Seven Things You Can’t Say in Church

(Sixth Sunday after Pentecost    June 29, 2008     Genesis 22:1-14; Matthew 10:40-42)

This past week the comedian George Carlin died, and for several days, cable news played and re-played clips of two of his best-known routines: “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” and “Religion is”—well, that one goes on to use a word I cannot say in church! The first posed a question about community standards and whether we really have or should have any at all as a public culture. He provoked a conversation about whether certain words really mattered, at a time when every other word out of other comedians’ mouths did NOT begin with F.

Is it his fault my kids have grown up in a world where those words do? Or were we headed that way so clearly that he was simply naming the truth?

I think it’s probably more likely the latter. His social commentary pointed out a gap between generations that has become more profound in some ways. Younger people, and I include my own age-group and younger, tend to use more casual language, more often and in more situations. The old rules about what you can say where no longer seem to apply.

Except, perhaps in church.

But more importantly, in his later routine about religion, George Carlin raised questions that many other people share, probably most of them not sitting in churches this morning, and because they are not here to talk with us, it feels all the more important to give some thought to what they are thinking.

Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!
…But I want you to know something, this is sincere, I want you to know, when it comes to believing in God, I really tried. I really, really tried. I tried to believe that there is a God, who created each of us in His own image and likeness, loves us very much, and keeps a close eye on things. I really tried to believe that, but I gotta tell you, the longer you live, the more you look around, the more you realize, something is f___ed up.
Something is wrong here. War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades. Something is definitely wrong. This is not good work. If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the résumé of a Supreme Being.
  (George Carlin, 1999)

As a lifelong church-going girl, I feel sad when I read this, but at the same time I understand how it’s perfectly possible to reach such a conclusion, particularly if we’ve had a negative experience, or no experience, of the love and care of a church community. When we have a good basis, a firm foundation, we can take the time to talk about what the scriptures might mean. And if they really trouble us, we can put our fingers in our ears, perhaps just metaphorically, and say “Lalalala” until next week comes and with it another fragment of the gospel, hopefully bringing better or more understandable “good news.”

But the truth is that not everyone has that context. And a person coming in off the street today to hear this story, in Freeport or anywhere else, may not understand the longer arc of the story. If you’ve been here the past few weeks, you know that Abraham and Sarah waited many long years for a son, and suffered disappointments and dramas together. You know that Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, son of Hagar, Sarah’s maid, had been sent out into the wild, so this boy, Isaac, was the only remaining manifestation of God’s promise that Abraham would be the father of nations. Many chapters of the book of Genesis trace the journey of this would-be patriarch, and it is intended to be a shock, I do believe it, when God lays out the terms of the test and perhaps even more of a shock when Abraham goes along with it.

And then there’s Isaac, only son and heir, traveling up the mountain with his elderly father, wondering where the animal for sacrifice could be?

“Daddy, where is the lamb?”

“Never  mind, son, God will provide.”

“Daddy, where is the lamb?”

“I told you, son, God will provide.”

It’s a horror story.

It repulses, even though it features that great moment of relief when the voice of the angel calls out and the ram is found trapped in the thicket, a ready substitute, a sacrificial lamb of the most literal sort. 

I’ve heard this story dozens of times, maybe hundreds, and it is just one story among many that I admire as storytelling but dislike as theology. I especially dislike what it has to say about God.

That may be one of the seven things some people would think we can’t say in church. They might include:

•    What kind of God is that?
•    I think that time, God was wrong.
•    God asks too much.
•    I don’t know the answer.
•    This story makes no sense.
•    Or, simply, “Holy crap!”

Now, this story makes many preachers decide to pass Genesis and go directly to Matthew. Here we get no story of child sacrifice. Instead we get three short verses that turn in and around on themselves and leave us wondering about the deep meanings of words as ordinary as “welcome” and “reward” and even “water.”

"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, NRSV)

I think the author’s style, very appropriate rhetorically for the first century, creates confusion. I’m going to take a chance and say the reward of being a disciple, whatever that may be, comes when you show welcome and care for others. Being a disciple, a follower faithful to Jesus and his way, means going out and welcoming in, having a real openness both to the love of Jesus and to the one who sent him. It means noticing the little ones, the people on the margins of the church and the town and the world. It means sharing the water that quenches all thirst, sometimes by literally sharing a cup of cold water.

I wonder what George Carlin might think of that?

Abraham-isaacYou see, his impression of church came from the way a lot of churches are: groups of people bound together not just by faith, but by practices that may be obscure to people who do not belong. When we are on the inside, we can’t see how hard it is to understand us from the outside.

