Communion at Home during a Pandemic: an Addendum

My prior post was the letter I published online for my congregation addressing our acts of worship and communion during the current pandemic. This current post is an addendum responding to discussions being held online among clergy colleagues and leaders of the church.

Addendum:

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has said that this pandemic might be a time for fasting from the sacrament. And, the worship resources posted on ELCA.org/publichealth recommend that congregations do not administer Holy Communion during online worship gatherings.

The Use of the Means of Grace, Principle 39, states that “the gathered people of God celebrate the sacrament. Holy Communion, usually celebrated within a congregation, also may be celebrated in synodical, churchwide, and other settings where the baptized gather.” Furthermore, Application 39A: “Authorization for all celebrations of Communion in a parish setting where there is a called and ordained minister of Word and Sacrament is the responsibility of the pastor in consultation with the Congregational Council.”

Parishes around the country are currently “gathering” as an “assembled” people of God across the pixels and network cables. Our extraordinary gatherings in this time recall the great canticle, “As the grains of wheat once scattered on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread; so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you. Let this be a foretaste of all that is to come when all creation shares this feast with you” (As the Grains of Wheat, ELW 465). By God’s grace we continue to gather as the scattered grains of wheat. These virtual assemblies of the scattered are no less legitimate than in-person gatherings.

Many of our parishes are assembling at an appointed time via livestream or Zoom videoconference. Worshiping at the same time and in the same way reinforces the unity of their assembly despite the physical distance.

Certainly gathering in this manner is not ideal, and in contagion-free times virtual assembly certainly would not be the preferred method of coming together as God’s people. The normative practice of the living Body of Christ is and always will be to gather together in person. Yet a “normative” or “preferred” practice need not be the exclusive practice of the church. Exceptions prove and are derivative of the rule.

Our church teaches that “Holy Communion is celebrated weekly” (UMG Principle 35). We celebrate communion frequently “because the Church needs the sacrament, the means by which the Church’s fellowship is established and its mission as the baptized people of God is nourished and sustained” (Background, 35A). As we meet through digital means, parishes can continue the church’s practice of gathering weekly at the Lord’s Table in response to “Christ’s command, his promise, and our deep need” (Background, 35A).

Even as we gather online, “Holy Communion is consecrated by the Word of God and Prayer” (UMG Principle 43), and “a pastor presides at the Holy Communion” (UMG Principle 40). Authentic gatherings of God’s people through digital means provide for a pastor’s leadership, the proclamation of God’s Word, and the elevation of our prayers.

I respect the preference spoken by our Presiding Bishop, some of our church’s theologians, and many of my peers. Refraining from administering the sacrament during these times is a faithful means of waiting with hope-filled anticipation for that day when parishes can gather again, in person, as the Body of Christ. It is a waiting that reflects our faithful waiting for the promised Day of the Lord when the world will be set to rights.

And perhaps the wisdom of Ecclesiastes applies here, that there is “a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces” (3:5b). Certainly we are avoiding our in-person embraces during this pandemic. Maybe the same goes for our sacramental embrace.

Ultimately I have made a different pastoral decision, one that seeks to continue our parishes’ need to hear those most important words of the sacrament: that Jesus is given “for you” (Small Catechism). I think there’s room in our church for different and faithful responses rooted in pastoral care for our congregations and trust in the living, sacramental Word which dares to come to us in our fear, nourish us, forgive us our sin, and make of us a body gathered together not in any given location but “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

May the God who is Spirit and Truth continue to bless and keep our church in these days.

Amen.

[Image by Michael Schwarzenberger from Pixabay]

Holy Communion Amidst the Coronavirus Disruption

A Pastoral Letter to my Congregation

The coronavirus has ushered us into a time of disruption. Our home lives are disrupted. Schools are disrupted. Business and the economy are disrupted. And most certainly, the medical community is disrupted.

The church, too, is disrupted. We’re scattered in our homes, unable to come together each Sunday “at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave.” We are missing out on greeting one another with God’s peace, singing and praying together, sharing our Lord’s supper of grace and mercy, studying Scripture together, and enjoying fellowship around coffee and conversation.

Ours is a Social and Physical Faith

It’s not just a human need for companionship that is met when we come together, but also a spiritual need. Christianity is inherently a social faith and a physical faith. We were made in God’s image for relationship, just as the Holy Trinity itself is a divine relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Saint Paul describes the Christian community as a body of believers of many interdependent spiritual gifts – we need each other to be the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). In Genesis 1 God declares that it is not good for us to be alone.

