“Neglected Characters of the Bible” for Lent
Lent is an unusual season in many congregations, in that it is one season when the whole congregation worships both on Sundays and on Wednesday evenings, often after a communal meal (Advent is another season like this in some congregations). For congregations who worship on Wednesdays during Lent, this is an ideal time to explore neglected Bible books or passages. For Lent, Year C in 2010, I decided to explore three of the characters from the Old Testament whose stories are neglected or lightly passed over in the lectionary: Ruth, Jonah, and Esther. The book of Ruth appears in the lectionary as two weeks of semicontinuous First Readings in Year C, Propers 26 and 27: Ruth 1:1-8 and Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17. Jonah appears twice: Jonah 3:10-4:11 appears in Proper 20 of Year A, while Jonah 3:1-5, 10 appears on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in Year B. The book of Esther is found only once in the lectionary: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 appears on Proper 21 in Year B as a semicontinuous First Reading. These three characters were not random choices, because the messages of Ruth, Jonah, and Esther were timely for our congregation as it was recovering from a serious conflict over whether and how to welcome gays and lesbians into the life of the church. On some level, each of the stories wrestles with how people of faith encounter and relate to people who are from different cultural backgrounds. As I began planning the series, I decided to try crafting a series that moved through both the Wednesdays and Sundays of Lent.
For each Sunday, we read at least the lectionary Gospel Readings and Psalm readings as well as the readings from Ruth, Jonah or Esther as alternate First Readings. As the series progressed, however, it became apparent that five sermons in a row on Esther were more than enough to convey the message of the story for our congregation. As I attended a weekly text study, I also realized that the Gospel texts for the fourth and fifth Sundays in Lent, on the prodigal and his brother and Mary’s anointing of Jesus, fit well with the Lenten series and helped prepare us for Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter. On those two Sundays, therefore, we continued to read the Esther passages, and I reminded the congregation that we would continue reflecting on the story of Esther the following Wednesday, but I preached the Gospel Readings.
This Lenten series revealed to me the ease of crafting semicontinuous sermon series for First Readings during the semester Domini. During Lent, for example, the First Readings are complementary to the Gospel Reading, and there is therefore no narrative connection between the First Readings from week to week. Changing the First Readings to a semicontinuous Lectionary Mod is thus a simple matter, in the same way one may choose the semicontinuous First Readings instead of the complementary readings during the semester ecclesiae. Lent is also a good time to dig more deeply into books or themes of Scripture, since one often has both Sundays and Wednesdays in which to preach. While the Neglected Characters of the Bible series is not a Lectionary Mod that one would use every lectionary cycle, it is worthwhile to regularly bring out from the treasure trove of Scripture classic narratives and passages, even if they are not in the lectionary cycle. As one does so, it is also useful for the preacher and congregation to keep track of what narratives, passages, genres, themes, and books are preached in the assembly and taught in Christian education over time.
 To see how I organized the preaching series, check appendix H.