On that climb up the mountain, even a child knew that you needed a lamb to take to a sacrifice. Abraham knew well that he had to leave his servants down the hill, because his new religion, this religion of one God, had moved past the sacrifice of children. Even the servants would have known that, would have thought the old man had gone a little crazy, might even have stepped in to save the boy. They had to be wondering, too, what was going on.

“Daddy, where is the lamb?”

“God will provide.”

Well, God did provide, but I can tell you, whether or not we like to say this in church, I don’t like God’s choice to test Abraham.  It makes no sense to me, or it makes too much sense in a hard, unpleasant way. Yet I cannot simply sweep this God aside and skip over this story.  Here’s another thing we may hesitate to say in church, but we all need to say it sometimes: “Maybe I was wrong.”

I ask myself, and this is a question we might all ponder, how many times do I think I know what God wants and prepare to make the sacrifice *I* believe is needed, only to discover I had it all wrong? How many times do we think we comprehend the big picture, only to recognize that we really needed to be looking at a different section of the puzzle of life, that we need to put back that piece of sky and try another one in its place?

Perhaps we need to let Abraham and Isaac and their encounter with the angel of the Lord on Mount Moriah dwell alongside other ancient stories encounters between people and the gods or the God they worshiped.  Perhaps we need to let these larger-than-life figures hint at something about the way people understood the One God in that time and place long ago and far away and not hold this tale to such a strict standard of comparison with our modern lives.

Abraham and Isaac came down the mountain again, together, no doubt relieved, and we may feel the same way as we draw the curtain closed on their story, letting it rest until it comes around in the lectionary again three years from now to provoke us again.

And, curtain closed, it’s time to turn and look at one another, to return to the present and look around this church on this day. Abraham’s story reminds us how difficult it can be to share, with those we meet outside and those we greet within, an explanation of our faith and practice that does not sound ridiculous. It reminds us how difficult it can be to communicate some essence of our belief in the reality of God, the one who sent Jesus. It reminds us how hard it can be to express the truth of our own questions and our own humanity and our own faith. 

Maybe it will be simplest to start by opening the door in welcome and offering that cold cup of water. We can tell the other stories later. Amen.

19 thoughts on “Seven Things You Can’t Say in Church”

  1. You used exactly the portion of the Carlin quote that I did.
    Now I just have to find my own conclusion…
    Well done!

  2. yes, good use of Carlin. I’ve been thinking of him because his AM/FM album and the 7 words came out when I was in Jr. high or high school. My cousin’s family had the album AM/FM, and the idea was, one side was “clean” and the other side wasn’t. And they sent me and my siblings out of the room while the adults listened to the “other” side. But my cousins basically recited that side of the album to me word for word!
    the religion quotes were VERY good. great sermon! and A+ title.

  3. good stuff – until the last 2 paragraphs where you lost me. my brain took a turn and somehow I can’t find the train of thought… (but in my defense I did clean house today thoroughly… the fumes, the dust… they’re gettin’ to me)

  4. Thought provoking stuff. When George Carlin died I wondered how he would be received on the other side, knowing how bitter he was about the church and God. And the story of Abraham would have been part of that. That story is on my list to ask about.

  5. Songbird, I liked the original, but this is even better – love the idea of looking around today at our companions in worshipand starting with the hospitality basics. blessings on your preaching

  6. This passage is always difficult to hear and understand. Would any of us be so sure in our faith? Makes us squirm and makes us think.

  7. I’m discovering that younger pastors don’t seem to find it as challenging. It’s a pretty straightforward obedience text to some.
    I guess I’ve been in too many complicated situations to take anything as being that simple. Someone shared a story about a guy who said he would see his child killed rather than deny Christ, trusting that both he and his child were in God’s hands, so what did it matter? Um. Okay. That’s one way of looking at it. But a decision made in a moment and a lifetime of living with it are not the same thing, not at all. And I fear Abraham’s story sets people up to think if they hold their mouths the right way when they pray–in other words, if they follow certain instructions to the letter–then all shall be well on the material plane. And that I do not believe. It’s a cruel way of using the text.

  8. “Abraham’s story reminds us how difficult it can be to share, with those we meet outside and those we greet within, an explanation of our faith and practice that does not sound ridiculous.”
    Perfect. Our faith and (especially) our/my practice…can look awfully ridiculous. And a God who gives stinky “gotcha” tests? Lord help!

  9. Great stuff. So much of the time, it’s hard to believe that God is doing what God said God would do! Face value – faith value – it’s just hard. And yet it’s the simplest thing in the world.

  10. this was a perfect knitting together of the Gospel and world events. i bow in homage to your greatness…

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