Few preachers seem to look forward to that long expanse of Sundays reaching from Trinity Sunday to Labor Day. It is a time for planning what will happen after Labor Day and for making vacation plans. Father's Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day Sunday are not high holy days on the calendars of most local churches, and at most provide blips on the liturgical screen.
Indeed, two months intervene between Independence Day and Labor Day, and the preacher's imagination is taxed to find ways in which to make service and sermon "meaningful." This creative breakdown has been known to result in various kinds of experimental and innovative liturgies and sermons—which, if they fail, make no one feel too badly because they were in the nature of a trial balloon, an attention getter, after all. They perhaps provide the best justification for defining the liturgy as that which is intended to save the people of God from the pastor's bright ideas!
Into this dilemma comes the lectionary as a means of introducing what might seem to be a revolutionary concept in many places, that of reading, studying, and celebrating the scriptural witness in a consecutive way over a sustained period of time. The key here is the word consecutive and appreciating why it is necessary to understand the overall structure of the lectionary.
During the "proper" times of the year, Advent to Epiphany and Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, the lessons are generally chosen so as to have some kind of thematic connection, drawing together varied scriptural witnesses to help us gain insight into the meaning of the sacred mystery being anticipated or celebrated. Volumes 1 and 2 in this series illustrate that pattern. Even the "ordinary" Sundays between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday have the Old Testament lessons chosen in relation to the day's Gospel which, with the epistle, is being read sequentially. But when we come to the ordinary time after Pentecost, the lessons operate on three independent tracks with no intentional thematic relationship between them.
In Year B, the ruling Gospel is Mark, the evangelist who is particularly concerned with portraying Jesus as the Son of David. The Old Testament lessons after Pentecost then are chosen from the Davidic cycle to complement Mark's interest. They begin with the story of the boy Samuel—who, as prophet, will anoint David king in succession to Saul and conclude with the accession of David's son Solomon. Because of the tradition concerning the wisdom of Solomon, the later lessons of the time are taken from the wisdom literature. The intent is not that there be a one-on-one thematic connection between the two readings; it is rather that the Old Testament lessons provide us with the context and tradition within which Mark was thinking and writing. The epistle lessons throughout the summer months are from 2 Corinthians, a volume in which Paul struggles to explain what it means to be involved in a ministry that is based upon the cross, which for Mark is central to understanding the work of the Anointed One.
(For more ideas for preaching on Mark, see this 9-week series and reading plan.)
The mention of the three-fold set of lessons provides occasion to discuss the order of the reading of the lessons. The intent of the lectionary is that the order be Old Testament, psalm response, epistle, Gospel. The psalm is a response to the Old Testament reading, not a lesson in itself (though that does not mean it cannot be used as the text for the sermon, since it is a part of the canon). This use of the psalter as a resource for prayer and praise reminds us of our roots in synagogue and Temple. In the epistle we hear the apostolic witness, which understands itself to be in continuity with the work of God in the experience of Israel in the Old Testament and sees itself as a fulfillment of God's promise to Israel. The Gospel is read last, because that is the vehicle through which the community interprets both the experience of Israel and the primitive Church. There is a kind of historical development here, since usually each reading is older in time than the one following it, but this is no justification for the pattern. The rationale is unabashedly christological. It is through Christ that we view and interpret both the witness of the Old Testament and the apostles. It is for this reason that in many traditions the congregation stands to hear the Gospel read—not because the Gospels are somehow "better" scripture, but because they are an icon of Christ in our midst, and it is Christ whom we stand to greet.
This means that the order of the lessons is not changed so that the one with the primary text is closest to the sermon, because we still need the word of Christ through which to focus our attention. Even if, in ordinary time, the Gospel does not relate thematically to either of the previous lessons, it is still the last lesson because of the symbolic lesson to be learned. It may be that there is a particular Gospel lesson that the preacher has used as a vehicle for interpreting one of the earlier lessons. That may provide a justification for changing the Gospel of the day in order to establish the thematic connection. For example, Proper 14 has as the Old Testament lesson the story of the death of Absalom and David's subsequent grief. The Gospel is part of Jesus' discourse in John 6 about being the bread of life, a rich mine for preaching, but which may be difficult to relate to Absalom hanging by his hair from a tree limb! This preacher might exercise personal freedom to change the Gospel for the day to Matthew 23:37-39, Jesus' lament over Jerusalem, in order to compare the grief of David and David's great Son. Nothing is lost from Mark, since today's Gospel is from John, which might be included next week, and the lament narrative is not included in the readings from Matthew in Year A. The epistle for the day is part of the ethical teaching at the end of Ephesians. It certainly can stand on its own as a separate reading, but it may be related to the other two lessons in terms of the basis for ethical action, which is expressed by the fact that "God in Christ has forgiven you" (4:32). That forgiveness (at what cost to God!) moves us from rebellion and slayers of the prophets to those who, sealed by the Spirit, are engaged in "what is useful for building up."
This kind of creative and critical thinking allows for an expansion of the lectionary by the insightful preacher if each set is taken in turn each three years as the governing lesson. The preacher then makes other thematic choices (assuming that the integrity of the texts is maintained). Already one's preaching ministry has developed possibilities for the next nine years, and it mitigates the accusation that the lectionary limits the preacher's choice of texts.
In recent years, the dictum that the text and the sermon should not be separated has become a kind of mantra that has given rise to a new liturgical legalism that does not understand the liturgical setting out of which the dictum originated. The reason for the rule is not to disallow a hymn between lesson and sermon (or even two lessons with responses). It grows out of the practice, still current in some places, of having the (one and only) Scripture lesson very early on in the service, followed by a pastoral prayer, an anthem, the offering, the announcements, a hymn, and whatever else, and then finally the sermon. That is the kind of separation the rule is intended to prevent.
Perhaps most important for the preacher is to remember that though it may be called "ordinary" time, it is still kairos with which we are dealing, and that for the Christian, time is always a means of grace.