Should Christian worship have non-biblical readings?

Having non-biblical readings has become such a canon among mainline Unitarian Universalists that Unitarian Universalist Christians face a crisis on the subject of readings. Is it proper to have non-biblical readings in worship?

The question of authority isn’t clear-cut. My home library has several works of daily readings: selected sections meant to be read regularly to enrich one’s faith, and not just in private reflection. Robert Atwell, the compiler of one such work (Celebrating the Seasons) notes in the introduction (page iii.) that

In monastic custom… the Scriptural reading at Vigils was supplemented by a non-Biblical lection. In the words of St. Benedict’s Rule: ‘In addition to the inspired words of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox writers.’ The reading of commentaries (presumably on what had just been read) enabled the monk not only to engage with Scripture more intelligently, but also to place his personal meditation within the context of those of other Christians from different ages and traditions.

We’re not monks praying Vigils, but in our liberal-Reformed tradition we insist on the considered and thoughtful expounding on the lessons in the sermon. The lesson does not disclose itself, and we rely on the preacher to unfold its meaning.

In this sense, the non-biblical reading acts — or could act — as a replacement for the sermon, not the revealed word. But current Unitarian Universalist practice is far removed from this. When — about a century ago — Unitarian and (to a lesser degree) Universalist ministers cast abroad for non-biblical preaching texts, they drew from weighty stuff: often the classics, or a work of philosophy, or — as a standby — a bit of Shakespeare.

But today, it’s not uncommon for a liturgical element from the back of the gray hymnal, or a segment from a ministerial contemporary to be pressed into the role of scripture. It an odd thought that a minister might visit a church and hear her or his words — not unjustly quoted within the sermon — elevated to the role scripture once held. It’s hard to shake off our flippant and shallow reputation if that’s the norm.

So, there may be a place for non-biblical readings in Christian worship, but to help us hear and understand the word of God: not to become it.

Bleg: how does the lectionary or church calendar work in once-a-month churches?

This is a blog-beg for preachers and ministers of any denomination who preach or have preached in churches that meet less than weekly, and who use a lectionary or observe a traditional church calendar. I appreciate your sharing this with anyone who has experience.

In short, how do you make it work? Do you use the lessons or propers of the day however it may fall? Do you pick from one of the Sunday lessons since the last worship service? Or before the next? And what about major holidays?

For a church that meets once a month or so, do you transfer Easter and Christmas (and Pentecost, today) to the nearest service, or rely on members worshipping with another congregation at the proper time? And if you do transfer the holiday, is it a kind of Lent-Easter/Advent-Christmas service? And how does that work?

Churches that meet infrequently probably aren’t high on anyone’s list, so it would be a great help to share ideas and resources. I’d appreciate details in the comments.

So glad I don’t preach Mother’s Day

So, tomorrow is Mother’s Day. And I’m glad I’m not preaching. It’s an impossible gig. I’m really glad I’m not preaching.

  • You need to talk about Mother’s Day, as if it were traditional for churches and not a civil and cultural observance, so lacking many of the liturgical hooks that makes worship manageable.
  • You need to show how important motherhood is, particularly for those who have dedicated large parts of their lives to it, without minimizing those who did not or could not have children, or suggesting that this is the main end of womanhood.
  • You need to extol maternal love, but also recognize that some mothers are or were hurtful, abusive, or otherwise harmful.
  • You need to acknowledge the deathlessness of the love that often did exist without hurting those still mourning their mothers.
  • You may need to talk about the fact that we are all someone’s child, without harming those who lost their children.
  • You may recognize that some people grow up with no mother, but perhaps not without one or more fathers, at the risk of making motherhood a vague concept.
  • You can point out that Mother’s Day began as a peace action, but not without addressing the other points.
  • And you need to balance all these conflicts, and pray that this careful act isn’t undercut by some well meaning custom, like rose corsages. A custom that may be very well-loved by some.

So good luck, preachers.

And remember: Father’s Day is only a month away.

Come hear me preach, Sunday, April 26

I’m glad to be invited back to preach at Universalist National Memorial Church this Sunday.

Using images of the Good Shepherd, I will (try to) explore what it mean to be a Christian in a pluralistic age, with readings from the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles.

Preaching next on February 15

So, I’ve got about a month to prepare for my next sermon, and I’d love you to to hear it– and visit Universalist National Memorial Church — on February 15, 2015, at 11 a.m. (Directions.)

That’s the Feast of the Transfiguration, and I’ll be preaching from the appointed Revised Common Lectionary texts.

Tool to search news broadcasts

Internet Archive has a tool that searches news broadcasts back to 2009, but since it’s fairly new, you may not have heard about it. Lots of uses, but I’m thinking particularly of those preachers who heard of, or were told of, a news segment but then don’t have access to it.

