The Genesis and Purpose of Year D
by Timothy Matthew Slemmons
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from LF Winter 2013
The recent publication of the twentieth anniversary edition of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) marks a milestone in ecumenical cooperation on matters liturgical, from which its numerous contributors may rightly derive both hope and satisfaction. Viewed by many of its earliest proponents as an advance from topical to biblical preaching, a check against subjective text selection, and a focus of interdenominational study and cooperation, the RCL has taken deep root in the worship of many communions, inspiring conversation, shaping curricular offerings, guiding hymnal design and choral selections, and permeating many other expressions of life together. For a good many church leaders and laity, the RCL (with a vast array of tools that support and encourage its use) is simply a delightful and enriching tool for exploring Scripture, inspiring mission, and marking time, so to speak, in the life of faith.
Such a prolific level of institutionalization or “normalization,” however, begs certain cautions, especially when such usage becomes measurable in decades. The aim of this essay is to enumerate the primary concerns that underlie, give rise to, and in some cases form the main focal points of Year D, my proposed expansion of the lectionary, with an alternative or supplementary series of readings.
The first and most obvious concern is simply that the RCL, despite the designers’ best efforts to give equal representation to all parts of Scripture, is undeniably a “canon within the canon” in the classic sense, the very thing that seminary students are repeatedly warned not to rely on. As David Ackerman has noted, the RCL in its present state only covers about a quarter of the canon, leaving three-quarters untouched. Although apologists often leap to the defense of the lectionary by pointing to “unpreachable” genres like the genealogy, census, architectural blueprint, or texts of terror, these in no way account for all the excluded material. Furthermore, the assumption that even such difficult texts have nothing to offer seems premature in light of the pervasive admonition running through both familiar RCL texts and those that lie outside its bounds: namely, the insistence that the reader attend to the totality of revelation. While the particular revelation in question may be any one of a number of writings, genres, commandments, or sayings, nevertheless, what stands out is the pervasive use of such inclusive terms as every, everything, all, and so on. Such simple, inconspicuous words are easy to overlook, but they figure in the Great Commission, II Timothy 3:16, Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit in John 14:26 and his chiding of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to name but a few examples. This insistent pattern I call “the principle of canonical comprehensiveness,” despite the risk of introducing some confusion over what is meant by the term canon. While the prevalent use of such all-encompassing terms is certainly characteristic of ancient (and modern) Near Eastern rhetoric, at some point one gains the distinct impression that selectivity itself—lectio selecta—at least introduces a major problem, and may in fact constitute a primary cause for the loss of vitality in mainline churches today.
Another angle is the question of canonicity as it relates to the function of Scripture in the church. As Christopher Morse has reminded us, according to the Reformers the canonical authority of the Scriptures hinges not on their artifactual status but on their dynamic role in the preaching, teaching, and worship of the church. The church deems canonical “only that scripture within [the Bible] through which God continues to speak currently in commissioning the church to hear and follow God’s Word.” In short, if a text ceases to function in the church, there is a strong sense in which its canonicity is thrown into question. While for some that loss of function may serve as a welcome basis on which to retire certain texts, in reading the Scriptures excluded by the RCL one must continually ask: what is at stake if this text remains silent and is no longer used? In many cases, the prospect is quite alarming.
Not all such texts that urge comprehensiveness strike a note of warning. Some constitute a distinct promise. For instance, when it comes to the Bible’s apocalyptic literature, the promise of blessing at the opening of Revelation (1:3) stands in marked contrast to its final warning against reducing or enlarging the prophecy (22:18–19). This would suggest that, while the awakening function of such literature is aptly described in Ernst Kasemann’s adage that “apocalyptic is the mother of theology,” the contrary may also be inferred, namely, that where apocalyptic is neglected, we are likely to see a drop in the regeneration of the church; not an awakening to theological concern but a lulling into somnolence in which the sleeping giant gets a haircut.
Theologically, my primary motivation for proposing an expansion of the lectionary arises from the matter of divine agency in the reading and preaching of the word as well as the working of the Spirit in the liturgical language of the church. Although we should guard against the idea that simply reading the Scriptures aloud constitutes the dynamic and authoritative word of God and should strongly affirm the necessity of interpretation and preaching, it must be admitted that what Walter Brueggemann calls giving the Scriptures fresh “utterance” bears with it a high degree of irreducibility. As Luther explained his preaching of the Reformation upon his return from the Wartburg: “I let the Word do its work.”
