How to End a Sermon
Texts: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 6:17-26
Marguerite Johnson was a St. Louis native, a Pulitzer Prize nominated poet, and a woman known to most of us as Maya Angelou. A poem of hers that has haunted me for years, and especially over the past few weeks in Virginia politics, is called: “My Guilt.”
My guilt is “slavery’s chains,” too long
the clang of iron falls down the years.
This brother’s sold, this sister’s gone,
is bitter wax, lining my ears.
My guilt made music with the tears.
My crime is “heroes, dead and gone,”
dead Vesey, Turner, Gabriel,
dead Malcolm, Marcus, Martin King.
They fought too hard, they loved too well.
My crime is I’m alive to tell.
My sin is “hanging from a tree,”
I do not scream, it makes me proud.
I take to dying like a man.
I do it to impress the crowd.
My sin lies in not screaming loud.
Early in his ministry, Jesus preaches this sermon: "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Listening to Jesus preach this sermon while surrounded by a huge crowd and adoring disciples, one thing becomes crystal clear – Jesus needed a preaching coach. He needed to wear an earpiece through which a non-descript coach in the crowd could have talked him down from the precipice whenever his rhetoric started to climb to dangerous heights. He needed someone who could have nudged him toward niceness when he sounded too angry or demanding.
I mean no disrespect to Jesus by suggesting he needed a preaching coach. What preacher worth her or his salt could not use one? But the kind of preaching coach that most of us preachers need today is not the one that Jesus needed. People were not puzzled by Jesus’ delivery and or put off by his style. They did not struggle to hear him and to make out his words. No, people were perplexed and perturbed by his content. I can imagine a first century preaching coach whispering to Jesus in the middle of his sermon on the plain, just after he announces a series of blessings, “End it now, Jesus. Move on. You have said what you need to say.”
Jesus starts the sermon off right. After all, who does not love to receive a healthy dose of blessing? Who does not love to see the less fortunate get a break? Who does not love to hear a heartwarming story of a poor guy who gets that one critical break and then climbs out of poverty? Who does not cheer when the hungry are fed in the Sudan or when a new church decides to open its door to a feeding ministry? Who does not shout “Alleluia” when someone rises above religious hatred and stands firm against waves of religious bigotry?
Yes, any decent preaching coach would have been thrilled with how Jesus starts his sermon. Ask any preacher, though, and ask most pew sitters and they will tell you that one of the greatest challenges in preaching is knowing when to end the sermon. I can guarantee you that most preaching coaches would have known exactly when Jesus should have ended his sermon on the plain. They would have been shouting in sweet little Jesus’ ear before he spoke his first “woe,” STOP NOW!
I fear that the American pulpit today is somehow controlled by unwelcome and even destructive preaching coaches, whispering in preachers’ collective ears, “End with the blessing. Omit the woes! There is already enough woe in life. People want to hear about being blessed by God! Tell them that they are blessed and then sit down, preacher. Omit the ‘woes’!”
. The pulpit pounding purveyors of prosperity today and the so-called evangelicals in the land listen to these coaches. These preachers rarely wade through the swamp of woe, unless it is to announce “woe” to those who dare to think differently than they do. These preachers turn the “woes” of Jesus on their head. They announce, on behalf of Jesus, that if you have money in your pocket and bills in the bank, then surely God is blessing you, but if you have to stand on the street or eat a meal at a shelter or borrow from a friend to pay a utility bill or skip a cancer treatment because you are out of cash, then “woe unto you! You are surely not among the blessed of God.”
Thank God Jesus did not listen to the prosperity or evangelical preaching coaches of his day urging him to navigate around the woe-filled waters or turning his woes on their head. Thank God Jesus preached blessing and woe, warning those who follow that the road ahead is a road well worth traveling but a road filled with danger and pot marks.
I am not saying that Jesus did not have nor that preachers today do not need preaching coaches. We do but we surely do not need coaches who tell us to end the sermon when there is so much more left to be said. What we need is a preaching coach like Zalmen, the fiery beadle we meet in Elie Wiesel’s play, Zalmen or The Madness of God. Zalmen will not let the old Russian Rabbi settle for safe rhetoric and empty blessings, to go Sabbath after Sabbath and never say anything that offends anyone, to end the sermon far too soon.
Zalmen pushes and prods the tired Rabbi and when a small delegation of American Jews comes to their small Stalinist village, Zalmen becomes the Rabbi’s worst nightmare of a preaching coach. He shouts in the Rabbi’s ear:
“You lack imagination, Rabbi! You’ve lost hope. That’s bad enough,
but worse – you’ve closed yourself to imagination! That’s unforgivable, Rabbi! For we are the imagination and madness of the world – we are imagination gone mad. One has to be mad today to believe in God and in man – one has to be mad to believe. One has to be mad to want to remain human. Be mad, Rabbi, be mad!” (Elie Wiesel, Zalmen or The Madness of God, p. 79).
Where are coaches like Zalmen in the American church today? I suspect some are writing poetry like Maya Angelou. Do you remember how she ends her poem, My Guilt? She does so by confessing, “My sin lies in not screaming loud.” In his 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. anticipated Angelou’s words when he wrote, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Over fifty years later, King’s words still bring me to my knees because Maya Angelou’s confession is also my own, “My sin lies in not screaming loud.” Now, some folks think that all I do is scream too loud, but they give me way too much credit. No, “my sin lies in not screaming loud.” And, I am not the only preacher who needs to make this confession. This sin has left far too many pulpits muted in America today or caused the gospel of Jesus that is preached to be distorted into something insipid that would have left him scratching his head. This sin has left preachers ending sermons before anything dangerous or challenging or demanding has been said.
Where is our Zalmen in the American Church today? Where is the preaching coach calling us to preach the rest of the sermon? Why have too many American pulpits decided that issues like poverty and homelessness, the climate and health care, race relations and immigration are purely political issues about which people of faith have no theological insights to contribute to the conversation? To expand Angelou’s language, “Our sin lies in not screaming loud.”
It is by the waters of the Jordan that Jesus meets his preaching coach for the first time as the Spirit of God descends upon him. That same preaching coach awaits us, the baptized community of God. That preaching coach will not let us remain silent when the Gospel calls us to speak. That preaching coach will not let us bask in being blessed when we are hard-wired to be agents of blessings to those crying out in need.
That preaching coach, the living Spirit of God, will not cut short the blessings or omit the “woes.” No, if you and I dare to listen, that preaching coach will tell us exactly how and precisely when to end the sermon.