Ours is also a physical faith. Jesus didn’t come to this world as a disembodied spirit but as a man in flesh and blood. God made the world and saw that it was “good;” when God made humanity, he declared it “very good” (Genesis 1). The created world gives praise to God in the psalms (Psalm 148), Saint Paul writes of the resurrection of the body (Romans 6:5; 1 Corinthians 15; etc), and Revelation promises a new heaven and a new earth joined as a physical, tangible new creation (Revelation 21). Jesus calls us to care for the bodily needs of our neighbors (Matthew 25). And, on the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and wine and bid us to receive it as his body and his blood. Our central rituals as Christians – baptism and holy communion – are inherently tactile, physical experiences through which our Lord promises to bless and hold us.

In Lutheran churches this tangible meal of God’s grace and mercy – Holy Communion – is administered within the body of believers by an ordained minister. In obedience to our Lord’s command the church gathers for the Eucharistic Meal, the pastor retells the story of our Lord’s Passion, the congregation lifts up its prayers, and God’s people share in the promised presence of our Lord in the bread and cup – the body and blood – of his holy meal. This has been the practice of the Lutheran church for 500 years, and for our Catholic predecessors for more than a millennium before that.

Worship Disrupted by COVID-19

Out of concern for the health of our neighbors, the public at large, and ourselves, and in observance of the Governor’s stay at home order, we cannot gather together to partake in the banquet feast of our Lord’s grace and mercy. Fundamental to the character of holy communion are the prayers and gestures we share, the proximity we keep while receiving the sacrament, the Word proclaimed and present, and the common bread and cup we share in this sacred meal. At the beginning of this crisis we extended the communion table from New Joy into our homes by delivering bread and wine from our altar to many of our New Joy households, striving to faithfully adapt the Christian church’s longstanding practice to these unique circumstances. Under the current public health protocols, we are unable to do so again.

Prevented from gathering as Christians normally do for communion, do we suspend partaking in the sacrament? During Lent do we now add Holy Communion to our list of Lenten fasts? This is the decision some of the historic Christian churches are making. Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Churches, and many Episcopalians are refraining from communion during this crisis. Our church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – is not of one mind on whether or how we should continue sharing Holy Communion as a church that gathers online rather than in person.

Keeping Communion While Keeping Distance

During these extraordinary days New Joy will continue to share in the communion feast together from our homes, joined together “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23) as we worship together. Now, more than ever, we need to hear and receive the promise that Jesus Christ is given “for you.”

Over the coming weeks as we continue to gather together in our homes for worship I invite you to use bread and wine (or grape juice) from your pantry to celebrate holy communion in your homes in concert with your dispersed sisters and brothers at New Joy. This is certainly not the norm of Lutheran practice, nor of the Christian tradition. But these are not normal times. With reverence, grace, and promise, we will continue to share in our Lord’s Supper even as we keep our necessary social distance.

To maintain the unity of our Lord’s table and to nurture your own preparation for worship, I urge you to continue observing, as much as practicable, our shared worship time of 9:30 on Sunday mornings. Wake up, get dressed as you might for church, and prepare as if you were heading out to church. But rather than get into the car, I invite you to set up your computer or smart television or mobile device. Prepare bread and wine (or juice) for our communion meal. Print out the bulletin posted on the website, or view it on another screen in tandem with the livestream. If you can’t join in the livestream, use the attached Brief Order For Sharing Holy Communion During Social Distancing in your household.

Setting up Holy Communion at Home

It might feel odd to celebrate communion at home, but don’t let that get in your way. Your home is a sacred space where God is pleased to dwell! Set aside a special place as your home altar. Place a linen cloth on a coffee table or your kitchen table as a corporal, the cloth on the altar on which we set the bread and cup for communion. Spread another cloth overtop the bread and cup as a veil. Paper napkins can work just as well if linens are not available. Mark this space as sacred by setting up a small cross, lighting a candle, or placing a bowl of water to recall your baptism. Purple fabric is appropriate for our current season of Lent. When it’s time for Easter, bring out some white or gold fabric to make it festive with a celebration of resurrection life.

