Our Rabbi was a good man, a wise man, a sterling moral example to the community. He was also boring as. To put it delicately, his Sabbath Day sermons were painful to sit through. Week after week, after the Torah reading a stream of the otherwise faithful would discreetly head for the exits as the holy man would make his way to the podium, find his notes, assume a pious pose and begin what would be for the rest of us 30 to 45 minutes of exquisite yawn-stifling, position-shifting, cough-muffling discomfort.
My Hebrew school buddies and I, seated together near the front and thus incapable of escaping, devised a unique way to pass the time. We noted that the rabbi had a pet phrase—torah-living—to describe the way that the ideal Jew—such as himself—should conduct his life. He also had a pet word—individual—which he would pronounce with ringing sonority. So, a sentence like, “The individual who commits his whole soul to torah-living shall be inscribed in the Book of Life,” would be typical of him. We started to count the number of times he said “individual” and the number of times he said “torah-living.” We even kept a record. We found that sometimes individual beat out torah-living, and other times the reverse was true. We divided ourselves into teams—Team Individual vs. Team Torah-living—the team with the highest number winning.
The rabbi was pleased by the rapt attention his young listeners gave to his wise talks, and probably would never have discovered the truth if it wasn’t for Shmuel [not his real name] on Team Torah-living. It was a particularly close contest that Saturday, with the lead see-sawing back and forth between individual and torah-living. Then individual pulled ahead, with a seemingly insurmountable lead when for no discernable reason, the rabbi, in a transport of inspiration, exclaimed “Torah-living! Torah-living” at the very end, something like five times, giving the victory to Shmuel’s team. And as with any improbable come-from-behind triumph, Shmuel—before we could shut him up—screamed, “WOO-HOO!!! WE WON!! WE WON!!”
The fruits of our victory included helping the synagogue janitor clean the basement and bathrooms for the next two weeks.
Boring sermons are part of the spiritual leader game—not a necessary evil—but always lurking as a possibility despite the Reverend or Father or Rabbi’s best intentions. Rev. Joe McKeever, author of “Boring Sermons: We all have them from time to time,” says, “One of the problems with being a pastor is that we rarely hear anyone else preach. We do what we do in the pulpit, over and over, and it’s easy to lose any sense of standards.
“Many preachers lose the ability to listen to themselves. … They end up telling people things that they don’t need, things that they didn’t want, that they don’t understand and, worst of all, that they don’t find inspiring.”
McKeever who at 83 has served decades in Southern Baptist denominations as well as spending a generation as a card-carrying member of the National Cartoonists Society, does not shy away from his subject but treats the boring sermon issue with the respect it merits.
He counsels folk of the cloth against laying it on thick with the personal journeys. “Personal details can be interesting and relevant. But a steady stream of that kind of content week after week can turn into an ego thing.”
Similarly gauche is showing off one’s own scholarship and superiority. “If you spend lots and lots of time describing why a specific Greek word is so important, three people in the pews may think that’s wonderful, while everyone else is rolling their eyes.”
The worst sin of all, of course is to fail to be uplifting. Rev. McKeever says, that, with all the glitz and bright lights and showbiz that characterize some of the super-congregation sermons, that one essential factor remains: “What sermons must have is a touch of God in them. A sermon has to say something inspiring about Jesus—not about the preacher. … If you can make Jesus Christ boring, you’re doing something wrong.”
I’m reminded of the story of America’s taciturn president, Calvin Coolidge, who was accosted by a reporter as he left church.
“What did the preacher talk about in his sermon, Mr. President?” the reporter asked.
“Sin,” was the reply.
“And what did he have to say about sin, sir?”
“He’s agin it.”