In Italo Calvino’s fantasy novella, “The Cloven Viscount,” the hero suffers a near-fatal wound that splits him in two, vertically, from head to foot, with all of his noble attributes concentrated in one side (the right half, of course) and all his evil inclinations in the other (the left). And just to make matters interesting, his two halves, each hopping home independently from crusading against the Turks, manage to fall for the same woman.
Momentous developments in the church today, and indeed, over the last half-century, cause me to wonder if we have unknowingly taken Calvino’s minor mythical masterpiece of anthropology off the shelf where it was misfiled with Calvin’s sermons and “Institutes,” for we too often resemble this proverbial “half a man” more than we do the body of Christ.
No doubt there are many who “feel” cloven at this denominational juncture But before we, whether in pain, frustration, or exhaustion, surrender the next reformation of the church to the canon lawyers and judicial commissions, let us return Calvino’s parable to its proper place in 20th century fiction, and revisit the stacks on homiletical theology in the Reformed tradition.
One of the great, not-to-be-forgotten lessons of the Reformation is that God is resolved to use the preaching of the Word to reform the church, and not just any preaching, but penetrating preaching, preaching that, on the one hand, systematically probes the Scriptures as revelation, like lost treasure, and, on the other hand, speaks to the listener directly, provoking self-examination in the presence of the crucified and risen God-man. The result of such preaching is an actual church, unified in spirit, heartened by the word, always repenting (“being reformed”).
Here’s another analogy: the popular vehicle of favored, relatively “safe” Scripture readings, the “Revised Common Lectionary (RCL),” is a tricycle when the church sorely needs a four-wheel drive. Useful though it is in rendering text selection orderly and “easy,” it fails to sufficiently explore the height, length, depth and breadth of the canon, continually mitigating its gravity and blunting its edge. Neither does it explore the canon objectively: any child can spot its biases at a hundred paces. Finally, the design of the lectionary evinces distrust of both the Bible’s more troublesome texts and of seminary-trained ministers to exegete them aright. Yet, if we recall the lessons of the Scriptures themselves, if we dust off our volumes of theology and church history, we are admonished again and again: There is power in the word, and nowhere else, to reform sinner and society, church and world.
“Year D: A Quadrennial Supplement to the Revised Common Lectionary” (forthcoming) is a wager on the word to do for the church through preaching what the church alone cannot do: reform itself with integrity. The wager is simply that “what the Spirit is saying to the churches” at this crucial juncture is more likely to be discovered and discerned in texts that have been excluded from the lectionary than in its familiar territory. Not that we cannot draw ever deeper insights from its favored texts, but the state of the church does not speak well of the “fruit” of a limited repertoire of readings. “Year D” invites the mainline church, call it a bluff-calling if you must, to apply our treasured principle of inclusiveness to the written Word itself, to hear, and take seriously, among other things, the myriad of voices that command attention to the whole revelatory enchilada: “all scripture” (2Tim 3:16), “every word” from the mouth of the Lord (Deut 8:3), all that Jesus said and commanded (John 14:25-26; Matt 28:20), etc., all the texts — indicative and imperative, blessing and curse, promise and warning, lament and laudate, contextual perspective and omniscient pronouncement, harping reminder and haunting “I told you so” — the entirety of what Brueggemann calls “The Book that Breathes New Life.”
Consider lifeless Judah, on the cusp of exile after generations of theological dilapidation; consider the matter-of-factness with which Shaphan, the royal secretary, in the course of some long overdue temple renovations, informs the king, “The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.” At the reading of Deuteronomy, the royal robes are ripped in two. Josiah recognizes in a flash the consequences of his predecessors’ failed memory: the deadly downside of the covenant that has been flooding the land with wave after wave of bad news. But with his earnest lamentation and the rending of his kingly garments, a new period of hope is about to be heralded by the prophetess Huldah (2Kgs 22).
Such is the heuristic pattern whereby reformations occur: the rediscovery of the divine word hidden in plain sight, long shelved and silent, but rife and ready with reminders of the Lord’s rigorous wisdom and ultimate “good will toward men.” In every age, when preachers evoke the memory of forgotten things, cast off concern for body and soul, tenure and pension, don the mantle of the Spirit, and raise the blazing torch of the Word in their midst, there is no telling what new creation is about to be. A bewildering barrage of metaphors, you say? Consider “Year D,” a measured prescription for the lectionary’s amnesia!
What has the lectionary forgotten? Plenty.
» Over 80 percent of the Old Testament.
» A third of the Psalms, mostly individual laments that (per Brueggemann) convert complaint into praise!
