Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year B, Volumes 1-2 (Joel Green et al) -- A Review
CONNECTIONS: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship. Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Epiphany. Edited by Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby, and Carolyn J. Sharp. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Xvi. 341 pages.
CONNECTIONS: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship. Year B, Volume 2: Advent through Epiphany. Edited by Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby, and Carolyn J. Sharp. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Xvi. 349 pages.
For the past twenty-three years, I’ve been preaching most every Sunday, and I’ve drawn my texts for the most part from the Revised Common Lectionary. I’ve shifted from the lectionary on occasion to pursue a series, but then I’ve returned after the series is over. Being that I’m committed to rooting my preaching in Scripture the RCL has served that purpose well. Of course, preaching from the Bible involves a good deal of interpretation of the text in order to present it in a way that comes alive in the present moment. So, we preachers look to a variety of sources to help guide that process. Fortunately, lectionary preachers have been blessed with a plethora of helpful resources in recent years. Among the most helpful publishers in this regard is Westminster John Knox Press.
The Connections series is nearing its completion, and I’ve been making use of these volumes since the first volume was published in 2018. The publisher began with Year C, so we conclude the series with the volumes designated for Year B. I’ve reviewed several of these volumes starting with Year C, Volume 1, which was honored as Reference Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy (I chaired the selection committee). Having received review copies of volumes 1 and 2 of Year B, I would like to offer this review. I will note that I am currently using volume 1 (Advent through Epiphany) and will be using volume 2 shortly. In the introduction to the series, the editors note that “the essential idea of Connections is that biblical texts display their power most fully when they are allowed to interact with a number of contexts, that is, when many connections are made between a biblical text and realities outside the text” (1:xiii).
Having used this series over the past several years, I can say that the editors have made sure that there is consistency between volumes. While preachers and teachers (the editors assume that these volumes will be used not only by preachers but also by teachers and students of Scripture) might wonder why they should add another resource to their crowded shelves, the answer lies in the way in which the editors have envisioned this particular series. The Connections series offers two different commentaries on the readings from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Epistles/Acts, and the Gospels. In addition, there is a commentary on the reading from the Psalms focused on the place of the Psalm in worship. Regarding the connection between the two commentaries, Cynthia Rigby, in her remarks to the Academy of Parish Clergy’s Book of the Year presentation in 2019, suggested that the series seeks to fulfill Karl Barth’s suggestion that the preacher should approach the sermon with the Bible in the one hand and the newspaper in the other. The focus of the first commentary is on the text in its original context, while Commentary 2 focuses on the connection of the text with the modern world. Of course, since they draw from a variety of authors, there is variability of approach.
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. In other words, it takes a horizontal view of the passage. 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. It takes a more vertical approach (at least chronologically). While addressing the modern world, the editors understand that if this series is to have a long life it can’t be so specific in its applications that it will be obsolete before the series is complete. While there are two commentaries for the first and second readings, along with the Gospel there is only one commentary provided for the readings from the Psalms, and it has a more liturgical function, seeking to connect the Psalm with worship. As I noted in my reviews of previous volumes, I wish they had treated the Psalms in the same way they treat the other three readings. However, that was not the approach taken by the editors. Perhaps the assumption is that the Psalms are more likely to be used liturgically rather than homiletically.
In these two volumes, we move from Advent to Pentecost Sunday (Volume 1 runs from Advent through Epiphany, and Volume 2 runs from Lent through Pentecost Sunday). Brief but insightful essays help us understand the passages. Besides the commentaries, the editors have chosen to offer Sidebars that provide excerpts from historical and contemporary texts that speak to the themes present in the readings for the week. Helpful In addition to the two commentaries, the editors sprinkle through the volume excerpts from historical writings drawn from writers as diverse as Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century theologian to Samuel Clarke, an eighteenth-century Anglican theologian, to Evelyn Underhill, a twentieth-century devotional writer. These readings are presented in text boxes with a different typeface to distinguish them from the larger textual offerings. As a church historian, I, of course, appreciate this, even if I might not always make use of the readings. These readings remind us that Tradition has something to say to how we interpret and present Scripture.
The team of General Editors for the series is composed of Joel Green, Cynthia Rigby, Luke Powery, Thomas Long, and Carolyn Sharp. They are assisted by Kimberly Bracken Long, who oversees the essays on the Psalms (including recruiting the writers). Rachel Toombs is the Sidebar Editor. Of course, a series like this requires a large group of people to bring accomplish the intended goals. This is not a one-person effort, so when this nine-volume series reaches completion (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). In addition, there is an editorial board of twelve persons. As to the background of the editors, two are biblical scholars (Green and Sharp), two are homileticians (Long and Powery), and one is a theologian (Rigby). The writers of the commentaries include pastors, biblical scholars, and 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 each 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, they 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." (1:xiii).
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 (1: xvi).
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.
I keep the volumes handy—I’ve purchased a couple of Kindle volumes in addition to the hardback copies sent to me for review, and find they are very useful as well—and even when I don’t quote from the volume in my sermon or my weekly lectionary reflections on my blog, I always find the commentaries to be insightful and helpful as I try to envision what these ancient texts mean for today. Not every essay speaks in the same way. As is true for any resource like this, there will be unevenness (or at least perceived unevenness, depending on the end user's needs). Nonetheless, the quality found here is extremely high, so the editors should be commended for their work. So, if you work with the lectionary, my advice is to purchase this set either and spend time with it as you prepare to preach or teach or even simply reflect on Scripture. It should prove very helpful. So, once again many thanks to the publisher, the General Editors, and to all who contribute to these volumes. We preachers are blessed!