One of my favorite stories is about Stony Whitaker of Belt Buckle, Tennessee. He went to St. Louis as a young man to get a job in a shoe factory about fifty years ago.
When asked what he could do he said he could plow the straightest furrow in Belt Buckle, and with that the personnel manager said they they could use his talents as a shoe salesman in East Tennessee. It seems all the salesman sent there had quit after a few weeks saying that no one wore shoes and so there was no market for shoes.
Stony Whitaker took the challenge and within a few days he wrote back for another consignment of shoes to sell. He wrote the sales manager that he was showing the farmers of East Tennessee how shoes would enable them to plow more acres than they could before.
Stony kept sending back for more shoes and at the end of the year he had earned the best salesman award. As a result he was invited to give the major speech at the annual sales banquet. He worked hard on memorizing his talk but when he stood up to speak he had stage fright and could only whisper into the mike as he looked over the crowd, “See the people, see the people, SEE THE PEOPLE!” With that he sat down to a round of applause as the audience realized they had heard the ultimate sales talk! It consisted of just three words: See the people!
Stony Whitaker recognized a need and used his gifts to help the farmers of East Tennessee. By teaching them to wear shoes and plow more acres a day, he was helping them to raise their standard of living and provide more food and income for their families.
There is a great opportunity for preachers not only to “see the people” but to enable people to hear a more balanced diet of scripture through the use of the lectionary. The use of the lectionary provides more scripture than is ordinarily used in churches for worship, and when the sermon is based on the lectionary there is a more balanced hearing of God’s word over the years than might otherwise occur.
There is a large group of “free church” folks who have never used the lectionary as a tool for a more effective encounter with the major passages of scripture. In recent years, however, there is an increasing number of preachers and congregations who are “plowing more acres” by using the guidance of the lectionary.
James D. Smart published a significant book in 1970 with the intriguing title, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church. Many free churches as well as liturgical churches have undergone what Smart says are stages in this silencing of the Bible: (1) the dropping of midweek meetings for Bible study; (2) eliminating the second service on Sunday in which the Bible could be approached more thoroughly; and (3) the shortening of the Sunday morning sermon.
In addition, there are churches, says Smart, where constant attention is given to scripture but this is totally devoid of any biblical insight on questions such as race, nation, wealth, war, ecumenical relations and the responsibility of the church for the world beyond itself. While there is greater biblical scholarship among scholars there is a diminishing amount of time for the study of scripture.
The use of a three-year cycle of readings of scripture provided by the Common Lectionary is a much needed corrective to the trend toward less hearing and studying of scripture. The lectionary is not the whole answer but is a useful tool in reaching a goal of greater knowledge of God’s word through listening to the scriptures read and proclaimed.
When we reflect on church history we find that every significant renewal of the church has been achieved through a renewed study of scripture in which men and women hear afresh the strange, disturbing, yet gracious Word that is somehow hidden in the words until it meets the hearers who are ready for it. Along with a renewed interest in knowing scripture there is a renewed interest in applying it to daily living.
For those not familiar with the Common Lectionary, it provides three readings for every Sunday over a three-year cycle, with readings drawn from the Old Testament, Epistles (and Revelation) and the Gospels respectively. The planners of the lectionary had a purpose in choosing these readings to witness to the unity of the Old and New Testaments and to the continuity of the plan of salvation.
God’s work of salvation is announced and initiated in the Old Testament and reaches its realization in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. Through the apostolic witness it reaches all generations that follow.
A key reason for a three-year cycle (there are two-year cycles and other cycles) is that it allows for giving attention to each of the Synoptic Gospels every three years. Matthew is read in Year A, Mark in Year B, and Luke in Year C. However, this plan is not rigid, since John’s Gospel is used in the seasons of Christmas, Lent and Easter, and John 6 is used on six Sundays of Year B (since Mark is a short Gospel).
Many preachers in “free church” traditions are already using a modified form of the lectionary in that they preach on appropriate passages for Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and perhaps other Sundays. The lectionary may be viewed as two halves: the festival half (Advent to Pentecost Day) and the non-festival half (Trinity Sunday to Christ the King, which concludes the church year).
The Common Lectionary combines two historic principles used in developing lectionaries: (1) Continua or continuous readings, which are used after Epiphany and following Pentecost; and (2) selecta or selected readings for their particular theme used during Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter to Pentecost Day.
One great advantage in following the lectionary relates to the preacher and musican as they plan for future worship services. When the lectionary is followed the church musician can plan special music relating to the scripture passages and themes six months or further in advance.
For example, if the musician knows that Trinity Sunday will be observed then music related to this doctrine — such as variations on “Holy, Holy, Holy” — may be played as a prelude, postlude, or sung by the choir, with its emphasis on God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Using the lectionary makes it possible for the preacher to participate in a “lectionary preaching group” with other preachers each week in discussing the lectionary readings, doing exegetical work together, sharing illustrations, pointing to various approaches to developing the sermon.
In one small town in Kentucky, the preachers using the lectionary met at noon each Friday at the local radio station. They discussed the lectionary passages for the following Sunday so that listeners could become familiar with the scripture before hearing it on Sunday.
The lectionary readings can be printed in the bulletin for the following Sunday and in the newsletter, with a request that the members read the passages before worship. Some preachers have developed lay study groups which meet weekly to study the lectionary readings for the next Sunday, listening to the lay participants for their insights and application of the passage to life today.
The use of the lectionary eliminates one of the problems many preachers wrestle with each week: What shall I preach about? Many preachers find that at least one of the lectionary texts usually has an amazing relevance to the life of the congregation each Sunday.
Following the lectionary allows the preacher to plan six months or a year of preaching in advance, buy appropriate commentaries to use, and go into deeper study of one of the gospels than would ordinarily be done when moving from one text to another without a plan.
One way to adapt the lectionary is to follow it during the first six months rather closely and then, in the non-festival six months, preach from a book of the Bible for six weeks (or preach on a series of contemporary social issues, or develop a series on the Apostles Creed, Lord’s Prayer, or other themes).
If the preacher desires to do so, during the non-festival period the sermon for one three-year cycle may be based on the gospel, in the next three-year cycle on the epistle, and in the third on the Old Testament lesson. The preacher may work out other useful variations and adaptations of the lectionary for a particular congregation’s use.
Strength comes through discipline and following a plan of action. The lectionary is proving a source of strength for many preachers from a “free church” tradition.

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