Scripture: Determining a Well-Balanced Spiritual Diet

What did you have for lunch last Tuesday? Honestly, it takes a lot of brain power for me to recall what I had for lunch yesterday. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t delicious or prepared with care, but rather I enjoyed it in the moment—some more than others—and walked away from it, hopefully nourished until my next meal.

I often think there are some similarities in the way we worship. You may remember some poignant prayers, beautiful songs, or key sermons in your life. However, I think these occur in the same way you may remember that great steak last month or what you ate for Christmas as a child. Really, on the whole, worship often acts as our weekly nourishment. While carefully prepared and (hopefully) enjoyed, our worship often doesn’t remain with us as a bunch of individual events, but rather as a collective whole. Each week we walk away from it nourished in a way that shapes us over time.

And this should bring us to wonder:

How balanced is our diet?

How is worship, over time, shaping us?

I think the answer lies in how we select the scriptural texts we bring into our weekly worship event. Before we write the sermon or select the hymn, we have to consider two things: 1- What long term structures and narratives are we building with our scripture selection? 2- What we are saying about that selected scripture when we curate it into our worship service? If we are going to create well balanced worship we need to think about our scripture selections and how we are utilizing those selections together, both within the individual service as well as from week to week.

In light of this, we need to consider the use of the lectionary. Horace Allen argues that all preachers (and I would add lay-persons) inevitably create a lectionary simply in the act of choosing and placing scripture within a worship service. So the question is not about whether we have a lectionary, rather, “Who put it together, preacher or church? And, what, if any, are the operative principles by which it has been put together?”[i] Now you won’t find an argument in this blog that is either for or against the use of the Revised Common Lectionary, although I find it a useful tool and do not shy away from it in my own planning and preaching. However, the questions that Allen is asking are extremely important when considering the theological shape of a congregation’s worship. Whether you use lectio selecta (a gathering of related but separate passages like the RCL), lectio continua (a continuous reading model—incidentally, favored by Calvin), free text (where it is often left up to the pastor to simply choose) or a mixture of the three, there is something operational happening beneath the selection which in turn affects what is being created. Some helpful questions to consider in light of this conversation are:

  • Are certain texts being chosen because they are favorites?
  • What passages are not being selected and why?
  • Does worship reflect a Triune balance?
  • Are certain attributes of God emphasized and other diminished?
  • What are we saying about the Christian life?
  • Is one person charged with this responsibility or does occur within a wide group?
  • Who is left without a voice a voice here?
  • Are we subtly reinforcing damaging beliefs built on misogyny or anti-Semitism?
  • What might we be avoiding?

And it’s not simply about selection, but about the contextual selection.

Several years ago, I was preaching as a part of a series that was themed around the Seven Deadly Sins and I chose to take on the topic of Lust. As my first topical sermon, I was both excited and nervous to delve into the different texts that could speak into this arena. But when a fellow preacher heard that I was taking on this topic he automatically presumed, “So you’ll be preaching on the rape of Tamar, right?”

No!— was my immediate reaction. That won’t work at all… Now perhaps you’ve heard important sermons on 2 Samuel 13, and perhaps they address Amnon’s lust. But in the context of this topical sermon, the focus on lust, the “do not follow” model of Amnon’s actions, this story would have been more damaging than helpful.

Tamar, a woman who calls out evil.

Tamar, a woman, who I believe, represents wisdom on the move.

Tamar, a woman who refuses to be a silent victim

…would be reduced to a direct object of the story, the victim of lust, and the aggressor, the dominant male Amnon would yet again take the spotlight. Tamar is the protagonist of this story, the hero. Her voice could not be silenced.

I absolutely think that we should be selecting 2 Samuel 13, to preach, to lament, to name—but context is key! How we select scripture, where we put it in relationship to the other passages we use, and its relationship to the church year, speaks theological volumes before we’ve even picked up a commentary.

I could certainly make an argument for any of the methods of scripture selection: lectio selecta, lectio continua, or free text choice. But behind all of these arguments there is the realization that the selection and use of scripture not only says something about the worshipping body but it also fundamentally shapes it.

[i] Horace T. Allen, Jr., “Introduction: Preaching in a Christian Context,” in Handbook for the Revised Common Lectionary, edited by Peter C. Bower (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1987), 4.

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