Don’t look at that

Learning from the Lectionary’s Missing Texts

Over the nearly sixteen years when I was preaching two new sermons every week, I dipped into the Revised Common Lectionary only sporadically. Typically I’d turn to Lectionary texts for Advent or maybe for Lent, especially if I had no fresh ideas for a sermon series. However, since coming to Calvin Seminary seven years ago, I use the Lectionary every week as the basis of the sermon-starter articles some colleagues and I have been posting on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website every Monday morning.

If you use the Lectionary regularly, you know that it is not averse to skipping chunks of certain passages. But telling a preacher to ignore an eight-verse segment in the middle of a Bible chapter is a little like telling your children, “You are forbidden to look at pages 123-144 of this book.” The minute you’re out of the room, the kids are going to pounce on that volume and go straight to page 123!

Sometimes the Lectionary skips passages that are a bit arcane or that contain dry lists of names or places. But other times the deleted segments contain violence, puzzling sayings, or other textual wrinkles that someone may have thought the already-busy preacher could do without. But, in my experience, the material in the carved-out stretch of text often holds the key to the larger biblical drama in the passage. Since there is no better way to illustrate this than by pointing to specific examples, let’s ponder a few.

During the Season after Pentecost in Year B, the Lectionary spends some time in the narratives of David’s life, including a lection from 2 Samuel 6 and the story about the return of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The prescribed reading takes in the first five verses plus seven-and-a-half verses from a bit later in the chapter. The Lectionary skips verses 6-12a, and the reading stops at verse 19—four verses short of the story’s conclusion.

So what does the Lectionary omit? Two rather difficult narrative nuggets: first, a well-meaning man named Uzzah reaches out his hand to keep the ark from toppling off its oxcart, only to be struck dead by God; second, David’s wife, Michal, expresses disapproval of David’s cavorting in front of the ark, and the text implies that this led to her inability to bear children.

Admittedly, these are messy details. Even David is so perplexed over the death of Uzzah that the text tells us he became afraid of the ark, mothballing it in a neutral location for a while. None of us is thrilled by stories that make God look capricious. These are scandals in the biblical text—exegetical trip hazards if ever there were any. But if we want to avert our eyes from all Old Testament stories that show a holy God dealing (however harshly) with an unholy world, there are a startling number of texts we will have to ignore.

If we want to avert our eyes from all Old Testament stories that show a holy God dealing with an unholy world, there are a startling number of texts we will have to ignore.

We may not like the parts of 2 Samuel 6 that the Lectionary skips, but they contain the story’s gravitas—its morally serious core. This whole business of God’s long project of salvation traffics in matters whose stakes cannot be higher. Startling and disturbing things will happen along the way, and it’s not up to us to ignore them. But are any of these things less scandalous, less difficult to absorb or deal with, than the event on Skull Hill that constitutes the very center of the gospel? If Jesus’ crucifixion does not strike you as being more terrible than even the fiercest Old Testament example of violence and wrath, then that central gospel event has been sanitized.

Another example comes from parallel synoptic texts in Matthew 11 and Luke 11: both the Year A and Year C Lectionaries skip the verses in each passage where Jesus calls down woe on Chorazin and Bethsaida and any other town that rejected Jesus or his followers. In both cases—were you to read only the prescribed verses—Jesus carries on in perfectly pleasant ways, saying nice things about wisdom and the kingdom and so on, as though his lapsing into the imprecatory mode can be chalked up to spiritual indigestion.

Again, hearing Jesus call down judgment—and some fairly fierce judgment at that—is not pleasant. But maybe the evangelists knew that the real Jesus was not necessarily “tidy” and did not conform to our conventions of what constitutes good liturgical decorum. As with the upsetting sections of certain Old Testament stories, perhaps the sayings of Jesus that do not lend themselves to cross-stitch wall hangings are the very sayings we need to remind us that God’s salvaging of a radically broken world is serious business, weighty business, the most fraught business in the history of the universe.

True, not all of the instances of the Lectionary skipping around a bit are akin to these two examples, and the vast majority of assigned lections for any given Sunday contain no textual breaks at all. The Lectionary remains a mighty fine preaching tool to keep preachers moving around Scripture. Still, when a Lectionary (or a worship committee or a pastoral peer group or anyone else) suggests that we avert our gaze from certain segments of Scripture, like curious children we should perhaps find ourselves drawn to those sections to see if, just possibly, they contain a vital key to understanding God’s Word.

Some passages make preaching harder. That’s true. Some passages upset people and make them ask questions that are tough to answer. Also true. But those same passages may open people up to a larger world of mystery and holy awe. Such verses may remind us that God’s grand Story may not always be an easy story nor a simple story, but it’s the one true Story inside of which all of humankind’s messiness, brokenness, violence, and deep longing somehow find a place. In difficult passages, our pain is addressed by the one narrative that promises a coming world where all manner of things will be truly well.

And that’s a story we preachers should make very sure our listeners hear well.

This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/.

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.