Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Two Minute Warning. . .

Typical in the justification for omitting portions of the liturgy is the desire for brevity.  Usually the brevity desired is not simply to shorten the service but to provide more time for the pastor to preach (and, often, for commentary throughout the service and too many announcements). 

Recently Pope Francis cautioned against sermons (homilies) that are too long.  Perhaps you are shocked by the prospect of a homily or sermon in a Roman Mass actually being long enough to be noticed!  In any case, here are his words:
The homily . . . should be brief and avoid taking on the semblance of a speech or a lecture. A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour, but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith. If the homily goes on too long, it will affect two characteristic elements of the liturgical celebration: its balance and its rhythm. . . . The words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the centre of attention. (Evangelii Gaudium, 138)

I think we Lutherans would agree that the sermon should not take on the semblance of a speech or a lecture.  I am not so sure we would agree that it is possible for a preacher to hold the attention of his hearers for an hour, but I will grant the Pope that anyhow.  What Lutherans probably quibble with is the idea that a homily which is too long detracts from the balance and rhythm of the liturgy and steals the attention away from the rightful peaks of the Gospel read and the Sacrament administered.  We shouldn't.

As I mentioned in beginning, one of the complaints of the Divine Service is that it takes too long.  The appeal to the "dry mass" that ends at the offertory is that it is shorter -- significantly so.  It allows the preacher additional time to preach while getting everything within the magical framework of under 60 minutes.  So, the old saw goes, if you have Holy Communion, something else has to be omitted to come in on target so that the worship service is not too long.  The parts of the liturgy are the prime candidates for omission.  And who would miss them?  (tongue in cheek here)

Unfortunately, it requires major surgery on the Divine Service to make for a meaningful reduction in time.  Most of the sung responses are so short that omitting them all saves you only moments.  Even the longer sung portions of the liturgy are short enough so that together they represent may 5-10 minutes of real saving.  And what is that -- a 10% saving??? 

Perhaps Francis is on to something worth noticing for Lutherans as well.  First of all, time and the typical ideal of 59 1/2 minutes are not relevant to the worship of God's House.  We live by His time and not by the ticking of a clock.  Where do we have to go and what is so important on our agenda that saving a dozen minutes is of supreme importance on Sunday morning?

Secondly, it may well be that Francis has heard more than Roman preachers and that he is correct in saying that sermons do not necessarily gain anything substantial from added length.  They might.  But that is not guaranteed.  The preacher should be careful about the time allotted to him and owes his hearers not to waste their time.  What I mean is that the sermon is not the central point in the Divine Service for which the liturgy is merely prelude and postlude.  The preacher needs to preach faithfully, carefully distinguishing Law and Gospel, and to carefully use the text but he need not require an abundance of time to do this.  I am not advocating for short sermons here.  I am only suggesting that the sermon is not the tail that wags the liturgy.  Rather, all the parts of the Divine Service (including sermon) work together and do not compete -- either for attention or for time.

Finally, I advocate for the two minute warning.  Saving two minutes by omitting this part of the Divine Service or that is not worth it.  The worship of God's people takes as long as it takes.  In addition, if you need to save a few minutes, tighten up the sermon a bit and see if you can say the same thing in fewer words.  Nothing is more shocking to the folks in the pew than when the preacher stops leaving them hungry for more.  As preachers we might try it once in a while.  As hearers we need to be less conscious of time over all.  As liturgists we need to cut back on the announcements and commentary and let the liturgy sing unhindered by our ad lib.  As worship planners we need to pay less attention to saving a minute here or there and making sure that we weave together the pericopes, the liturgical options, the seasonal direction, and the ordinary in such a way that they flow seamlessly and wonderfully toward the fruitful goal of having met the Lord in His House where He promised to be -- in Word and Sacrament.


Anonymous said...

I agree in theory. But I also do a midweek service once a month tailored to the infirm. It runs no more than 45 minutes, because many of them struggle with sitting upright for longer than that. And sometimes dual parishes have time limits to allow pastors to get to the second parish (travel times in the west can run upwards of two hours, so moving the service times is not a great option). But in general, for the typical Sunday morning service, I agree. All bets are off regarding time; leave the watch/cell phone/phablet at home.

Anonymous said...

I have a big problem with announcements. They break my train of thought and take me back to worldly things, as does "You will find that in your "worship insert" for several parts of the Divine Service. What happened to just following the service as written in our hymnals? Before we know it we will have no need for hymnals!

Anonymous said...

The Pope is quite correct on this. I have been to many Masses with no sermon, or only a couple of minutes of sermon, that were much more worshipful than those where preaching is the dominant item.

Anglican Priest

James Kellerman said...

I agree with much of this post and the comments that follow: don't try to trim the liturgy senselessly since you won't save that much time; don't preach as if it were an academic lecture; don't let announcements take over the service; let the sermon be about the text(s) of the day rather than your own rambling thoughts (and pointless anecdotes). But I think that Francis is off the mark here, given his audience. I have yet to hear a homily in a Roman Catholic church that lasts more than five minutes. Telling priests to "keep it short" is a bit like telling a third grader to keep their essay under 50 pages. We may not want overly long sermons or essays, but we're unlikely to get them out of Roman Catholic priests or third graders, respectively.

Our Lutheran Confessions wisely state that "the chief service of God is to preach the Gospel" (Apology 8[=15].42). Perhaps a weekday Matins or Vespers might omit a sermon, but it seems absolutely indefensible to omit a sermon before administering the Sacrament of the Altar. Thus I cannot agree with Father D, who praises sermonless masses. Yes, the Pentamethobaptists who preach endlessly may rob the Divine Service of anything resembling an attitude of worship. But our Lord preached--and for far more than five minutes--before instituting the sacrament. We should do no less.