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Bible stories all in a row

Narrative lectionary offers new angle to view Sunday readings

Where do Lutheran clergy get the ideas for the sermons they preach? While church members who don’t pay close attention might think their pastors just pull themes and topics out of the air — or are left on their own to figure out next Sunday’s emphasis — there is a much simpler answer. Lutheran pastors base their sermons on Scripture.

The Bible texts on which Lutheran sermons are based are codified in a three-year “lectionary” (text-reading list). Theoretically, on any given Sunday, pastors all over the country could be preaching on the same Gospel reading (from Matthew one year, Mark the second, and Luke the third). The scheme is pretty simple: During Advent adherents hear “preparation” readings; from Christmas to Pentecost stories of Jesus’ birth, early years, and baptism, as well as the road to crucifixion, resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

That covers half the church year (December through May). The other six months take readers through Jesus’ earthly ministry, with stories about teaching, preaching, miracles, and interactions with people in Palestine.

The Rev. Kris Tostengard Michel, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, appreciates the narrative lectionary. Photo provided by Bethlehem Lutheran Church

The Narrative Lectionary presents what some scholars like to call “holy history” in logical sequence.

If you are a linear person — someone who likes his or her stories presented in logical order, from beginning to end — you will be frustrated with this pattern. The current lectionary doesn’t give us the Bible stories “all in a row,” not even in the life of Jesus. And forget about getting Old Testament stories in a logical sequence. They come at us in completely random fashion, chosen in order to connect somehow to the day’s Gospel reading.

A clergyman in the ELCA’s Northeastern Minnesota Synod became convinced a few years ago there might be a more logical way to pattern preaching. The Rev. Daniel Smith was on the pastoral staff at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA), Hibbing, Minnesota (but has since relocated to Colorado Springs, Colorado). He heard a presentation by Luther Seminary professor Rolf Jacobson, suggesting a preaching scheme that would take one from the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah through the New Testament Book of Acts.

Says Smith, “I really liked the idea he presented, but I thought I could use some help developing the lectionary.” At Smith’s suggestion, Jacobson and his Luther Seminary colleague Craig Koester crafted the Narrative Lectionary.

What they crafted follows the public school year and takes a break during the three summer months, when Minnesotans like to go to the lake.

Positive change for congregational use

The Narrative Lectionary presents the pastor and the congregation with a chronological story development (narrative), beginning early in the Old Testament and ending up in the New Testament. The idea is to present what some scholars like to call “holy history” in logical sequence.

Congregations using the Narrative Lectionary also use these “revised” texts for Scripture readings at worship, although the psalms from the three-year lectionary are retained. The designers of the newer approach made sure that the story of Jesus’ birth would occur at Christmas time and Jesus’ resurrection on Easter.

Smith says he doesn’t know how many congregations signed up to adopt the series, which is now in its third year of usage. But, he says, the Narrative Lectionary has a Facebook group of nearly 450 members. “So, that might be a clue,” he suggests.

So, how did the new preaching scheme work out for Smith and his flock? “I found the [narrative] lectionary really helped our congregation connect with the Bible more, and helped my preaching.” He says all the pastors in his text study group decided to adopt it, so it made it easy to do text studies and sermon preparation as a result.

One Twin Cities congregation that adopted the Narrative Lectionary is Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA), in south Minneapolis. They started with a limited usage, during only the first few months of 2011. One of Bethlehem’s pastors, the Rev. Kris Tostengard Michel, told Metro Lutheran, “We have now completed our second year of experimenting with the Narrative Lectionary [the congregation has used it primarily between Christmas and Easter], and we’re looking forward to a third.”

Tostengard Michel sees value in the sequential nature of the texts, in part perhaps because of her expertise as a parish educator. “As a former children’s ministry director, it made a lot of sense to me because it followed a traditional Sunday school scope and sequence.”

Some at Bethlehem were not so sure departing from the “traditional” lectionary was a good idea, but Tostengard Michel explained to them that it was a good way to enhance “biblical fluency” (something Luther Seminary has been stressing). “Some of our members valued reading from multiple parts of the Bible each week. [The Narrative Lectionary doesn’t do this.] They liked the idea that we were focusing on the same texts as were other Christians worshiping in other places.”

Once into the new pattern, most of them seem to have become supporters. “Now I understand what you were after,” Tostengard Michel heard some say.

With a broad appeal

Minnesota Lutherans aren’t the only ones buying into the new approach. Pastor Smith says he hasn’t been at Ascension Lutheran in Colorado Springs long enough to make a case for using the Narrative Lectionary there, but suggests it might happen in another year or two.

In Columbus, Ohio, Redeemer Lutheran (ELCA) has begun to use the Narrative Lectionary. The Rev. Al Debalak told Metro Lutheran, “Some of my clergy colleagues don’t understand why I would do this. But I think it makes a lot of sense.”

The usage has also spilled over into other denominations. First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, Illinois, began using the Narrative Lectionary this past September. While there is no definitive list of participating congregations, there are undoubtedly countless parishes, in and beyond the Lutheran Church, trying this new approach.

There is something appealing about creating and maintaining a common Scripture reading pattern in churches across the country and around the world. But perhaps there is a place, also, for an alternative that helps worshippers put the Bible stories — the “narrative accounts” — all in a row. It might just enhance biblical fluency, and help Christians avoid confusing Joseph (who went down into Egypt) with Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth; or Saul the King, not to be confused with Saul who became Paul the Apostle, who wrote all those letters.

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