Any plain bread will do for Holy Communion. There’s no need to keep it small, however. The small portions we share at church are largely a practical concern of how to serve so many people at once in our ritual meal. In the intimate gathering at home let the communion meal more resemble the extraordinary heavenly banquet feast that is to come! On a grocery run before Sunday purchase a French or Italian loaf from the bakery section at the grocery store, or share home-baked bread still warm from the oven. Break off a piece, share it as the body of Christ, and allow the sensory experience to complement the spiritual promise of this meal. Familiar sandwich bread or crackers can be used, too.

Open a bottle of red wine and pour into glasses for those sharing. Grape juice may be used as well. You may share the cup by intinction – dipping the bread in the cup – or by drinking. Again, enjoy a robust glass of this drink of promise. No need to keep the amounts small.

The communion we share together while dispersed in our homes is the same promised presence of our Lord Jesus that we receive at church. Jesus promised that the bread and cup of this holy meal were his body and blood. Martin Luther wrote that the most important words of holy communion are, “for you” (Small Catechism, Explanation of Holy Communion). The body and blood of Jesus is given for you, especially in these times of social distancing and public concern.

The bread and cup of communion bring God’s promised presence to us. Handle these elements not superstitiously but reverently and with thanksgiving. At the conclusion of the service eat and drink any remaining bread and wine. You may also return the bread and wine to the earth, preferably not down the drain or in the trash can but outside to be received by God’s good creation.

Avoid sharing holy communion apart from participating in the livestream (live on Sunday mornings, or replayed later), or apart from using the attached Brief Order For Sharing Holy Communion During Social Distancing. Communion is the highpoint of a worship that includes confession and absolution, hearing God’s Word, singing God’s praise, offering our prayers, and sharing and receiving Christ’s peace.

God’s richest blessings to you as we continue to be God’s people gathered not together in person but together in spirit and truth. Please do not hesitate to contact me or the church office via email, social media, Zoom, or phone. Let me know how I can support you during these challenging days.

Blessings,

Pastor Chris

On belief, unbelief, and grace

On any given day I believe in God. At least, I think I do. I mean, yes, I believe.

Usually. Maybe. Most certainly.

But there’s plenty of time I don’t believe. Or, perhaps better put, that I’m not sure what I believe. Or, maybe that my faith fails to provide the precision often demanded of faith, and I find myself in a gray area that few people care to occupy. Especially people of faith.

Certainly, faith is not a crib sheet for the tough questions of life. At least, my faith is not. When does life begin, and who decides? What is freedom, how far does it extend, and for whom? Are there any acceptable exemptions to the commandment “thou shalt not kill”? Is God all powerful and all loving? Do miracles happen? And if so, by what power, why, and why not more often?

If a man getting out of the burning car can thank God for his rescue, what role do we attribute to God in the death of three people who didn’t escape the flames?

Easy answers are hard to come by.

Sure, easy answers work for easy questions. But when you ask harder questions, second order questions, simple answers fail. Miserably.

This is not to say that I’m bound by the paralysis of theological perfection, unable to say anything with certainty without circling back to theology books I read back in seminary or to books I’ve purchased but haven’t (yet) read (if I ever will). I’ll gladly answer the questions above with a full and confident voice after some theological hemming and hawing. But I also reserve the right to say something different tomorrow. Or next Tuesday.

Because easy answers are hard to come by.

Now, there are some tough questions I’m better at, even as I acknowledge that they’re still tough questions and my answers might have more nuance than a slice of pizza has grease. For example, even though Jesus clearly and unequivocally teaches that divorce is wrong (Matthew 5:31-32), I’m ok with divorce. And by “ok,” I mean, I’m not advocating for a divorce in every pot.

No. I’m no fan of divorce, but I get that we need it. Broken people get themselves into broken relationships, after all. Some of those broken relationships really need to be undone. This is not willy-nilly disrespect for the covenant for marriage. It’s acknowledging that human brokenness is real, and that freeing people from bonds that might serve only to perpetuate pain and dysfunction may be necessary and good and even holy. And that’s ok. Divorce can represent the freedom that Jesus promises … even if the Gospels record that Jesus himself was no fan of divorce.

No Biblical literalist am I. Obviously.

Thank God. Otherwise I’d be worshiping a rock (Psalm 18:2), cutting off my hand (Mark 9:43), and as a minister of the Gospel condemning siblings in Christ to death for their acts of unfaithfulness (Acts 5:1-9).

