God in the lectionary gaps

It is fascinating how much the God of Scripture makes us uncomfortable.

This thought came to me as I was working up my summer preaching plans based on the Revised Common Lectionary. I will be preaching through the Old Testament lectionary selections that highlight some of the major points in the story of David.

What I noticed as I was listing the texts was how often they left gaps in the readings. The lectionary often suggests we skip over several verses in the  middle of a long passage. I’ve learned in my brief preaching career that such gaps often indicate “difficult” passages — things that might be tough for a preacher to work with or for a congregation to process. (I generally find the passages much more interesting when the excised portions are put back.)

For instance, on July 8 the lectionary offers us 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10. This is about David’s taking the throne of Jerusalem. What the reading leaves out, however, is his conquest of the city. Here are the excised verses:

6 The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites, who lived there. The Jebusites said to David, “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.” They thought, “David cannot get in here.” 7 Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion —which is the City of David.

8 On that day David had said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shaft to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies.[a]” That is why they say, “The ‘blind and lame’ will not enter the palace.”

I do not deny these verses present some challenges to the preacher, but I do not see why they should be skipped over in the pulpit.

Nor do I understand why the reading for July 15 leaves out these verses:

6 When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.

8 Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.[e]

9 David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” 10 He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. 11 The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household.

Or finally, why does the reading for August 12 hide Joab’s complicity in the death of Absalom?

My theory is that these readings make the life of the preacher hard. They are difficult texts because they demand attention. In the case of the death of Uzzah they challenge our comfortable notions about who God is and what God is capable of doing at any moment. We want to keep God in a box, and when he breaks out of that box, we protest.

But these are not just messy texts about God. They are messy texts about us as well. The cut out portions show us places that our human life gets ugly or conflicted. They show us “men of God” doing things we don’t consider all that holy, only this time no prophet comes stomping into the throne room to call them on it.

Many Christians would defend the editing of the lectionary readings by taking account of biblical scholarship that says the Scriptures come to us as human products. They give us an edited God who has been created to advance certain theological and ideological agendas.

I’m sure the arguments are persuasive, but I find them uninspired and uninspiring. Being a people of one book means affirming that the God revealed in Scripture — even the hard texts — is God. He confronts, challenges, and tests us precisely because he is not the God we would choose. Instead, we are the people God chooses and calls.

6 thoughts on “God in the lectionary gaps

  1. Well, certainly we understand the Bible through Christ. And, that does very often mean we see things differently that the OT writers would. But, I think it’s important to see all of Scripture as pointing to the same God. Maybe it just doesn’t point to God in the same way.

  2. John,

    As Secretary of the Consultation on Common Texts (we developed the lectionary) maybe I can shed some light at this point– light that will become even more comprehensive (across the entire lectionary) when the 20th Anniversary Study Edition of the RCL is released later this year.

    Those who were there to complete the development of the RCL weren’t trying to “edit out” hard texts. We get that feedback all the time. But it’s not what was happening.

    What they were doing was trying to select texts that tell the “main story” of the the Bible. In most cases, the pieces not included in some of these readings are also interesting in their own right, end up being sort of “side stories” to the “main story”– in this case, the main story of the transition from judgeship to kingship in Israel, and so the “main points” of the narratives of Samuel, Saul and particularly David.

    Our work at CCT was never intended to “prevent” congregations from reading what isn’t included. It was rather selected so that at the very least, congregations get exposure to the sweep of the biblical narrative with some attention to its depth AND in lengths that are manageable for contexts where all three readings plus the appointed psalm for each Sunday will be used. We have never tried to mandate or even suggest how the readings should be used– leaving that to the discretion of each denomination or in some cases pastor who decides to use the resource we developed ecumenically over a period of 23 years (beginning in 1969).

    Taking off my CCT Secretary hat and putting on my GBOD Director of Worship Resources hat, you will find that during the Ordinary Time after Pentecost, I often commend including some of these “left out” stories in the worship planning helps I develop and post at http://www.umcworship.org IF your congregation is going to be focusing on that particular stream of texts (OT, Epistle or Gospel, none of which intentionally relate to the others during this period) at that particular time. Always, in the UMC, it is up to the pastor and the local worship planning team to discern HOW to use WHICH texts from the lectionary– or whether to use the lectionary at all– given the “conditions on the ground” for your particular congregation or worshiping community.

    1. I hoped you would chime in, Taylor. I did not mean to suggest a conspiracy.

      Coming up with the “main” story of the Bible must have been an interesting conversation.

      I suppose Saul relieving himself in the cave falls into one of those “side story” categories.

  3. In light of what Taylor Burton-Edwards wrote, I was wondering if the “parts” of the lectionary are readings for the rest of the week? And where do Sunday School lessons fit into all of this? After four trips through the lectionary, I have always wondered when is it that we discuss the stories of the Bible that are a part of our childhood.

  4. I actually preached a sermon at the VA hospital in Durham about 3 years ago about the way that fallen soldiers are forgotten and swept under the rug just like Uzzah. The lectionary gap WAS my text. The Uzzah story is harsh; it’s difficult to understand a God who kills people for trying to keep his Ark from being dishonored. There’s not an easy explanation for this story. Just like there’s not an easy explanation when good people die before their time.

    1. Thanks for sharing this story, Morgan.

      Here is where I hear Hauerwas in my head. (And that is an annoying voice to have in you head.) Since when did we expect God to be easy to understand?

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