The Revised Common Lectionary, as it appears in the front of the pew edition of Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
On many occasions I have been asked by friends and colleagues why I do not use the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in my congregation. Often these questions come from a place of honest curiosity. Sometimes they come from a place of liturgical condescension. Either way, my answer is rather simple – it’s mostly because of how the RCL treats the Old Testament. But there’s more.
So, here are the reasons why I left the RCL behind.
The RCL presents Old Testament texts only in relation to the Gospel text. “[T]he Old Testament reading is closely related to the gospel reading for the day” (Introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary, 11). This is problematic in that Old Testament texts are chosen only in relation to a gospel counterpart. The result of this pairing is that the story of God’s grace and promise in the Old Testament is told in no sequence or narrative but only as it relates to, or previews, a gospel parallel. Whereas the gospel moves sequentially each week, chapter by chapter through the story of the life of Jesus, the Old Testament reading jumps around to provide no sequence or cohesive story of God’s work among the people Israel.
For example, for the six weeks from the Third Sunday after Epiphany through to the Eight Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, we read from parts of chapters 4, 5, and 6 of the Gospel of Matthew. For the first reading, we read from Isaiah 9, Micah 6, Isaiah 58, Deuteronomy 30, Leviticus 19, and Isaiah 49. While these pairings are appropriate and shed light on the context of the Gospel, as a unit these selections do not tell a coherent story of God’s movement among God’s chosen people.The RCL identifies the “problem” of how to read and use the Old Testament in Christian worship (Introduction, 40-44). It paints extremes of excluding the Old Testament altogether from Christian worship (on one hand), or of reading it only as Scripture and prophesies that have been fulfilled by the New Testament writings (on the other hand). It rightly recognizes that the Old Testament is Scripture that can be read and exegeted in its own right. Yet, it oddly suggests that attempts to do so would result in reading Old Testament texts “at eucharistic worship, or Christian worship in general, as though there were no linkage with Christian belief and prayer” (Introduction, 42). The linkage that the RCL proposes – selecting Old Testament readings to reflect themes or images of the gospel selection – gives short shrift to the Old Testament, its story, and its Good News.
For about half of the year an alternate cycle of “semi-continuous” Old Testament readings is offered. In Year A this cycle begins in Genesis; in Year B in 1 Samuel; and, in Year C in 1 Kings. This semi-continuous cycle corrects some of what I find problematic in the RCL, if only for half of the year … much of which falls during the summer months (see #4, below).
The RCL is too focused on the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There’s lots of Good News throughout Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament. And though the RCL covers lots of Scripture in its three year cycle, it does so with an unnecessarily limiting orientation to the first four books of the New Testament. Christian preachers are more than capable of proclaiming, and Christian congregations are capable of hearing, the wonder of God’s saving work without a requisite weekly reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This is especially true in liturgical and sacramental traditions, whose liturgies and hymns are filled with imagery from the Gospels.
The RCL skips the Old Testament during the most important season of the church year, replacing it with readings from the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is fantastic. But that it supersedes the Old Testament reading during the Easter season does a disservice to the relationship we claim exists between the Old Testament promise and the New Testament’s witness to the resurrection.
The year is all off. I know. The church year begins in Advent, and the RCL has a beautiful internal integrity that flows throughout the cycle of the church year. Yet, most of our congregations follow a program year calendar that closely tracks the school year. Sunday School, youth group, men’s or women’s groups, and other ministries often meet during the school year, and often take the summer off. Attendance dips during the summer, and in August or September the programming kicks up – and so does the attendance. September is the start to a new year. Many of our congregations fit into the RCL’s December-November cycle awkwardly, at best. Meanwhile, the internal integrity of the RCL is lost as major portions of the life and ministry of Jesus are proclaimed during the summer months of low attendance and suspended Christian education.
When I share that I set aside the Revised Common Lectionary, I am often asked about the unity that the RCL fosters.
The unity achieved by the RCL is overstated. The unity of the church is found in Christ, in the proclamation of the Word and the sharing of the sacraments, and in our shared witness to the resurrection. It is too easy to overstate the significance of a shared cycle of readings – as if the unity of the church depended on the selection of readings for worship! Most of the “unity” fostered by the RCL’s cross-denominational use is experienced by clergy in text studies, online clergy groups, worship planning resources, and so forth. Very few and very far between are stories of Lutheran and Presbyterian laity gathering for lunch after worship to talk about their pastor’s sermons on the same texts. And while common practices across church bodies are perhaps desirable, the churches that use the RCL inhabit a shared theological space and heritage such that any variation in their Sunday reading schedules would hardly inhibit the unity they already have in liturgical practice or public witness.
“But you’re tearing the church apart by abandoning the RCL!” Congregations that set the RCL aside are hardly abandoning the unity of the church. A Christian community that selects an alternate lectionary or develops its own is more than capable of teaching and preaching and carrying out acts of service and care. Such congregations continue to proclaim Christ within and beyond their walls. Such congregations continue to follow the ebb and flow of the church’s principal festivals. Most continue to gather around Word and Sacrament. Setting aside the 1992 RCL is hardly a crushing blow to church unity. Claiming the lectionary is a lynchpin to church unity does a disservice to the unity we share with Christian churches that do not use the RCL.
I didn’t depart from the Revised Common Lectionary lightly. I take seriously its wisdom and beauty and yes, its shared use. I’ve written prayers for Bread for the Day, a Revised Common Lectionary daily devotional. And, I have at times in my life committed to daily prayer rooted in the daily lectionary’s movement.
Nonetheless, as noted above, I find the RCL lacking mostly for its treatment of the Old Testament, but also its calendar orientation that doesn’t fit well with the life cycle of my (and many other) congregations. When I began looking for alternatives to the RCL over three years ago, I considered the Narrative Lectionary, a project out of Luther Seminary that offers a 9-month, single-reading lectionary starting with Genesis and moving through to the Epistles and Revelation; a year-long program such as The Story; or a series of shorter-term thematic series. I ultimately landed on the Narrative Lectionary, and have found it to be a wonderful guide for using Scripture in worship, and I have found its online community to be faithful, diverse, and creative.