and duplication. The advantage, at least theoretically, is that different vantage points provide different vistas.

All in all, for those obliged to preach the lectionary, this might be the best tool available. For others inclined to preach pericope by pericope, purchasing a substantial commentary (or two) by a single author on a single book would be my recommendation.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 11.1 (2016): 94–96

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