The Lamp is Not the Path
Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path (Psalm 119)
October 13, 2016—At the church I serve, Northminster Presbyterian, we are exploring what it this passage means as we make the move from the Revised Common Lectionary to the Narrative Lectionary for at least the next 9 months, but possibly for the entire 4-year arc.
The Narrative Lectionary was produced by scholars at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. It is currently in its second four-year cycle, and has been revised and perfected throughout that period. Instead of four possible preaching texts, the Narrative Lectionary presents a single text, often longer than older RCL texts, but not always. There are supplemental texts suggested for those whose traditions so require, but the goal is to preach on the single text. In each year of the cycle, which begins the second Sunday in September, the fall is spent in the Old Testament, moving roughly chronologically through the major narrative events from creation to the exile and the prophets.
The week before Christmas, the shift to the Gospels takes place. Other than the Nativity texts, from Christmas to Easter, a single gospel provides the preaching text every Sunday. John gets its own year in the Narrative Lectionary.
After Easter, passages from Acts and the Epistles carry the preaching load to Pentecost. The summer is reserved for sermon series and every year several possible series are suggested by the Narrative Lectionary team at Luther Seminary/WorkingPreacher.org.
In our conversations at Northminster, we started with the proposition that scripture is not worshiped, but it is the light that shines on the living Word that is Jesus Christ. It is the tool that the church and the Holy Spirit have used to work out our limited understandings of God’s sojourn with humanity from the beginning of time. But how effective is this tool, this lamp, in our worship?
That metaphor is helpful…the Word as lamp, as tool. That’s what lamps are, after all, tools. Lamps in Biblical times cast out very little light, just enough to illumine the next few steps unless a lot of them were together. They were simple practical tools for carefully and not too hastily finding one’s way through life. So when the psalmist says that the Word of God written is a lamp he is also saying something very specific about our relationship with scripture.
The lamp is not the path itself, it only reveals it.
The lamp is not the sun, capable of creating and sustaining life.
The lamp reveals some of, but not all … not all at once anyway. We still have to find our way.
Northminster’s experiment in changing our relationship in worship with the Word written is not unique. Hundreds of churches are experimenting with the Narrative Lectionary. For many years, Northminster has been a Revised Common Lectionary church…with preaching texts for each Sunday’s worship service usually chosen from the listing of 4 (or 6) texts prepared by the Consultation of Common Texts. The most recent version of the RCL was published in 1992, but its texts go back to an original collection of texts proposed in 1969, many of which remain largely unchanged since that time.
This now almost fifty-year-old schedule of texts was put together by scholars to permit a three-year journey through the Bible in no particular order, though some effort was made to group gospel passages week to week.
Regardless of their intent, I’ve not experienced the RCL as being designed to teach the Bible. Some have suggested in recent times that the hodgepodge approach of the Revised Common Lectionary, with its roots in the Roman Catholic church calendar, made sense 50 years ago even in Protestant churches because most people generally knew their Bible fairly well by the time they became adults. This was true because we had extremely thorough and socially pervasive religious education beginning in infancy. And that was certainly still true for me, growing up Southern Baptist in Texas in the 60s and 70s. But times have changed.
The old Lectionary was structured as a thoughtful revisiting of passages and themes we purportedly already knew, but could experience anew through placing the four passages alongside of one another and the news and events and challenges of the present day.
But in 2016, for many in the church, Sunday morning scripture encounters are not about revisiting something we already know at all.
For many, a Sunday encounter with scripture is like reading a paragraph from the middle of a novel—we struggle to figure out questions of context and purpose before we can ever get to the question of meaning or teachings that might be found within.
We know little about who wrote it, when and why they wrote it and how it fits into the long arc of our tradition’s encounters with and understandings about God, Jesus, faith, ethics, and many other topics. We hope the arc of the Narrative Lectionary will help with that.
I don’t mean to suggest that the new narrative lectionary will better prepare us to answer a Bible Quiz, or make us better Christians. Our hope at Northminster is that it is an opportunity for us to trim our lamps, check the wick…see if there is a way to coax more light from the tool we have…by making it easier to have a deeper relationship with the full arc of our mothers and fathers in the faith’s understandings and questions and experiences of God…and God’s place in their lives.
Michael D. Kirby (MDiv ’03) is pastor and head of staff at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Evanston, Illinois just north of Chicago, a position he began in June, 2015. He is a 2003 graduate of Columbia Seminary and has served as one of Prof. Kim Long’s minions in the 25th Anniversary revisions to the Book of Common Worship.
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