It’s called sermon critique.
When I was a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, fourth and fifth year rabbinical students presented sermons at the Thursday morning worship service, in front of the entire college community — students and faculty.
After the service, we would all then go downstairs for lunch. Students and faculty would then take turns praising, and criticizing, the student’s sermon.
When I was a student, it was a daunting, awe-inspiring, and fear-inducing experience — especially with certain faculty members. Since then, however, it has gotten lighter and more user-friendly.
First, about the length.
Based on many of the comments that I have heard or seen, some people thought that it was too long.
Apparently, at least some of the wedding guests might have thought so as well.
The expressions on the faces of the congregation around the church were also something to behold, ranging from empathy to bemusement to confusion to downright scorn. Four minutes in, Camilla Parker Bowles’s ludicrous hat was trembling as she held down her head: was she laughing? Prince Charles was also bowed, red around the ears, more so than usual: was he?
An informal survey of my rabbinical colleagues reveals that, on any given Shabbat evening, many of them preach for about eighteen to twenty minutes.
This, by the way, is the mandated length of a TED talk. Eighteen minutes. That’s all you get. Eighteen — as in the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word chai, meaning life. That is all that people can live with.
On the High Holy Days, my colleagues preach longer, but not radically longer. Some go to a half hour, some forty minutes — but that is stretching it.
Here I inject a note of sadness and of whimsy. Once upon a time, hundreds of years ago — and even more recently than that — a sermon could go on for an hour. Did congregations sit in rapt attention?
I assume not. But that was certainly the cultural expectation.
Not so today. The IPhone has shrunken our attention span to that of the average gerbil.
Moreover: that fourteen minutes seemed was too long for some only testifies to the creeping secularism of our age. Consider:
The Church of England has, in recent decades, often been accused of being religiously disengaged: a church that is more of a cultural shibboleth than a theologically dynamic religious institution. (In her book Watching the English, Kate Fox tells a popular apocryphal joke about a woman who instructs her daughters, who notes that the family has no religion, to simply put down “C of E” on school intake forms). A full 16 percent of Church of England priests aren’t sure there’s a God (and 2 percent identify as outright atheists). Active membership in the Church of England, meanwhile, declined, halving in the past two decades. For many, the Church of England’s anodyne theology have rendered it an irrelevant institution, an institution that — like the Royal Family itself — is comfortingly familiar, but ultimately irrelevant.
The same is true of any number of mainstream, non-evangelical, liberal religions.
And, when you consider how many Americans are “unchurched,” and rarely if ever attend a religious service, hearing a sermon was probably a good use of their time.
Second: the meaning of a wedding sermon.
Here, too, my colleagues were quick to complain.
The wedding sermon wasn’t personal. It wasn’t about the couple.
Apparently, the bishop had not met the royal couple until that morning.
Jews don’t really expect a sermon at a wedding. They expect a wedding charge, that is directed to the couple and to their relationship.
Not so in other liturgical traditions — in particular, Roman Catholics and Episcopalians.
There, the wedding sermon (or, homily) is usually not personal, thematic, about the topic of the occasion.
Which was, of course, love.
Well, yes, of course — it was about love. What a textual sweep it was — from Song of Songs to the New Testament to the Reverend Martin Luther King. It was, in that sense, a tour de force.
But: What is love?
Consider the following statements.
- I love my wife.
- I love my children.
- I love my parents.
- I love my dog.
- I love my country.
- I love that suit you are wearing.
- I love chocolate.
- I love God.
Those are all different kinds of love. Or, they should be.
Bishop Curry opened his homily with a quote from Song of Songs, which is surely about erotic love.
That is — unless you choose to believe, as the ancient sages did, that it is an allegory about the love between God and the Jewish people.
Or, as the early Christians believed, that it is an allegory about the love between Jesus and the Church.
My point: it is hard for a preacher to define love.
But, it was easy to understand the subtext of Bishop Curry’s words. Yes, what the world needs now is love sweet love – and the kind of love it needs is simply this.
In the Torah, love, ahavah, often means commitment that flows from covenant — and perhaps, not even affection. Look at the path of love.
First, Leviticus 19 tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Several verses later, it tells us to love the stranger.
It is not until we get to Deuteronomy that we learn that we must love God.
The way you get to love of God is through a commitment to the betterment of human beings.
Which was precisely what Bishop Curry was talking about — a love that transforms the world. Again:
It was a sermon that will go down in history as a moment when the enduring seat of colonialism was brought before the Lord, and questioned in its own house. In the mention of slavery was the inherent accusation of white silver-spoon complicity, and that this union should not go forth without acknowledging it.
Which is why I say to Bishop Curry: yasher koach (may your strength be straight)!
Or, if you prefer Yiddish: gut gezugt.
You said it well.