Terence Fretheim was certainly correct when he asserted that, “while texts may mean many things, they cannot mean anything.” The present proposal proceeds, however, from the conviction that the church should guard against retiring any text too quickly, for one never knows what new and blessed thing the unmanageable Holy Spirit may wish to reveal through it. Thus, I have attempted, perhaps not always successfully, to place more emphasis on the potential revelation borne by Year D texts and less on my particular interpretations thereof. In short, Year D is intended, as far as possible, as an objective proposal for the ongoing use of these texts, one that leaves to the preacher the interpretation and preaching of the same.
When it comes to practical aspects of lectionary expansion, expressions of the need for it abound. First, many pastors in my experience have voiced concern, and sometimes even suspicion, regarding the RCL’s expurgations. Year D intends to mitigate and alleviate such suspicions and concerns.
Second, one finds it difficult to escape the attendant, if subtle, implication that such omissions seek to “protect” the church from particularly difficult texts, or perhaps from the preacher’s incompetence in mishandling or misusing them. If Year D texts in general need to be handled with particular care, the prospect of expansion affords the opportunity to leverage one of the RCL’s major strengths, namely ecumenical cooperation in applying the church’s best scholarship to interpreting the Bible’s most difficult texts.
Third, there is an inherent contradiction in the RCL’s benign intention to promote inclusiveness and diversity of persons by way of excluding certain Scriptures or reducing the diversity of the lections. Year D proceeds from the assumption that a greater diversity of text selection is more, rather than less, welcoming of diverse persons, since it affirms the voices of those whose theology is informed by such texts. In this respect, Year D does, in a sense, call the bluff on lectio selecta where it supposedly serves the aim of ecumenical unity and inclusiveness.
Fourth, commonplace insights that promote dietary health in the human body invite application to certain ecclesial, somatic, christological, and epistemological nutrition metaphors. Year D affords an opportunity for a more balanced “diet,” one rich in missing nutrients, here supplied by way of scriptural “supplements.”
Fifth, the church at large is palpably stuck in a pattern of increasing polarization; thus, it needs something to sever the proverbial Gordian knot. Year D applies a classic “outside the box” (the box in this case being the RCL) solution in order to transcend this double-bind and—wagering on the historically proven principle that the church undergoes reform when it returns to its foundational sources—to invite the church to rediscover texts that have gone largely unused, where the RCL and its ancestor the Common Lectionary have predominated, for some thirty years.
Sixth, on a related note, where the much-lamented problem of biblical illiteracy is concerned, Year D, at the simplest cognitive level, represents an educational opportunity to acquaint Christians across the spectrum with texts that they have either forgotten or perhaps neither heard nor read. By way of a more literary or cinematic analogy, this proposal for lectionary expansion proceeds from the assumption that the expurgated version of any classic work serves but an introductory function that will satisfy only those with a casual interest, while those with a consuming desire for full immersion in the story are not content with a “theatrical release” but hold out for the so-called “director’s cut” or “extended version.”
Seventh, where many detect, or at least suspect, a certain political bias in the RCL that places greater emphasis on the social ethics of the community than on personal holiness, Year D affords an opportunity to restore a healthy balance in this dialectic.
A final practical consideration should be mentioned that may not be obvious to those with episcopal polities. The constitutional standard of my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), more specifically the Book of Order, charges the preacher (formerly “Minister of Word and Sacrament,” now “teaching elder”) with the responsibility for text selection to provide for the use of the full range of the psalms in worship and for ensuring that the people hear the full message of Scripture. Lectionaries, says the same Book of Order, promote exposure to a “broad range” of Scripture. But after years of using them, pastors eventually realize that lectionaries only get them so far toward fulfilling these responsibilities. Thus, in light of the normative role Scripture plays in regulating worship, nurturing faith, forming theology, and guiding the life and mission of the church, what I have attempted to do with Year D is to begin to fill the void at the very point where the RCL leaves off and thus ensure that we do not replace the norm of Scripture with a diminished reading thereof, “a canon with the canon.”
In the absence of tools that facilitate a systematic and orderly approach to excluded texts, I have sought to provide for a fully functioning Psalter by drawing in dozens of excluded psalms (many of them laments) and to allow their use to convert complaint into praise. I have also provided for a season preaching through the apocalyptic discourse and the passion narratives leading up to Christ the King Sunday. The purpose here has been to place what Martin Kahler considered the essential gospel (that is, the passion narratives) in the foreground, while allowing their “extended introductions” to recede for a time; to give a theology of the cross the opportunity to exert a formative influence on both preacher and listener; and to allow this crucial material to do its work outside the usual Holy Week context.