Actually, no Christian is a literalist. The Bible is full of metaphor and hyperbole and story and wonder that conveys the truth and power of the grace of God. The stuff of the Bible is not meant to be forensic, scientific, literal truth, like an oddly written text book, or the transcripts of a eyewitness statement – which, we know, are not perfectly reliable. Instead, the truth of the Bible and of the church is meant to be like a supernova that unleashes an immeasurable grace into the community of the faithful for the sake of the whole world.

Let’s do another “for example.”

I embrace that yes, Cain, we are our brother’s keeper (Cain didn’t think so and killed his brother – see Genesis 4 for the juicy details). Jesus affirms that we are our brother’s keeper in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), wherein Jesus portrays a member of a much-derided religious group as an example of righteousness when this man gives generously to care for a neighbor in need.

We all love the Good Samaritan story. But let’s just pause here for a moment and let it sink in that Jesus didn’t just teach us about being good to our neighbors. He didn’t just use the example of Jane Do-Gooder. Jesus deliberately told this story using a member of a reviled, rejected religious group as an exemplar of righteousness. That in and of itself says something. Pay attention to Jesus’ storytelling – not just for the “moral of the story,” but for the way in which he tells the story. The form in which Jesus teaches us about caring for our neighbor itself teaches us what care for our neighbor looks like … especially for our neighbor who neither prays or nor looks nor acts like us.

James writes in a similar theme about care for neighbor, saying essentially that “thoughts and prayers” are a bunch of crap when we are instead called to actually provide for our neighbor’s human needs (James 2:15-16, and following).

So the Bible is abundantly clear. We are to care for our neighbor.

But then come the hard questions, for which I have no easy answer (remember, there are no easy answers). To what extent do we care for our neighbor? Give our cloak, and shirt, too (Luke 6:29)? Spend our last mite (Luke 21:1-4)? Offer up our own lives (Mark 8:34-38)?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Anyone who says there are is trying to sell you something, or justify themselves, or both.

We live in a broken world full of sinners, and I am chief among them.

People in dire need visit churches all the time. During the week, usually, when only the church staff are there. It’s the safest time for someone beaten and kicked to the margins by all kinds of human brokenness to make their way to a church door. And for all the times I’ve been able to help someone, how many more times have I turned away such people, dear children of God, from my church?

There I am, sitting in my air conditioned office, with my well-maintained car in the parking lot that drives me to and from my home in a fairly affluent community. I turn her away, I turn him away, because I, because we, didn’t have enough to help with an electric bill. Or groceries. Or rent.

Bullshit. Lord, have mercy on my soul.

This is the stuff I worry about. I rationalize it enough to get by – I’d go nuts if I didn’t – but I seriously wonder what that conversation will be like with Saint Peter at the pearly gates when he asks me how I’ve lived my life, what I’ve done with the Gospel entrusted to me, how I’ve cared for the least of these? Oh, Lord have mercy upon me. I believe in grace, but not so much that it frees me from the sense of responsibility I have to the Gospel and to my neighbor who bears the very image of God (Genesis 1:27).

And so forth and so on. I could write for days about the conundrums I find myself in when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because easy answers are hard to come by. And if we live as Jesus lived, as he calls us to live, we’d end up where he did, dead on a cross. But I actually like life. So, there’s that.

Which is why my favorite verse in the Bible these days (yes, it changes from time to time) is Mark 9:24.

“Lord I believe. Help my unbelief!”

In this story a father brings his son, who is tormented by a demon, to Jesus’ disciples for healing. Jesus was up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John at the time, so the other disciples decided to try their hand at it. But they couldn’t cast out the demon. They couldn’t heal the child.

Anxious father. Sick child. Frustrated disciples. And naysayers – the legal experts – arguing with the failing would-be miracle workers. What a chaotic scene.

Then comes Jesus. After a mountaintop experience in which the three disciples he hand-picked to join him didn’t really understand the revelation they were privy to and were just plain awkward when they encountered the enveloping presence of God (and to be fair, wouldn’t we all be a bit afraid and awkward in such a situation?), Jesus approaches the bickering crowd and begs, perhaps with an eye roll and a sign, “What are you arguing about?”

The worried dad of the sick child tells Jesus the whole desperate story. My kid is possessed. I brought him to your disciples. They couldn’t heal him.

Jesus scolds the crowd. “You faithless generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” But then Jesus goes on. “Bring the child to me.” Jesus doesn’t let his anger get the best of him. He doesn’t make the suffering of the child and the faithlessness of others become a moment for finger-wagging. Instead, it becomes a moment of grace.