» Proverbial verses from the Sermon on the Mount (7:1-20): “Judge not,” “pearls before swine,” “the narrow gate,” “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “know them by their fruits.”
» Whole (or nearly whole) chapters of unique Johannine material: John 5, 7, 8, 16; 1John 2; 2John and 3John, to say nothing of Revelation and its promise to bless those who read the prophecy aloud, “who hear … and keep” it (1:3; cf. 22:18-19).
» A significant body of prophetic, apocalyptic material — what Kasemann called “the mother of theology” — is also excluded, “shut in” (as it were), wondering when her children will come around. Too long bent on theologizing without her, we should finally ask: Is it any wonder people pay Hollywood and the so-called “History” Channel for titillating answers to apocalyptic questions when the church will not touch the very water-breaking, baptismal, labor-inducing texts that are shocking seekers far and wide into thinking of God for the first time?
» Other oversights conspire to muffle matters of first importance (not maliciously, mind you, but in effect). What Kahler called the very Gospels themselves: the passion narratives — all else is “extended introduction,” remember? — are virtually silent all year, save during Holy Week, when they are read dramatically (but not preached), reduced to “red letter” homilies, or hermetically sealed in weekday observances. With few exceptions, the passion narratives — the quintessential Gospels — never attend Sunday services. Have you ever heard a sermon on this Lukan saying of Jesus? “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31) Neither have I, but like it or not, dry season is here.
While only a partial solution, “Year D” arranges substantial fragments gleaned from the lectionary’s cutting room floor in an orderly seasonal sequence. It prepares a straight way for the word in Advent via excluded passages on the baptizer and others from Hebrews that uphold Jesus’ superior priesthood. At Christmas, its Gospel lections speak of why (rather than how) Jesus came. In Lent, it places preacher and listener in Jerusalem during the Festival of Booths (John 7-8) as Jesus’ identity is debated by the crowds and revealed in several “I am” statements (8:12, 23-24, 28, 58). In lieu of the usual Easter narratives, it focuses on Jesus’ teaching regarding the resurrection. In ordinary time, it allots 20 weeks to continuous reading through the apocalyptic discourse, Jesus’ confrontations with religious authorities, and the passion, synchronizing the Last Supper with worldwide communion and culminating in Christ the king.
Think of it as smelling salts for an unsteady church. More than merely juxtaposing law with the RCL’s gospel, “Year D” puts first things first: it proclaims, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6); it graciously reminds us that, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rom 2:4); it draws Paul and James closer together (cf. Rom 2:13; Jas 2:24-26); it encourages us to “shine like stars in the world” (Phil 2:14-15); refusing to equivocate among religions or deem the atonement optional or avoidable, it urges us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1John 4:1) and to avoid going “beyond the teaching of Christ” (2John 9); above all, it re-minds us, “we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it” or “neglect so great a salvation” (Heb 2:1-3). In short, “Year D” lends unity and coherence that cloven churches lack, coherence around the one Gospel (2Cor 11:4; cf. Gal 1:7), and the very spiritual nutrients for the want of which the body grows woozy, dizzy, and disoriented.
Now receive the benediction: May pastors, left and right, exegete the texts in “Year D” with renewed joy, anticipation and wonder; may parishioners discover both affirmation (assurance that lessons long forgotten remain recognizably in the canon) and revelation (Gospel worth believing, truth worth obeying); may whole congregations and denominations, Presbyterian and otherwise, “Sabbath” in this attic of communal memory and “come to themselves” amidst its crossed beams of light and wood, live reminders of our redeemed identity and calling. Imagine conversations and curricula, reading circles and family devotions; imagine worship and mission inspired by a focused and systematic, decent and orderly return to the sources “to hear the voices of — Scripture! — long silenced” (cf. “A Brief Statement of Faith,” 1991). Imagine Word and Spirit turning hearts to God, to church and family, friend and foe, neighbor and stranger, across the generations, across countless aisles and avenues of estrangement.
What was it Forsyth said? “The Bible is the one enchiridion of the preacher still, the one manual of eternal life, the one page that glows as all life grows dark, and the one book whose wealth rebukes us more the older we grow because we knew and loved it so late.”
TIMOTHY MATTHEW SLEMMONS is assistant professor of homiletics and worship at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and author of “Groans of the Spirit: Homiletical Dialectics in an Age of Confusion” (Pickwick Publications, 2010). His second book, “Year D: A Quadrennial Supplement to the Revised Common Lectionary,” is forthcoming from Cascade Books.