What is the purpose of a sermon? What ought a sermon accomplish and what does success look like? By what criteria should listeners evaluate a sermon?
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As a congregational rabbi, these are questions I ask myself regularly. After all, I am frequently tasked with preaching, and this responsibility becomes more intense, demanding and scrutinized at this time of year, the High Holy Day season.
In my view, the objective of a sermon is to encourage listeners to grow as Jews, to help them flourish, and to inspire them to work to build a better world.
Guiding people to grow and inspiring them to make a difference, however, is not a simple task. Sometimes, growth requires confronting the listener with a piece of Jewish wisdom with which one may not have been familiar, or that one may have always understood in a different way. At other times, it calls for showing people that Judaism often voices support of what they knew empirically or believed intuitively but had always thought was inconsistent with the Jewish tradition. Sometimes, it requires helping one resolve his/her spiritual, emotional or ideological tension. And at other times, it requires challenging unexamined beliefs and behaviors, pushing people beyond their normal comfort zones.
A sermon is thus successful if it stirs within the listener some kind of spiritual, emotional or intellectual movement. Only through such ruptures with our own internal status quo is growth possible. A failed sermon is like a placid lake – pleasant, but static. A successful sermon is, to quote The Grateful Dead, a ripple in still water. It upsets the order. So, whether a sermon teaches us something new or enables us to think about something we already knew in a novel way, it is in my view successful. Whether a sermon helped heal our broken hearts or made us uncomfortable, it is successful.
Additionally, following Maimonides’ view in the Guide of the Perplexed that the ultimate purpose of Judaism is to help each of us live better lives and inspire us to repair the world, a sermon – to paraphrase Stevie Wonder – ought to be “in the key of life,” not a purely academic discourse divorced from real-world application. A sermon should utilize Jewish wisdom to address real human questions, our most pressing personal and social struggles. For that reason, I strive to deliver sermons that deal with real-world issues, whether those issues are matters of personal yearning (such as love, loss, longing) or of societal concern (matters like social justice, human dignity, and peace).
I of course recognize that those issues – especially the social ones which many of us might call “political” – can sometimes be controversial, especially when presented to a diverse community (as mine is) and in a charged political climate like ours. Despite this, they cannot be ignored without snuffing out much of the spirit of the Torah and the Jewish tradition. After all, the Torah itself is a political document.
The values of our tradition are meant to guide us as we discuss how to build better lives for ourselves and to advance a righteous and good society.
Of course, a sermon cannot just explore real-world issues without being deeply rooted in Jewish textual tradition. That’s what separates a sermon from an op-ed or a rant from a talking head on cable news. A successful sermon must bring Jewish sources to bear in advancing an argument for how our faith – a vital, enduring and eternally relevant faith – can answer the challenges of our time.
In this sense, I believe a successful sermon is one that does not shy away from addressing the most important questions of our lives and our world, even if those issues might be complex or controversial. In this sense, it helps me to approach a sermon as only one side of a conversation. I invite my congregants to keep that in mind, too. I always intend my sermons to be the opening argument in a dialogue, a dialogue I deeply desire with each listener, and that I profoundly hope my listeners have with each other. Yet I am convinced that, if a real-world or real-life issue is weighing on people’s minds, and the Jewish tradition has something meaningful to say about it, then the only truly unsuccessful sermon is not the one with which you vehemently disagree, but rather the one that avoids the confrontation altogether.
Ultimately, if I could summarize with one simple phrase, the purpose of a sermon is to wake us up. Literally, a successful sermon is one that does not put listeners to sleep. Figuratively, a successful sermon is one that disrupts the spiritual, intellectual or emotional status quo of the listener.
I hope, over the course of the High Holy Day season and throughout the year, I am able to achieve that purpose. I pray that by provoking my congregants from slumber, even for a moment, I can help catalyze some change in their lives or inspire some repair in our world.