Last November I was asked to participate in an evening of stand-up comedy entitled ‘A Rabbi, a Vicar and an Imam walk into a comedy club’. It was hosted by JW3 – London’s Jewish Community Centre, and involved the three of us attempting 10 minutes of stand up each, followed by a panel discussion. I can honestly say I would rather stand in the pulpit and deliver a sermon to 2000 than attempt comedy again. I was very pleased I did it but it was truly terrifying.
I must confess I do tend to use comedy in my sermons. The last sermon I read to my dad as he lay dying in a home was on Chanukah. When I had finished he smiled, and with the few words he could manage demanded ‘more jokes’. But using comedy in sermons is not the same as offering punchline after punchline. For me it is a way to draw people with you, to perhaps laugh at ourselves, and to reflect on how the world might be improved. It is also there because I think people need as much happiness in their lives as possible, where appropriate!
Of course, preaching cannot always offer happiness. A 19th Century journalist named Finley Peter Dunne is credited with the phrase so often applied to sermons these days; that they should ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. I certainly don’t wish to make anyone feel afflicted or uncomfortable, but when I unknowingly gave a sermon about the impact on me of giving up shopping for 3 months in the presence of a shopping addict, I was later told that her discomfort had been very real, and had begun a process of self-reflection and change. In some ways I was lucky to know about this particular coincidence. The impact of our words is often an unknown – I often quip that I don’t mind at all if congregants fall asleep during my words, at least that way I know they are getting something out of it.
I am in awe of my Methodist colleagues who are able to hold a congregation captivated for 40 minutes, speaking without notes. My sermons tend to be around 8 minutes long – maybe 12- 15 on the High Holidays, and I tend to remind myself that if I can’t make my point in that time, I’m probably straying too far from anything that will be remembered. And as you can probably already tell from my writing style, I place myself and my experiences into my sermons.
I hope this is not done gratuitously. It acknowledges that all speak from the lenses of our own lives and experiences, and makes listening more accessible. But it is also usually the basis of an attempt to help us find our stories and experiences in that of the stories our ancestors recorded in the Torah (5 books of Moses) and Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). For thousands of years Jewish discourse has been a process of repeatedly exploring ‘What does this mean for me, here, now, and how do I live this?’ So, my stories and anecdotes are generally the opportunity to explore how Judaism asks us to live more fully, to find joy and meaning and comfort.
Having moved from the congregational world to working in the head offices of Reform Judaism, my opportunities to preach are more sporadic, and when it does happen it is often in communities I do not know so well, and where one must generally tread more carefully. I miss the regular opportunity to create a conversation – sermons are usually the most discussed part of any service, at the food shared afterwards in synagogue (known as ‘kiddush’ referring to the blessings said over the food) and over the family meals afterwards. In one case, I gave a sermon in which right at the end I happened to refer to God in the feminine. This wasn’t the subject of my words, but was all that was discussed around at least one of the congregation’s tables that evening. The point of my sermon was totally missed, but what a fantastic (and honestly unforeseen on my part) outcome! To have a family engage in theology and feminism over dinner, and to be able to feed that conversation back to me again!
I have found other outlets though, through the Jewish press, my blog (rabbidebbie.co.uk) and on Radio. It is a very different style of preaching. Writing 400 words or being offered 2 minutes on Pause for Thought, forces you to really condense the essence of what you want to communicate, whilst also making it accessible. In the case of Radio, I also have to be aware that the majority of my congregation are not Jews. It can be frustrating for someone known at university for massively overwriting and then having to edit!
A huge inspiration in this type of preaching is of course the late Rabbi Lionel Blue (Zichrono Livrachah – may his memory be a blessing). I have no hope to emulate his greatness and skill in speaking to so many so that they felt they were his friend and confidant. He wanted to offer a little uplift and warmth to people as they began their day, understanding that life can be really tough on folk. He didn’t necessarily speak about Judaism all the time, but he always spoke as a Jew, and as fully himself. I can’t be Lionel, but I can be me, and bring myself honestly and fully to the space of preaching. Although the conversation may in many senses be one way, Lionel showed us that it can feel like there is space for others in the conversation. This is something I aspire to achieve.
When I write to preach I can often struggle with the voices of disagreement. I want to challenge listeners, but I don’t necessarily want to get into a row with them … there is a distinct difference between the voices of disagreement in a congregation where generally I will personally know my audience, and in print or national radio, where not only is the audience unknown, but the backlash will be received in angrily written letters, or somehow worse, abusive tweets. I will admit this is rare. Usually any hatred is directed at my love for embracing dialogue, most often with Muslims, or assumes that as a Rabbi I represent all actions of the Israeli government and should either deny the right of Israel to even exist or accept abuse.
The nature of online abuse has changed what it means to speak in the public domain. I try not to allow it to make me cautious, but I do still rehearse the voices.
It is a huge privilege that despite not having a congregation I still have the opportunity to preach. It is an art in and of itself to bring people on a journey through a subject with you. But it also allows me to take time to clarify, to study, to think through the words that will most easily be heard without being taken offense at. Indeed, the word ‘preach’ is quite distant from what I hope I actually do in a sermon. I hope I inform, I hope I encourage people to think with me, but as a Reform Jew where we encourage our members to think through who they are and how their Judaism can enhance their lives and how they can improve the world through Judaism. To preach to people seems about as far away from my style and intention as possible, though I’m sure at times the nature of a pulpit and the temptation to hammer a message home may have made a sermon feel like preaching to some listeners.