Jesus examines the suffering child, and then asks the father how long this has been happening. “Since he was a child,” dad says, the long-suffering angst surely hanging in his voice. “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!”

Now, this is one of those scenes where stage directions would be great. Does Jesus respond to the father with a scolding tone? A generous tone? Was he incredulous, or matter of fact? I’ll leave that to you to imagine.

Jesus answers the desperate father. “‘If you can do anything‘? All things are possible for the one who believes.”

“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” dad responds. Tears, I’m sure, are streaming down his face.

And to the desperate father’s statement of faith and non-faith, of belief and unbelief, Jesus says nothing. No grumbling about “this generation” or “kids these days.” No push-back to the dad, “So, what is it? Do you believe, or don’t you? You can’t be on both sides, bucko.” No. In response to this amazingly honest statement of a faith that both is and is not, Jesus acts. Jesus casts out the evil spirit from the child, and the child is restored to health.

The disciples couldn’t heal. The father couldn’t bring himself to believe, fully. And all throughout this scene the know-it-alls were mocking them for their failures.

This is the setting of my faith, dear friends – somewhere between belief and unbelief, with fellow followers who struggle to make it all work according to the teachings of our Savior. I keep trying, hoping, expecting, yearning, believing even when I don’t believe, that grace will show up. Because that’s what the Bible and the ministry of the church has shown me – that grace shows up.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

Amen.

EVERYTHING WILL BE GIVEN!!!

Seen today:

  1. disses my beloved East Coast, but whatever.
  2. a Pew Research Center study showed that only about 17% of Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis; thus, most Colts fans aren’t rushing home from church to watch the game.
  3. if they were rushing home from church where the Gospel of grace was proclaimed, and the free gift of our Lord’s presence was shared, Colts fans would bristle at the false Gospel that EVERYTHING WILL BE EARNED. Instead, they’d clamor that EVERYTHING WILL BE GIVEN!!! Believing with all their heart that EVERYTHING WILL BE GIVEN, these fans would live in the EVERYTHING WILL BE EARNED world with a transforming dissatisfaction seeking to reshape the world according to the promises of God’s capacity to give rather than our capacity to earn.

It’s a t-shirt. But, it’s a little more than that, too.

Peace.

7+ Years In, Preaching Anew

More than 7 years into ordained ministry, and 19 years since I first entered seminary, I have renewed my practice of preaching – both delivering and preparing the sermon.

I had always preached with a manuscript

Most of these manuscripts were not paragraph’d pages looking as if they belonged in a book, but a more free-form movement of phrases written not for reading but for speaking. I took pride in my words, in the development of my argument, and in the construction of these manuscripts that helped me to speak, I thought, naturally.

My process for writing manuscript sermons usually involved a reading Scripture, perhaps a commentary or two, and reflection, all geared toward finding that thread, that hook, that angle for my sermon. I would then spend hours sitting at my computer and writing the manuscript, usually over two or three sittings. With my thread for that Scripture set, I would work in a more-or-less straight line fashion from start to finish. Most of my sermon-prep time was spent on that manuscript, on that thread that got the ball rolling, on one particular insight into the text.

Army chaplaincy changed my preaching

7+ years into my ordained ministry, and many more years into my experience as a preacher (I preached several times/year prior to ordination), I went to my final phase of training at the US Army Chaplain Center and School for my Basic Officer Leaders Course as a Chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard. In addition to preaching for classroom assignments, I was given the opportunity to preach for a Holy Thursday service during our class five-day capstone field experience.

2016-03-22 11.10.08While at the Chaplain school, where I heard from experienced chaplains and had the opportunity to preach in a variety of training settings, it became clear to me that preaching to a very small group of Soldiers huddled around a Humvee in the field required a different method. For one, my computer-based writing process was all but impossible in the field. But more, delivering a polished manuscript sermon for a small group of Soldiers in the field who are experiencing the fatigue of training – or deployment – seemed to miss the mark. A manuscript designed for pulpit preaching wouldn’t work for such a setting.

I heard fellow students – mostly from traditions fairly distinct from my Lutheran church – preach. I found myself jealous as many of them proclaimed effortlessly without notes. I learned that the context of military preaching may require impromptu “Word of the Day” messages, or unexpected words of comfort spoken at a moment’s notice to a group of battle buddies grieving a fallen Soldier. No manuscripts for these settings, either.

