Having just finished the High Holy Days, many of us still have sermons on our mind (or not, depending upon the sermons you heard or didn’t hear as the case may be). This is a conversation long overdue and one which synagogues better start having if we want to turn this struggling enterprise of Judaism around. Let’s turn to the art of the sermon or “sermonology” as I like to call it as we continue this series (Part 1).
Do you know how often people tell me that they left their synagogue or church because of their rabbi or minister’s inability to effectively communicate a message, an idea, a principle vis-à-vis their sermon? It happens all the time. It’s like the old joke:
A pastor, known for his lengthy sermons, noticed a man get up and leave during the middle of his message. The man returned just before the conclusion of the service. Afterwards the pastor asked the man where he had gone.
“I went to get a haircut,” was the reply.
“But,” said the pastor, “why didn’t you do that before the service?”
“Because,” the gentleman said, “I didn’t need one then.”
Perhaps a problem with Judaism today isn’t just in the hands of the Jews in the pews but in the mouths of rabbis who speak from the pulpit. We Jews, after all, gave birth to this ancient art of the sermon. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel weren’t merely intellectuals, weren’t subdued lecturers when they ascended their bimahs (pulpits) of sort. Rather, they were passionate, sometimes fiery and compelling figures and gave birth to sermons which I imagine were many things but boring certainly was not one of them. Christian preachers certainly inherited this legacy, and rabbis of a different era understood it too. But today, far too often it seems as if many rabbis have forgotten the lost art of the sermonology, an art which find’s its origins in this week’s Torah portion.
This week’s Torah portion is that of Lech Lecha. In it God models the role of an authentic preacher delivering the first sermon to the Jewish people. God says to Abraham: “Lech – Lecha: Go forth! From your land, from your birth place, from your father’s house to the land which I will show you.”
In essence God charges Abraham to do the impossible – to set forth on a journey not knowing where to go, not knowing how he will get there and yet Abraham sets forth with his family in tow nonetheless. Why? It isn’t just because God said it – many characters in the Torah fail to hear the call of God. Rather, it was the way it was said. The rabbis point out that this doubling of the word “Lech” (Lech Lecha) is for emphasis, intensity and to drive the message home. It is the Torah’s way of communicating the passion, the intensity, the conviction of the this “sermon”. And it was a sermon which clearly inspired Abraham and his followers to make the impossible possible, set out on the journey and find their way home.
Although there are many things lacking in Judaism today, nothing is more glaringly missing than the role of the preacher in our synagogues. Are ministers and imams the only clergy with passion? Have you ever seen an Evangelical preacher or a Black Baptist reverend work his magic and fire up his congregation? Such Houses of Worship are energetic, frenetic and alive. They are models of living, breathing religion and religious passion and fervor which we Jews would do well to emulate. If you haven’t heard such a preacher you need to. Go listen to one, turn on your t.v. Sunday morning or tune in to the only Jewish preacher I know of, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and you will not only hear their message but feel it in your heart and your soul as well (http://www.shmuley.com/).
What we need in Judaism today aren’t just more rabbis who are PhD’s. We don’t need just Talmud scholars. The “Jews in the Pews” today aren’t just lacking the facts about their tradition – they are lacking the motivation, the inspiration and the fire of Lech-Lecha preaching and preachers to get them moving along their way. Perhaps we don’t need the “fire and brimstone” of our great prophets – but we do need to light a fire underneath the pews from time to time (and a little brimstone from time to time is just good old fashion medicine).
And whether or not we are rabbis or ministers each of us ministers to our own flock: our spouse, family, friends, company and community this is our little shul, this is our following. And make no mistake about it, we give sermons of all kinds all the time. As preachers of our own, personal gospel, if we want to get our message across, if we want to influence those in our flock, we can’t always just rely upon the facts to inspire and get the point across. If we are going to transform anyone’s life then we are going to have to get clear on what our message is (Read Part 1); and we are going to have to have the courage to say it with conviction and passion, in a way that inspires as well. It’s how God influenced Abraham. It’s how the ancients influenced the lives of their followers. It’s how rabbis will influence the Jewish community once again. It’s how you will influence anyone and everyone in your midst. Or in the words of Napoleon Hill: “Know what you are going to say. Stand up and say it with all your might. And then, sit down!”
(P.S. To all my rabbinic colleagues, upcoming rabbis and ministerial colleagues out there – pay special attention to Napoleon’s last few words of advice. Maybe that’s why there seems to be ten Barber shops around the corner from my synagogue, huh….)