While these and other features of Year D may depart from the texts that we are accustomed to reading on the high holy days, the liturgical seasons have by no means been ignored. On the contrary, resurrection is clearly the theme of the gospel selections for the Sundays of Easter. Without any additional resurrection narratives to choose from, Year D employs overlooked Johannine texts and some unused gospel parallels in which Jesus prophesies and teaches concerning the resurrection. The selections for Christmas have proven most difficult, and though good pastoral judgment will almost certainly reserve an honored place for the nativity stories, the lections suggested in Year D do have a haunting ring to them when read at Christmas, speaking to why rather than how Jesus came and highlighting the world’s eventual rejection of God’s Son at the very season when a warm “welcome” seems all too readily presumed. If such suggestions sound jarring, we may do well to consider how narrow an understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus will be formed by the person who attends only at Christmas and Easter. If Luke 2 and John 20 are the only texts such visitors hear over many years—Jesus “born” and “raised”—what impressions will they form from a lectionary use that always plays to their expectations?
Such a question may be posed even more broadly of the most faithful, of weekly listeners as well as of whole congregations and denominations, which, despite their relative spiritual maturity and development, can nevertheless reach a pattern of stasis and stagnation. When but a quarter of the available revelation is covered every three years, and then repeatedly re-covered for some ten triennial cycles or so, with no marked interruption in the pattern of decline in the churches that use the RCL, the need for divine intervention has become plain enough. But as heirs of the sixteenth-century Reformations, we know better than to expect further reformation and revitalization to come like a bolt from the blue. We know, rather, that the requisite instruction and inspiration will only come from the word we have already received as we read it under the illumination of the Spirit of God.
Ultimately, both the genesis and purpose of Year D arise from and wager on the calculated hunch that we should therefore devote “greater attention” (Hebrews 2:1–3) to the texts that have been largely silent on Sundays for several decades now—and where the passion narratives are concerned, for far longer than that! As Bonhoeffer said, “In times of church renewal holy scripture naturally becomes richer in content for us.” Hopefully, whether pastors, congregations, denominations, and/or ecumenical bodies consider the idea of lectionary expansion in principle or putting Year D to use its present form, what is offered in this supplement is an indication, an invitation, and a reminder of the vast unexplored richness of “the book that breathes new life,” if we but search it thoroughly and voice its forgotten texts anew in the power of faith, hope, and love.
Timothy Matthew Slemmons is Professor of Homiletics and Worship at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. For more on Year D, visit <theyeardproject.blogspot.com>.
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1. Consultation on Common Texts, The Revised Common Lectionary: Twentieth Anniversary Annotated Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2012), hereafter RCL 20.
2. See Timothy Matthew Slemmons, Year D: A Quadrennial Supplement to the Revised Common Lectionary (Eugene: Cascade, 2012). For the record, nothing intentionally subversive was intended in the timing of its appearance some four months before the issuance of RCL 20.
3. David Ackerman, Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary (Alresford: Circle, 2013), 2.
4. For a somewhat gratuitous, if not quite exhaustive, list of such texts, see Year D, 45–63.
5. Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Unbelief (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), 94.
6. I am indebted to Dean James Kay of Princeton Theological Seminary for this insight and source.
7. Two such “life or death” texts, the Matthean and Lukan versions of Jesus’ saying regarding the necessity of entering the kingdom through the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13–14, Luke 13:22–30), are the focus of the sermons in my book Groans of the Spirit: Homiletical Dialectics in an Age of Confusion (Eugene: Pickwick, 2010), 112–22.
8. By contrast, one is heartened by David Schnasa Jacobsen’s labors on the Bible’s apocalyptic literature in Preaching in the New Creation: The Promise of New Testament Apocalyptic Texts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999).
9. Such an attempt to draw the language, metaphors, images, and logic of Year D texts into the vernacular of the church at worship may be seen in the companion volume: Slemmons, Greater Attention: Liturgical Elements for Reformed Worship, Year D (Eugene: Cascade, 2013).
10. Fred W. Meuser, Luther the Preacher (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1983), 66.
11. Terence Fretheim, “The Authority of the Bible and Churchly Debates Regarding Sexuality,” in Word & World 26/4 (2006): 365–74.
12. Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985), 115–21.
13. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, eds. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 37.
14. Walter Brueggemann, The Book That Breathes New Life: Scriptural Authority and Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011).