I sometimes wonder if in effect I basically have two sermons, which over the years I have delivered in multiple ways: 1. find joy, comfort and meaning, in your Judaism (and this sometimes takes effort) and 2. Improve the world! There may be the occasional dalliance where I talk about a historical event or figure of interest, but ultimately, I suspect I only discuss them if they help with the first two subjects! I am sure I must have other things to say, but ultimately, they do all seem to boil down to these! And perhaps that isn’t so terrible. If we can find multiple ways of connecting people to the relevance and powerful force of their faith, maybe it will be heard by more people over time.
Midrash (a genre of Jewish storytelling based
on expanding what we know of the Biblical
narrative) suggests that 600,000 people stood
at Mount Sinai and experienced revelation.
They all saw and heard something different;
something personal to them, allowing God to be present for them in a way they could understand
and experience as real, because they were all
unique and different, and thus experienced the
reality of the divine in their own ways. When I
preach I have no control over what is heard, and
I am always conscious that it is being filtered
through a cacophony of lenses and realities
that mean it will impact on everyone present
differently. For me this is a hugely important
part of existing as a community of people that
is b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. God
cannot be understood in one image, or one
form. God’s image is perhaps best described as
the experience and diversity of all humanity, not
one voice or one knowable truth. To imagine I
know what God is or wants is absolutely beyond
me, but perhaps I can help those I speak with
to encounter God as they are able to, and in
adding their understanding and connection to
all of humanity’s, we may come a little closer
to God’s image in the world, and to living better
regardless of that relationship.
Years ago my husband wrote a pantomime on the story of Jonah that we shared one Sunday in worship. It is a story that has so many twists and turns. It is easy to find humour and pathos in it. Yet, it is a story that offers insights into the nature of God that sit well in this season of the Christian year.
It is hard to categorise this story. We start with the challenge: Is the Jonah of the story the prophet that is referred to in Kings (2 Kings 14:25), or some other prophet?
The language used suggests that Jonah’s story’s being written after the exile to Babylon, which makes it too late for the prophet in 2 Kings. Which leaves us to wonder about the purpose and the nature of the tale. It is possible that this is a story that was written as a counterpoint to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, where the returning exiles are urged to purge themselves of all the foreign influences from their time in Babylon, including their foreign wives and children.
Historically, there is no evidence of the repentance of the city of Nineveh as outlined in the story, nor is it as large as the narrator of the tale suggests. All of this leads us to more questions.
Whatever the purpose of the book, it is a story that challenges us to look again at our understanding of God and so it fits into the period of Epiphany well.
Let’s take a look at an outline of the story: Jonah is told by God that he is to take a message to the people of Nineveh, warning them that their ways have come to God’s notice and God will send down punishment upon them. So, what does Jonah do? He gets on a ship that is going in the opposite direction to Nineveh so that he can avoid doing God’s command. Of course, we know about the storm that engulfs him and the ship and how he persuades the sailors to throw him into the waves to save the ship. We know that he is saved by the big fish – often we refer to it as a whale.
Three days later Jonah is spat out onto dry land and again God commands him to go to Nineveh. A very reluctant Jonah goes and warns the people of the town of God’s judgment on their conduct. Now we get to the crux of the story. The people of Nineveh repent and put on sackcloth and ashes. They have a change of heart, and so does God. The revenge that Jonah had prophesied did not happen and Jonah sits outside the city and sulks.
Jonah’s actions have brought the foreign sailors of the ship to recognise and to worship the God of Judah. Jonah’s warning has led to a change of lifestyle in the people of Nineveh, who turn to God in repentance. It is only Jonah who seems to be unaffected by the things going on around him. He complains that he didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew God was compassionate and if people repented then God would not seek retribution. He complains when the plant in the desert that brought relief from the sun dies.
Clearly Jonah feels that God has let him down. Jonah was a Hebrew prophet and what he prophesied did not happen. This might mean people saw him as a false prophet. So Jonah continued to hope for God’s destruction of Nineveh and its people, just as we in our time have been able to destroy Hiroshima and many other cities since.
This wonderful little tale reminds us of the goodness of our God. It reminds us that God didn’t just create us, or our little groups of people; people who live and worship like we do. God created all of humanity in its wonderful diversity; and God declared that this was good; not just a part of it, but all of it.
We may have messed up God’s creation and our relationships with those around us, but the message of Jonah seems to be that God’s love for us has not changed. Rather like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son with the older brother, we see God trying to get Jonah to see the world through God’s eyes rather than his own. God has not given up on Jonah, in spite of all Jonah’s stubbornness.
How might God be trying to encourage us to look differently at the world and our neighbours? Are we content to withdraw and be isolationist, seeking only the company of those who are like us? Or do we want to reach out and build bridges, opening ourselves and others up to exciting new possibilities in our understanding of the nature of God and of faith?
In a world that is so divided and where we are being encouraged to fear those who are different from ourselves, the message of Jonah’s short story – a message of the overwhelming love of the Creator God for creation and all its people – is surely a message of hope.
Let us pray for the courage to be communities that welcome those who are different, so that together we may share the blessings and the hope that God wishes to share with all of creation.