In Summing Up

Although I haven't been keeping up with the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis, I have caught snippets of it on the radio whenever I've been in the car. Yesterday I tuned in at 3 PM EST as the defense attorney was making his closing argument. It was hard for me to follow—I suppose because I hadn't been there all along—but I was surprised when the presiding judge called for a lunch break as Eric Nelson was mid-sentence.  The merits of his argument aside, it would seem that you need a certain momentum in your presentation, a building to an emotional climax, in an attempt to persuade the jury. Twenty minutes later he came back and finished up.

Reporters explained that the defense attorney had been overly-long in his remarks, a bit disorganized there at the end, and had already apologized a few times for talking at such length. The jurors had been waiting for over an hour for that lunch break!

You will have your own opinion as to Chauvin's guilt or innocence in the death of George Floyd, but it is clear that the defense already had a pretty steep mountain to climb here. Exhausting and boring the handful of people you must persuade probably does not help with that.

I think about things like that because, in a way, my job as a preacher is to persuade. Every time I stand in the pulpit I am going for a verdict. To convince the non-Christian to give her life to Jesus. The lukewarm or backsliding Christian to come back to robust commitment. The person who sees a major doctrinal issue differently from me to at least consider another, well-reasoned point of view.

The last thing I want to do is botch the presentation in such a way that the merits of my case are not even considered.

Prince Phillip's scaled down funeral in St. George's Chapel, Windsor, on Saturday was filled with dignity, solemnity, beautiful music, prayers, and lots of scripture. I have been in that Gothic space on a couple of occasions and could imagine every moment. Again, though, I was in my car and could only listen to it. It had everything but a eulogy. Phillip had planned all aspects of the service and that was by his design.

The Duke of Edinburgh detested long eulogies, and he had to sit through lots of them in his long years spent two steps behind Elizabeth. He loved to discuss theology with various priests who he considered to be friends-- but he wasn't shy in critiquing their pulpit work. He told them that a eulogy should be no more than eight minutes long. After that, he maintained, a person's attention drifted.

Again, I'm interested in that opinion because I have spent most of my life preaching and eulogizing. And I agree that short is almost always better than long. That it's best to leave my listeners wanting a little bit more, than wishing that I would please shut up and sit down. I don't know if the judge saw any of the masked jurors nodding off yesterday—but I certainly have seen that in the sanctuary on Sunday's. Folks glancing at their watches (or shaking them!). And I can't imagine what is going on with those who are watching from home.

I think that 25 minutes is about right. The sermon delivered with passion, coherence, and a respect for those who are listening. A dash of humor, perhaps. And scriptural truth, used by the Holy Spirit, to convince and convict. When I am a guest speaker somewhere else I like to have more time—because a certain amount of rapport with my listeners has first to be built. But in my own church we already have that—or we never will. I can get to the point much more quickly. Sermons can build across several weeks. I do not have to say everything there is to say on the subject at one time.

We will soon find out how the jurors have seen things in the Chauvin case. Which arguments were compelling and which were not.

In my line of work, it usually takes longer than that to have the verdict come back. All I can do is offer my best and then pray and leave the rest to God. His Spirit woos and calls--but, even then, every listener must decide for himself.

I rest my case.

1 Comment


Janet Belvin - April 20th, 2021 at 3:25pm

My father was a Southern Baptist minister who would have agreed with you - shorter is better. His sermons from the Bull Street Baptist Church in Savannah, GA were televised and the TV station gave him only a limited amount of time. So he was always prompt in his sermons. He always said that every preacher should have two things to keep him or her on track, timewise: #1 to have to follow a limited broadcast timeslot and #2 to have a clock on the wall where the speaker could see how fast time was flying. By the way - your sermons are just right - You always leave us wanting a few more words!

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