Despite the impressions of some in the congregation, I am sensitive to how long a service lasts. We do a lot in worship at St. John's. For starters, we sing a lot. We sing opening, closing, and sequence hymns PLUS a hymn of praise, a presentation hymn, two Communion hymns, a sanctus, and a fraction anthem. Also, the choir sings an offertory anthem. What can I say? We like to sing. But that takes time. Like most Episcopal Churches, we read all three lessons plus the psalm. Seth and I preach relatively short sermons--between 10 and 14 minutes--which might feel like an eternity but, I promise, isn't really that long. And, of course, we celebrate Communion and then distribute it, which takes some time. Sometimes we get bogged down in announcements. We also say birthday and anniversary prayers every week, and that can add 5 minutes to the service. By the time we're finished with a typical service, it's an hour and 15 minutes. And that's pushing though pretty quickly--no silence after the lessons or sermon, no lengthy pause before confession, and a worship leader who talks as fast as I do. Yeah, pushing it.
I'm sensitive to the length of the service. I hear complaints--usually not helpful or constructive ones that are based in exaggeration. "You know, there are lots of people who think the service is too long," someone will say at a dinner party. Although I want to say, "Great! This is exactly what I want to be talking about on an evening when I'm actually out with my spouse and paying a babysitter a gagillion dollars to watch my kids." Instead, I end up saying something like, "I'm sorry to hear that. Who are they? I'd love to call them and talk about what we might do to fix it." I never get their names. Still, I'm conscious that the service takes a long time. Granted, Jesus is probably worth 90 minutes of our time every week, but I might be biased about that. Nevertheless, I'm always looking for ways to trim the length of the service--even by as little as 90 seconds.
But, when I see the option of cutting short the lesson from Acts 9 this Sunday, I want to pull my hair out and scream, "Cut it short?? Did you read the lesson? Just leave the whole damn thing out, then!" On Sunday, the RCL gives us the option of reading Acts 9:1-6 or Acts 9:1-20. Take a moment and read where the lesson ends if you cut it short:
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."That's it. That's the whole lesson. Saul is interrupted in his murderous threats. Jesus stops him in his tracks and strikes him blind. And then he tells him to go and wait for further instruction. Really?!? That's it? No scales falling from his eyes. No Ananias being told to go and lay hands on him. No baptism. No confession, "Jesus is the Son of God?" None of that? Why bother?
The story of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus is, perhaps, the greatest reversal in the New Testament except for the resurrection itself. And the RCL even considers the option of leaving it short? There is no option. Although it does a better job, the BCP lectionary also stopped a little short, cutting it after verse 19a. We must hear the full conversion. I'm all for the drama created by literary uncertainty, but not when it comes to this. Maybe I'm wrong, but I hope time-sensitive ministers like me are willing to sacrifice 120 seconds to hear the whole story. Even if you don't preach on it--I am--let the people hear it. It's too important to miss.