Friday, November 23, 2012

Lessons and Lection

Over time I have come to sigh when the Scripture readings for the Mass or offices are announced with the words "The first lesson is from..."  In our culture, the word "lesson" is clearly taken from the realm of education and the classroom.  We have come to expect from the readings of Scripture short, concise, and clear lessons -- perhaps even life lessons -- instead of expecting to hear the living voice of the Living Word of God.  The idea of a lesson has to taken us that often Pastors tailor and trim the appointed lection or even replace it with another to make it speak more clearly and concisely to the point being made in the sermon (which itself is often seen more in academic model of a lesson rather than as homily or sermon).

It is high time we challenged the presumption that the readings from Scripture are primarily or even secondarily lessons and insist up hearing them as they themselves intend -- the life-giving Word of God that breaths with the Spirit and speaking the living voice of God in our midst.  While there might have been a danger in some previous century that the worship space could be mistaken for a lecture hall, today that reason propositional argument has been displaced by another kind of lesson.  The life lesson has replaced the sermon and the Word of God we long to hear and we seem to hear more typically in a Protestant setting is a how-to or help for inspirational address designed to assist us in repairing and improving our selves, families, homes, jobs, etc.  Where the clear outline of the past was once in vogue, now we have a more rambling style of story and moral or lesson, story and moral or lesson, story and moral or lesson.  The illustrations are often more visual than logical and accompanied by appropriate (and inappropriate) visual and musical cues.  But the problem remains the same.  Scripture is harvested for purpose instead of read to be heard.

I have often said that we listen differently when we hear only with our ears and do not have a printed text with which to follow along.  I would also suggest that the primary problem in the "lessons" read on Sunday morning is less who reads them than how they are read and how they are heard.  We may not be able to control how they are heard by the hearer but we can do everything in our power to make sure that the reading of Scripture lets the Scripture speak clearly and boldly.

It is never a good practice to omit verses or shrink down the lection either for clarity or for brevity.  For example. the Palm Sunday reading of the Passion (hence Passion Sunday) is often abridged to cover only the highlights.  This is an understandable but flawed practice.  For one thing, the days of packed Lenten and Holy Week services means that fewer people than ever before hear the whole Passion.  It may not fit with the former ideas of Palm Sunday triumph, but the Passion needs to be heard.  Interspersing the long sections with a hymn stanza or two or alternating voices (especially where you have two Pastors in a parish) is fine but dramatic readings in which voices take up a part turns the Scripture into a play with actors.  If that is what you want, head to Oberammergau.  The Palm Sunday Divine Service is not that.

There are some sections which are designed to be left out when pastoral discretion requires.  You find these marked with red brackets in the lectionary book or noted on the calendar.  In these cases the pericopal directions have provided cues to the Pastor when such omissions may be appropriate but that does not mean that the shorter readings should automatically be chosen.

Alternate readings are also available but most involve substituting one set of three "lessons" for another set and not a pick and choose idea (one from column A, one from column B, and one from column C).  When there are these extensive alternates, it is generally because of historic choices made (even when that history may only be as old as the three year lectionary).

Scripture is not support for your preaching direction.  Preaching follows the Scripture.  Let Scripture speak.  Get out of the way of the text either by overly dramatic readings or by wooden reading that amplifies the speaker as much as the dramatic style.  Rehearse so that what is heard is the Word.  The power is not in the orator or the oration but in the Word.  It is not a text meant to be taught or a truth to be caught.  It is nothing less than the living voice of God and the means of grace through which He delivers that which is spoken to us.  As Revelation reminds us, dare not to tame or put reins upon the Scripture.  It is a wild word.  We let it speak.  Period.


Jeremy Loesch said...

Nice post Pastor Peters. I've often chafed at the title "Lessons" myself. I prefer the designation "Readings" and have explained to the folks that the Word is to be spoken and heard and that we are to let the Word do its job. With the word "lesson" there is an element of teaching (as you wrote) and I think there is an implication that we, whether that is the pastor, the lector, or the "pupil", are in the position of teacher. And teachers sometimes dictate what the lesson is going to be.

To sum up, with "lessons" we sit in judgment on the Word, which is contrary to hermeneutical principals I was taught. The Word sits in judgment on me!

Thanks for a nice post.


Anonymous said...


Spot on!

The "lesson" as it were, is in the sermon, where it liturgically and Scripturally belongs. The readings are to be done for the ear to "akouw." I encourage my members to put down the bulletin inserts and instead - hear the readings as read. I do not do any sort of interpretive reading, I simply read the texts, not looking up, but with a reverence for what they truly are - God's Word to us - to which I must also listen even when reading.

Good posting. jb