How does a preacher approach the propers? I recall my first preaching assignment when I was a postulant and sopping wet behind the ears. I took one look at the Epistle and Gospel lessons and threw up my hands. What was a young man trained in expository preaching to do? For that first sermon I focused entirely on the Epistle and never mentioned the Gospel. The next month’s preaching assignment left me staring again at the Epistle and Gospel—this time having been encouraged by my supervisor that I “really should focus my attention on the Epistle and the Gospel.”
There are many preachers who approach the propers in just this way, choosing to preach on one lesson or the other. It’s not always easy, as I was discovering, to find the connection between the two lessons, let alone make that connection in an intelligible manner for the congregation and then offer it in a sermon that fits into the allotted time slot. I was trained in expository preaching and my homiletics professor stressed over and over the need for being faithful to the text—to avoid at all costs twisting it or forcing it to say something that wasn’t there. The idea of trying to connect two lessons that sometimes seemed so disparate ran contrary to what I had been taught.
For my first few years in the pulpit I took what I’ll call the “Puritan Approach” to the propers. I chose the Epistle or the Gospel as my text. Rarely did I ever draw one into the other or preach on both in the same sermon. This isn’t necessarily a bad approach. It’s been the staple of many excellent preachers. John Boys, who served as the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral from 1619-1625 followed this method. His sermons on the Epistles and Gospels, since collected in one volume, are rich and inspiring. (I hope in future to reprint this volume as part of The Anglican Expositor’s resource library.) And yet as faithful as the “Puritan Approach” is to the text of Scripture, it seemed to be missing something. I didn’t feel that I was being faithful to the Church—to the propers themselves, to the calendar, and to the Prayer Book.
Some might argue that fidelity to Scripture is all that’s needed, and yet as the custodian of the Scriptures, the Church has a call on the preacher’s fidelity too. These two duties are not mutually exclusive. The traditional western lectionary as found in the Book of Common Prayer (and shared traditionally by both Lutherans and Romans and even, to some extent, with the Eastern churches) has its origins with St. Jerome in the Fourth Century. These lessons weren’t cobbled together haphazardly. There are centuries of deliberate usage and thought behind the propers—usage and thought by the very Church which Jesus himself promised would be led by his Holy Spirit. I gradually realised that there had to be a “Catholic Approach” to the propers as well.
But how does one take the “Catholic Approach”? The preacher must let the Church whisper in his ear as he focuses his eyes on Scripture. As with the study of theology, a single individual with his Bible will undoubtedly find himself schooled in much orthodox doctrine, but he’s also liable to find himself mired in many heresies. No single man constitutes the Church. The Holy Spirit indwells me, but he also indwells my brothers and sisters today as well as all of my brothers and sisters who have gone before me. We have the Church to thank—all those who have gone before us—for developing and preserving the orthodoxy we stand in today. As various sectarians and cultists amply demonstrate, if we fail to listen to the Church as we interpret the Scriptures, we’re likely to wind up with as much falsehood as we are truth. The calender and the propers force the preacher to open his ears to the Church.
This means that the preacher must approach the text with more than his own thoughts in mind. He also needs more than a commentary. Commentaries are great resources for understanding a text and a necessary part of sermon preparation, but commentaries rarely account for textual connections found in the lectionary. The preacher needs to know the history of the propers and he needs to listen to those who have gone before and to the connections they have made. Knowing the limitations of the lectionary, I’m one of those preachers that alternates between preaching on the propers and preaching through a book (or books) of the Bible, typically during alternating years, but I have to admit that having learned to take this more “Catholic Approach”, I now eagerly anticipate the years in which I preach on the propers. Not only does the chain of Sundays and Holy Days take on a greater richness over the course of the year, but the liturgy itself comes alive with the rhythm of sacred time.
Thankfully there are a number of quality resources that bring some unity to the voice of the Church and make the task of listening manageable. Let me list some of the helpful resources to which I’ve learned to listen on a regular basis:
Melville Scott’s The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels (The Anglican Expositor, 2010). Scott provides an extremely helpful aid in his outlines of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels. He shows the interrelated nature of the three for each Sunday, but Scott’s most important contribution is his astute observations regarding each Sunday’s “theme” and the interrelated nature of these themes over the course of the Church Year.
Isaac Williams’ Sermons on the Church Year (The Anglican Expositor, 2011-forthcoming). This collection of sermons covers every set of propers in the 1662 Prayer Book. In each sermon Williams offers excellent exposition of both the Epistle and Gospel, but also weaves them together while still being faithful to the text of both. Williams’ sermons are rich and serve as excellent examples of the homiletic art and the “Catholic Approach” to exposition. (Available at present via archive.org: Vol. 1 & Vol. 2.)
Pius Parsch’s Sermons on the Liturgy, trans. Philip T. Weller (The Anglican Expositor, 2011). Parsch offers a very grace-centred Roman perspective on the Epistles and Gospels and not only shows the interrelatedness of the Sundays of the calendar, but draw the lessons of the day into the Lord’s Supper as well. (Also, Pius Parsch’s The Church’s Year of Grace, trans. Philip T. Weller (Liturgical Press, 1964) 5 volumes.)
Fred H. Lindemann’s The Sermons and the Propers (Concordia, 1958-1960), 4 volumes. Lindemann offers a thematic and historical summary for each Sunday and Holy Day of the Church Year and then offers outlines for sermons on the both the Epistle and Gospel. For Advent through Whitsunday, Lindemann also ties the lessons into the Lord’s Supper. Lindemann is generally very good, but it needs to be noted that he is spotty and most of the work is not his own. The outlines are taken, typically word for word, from Scott’s Harmony or from Parsch. There are some sets of propers which Lindemann barely addresses, because his sources did not address them or because the Lutheran propers differ from those of his sources. For many of the Saint’s Days, Lindemann offers his own translations of several excellent 17th Century German preachers. If one has only one volume from this list, Lindemann may be the best choice.
The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, M.F. Toal, trans. and ed. (Ignatius, 2000), 4 volumes. While this series focuses exclusively on the Gospel, the material it contains is invaluable. The Catena Aurea of Aquinas is included for the Gospel of each Sunday as are multiple sermons on the text from the Great Fathers: Chrysostom, Ambrose, Origin, Ephrem, Augustin, Leo, etc. The number of sermons varies from three or four to seven or eight, depending on what is available. The helpfulness of these sermons will vary. Many of the preachers take approaches to the text that are very foreign to modern preachers, but to be able to listen to the Fathers is invaluable.
John Henry Blunt, The Annotated Book of Common Prayer (Longmans, Green, 1899). This is an excellent commentary on the entire 1662 Prayer Book, but Blunt’s historical background and commentary on the propers is particularly helpful. (A PDF version is available thanks to Google Books.)
Massey Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (Oxford, 1950). This is another excellent Prayer Book commentary, in this case on the American revision of 1928. Shepherd offers good historical background on the propers as well as commenting on their content and rationale.
John Boys, An Exposition of the Several Offices (Standford and Swords, 1854). Boys takes the “Puritan Approach” in most instances, but his commentary is still very helpful and he speaks with the wisdom of the English Reformers. (A PDF version is available at archive.org.)