Connections: A Lectionary Commentary -- Volume 1 (Joel Green, et al) - A Review

CONNECTIONS: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship. Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Epiphany.  Edited by Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, and Cynthia L. Rigby. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018. Xiv + 332 pages.

First, I want to commend Westminster John Knox Press for continuing to produce excellent resources for those of us who are lectionary preachers. I regularly make use of the Feasting on the Word lectionary commentaries. The same is true of their three-volume series Preaching God’s Transforming Justice. Now comes the Connections series. The initial volume, which I am reviewing here, was recently named the Academy of Parish Clergy Reference Book of the Year. I will acknowledge that I chaired the APC committee that chose to honor this volume and the series it represents. If this first volume is any indication of what is to come, I can with confidence that if you’re a lectionary preacher, you should get a copy. It is available in both hard cover and Kindle (and likely other digital formats).

With the plethora of lectionary resources available, regardless of the quality of this volume, is there need for another series? Isn’t Feasting on the Word sufficient? If you already have Feasting on the Word and can’t justify adding to your preaching library, then you might stick with what you have. However, though I wondered whether there was need for this new series, I can say that there is enough difference here to justify adding it to your library. If you’ve used Feasting on the Word, you know that it features four different commentaries, each written by a different person, offering a different perspective on the text (theological, pastoral, exegetical, and homiletical). Connections, on the other hand, offers two commentaries for each lectionary reading.  As to the connection between the two commentaries, Cynthia Rigby, in her remarks to the Academy of Parish Clergy, compared what the series seeks to do with Karl Barth’s quip that the preacher should approach the sermon with the Bible in the one hand and the newspaper in the other.

With Barth’s image in mind we can begin understanding what the commentary provides the preacher and the educator (there is a recognition that the series can be of great assistance to those teaching a Bible study or in other learning contexts. When we turn to the commentaries, Commentary One seeks to locate the text in its broader biblical context, connecting the passage with the other lectionary selections as well as the larger biblical story. It does so in twelve hundred words. The second commentary (Commentary Two) seeks to build a bridge between the ancient text and our contemporary world., without being so specific that its reach is limited to the present moment.  I should note that there is only one commentary provided for the readings from the Psalms. The focus here is on “Connecting the Psalm with Scripture and Worship. Personally, I wish they had treated the Psalms in the same way as the other texts, but this was an editorial decision, which may assume that preachers won’t preach as often from the Psalms as from the other passages. I took notice, because I am starting to draw more from the Psalms in my preaching.

There is another interesting feature in this commentary to take notice of. Although not present in every week’s commentaries, sprinkled through the commentary are excerpts from readings from the history of the church. Thus, in the set of commentaries for Baptism of Jesus Sunday, there is a text box with an excerpt from Basil the Great’s On the Holy Spirit. As one trained as a church historian, this stuck out. It is a recognition that in between the biblical text and the contemporary situation, there is the voice of tradition.

A series like this requires a large group of people to bring accomplish the intended goals. This is not a one-person effort. Apparently, when the nine volumes in the series are complete (three volumes per liturgical year), there will be some two-hundred writers engaged in writing for the series (each writer is assigned three passages to provide a commentary). There is an editorial board of twelve, and four general editors. For this first volume, the editors include Tom Long, Luke Powery, Cynthia Rigby, and Joel Green. There are, I understand some changes to the staff for this series moving forward, but this is the team that brought the first volume to press. As to the background of the editors, one is a biblical scholar (Green), two are homileticians (Long and Powery), and one is a theologian (Rigby). The writers of the commentaries include pastors, biblical scholars, theologians. For those who do not know much about the Revised Common Lectionary, Jennifer Lord, one of the members of the editorial board, offers a brief account of the RCL at the beginning of the volume.

Each of these editors, and the editorial team working with them believe in the value of lectionary preaching. At the same time, they also believe that it’s possible to dive deeper into the world of the text and in the world that hears the message emerging from the text. In their introduction to the volume, the write: "Connections is not a substitute for traditional scriptural commentaries, concordances, Bible dictionaries, and other interpretive tools. Rather, Connections begins with solid biblical scholarship and then goes on to focus on the act of preaching and on the ultimate goal of allowing the biblical text to come alive in the sermon." (p. xi). Preaching, as Barth believed, becomes the Word of God when it roots itself in the biblical text, and then points to Jesus, the Word of God incarnate. It is this incarnational vision of preaching that drives this series—in my estimation.

Regarding the lectionary itself, Jennifer Lord, one of the editorial board members, reminds us that the lectionary is connected to the church year. This connection serves to root preaching in the present. With this in mind, she writes:
We read, not to recall history, but to know how those events are true for us today. Now is the time of the Spirit of the risen Christ; now we beseech God in the face of sin and death; now we live baptized into Jesus’ life and ministry. To read texts in time does not mean we remind ourselves of Jesus’ biography for half the year and the mission of the church for the other half. Rather, we follow each Gospel’s narrative order to be brought again to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and his risen presence in our midst. The RCL positions the texts as our lens on our life and the life of the world in our time: who we are in Christ now, for the sake of the world” (p. xiv).
Each of the authors seeks to answer that call—helping preachers hear a word for today in an ancient text. This requires examining it in its original context (commentary one). But it is not enough to remain in the ancient world. Therefore, the reason for commentary two.

Although I first looked at this volume for the purpose of selecting a volume to award the Reference Book of the Year, considering the entire Academy in my thoughts and in conversation with the other committee members, the question ultimately is what I would do with the volume. How does it work for me? With that in mind I made use of this volume throughout the liturgical seasons extending from Advent through Epiphany to Transfiguration Sunday. I did so in two ways. First, I write a weekly lectionary reflection for my blog, which is focused currently on the first reading from the lectionary (normally from the Hebrew Bible). Thus, I read all the commentaries on the readings from the Hebrew Bible. Since, I also preached most weeks during this period, I made use of those commentaries as well. In this case, I drew sermons from the Gospels, Epistles, and the Hebrew Bible. So, I got a good sense of how the authors engaged this variety of texts. As one would expect there is some unevenness in the commentaries, though the editors and members of the editorial board did an excellent job of keeping the quality at a high level. That is not easy. As Cynthia Rigby shared with us at the APC meeting, getting writers to communicate a deep but clear message in 1200 words is challenging. This apparently proved most difficult for clergy assigned to write Commentary Two. In the end, they have succeeded in their task. Thus, it is in the context of actually using it for writing and preaching that I can recommend it to those called to preach and teach in the church.  

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