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Seven Words You Can Say in Church

June 21, 2011

This is a sermon I wrote in 2008, shortly after the death of George Carlin.  I used the gospel lesson from this week’s Lectionary.

Matthew 10:40-42

Almost a week ago, comedian George Carlin died of heart failure at age 71.  Carlin was well known for his many appearances on television talk shows such as The Tonight Show, and for his absurd reflections on life, such as, “Why why do they lock the public bathrooms at gas stations?  Are they afraid that someone will clean them?”  And, “Those who dance are considered insane by those who can’t hear the music.”  (http://www.georgecarlin.com/home/home.html.)

Carlin, though, is most famous for a 1972 routine known as “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” in which Carlin uses seven obscenities, some of which still have shock value today.  While Carlin wondered aloud why these particular words were so offensive, law enforcement officials Milwaukee didn’t have to wonder, and Carlin was arrested for disturbing the peace when he said the seven famous words at a show.  Later, the FCC attempted disciplinary action against a radio station that played an uncensored version of Carlin’s routine.

But Carlin was focused on the negative.  These are the words you can’t say on television.  But what about all of the things you can say?  It might not be funny, but our scripture lesson today shares with us the Seven Words You Can Say in Church.  Let’s take a look.

Our short reading from the Gospel according to Matthew is a conclusion to a long section in which Jesus gave instructions to the 12 disciples he sent out to the mission field.  First, Jesus told them to go ahead of him to all the villages and towns, and to do all the things he was doing.  Tell them the good news that the kingdom of heaven is coming near; cure the sick; raise the dead; cleanse lepers; cast out demons.  (Matthew 10:7-8)

Then, he gave them warnings about what to expect.  Some people may not welcome you.  Some people may be hostile.  In fact, your own family may not accept your missionary work, but don’t worry.  God, who cares for the sparrows, will care for you.  Jesus said, “If people have treated me so poorly, could you expect that they would treat my followers any better?  You’ll have to pick up the cross every day.”  (Matthew 10:16-39)

And then Jesus ended with the words from our scripture lesson for today.  He said, “Not everyone will reject you.

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.  (Matthew 10:40-42)

And there it is, the Seven Words You Can Say in Church.  Just as in real estate, the three key things are “location, location, location,” in the church, the seven key concepts are “welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome and welcome some more.  And then give.”

Six times, Jesus used the word “welcome.”  Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, because you are my messengers, you are my representatives.  And because God sent me, God is also being welcomed.  Welcome a prophet and receive the reward of a prophet.  Welcome a righteous person and receive the reward of the righteous.  Jesus clearly believes in welcoming.

In our church, pastors are itinerant.  That means that if the Bishop tells us it is time to move on to another church, we must go.  Certainly, we can argue our case for not moving, but ultimately, if the Bishop has it firmly in her mind that we are to go, we must go.  This is the third church I have served, and so three times I have moved into a new community, and I knew almost nothing about the place.  And three times, my family and I have been warmly welcomed by people who didn’t know me from Adam.  I had done nothing to deserve that welcome.  I hadn’t preached any sermons, visited anyone in the hospital, baptized a child or celebrated a marriage.  The welcoming is a gift that I hadn’t earned.

Have you ever had an experience in your life in which you felt truly the gift of a warm welcome?  Were you ever at a time in your life where you felt as if you were wandering in the wilderness, not sure where to go, not sure where to find a friendly face or support?  And as you were welcomed from an unexpected source, what did that feel like?

Jesus encourages us to share the gift of welcome.  Perhaps the best place for us to practice sharing that gift is in our worship service.  Every week, we have two official greeters to welcome people to the service–old friends and new friends alike.  But what do you think it would be like if everyone thought of themselves as a greeter every week, lingering in the Narthex to give a warm smile and firm handshake to someone new, maybe looking around to see who’s sitting around you, and if they’re new to you, introducing yourself and saying “I’m glad we could worship together today.”

Some churches have teams of people trained to seek out new people and welcome them.  Some churches even have parking lot greeters not just to help new worshippers find appropriate spaces and make their way to the sanctuary, but also welcome them just as they arrive to church for the very first time.  As Ken Callahan says, there are no visitors in church.  Nobody comes to church to visit.  People come to worship, and when they do, we are being disciples when we give them a warm welcome.

The next place to practice welcoming is in your neighborhood.  In our world, people don’t connect with their neighbors like they used to.  A few weeks ago, a neighbor a couple of houses up the street came by while I was watering the lawn.  She said, “I feel so embarrassed that I haven’t done this yet, but I just wanted to say hello and welcome you to the neighborhood.”  We have lived in the parsonage for nearly three years, and even though it took her that long for her to say welcome, most of the people on our street have never come by.

But welcoming is not just about the “old” people reaching out to the “new.”  Welcoming is really about sharing care and hospitality.  When we moved in three years ago, I had intended to visit every single neighbor on the street within the first couple of months just to say, “Hello.  I’m glad we’re in the same neighborhood.  I’m here for you.”  And how many times did I reach out in welcoming to my neighbors?  You can count ‘em on one hand.  But how simple and easy it is to practice Christian welcoming in our neighborhoods!  And yet, most of us don’t see the opportunities that are right in front of us.

But some of you do see the opportunities.  I know at least one of you volunteers at a local hospital to give welcoming care to people who are in a place they don’t want to be.  I know another one of you who is frequently giving friends and family a place to stay or a few dollars when they have fallen on rough times.  Another one of you can be found out in the Narthex each Sunday giving a special welcoming greeting to people as they leave the worship service.  I know several of you who make it a point to visit with new people at Coffee Chat.  Welcome is a gift that we can all share with others, and it is a gift we have all received.  And “welcome” is six of the first Seven Words You Can Say in Church.

The final word is give.  “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…none of these will lose their reward.”  Even a cup of cold water.  How easy is that?  God sees and honors even the smallest gestures of kindness.  No gift of welcoming care is too small.

And we believe that God should know.  God is the author of giving.  Have you ever heard that one verse?…It’s…uh…John…yes…John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son”–not such a small gesture, either–“that everyone who believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life.”

That’s an extremely large and generous gift.  But God is not asking for the world.  How about a cup of cold water?  A loaf of fresh bread to a new neighbor?  A shoulder to cry on?  Helping an elderly neighbor with a chore?  God sees.  God honors those little gifts.  They are not insignificant because the “little ones” are not insignificant.

George Carlin might be right.  There may be seven words you can’t say on TV.  But Jesus said there are seven words you can say in church and anywhere else you live out your discipleship: welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome…and give.  And he wasn’t joking.

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