I was invited to the LJS a couple of weeks ago to lead a pre-HHD workshop for rabbis on sermon giving. Although it felt something akin to a busman’s holiday, I am usually up for a challenge like that; so, somewhat apprehensively, I went along not knowing quite what to expect. As it turned out it was a lively morning – with a mixture of some very long-established colleagues with more recent graduates and students from Leo Baeck. And I have to say: I don’t know what they got out of it but I learnt a lot, particularly what a struggle it can be for some rabbis to find either what they want to talk about, or – if they do know what they want to talk about – the struggle to find a way of talking about it that relates to, or is relevant to, people’s actual lives and concerns.
One of the things I asked them was what is the point of a sermon? what’s its aim or purpose? I have a list here of what they came up with – but let me ask you first: what do you think the point of a sermon is?
Here’s their list: comfort, hope, provocation, challenge, a space for personal reflection, providing a Jewish map/framework for thinking about an issue, an opportunity for learning, to stimulate curiosity, to stimulate change, to begin a conversation.
I think there’s things missing from that list: nothing about God (almost a taboo subject) or spirituality (though that begs the question as to what we might mean by the spiritual); nothing about offering people a way of making meaning out of tragedies, personal or collective; or just helping us to cope with the everyday battles and bruises of lived experience; nothing explicit about Jewish values (though maybe that was implied in some of the list, I don’t know); and, at a different level, nobody spoke about the sermon as entertainment. Entertainment as ‘a performance that offers pleasure, diversion or amusement’. I think that’s an underrated aspect of sermon-giving. I’m not talking about entertainment as frivolity, as lacking in – or an avoidance of – seriousness of purpose, but unless it is a form of pleasure, of stimulating pleasure in the listener – and that could be emotional or intellectual pleasure – I’m not sure why we’d bother with it. You or me.
So here I am today, giving a sermon about sermon-giving and the art or craft of giving sermons, and I could now develop this in any direction, or veer off in a completely different direction – from my point of view that’s part of the joy of constructing sermons, it’s like being a child with a whole heap of Lego pieces, you can make anything you want. I remember when my son was young he used to have these Lego sets where you could build a castle or a spaceship, and you’d get all the pieces and instructions on how to build what was pictured on the box, but when you’d done that and had the satisfaction of ‘getting it right’, it was much more fun to mix the castle pieces with the spaceship pieces and make your own imaginary constructions. And the more boxes you had the more intriguing could be the designs you could make. There was no limit to what you could do – the only limits were self-imposed ones originating in the limits you put on your own imagination.
So there’s something I’ve just built for you – sermon-giving is like playing with Lego – and the pleasure is in bringing different sets of ideas together. I talked a bit in that workshop about how I see myself as a magpie, my eye is caught by, I’m always on the look-out for, things that I can use for sermons: because I’m not really interested in straight-out-of-the-box building to an existing design. That’s not very creative or satisfying, for me. I’d rather be a magpie, and pick up quotations from the newspaper, lines of poetry or songs, biblical verses, jokes, ideas from novels, from TV characters, from films, from exhibitions in galleries, from a conversation I might have with someone, or something I overhear or see in the street, I pick up stuff that floats up from the unconscious when I’m taking a walk, or a shower: we are all bombarded all the time by stuff that comes at us, as well as things we go out deliberately and engage with, it’s all the stuff of life, randomly generated, the kaleidoscopic chaos of everyday life. I am happy to make use of any of it, to play with it and see what I can shape it into – for my, and your, entertainment and stimulation.
But when I ‘play’ with this material, I am aware that there is also a concentrated seriousness at the heart of it, I might even call it a moral seriousness. Because although I appear to be talking about how I build a sermon, out of bits and pieces, what I am also talking about – what I am really talking about – is how we all construct a life for ourselves, brick by brick, day by day.
As I speak, the question underlying what I’m saying is something like: How do we each build our life? What are the values we assemble, the beliefs we utilise, the ways of living we cobble together, the ways of doing things we learn, the ways of finding meaning and purpose we seek out? What parts of our family history do we treasure and integrate into our lives, what parts cause us grief and we can discard? What happens if things in the past that we don’t want – old hurts, grudges, grievances, fears – still stick to us, like pieces of Lego that get jammed together so we can’t prise them apart and build something new: what do we do when our options seem lessened? How much when we are building our lives, choosing how to earn a living, or volunteer our time, or spend our money, develop our relationships – how much are we guided by Jewish values like generosity, kindness, lack of ostentation, righteousness in all its multi-coloured forms. There’s a giant box of stuff out there, a Jewish themed life-kit, that we can use to build what is meaningful for us. To use or not. We are limited only by our imaginations.
But of course it’s not the only kit we make use of when we build our lives: there’s the box called ‘what our parents gave us’, boxes called ‘what our schooling and education gave us’ and ‘what our life experience taught us’ and ‘what our disappointments taught us’ and ‘what our successes taught us’ and ‘what our relationships taught us’ – and we are all making up our lives as we go along from how we assemble the bricks. We are all constructing patterns of meaning. Someone from the outside might look at it and wonder : ‘What is that supposed to be?’, like I used to do with my son, but he had his story about what he was building. And one of the worst things you can do for a child is to tell them they have got it wrong because what they have put together isn’t the same as the picture on the box. Similarly with an adult. Other people might not recognise what you are building – how important is that to you, that it looks like what’s on the box?
It’s different if a child is frustrated because they want to follow the instructions and can’t, or they can’t find the right pieces because the ones they are looking for have got all mixed up with pieces from other boxes, and they need help sorting things out. Then your job might be to patiently sit with them and help them sort things out – this belongs here, that belongs over there. Where can we look for that blue round bit? Ah, it’s hidden over there. Similarly with an adult. Help might be needed to sort things out. To work out what belongs where. Because we all have, one way or another, assembled our lives from all sorts of bits and pieces of experience and knowledge and desire and hardship and wisdom accrued along the way. And we may not be sure what we have achieved, what we’ve built. And in this month of Elul, for reflection before the High Holy Days, we are encouraged to give some more sustained attention to what we have fabricated out of our lives, what we might value, what we have overlooked, what we might want to change, or re-design. It’s a month when we can be on the look-out for new pieces to build into our lives, and on the look- out too for bricks that are stuck together, that are stuck inside us, that we might want to pull apart.
Let me encourage you to be magpies this month: find things that you want to gather in to yourself, add to your life: it might be something from the Jewish world, a story or text, or idea; it might be in a relationship that you want to develop; it might be a project of work or study or volunteering you might want to explore; it might be a holiday you want to take and have been putting off, or a health check.
Be like magpies, or like the prophet Isaiah, who in our reading today says the wonderful, numinous words : “Raise your eyes and look about: everything can be gathered together and comes to you” (60:4 – my translation). You build your life out of what comes to you – the transient, the fleeting, the contingent, the serendipitous – and what you seek out: love, meaning, adventure, security, joyfulness…everything can be gathered together. “As you behold what is there” says the poet-prophet, “you will glow, your heart will throb and thrill…” (60:5). What an amazing promise! A promise to take with us as we come towards our Days of Awe.