Monday, July 13, 2015

Lectionary Beef

As regular readers of this blog can tell you (hi mom!), I use this venue to take out my frustrations with the lectionary authors on a regular basis. This Sunday is one of those occasions, but, this time, my critical focus isn't only cast upon the authors of the RCL but also those of us in the Episcopal Church who approved switching to the RCL several General Conventions ago.

First, let me recap the gospel lessons for the last few Sundays:

  • June 7 - Mark 3:20-30 - Jesus called Beelzebul and questioned as crazy by his own family
  • June 14 - Mark 4:26-34 - Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to a man scattering seeds & the mustard seed in particular
  • June 21 - Mark 4:35-41 - Jesus gets in a boat and stills a storm
  • June 28 - Mark 5:21-43 - Jesus gets back in a boat and heals two women
  • July 5 - Mark 6:1-13 - Jesus is rejected in his hometown and sends out the disciples
  • July 12 - Mark 6:14-29 - Jesus is confused for John the Baptist by a guilt-ridden Herod
Notice a pattern there? We're making out way through Mark. It is, after all, Year B in our three-year cycle. It makes sense, therefore, that we would enjoy what Mark has to say about the growing and developing ministry of Jesus.

And what happens this Sunday? We bring the momentum to a screeching halt, offer a piecemeal selection of gospel texts, and (in my not-so-humble opinion) waste a Sunday in order to build an artificial bridge toward the "I am the bread of life" discourse in John, which will be the focus of the next several weeks.

Here's what I mean:

This Sunday we have Mark 6:30-34, 53-56. Notice the gap--the big, huge gap. Jesus isn't just going around in a boat, hopping from place to place, as this week's story would give us. There are two important stories we skip over--the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on the water. In the old BCP lectionary, the former would be the lesson for this Sunday--Mark 6:30-44. And we'd get the latter in the following week. Both are stories shared in other gospel accounts, but this is our chance to hear what Mark has to say about it. By the time the RCL gets back to Mark (not until August 30!!!), we'll be into Mark 7, and these stories will be long gone.

I think I know what the RCL is trying to do here. Like the BCP lectionary, it has several weeks in a row from John 6 right in the middle of Year B's summer. And, I suppose, in the authors' minds it makes sense to let the feeding of the 5,000 be John's version (that's what we get next week in the RCL) rather than Mark's version. But I think this is a mistake on three fronts.

First, as I've ranted about above, Mark has a particular story to tell, but we don't get to hear it. He's the Joe Friday of gospel editors. He gives us "just the facts, ma'am." His stories are unpolished but also unblemished. They are plain. They are refreshing. Go back and read Mark's version of the two miracles we will skip. All the sentimental attachment and conjured up symbolism is left to the reader to insert. John is more heavy-handed than that. I like Mark, and I regret that we don't get to hear him on this.

Second, we are left with only one reading of the walking on the water in the whole three-year cycle--even though the miracle appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (It shows up in Year A in Proper 14.) The RCL doesn't think it's as important--maybe because it's too "magical." I really don't know.

Third, and most importantly for this Sunday, we are left with a gospel lesson that proclaims what--that Jesus invited the disciples to rest for a while? that he was popular and couldn't escape the crowds? that he was a compassionate shepherd? (Oh wait, we've already had Good Shepherd Sunday!) The problem with these piecemeal passages is that they were never supposed to stand on their own. They are connected with the passages around them--the passages skipped by the RCL. As a result, we are asked to preach (or listen to a sermon) on a text that lacks real substance.

And, no, I'm not a fan of switching back to the BCP as General Convention authorized in 2012. As much as I prefer the BCP lectionary, I spoke against that and voted against it because I believe that, unless really special circumstances demand otherwise--the kind of special circumstances that require the approval of a bishop--all of us should have the same texts every Sunday throughout the church. So we're using what we've got. I'm just praying for preachers out there--and for those who will listen to them.

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