An incomplete lectionary?

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An incomplete lectionary?

Why does the ELCA lectionary include just pieces of certain books, instead of the entire Bible? -- Steve and Linnea, ELCA members from North Carolina

Ron: Once I was told that there are three ways to answer most questions: (1) yes; (2) no; and (3) I don't know, but I'll find out for you. So, this may not totally satisfy your question, but I went to do a little bit of research on the Revised Common Lectionary. As you may know, the ELCA follows the Revised Common Lectionary. There is basic information about this at this ELCA website.

I did a little more digging at this second website, and it stated that the arrangement of the lessons fits a format of:

• A lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures (or Acts during the Season of Easter)
• A Psalm
• A lesson from the Epistles or Acts
• A lesson from the Gospels

According to the website, during Ordinary Time, there are two sets of Hebrew Bible readings. One set progresses semi-continuously through the Patriarchal/Exodus narratives (Year A), the Monarchial narratives (Year B), and the Prophets (Year C). Likewise, during Ordinary Time, there are two Psalm readings, one that corresponds to the semi-continuous Hebrew Bible lection and one that corresponds to the theme of the Gospel lection. The Hebrew Bible lections during the rest of the year are thematically related to the Gospel lections, which are in turn connected to the seasons of the Church Year.

So, we might be getting closer to an answer to the question of why there are "just pieces of certain books" used in the lectionary. Given the fact that there are 1,189 chapters in the Bible consisting of 31,103 verses, there probably just aren't enough Sundays in a year to cover all the books. And while the Daily Lectionary (which you can find here) doesn't cover all the books either, that might assist you in your quest for scriptural fluency.

I have led discussion groups in our congregation with the resource from Augsburg Fortress, "The Greatest Story," which in 16 sessions does a nice high-level overview of the Bible. For something a little more intense and rigorous, "The Bible in 90 Days" might be of interest to you. 

Anne: While many ELCA congregations use the Revised Common Lectionary, some are using the Narrative Lectionary (a relatively new resource out of Luther Seminary) and still others do not use a set lectionary at all but rather readings chosen by the pastor or other congregational leaders. I'm not aware of any churches, Lutheran or otherwise, that work their way through the entire Bible during worship.

There are plenty of reasons not to use the entire Bible in worship. The Bible isn't a single book; it's more like a library or a collection of many books. The Bible is not in chronological order and many books overlap in content. Some of the content would be tedious to read out loud, like the census data recorded in the book of Numbers. Other texts would be difficult to divide into lessons short enough to use in worship while still giving a sense of their larger context.

So, how do we use Scripture meaningfully in the context of worship? The goal of the Revised Common Lectionary is to tell the story of our Christian faith in a way that corresponds with the seasonal church calendar (stories about Christ being revealed during the Sundays after Epiphany, readings of preparation and expectation during Advent, etc.). In this way, even without hearing passages from every book in the Bible, we get a sense of the larger scope and narrative of our faith. Hopefully, these excerpts from the Bible get us interested enough to delve into Scripture more deeply and fully through study outside of worship, both at church and at home. Also, the readings for the day are far from the only Scripture we receive on any Sunday: hymns, liturgy, art and stained glass windows -- these all surround us in the fullness of God's word.

I love the Revised Common Lectionary in part because I love knowing that, on any given Sunday, we are hearing and praying and examining the same words of Scripture with millions of Christians around the world. That said, if you're only reading the parts of the Bible we read in worship, you're not getting the full picture, whether your congregation follows a lectionary or not. Reading and studying the Bible takes time and effort -- it can't just be a Sunday morning thing! 

Steve and Linnea, along with at least a dozen other denominations in the United States, the ELCA uses the Revised Common Lectionary -- a three-year cycle of readings. The history of the Revised Common Lectionary goes back to the very similar lectionaries that were in use in many denominations in the late 1960s.

Like all of the preceding lectionaries, the Revised Common Lectionary does not include all of Scripture. Over the course of three years, much of the Bible is read in worship but there are still some gaps. The goal is to expose people to the most essential elements of Scripture, recognizing that there are limits to what you can accomplish in (on average) a one-hour worship service every week. There is an assumption, I suppose, that people who would benefit from a study of (for example) the genealogies of Genesis 5 are engaged in personal and corporate Bible study.

There are many daily lectionaries that provide appointed readings for personal devotion every day and cover more of the Bible (there is one in "Evangelical Lutheran Worship" on page 1121). Many congregations will also occasionally do a program like "The Bible in 90 Days" or "Read through the Bible," or leave the lectionary for a period of time to go more in-depth on a text. Check with your local congregation and see if there is a Bible study you can take part in. 

Monica: Dear Steve and Linnea, I am so happy you know of the lectionary! Many ELCA congregations use the Revised Common Lectionary published in 1992, which follows a common list of Scripture readings for worship. Gail Ramshaw authored, "A Three-Year Banquet: The Lectionary for the Assembly," published by Augsburg Fortress. This is a wonderful resource all about the lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is not unique to the ELCA. Developed over time through ecumenical commission, the Revised Common Lectionary is used by several denominations.

Regarding the Bible, Gail notes, "A lectionary assists us in encountering the breadth of scriptures."(p. 11) The purpose of the lectionary is to proclaim Christ's life, death and resurrection. Typically lectionary readings include: Old Testament, Gospel, and an Epistle (Paul's letters). The lectionary is a three-year cycle that reflects an extensive selection of Scripture readings built on the liturgical year. As Gail describes, "The selected biblical readings proclaim the meanings of the festivals and the seasons of the Christian year." (p. 24) The creation of the Revised Common Lectionary focuses on what happens in Sunday worship in which the Risen Christ is experienced. One reason the lectionary includes selected passages instead of the whole Bible is because not every passage of Scripture is equal in enlightening the proclamation of Christ. Lastly, with only 52 weeks in a year, it would be very difficult to read the entire Bible during Sunday worship while still celebrating liturgical seasons.

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