I thought a demonstration was in order, but so many of the searches were old or sad (funerals, vigils) that when I came across this 2014 Fox News segment with a Unitarian Universalist named John “Mac” McNichol, who is a living kidney donor, I knew I had to share it.

The architecture of Universalist National Memorial Church, in detail

I was Googling for a set of 1939 orders of service from the Universalist National Memorial Church — where I was once minister and now, after a long break, am now a member — and found Sixteenth Street Architecture,  a fine architectural survey of Washington, D.C. “avenue of churches” from just north of the White House to just south of Columbia Road, thus missing All Souls Unitarian, but capturing the recently-demolished brutalist Third Church of Christ, Scientist. (I blogged about it a few years ago.)

 The section on UNMC is detailed and valuable, and includes photos of the construction.

The sermon fit for reading

There is a practical take-away from this historical episode; keep reading.

Abigail and John  Adams, the departing ambassador to Great Britain, and John Murray, the Universalist minister, sailed together back to America on the same vessel, the Lucretia, in the spring of 1788. Unitarian Universalists today recall Abigail Adams’s recollection of Murray’s preaching, as recorded in her journal.

This is Sunday 27 April. Mr. Murry preachd us a Sermon. The Sailors made them-selves clean and were admitted into the Cabbin, attended with great decency to His discourse from these words, “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him Guiltless that taketh His Name in vain.” He preachd without Notes and in the same Stile which all the Clergymen I ever heard make use of who practise this method, a sort of familiar talking without any kind of dignity yet perhaps better calculated to do good to such an audience, than a more polishd or elegant Stile, but in general I cannot approve of this method. I like to hear a discourse that would read well. If I live to return to America, how much shall I regreet the loss of good Dr. Prices Sermons. They were always a delightfull entertainment to me. I revered the Character and Loved the Man. Tho far from being an orator, his words came from the Heart and reached the Heart. So Humble, so diffident, so liberal and Benevolent a Character does honour to that Religion which he both professes and practises.

We usually think little of the Dr. Price in this passage, the Unitarian minister, Richard Price. At that time, he preached to the now-defunct Gravel Pit Chapel, but had previously preached to extant Newington Green congregation. He was followed at the Gravel Pit Chapel by Joseph Priestley, and was celebrated in his own right.

So we have two preaching forbears in this passage, but they have very different preaching styles, each with their own appeals. I suppose I’m more like Murray, feeling that the physicality of preaching can be harmed by the close preaching from a manuscript.

I do use a manuscript, but I use it as a preparation of what I plan to say, including any quotations I need and to keep me from failing if I freeze. I also include notes on how to preach the sections of the sermon. In short, if you read what I wrote, it would not be what you hear, and certainly not be “a discourse that would read well.”

And I doubt I’m alone.

The takeaway? I hate converting my eccentric preaching notes into a printed article. While often requested, it’s really a different art and a different work. At best, I might create an impression of the sermon that reads well. But it takes time; it’s not a matter of reformatting a word processor document.

Please consider that before making such a request of your minister. That time is probably better spent in other ways, or, at least allow funds in the church budget for a transcriptionist and a proper editor.

 

Preparing for preaching in September

So, I’ll be preaching at Universalist National Memorial Church (UNMC) on September 21, and since I don’t preach much these days, I figured I had better start getting some words down now or else I’ll never be ready. Be prepared to see non-sequitur blog posts that link obliquely to that sermon until then; I do sometimes use this blog as a commonplace.

Since, wherever possible, I used the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), I figure I’ll start there. It’s not because they’re inherently magical, but the wide selection gets me out of my comfort zone, deposits me in narrative and releases me from that terrible problem: choosing what pearl of wisdom to preach on. Also, the Consultation on Common Texts, which produced the RCL, is one of the few places where Unitarian Universalist Christians are welcomed ecumenically, so I want to support that.

Now, the texts themselves. UNMC typically has two texts read, and the RLC appoints three, including a variant Old Testament lesson, both of which have their own psalm. So I’ll pick two of five options. (I don’t preach out of psalms as much as I once did.)

September 21, 2014 is the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, or in some traditions known as Proper 20. (I’m not a fan of the numbered proper custom, but that’s how you’ll find resources, so better to cite it.) Here are all the texts.

Having reviewed them before, I decided on the main (or “continuous”) Old Testament reading, rather than the alternative “thematic” text, which I’ll use in concert with the Gospel.

That gives me

  • Exodus 16:2-15, the giving of manna
  • Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the workers

Not sure which will be the main preaching text yet, but I may drop hints soon enough.