Given these experiences and insights I committed to leave the manuscript behind – in my military ministry setting, but also in my civilian ministry. I had considered this years ago, wondering if the altars and pulpits in our churches served, unwittingly perhaps, as barriers between people and pastor. Making this decision to set aside the manuscript resonated with my earlier concerns about the relationships between worship leaders and the congregation of worshipers.

To be sure, the first few times trying this manuscript-less preaching in my civilian ministry were rough. My baseline for sermon preparation was still the manuscript, and I was trying to replicate my manuscript-writing process for my manuscript-less sermon. What resulted were very detailed, almost manuscript-like, notes prepared on my computer. As I tried to pare back my manuscript, I found myself almost vomitously uneasy just prior to preaching.

Journaling as sermon preparation

2016-07-30 23.36.39But then I bought a notebook and a good mechanical pencil and began journaling the Sunday texts by hand. I first write the text in the notebook, leading me to give more attention to each word than I ever did by simply reading the text. After writing the Scripture in my notebook, I simply write. Disconnected phrases. Questions. Insights gained from reading commentaries or other Scripture. Parallels to my life, to my congregation’s life, to my community and country. Connections to music or film or television. Anything. There is no structure yet. There is no thread I’m trying to weave. Just reflections and thoughts and questions. I do this for several days.

By Friday or Saturday I pull together a rough outline, prepare some slides to accompany my preaching (using Canva), and write a “Good News Statement” that concisely defines the point I’m trying to make, the Good News I’m trying to proclaim. Some or even much of what I had journaled in the past few days ultimately gets set aside.

It is not until Sunday morning that I actually rehearse. I’ll run through the sermon 2-5 times on Sunday morning before worship, focusing especially on my opening, transitions, images, and conclusion. Very little new material makes its way into my sermon at this point, but sometimes that happens.

And then I preach. I preach perhaps with a few notes in front of me, but also perhaps with nothing in hand at all. I preach with that outline and projected slides guiding me, and days of journaling, reflecting, wrestling, praying supporting my proclamation. I have a comfort level with the entire passage that I never had in my earlier manuscript method, which too early in the process narrowed my message down to a single thread or angle that perhaps wasn’t ultimately fruitful. And, free from the precision of a manuscript, I am able to add last-minute insights or images, perhaps that were noted only as I greeted people on their way into worship 20 minutes before I begin preaching. Again, my comfort with the Scripture text and the outlined movement of my message allow me to make such adjustments on the fly.

I have received very positive feedback since making the switch. “Pastor, your sermons without notes are 20 times better than when you use notes,” one church member said to me recently. The feedback is consistent – I’m more natural, “myself.” In this way, I’m more effective as a preacher, which is the goal. 

For any who have made their way through this post, I hope that perhaps my experience can be helpful for you if you’re working on renewing your practice of preaching. Or, I hope that my example might help any clergy considering reserve component chaplaincy to see just one of the many ways in which the military ministry can positively impact your civilian ministry.

Why I Left the Revised Common Lectionary Behind

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.

1. The RCL presents Old Testament texts only in relation to the Gospel text. This is pretty bad.

“[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). Bafflingly, 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). “No linkage”? This is laughable. The editors of the Revised Common Lectionary seem here to forget that Scripture is read in worship surrounded by Christian hymns, prayers, preaching, and sacraments.

For about half of the year the RCL offers an alternate cycle of “semi-continuous” Old Testament readings. 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).

2. 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.

3. The RCL skips the Old Testament during the most important season of the church year.

The RCL replaces the Old Testament reading with passages from the Acts of the Apostles during Easter. Acts is fantastic. This is true. 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.

4. 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.

5. The unity achieved by the RCL is overstated. 

When I share that I set aside the Revised Common Lectionary, I am often asked about the unity that the RCL fosters.

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 linchpin 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 movement of the RCL’s daily lectionary.

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 Lectionarya 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.

Originally published in August 2015. Lighted edited December 2017

Decline of What?

The church is in decline.

Sure, I guess. But, what do you mean by that?

city-methodist-cathedral-2

Membership is down in many congregations. Average weekly attendance is down, too. They are down as compared to 1965. They are down as compared to 1985. They are down, in many places, as compared even to 2005. There has been a general decline in the church.

And it’s not just people. There’s not enough money. Ministries – campus ministries, urban ministries, youth ministries – are being closed down or cut back due to lack of funding. And the buildings. They are crumbling. Literally, crumbling

The church is in decline.

