The United Methodist Church does not have a required format or focus for the individual churches to use each week. Pastors are free to preach as they feel lead. That being said, one of the common tools of the trade is the Lectionary. This is a resource that breaks down the Bible so that in the course of three years, and individual or church can read through the whole New and Old Testament. For example, for this coming Sunday, the readings are from Genesis, a psalm, Romans, and Matthew. These readings also connect to the Church calendar.
Many other faith traditions would not even touch the lectionary. I confess, at times, I really struggle with its use too. When I am only presented with 4 scripture passages to preach from, there can be a sense that I have limited the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is one reason why UM pastors are free to work outside of the lectionary. But, one of my preaching professors in seminary advised that preaching from the lectionary was the best discipline for a young preacher. I am starting to agree.
The lectionary forces me to preach from passages, stories, and books of the Bible I might otherwise not land on in my sermon study. My tendency is to move toward familiar passages in scripture that I have heard a good sermon on, or are my favorite. This past week I preached from Genesis 32, where Jacob wrestles with God. Two weeks ago, I came to the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13. Both are great stories, but neither were on my radar during preparation. But here lies the spiritual discipline part. The purpose of spiritual disciplines is to form us into Jesus-likeness in our actions and our relationship with Him. The lectionary discipline challenges and stretches me. In the cases of my first two sermons at First Church, I began the week looking at a scripture and wondering if it was the “right” one for the congregation. Did this scripture contain the specific message God wanted to communicate? In both cases, by Friday, I looked at the finished sermon and was amazed. God had worked through the lectionary text and lead me to form a sermon that I felt really connected the congregation’s story to God’s story. Now, don’t hear me wrong. I am not in the category of saying it is the only way to preach, but for me, this discipline is teaching me.
There is a stream who says the lectionary limits God’s work in the church. I am seeing just the opposite. Its use does not limit God, but really opens all of God’s Word to us over the span of time. Plus, difficult and challenging passages which typically would be avoided are brought out and served to the congregation, precisely because they happened to “come up” on the lectionary calendar. In my ministry, the use of the Lectionary is forming me through scriptures that I may not have otherwise considered.
The next post, part 2, will look beyond preaching the lectionary, to its uses in our devotional lives. Stay tuned!
(Image taken from the “Lectionary” iPhone app…which is FREE!)