Q. High Holyday sermons may be good for rabbis but most of the congregation squirm. How long should a sermon be?
A. A journalist once reported in a daily paper that a sermon she heard from me had surprised her by being so short. In contrast, the great maggidim (itinerant preachers) could go on for hours and have their audience rivetted to their seats, still asking for more. These days, people’s needs are different and their patience is less. There are three issues with sermons – content, architecture and delivery.
The content must have some substance, combine the new and the old, and leave the congregation feeling, “We learned something today!” But a sermon is not a lecture, the synagogue is not a university lecture room, and the congregation are not usually academically trained. The sermon must have architecture; the audience must see evidence of design, with the speaker making a point, weaving it into a general outline and leading to a conclusion.
The conclusion is extremely important. No preacher should be floundering to find a way of finishing nor indulge in a long and complicated peroration. A little boy sat in church with his father during a lengthy, disjointed sermon and asked, “Daddy, when is he going to finish?” “He finished long ago,” the father whispered, “but he doesn’t know it yet!”
The delivery of the sermon must be lively; sometimes the voice must be a violin, sometimes the cymbals. It may be appropriate to have extensive notes or even a written-out text, but more important is the rapport with the audience.