Ever since the launch of the rabbinic era over 2,000 years ago, preacher-teachers have tried to organize their subject matter by presenting God’s word in cycles, especially via the vehicles of lectio continua (preaching through the whole Bible) and lectio selecta (preaching pre-selected texts), most often in the form of a lectionary. “The Revised Common Lectionary” (RCL) has become the mode of choice for many mainline Protestants, thereby producing a three-year cycle of readings for pulpit use.
That’s not enough, claims Tim Slemmons. A homiletics professor at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Slemmons has developed “Year D” — an additional set of texts that fell to the cutting floor when the RCL was developed. These fourth-year texts help to fill in the blanks, inviting the people of God to hear “the voices of texts long silenced,” as Slemmons says, in the three-year lectionary cycle.
That’s not to say that the leaders who developed the RCL were simply leaving out what they didn’t like — although Slemmons’ inclusion of psalms of lament, all missing from years A, B and C, and of extensive passion passages, which the RCL locks into Holy Week’s weekday readings, does give voice to some of the more discomforting passages some of us have been happy to avoid.
It is to say, rather, that when it comes to preaching there’s nothing sacred about the number three and, frankly, that more is better.
In a paper presented to the Academy of Homiletics in 2007, Slemmons makes it clear that he does not support abandoning the RCL. It provides a framework and discipline that helps pastors to rise above their own favorite texts and topics, and thereby avoid the common homiletical tendency to preach a “canon within the canon.” Also, the RCL has generated a spate of outstanding resources that help preachers tap the best scholarly research available as well as pick up some homiletical twists and turns that can help drive the message to heads and hearts.
However, Slemmons also “admits with critics of the lectionary the need for transcending its evident biases and shortcomings” and especially its incompleteness. He “address[es] these objections by honoring the other texts (!) that the RCL presently excludes.”
This does not necessarily tilt the debate against lectio continua. Great for the people truly to live with a book of the Bible until it breathes within them. Then again, the lectionary’s mix of Old Testament, psalm, gospel and epistle in worship helps the worshipers to develop the practice of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture.
We would also add that neither approach ought to shackle the preacher to sticking always and only to the appointed text. When a tornado carves a swath of destruction through town, Sunday’s worshipers need to hear the word of the Lord that speaks to their immediate horror and grief.
But the approach being suggested by Slemmons — which will be outlined in an upcoming Webinar and soon thereafter in a book — demands serious consideration of all on whose shoulders sits the oracle’s mantle. For at the heart of reformed worship pulsates the proclamation of the Word of God. And, for all the theological debates over just quite what we mean when speaking of the “authority” of the Word of God, Bonhoeffer had it right when, in the opening words of “Discipleship,” he declared, “In times of church renewal, scripture naturally becomes richer in content for us.”
If the introduction of “Year D” might prod us into that direction, then may the Word increase.
Afterword: Appreciation goes to Walter Brueggemann and Kenneth Bailey who have passed their respective mantles for the biblical exposition in the Outlook’s Uniform Lesson Series. Taking up where they’ve left off are two wonderful scholars, Amanda W. Benckhuysen for the Old Testament and Mark Roberts for the New Testament. May the Word increase all the more!