Sure, I guess. But, what do you mean by that?

[Confused that I asked the question again]

No, not what do you mean by decline. You already covered that. This time I’m asking about what you mean by church. What is this “church” that is in decline?

The church on the corner. It has beautiful stained glass windows, dark wood pews, and a fellowship hall. Two worship services. Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible School. A seniors group and, sometimes, a youth group. It’s a place where people come to learn and grow and be together and worship and serve. That’s the church that’s in decline. 

OK. Glad we got that cleared up. The institution that we’ve come to know and love, the institution that we have called “church” all these years, is in decline. Yes. But, I’m unwilling to say that “the church” is in decline. You see, it all depends on what you mean by “church.”

church n  a big building on a corner lot with one (or more) full-time pastor(s) and other staff members, where people of a common faith gather for weekly worship and Bible study, a variety of fellowship, program, and service ministries, youth programs, education, etc.

church n the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.

Increasingly we are unable to sustain the first definition of church. That first definition represents a model of being church that was born in an era that has come and gone, an era in which church was seen as a prestigious community institution to stand alongside government and civic institutions. It is a way to do church that thrived on historically high rates of church participation, a culture that embraced (certain forms of) religion, and a post-war economic boom. It is a way to do church that was funded by an unusually high volume of offerings given faithfully by the unusually high numbers of people who attended church. Lots of good and faithful ministry happened in this model of being the church, but it is a model that does not thrive in today’s cultural and economic climate as much as it did in the past.

Today, church participation rates are leveling out in relation to historical trends. Today, the church does not have as vaunted a privileged place in society as it once did. Today, household discretionary income is at historic lows, debt levels are skyrocketing, and good paying jobs for young and middle aged people are harder to find. Today’s culture and economy simply do not support the model of church that thrived in the mid 20th century.

Too often when we speak of “church decline” we speak of the inability to maintain the buildings and staffing and programming of the 20th century church. We speak of an inability to pay the bills. Fair enough. But buildings and staffing and programming (and money to fund these) are not the church. A lack of funds represents a decline in how we do church, but not in church itself.

People, gathering at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave to give God their praise and receive God’s many blessings – that is church. Or, to prayer groupuse traditionally Lutheran lingo, the church is “the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly” (the second definition, above, from the Augsburg Confession VII). Or, to quote Professors Wengert and Lathrop, “Church is not a noun; it is a verb, an event, or, to use the language of the sixties, a happening” (Christian Assembly: Marks of the Church in a Pluralistic Age, pg 27). Church is that encounter with God’s Word that puts sin to death and gives rise to a new creation. Such an understanding of church doesn’t require dedicated buildings, staff, or programs.

In some places the received model of church – building, program ministries, staff – is working well. Thanks be to God! Let us pray for the church to thrive in such a way! Yet in a growing number of communities this model of being the church is struggling.

Many of our attempts to renew the church today are aimed at renewing the 20th century model of church, at renewing the received model 0f church supported by a building, pastor, and programs. I hope and pray that such renewal efforts bear fruit, and indeed it seems that some such efforts are bearing fruit. Praise be to God!

Nonetheless, I think we need the creative and faithful imagination to conceive of, and the courage to be, church in drastically new ways, as well. Alongside familiar and renewed models of church, let us also live into new ways of being the church. Such new ways might look like extremely old ways (see Acts and the early church), ways that may have fewer of the trappings of the (beloved) institutional church. Such new/old ways of being church might have a different kind of intimacy, meeting in living rooms and coffee shops rather than in grand sanctuaries. Such new/old ways of being church may have less reliance on professional clergy and more reliance on the shared wisdom and faith of the community. Such new/old ways of being church might find an essential connectivity in social media, just as Saint Paul used social media (letters that were passed around among early Christians) to connect with and encourage the earliest Gentile churches.

Particularly in those areas where the received model of being the church is not thriving, but also alongside established congregations, such new/old ways of being church can renew our experience of a Christian community that gathers at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave. Such new/old ways of being church can faithfully gather God’s people around Word and Sacrament and be that community of sinners redeemed and saints sent into the world to love and serve.

The church church is not in decline as much as the way we do church is in decline. Let us nurture established congregations into ever more faithfulness and vitality, and let us also give birth to new/old communities that live into the promises of God in new ways for this new day.