My favorite author tweeted the following 140 characters this afternoon:
“If authors avoid all words that readers object to, we’d be left with no vocabulary except ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ‘But’ would be out.”
As I write my sermon for next weekend on Matthew 10:40-42, the Gospel reading from the Lectionary, I think it is appropriate to ponder how the language choices we make as Ministers of Word and Sacrament (RCA), Teaching Elders (PC(USA)), Preaching Elders and all who attempt to faithfully preach the Gospel to the ends of the Earth impact the way they are received and taken into the world. My Princeton Education professor talked about Explicit, Implicit and Null Curriculum until he was blue in the face throughout my class with him this past spring, and given that I never felt a direct call to be a church educator (or any sort of educator otherwise), I may or may not have ignored the meaning of these words other than their obvious meanings; however, as preachers and ones who are called to live out the Gospel in our daily lives, these three disciplines so-to-speak speak volumes, and here’s how. Explicit, implicit and null curriculum for a lack of a better explanation, all imply different things, but for the sake of this blog post, each can imply things from the pulpit as well. The language choices we as pastors and preachers make in our sermons, beginning with our exegesis, use of commentaries, and even our choice of translations (NRSV, NIV, ESV, CEV, etc.), sends a variety of messages to the congregations we are serving on a number of levels. Complicated, no?
I am preaching for the second time at my home congregation, which is by no coincidence the congregation supporting me for ordination, next weekend. Being a lectionary preacher at my core, I felt God leading me to choose the assigned texts for that Sunday, which coincidentally came from Matthew 10:40-42; this text picks up on Jesus’ lengthy “whoever” instructions to the Twelve as they are about to head out to the Gentiles, which begins in verse 5. Jesus has been going on for quite some time, instructing them on how to minister and spread the Gospel in the Gentile communities, and then he comes to verse 40.
“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.” (10:40-42, NRSV)
Matthew 10:40-42 is a message of hospitality and inclusivity, not just Christ’s to his disciples, but also to us as pastors to our congregants, and as Christians to one another and to those of other faiths and no faith at all. We have been accepted and welcomed, flaws, faults, brokenness and perfections; because of that, it is of the utmost imperative that we also welcome. We cannot welcome, warn, encourage and exhort if we are masking the message of the one who came before; we will not lose our reward in heaven (or our reward in the here and now…hint hint membership in the Body of Christ) if we are too fearful to do so.
My favorite author got it right in 140 characters, and Matthew’s Gospel got it right in two verses; but regardless of the character length, the message we as the Body are encouraged to follow is clear – how we convey the Gospel and the words we use to do so sends a specific message. By removing certain words because they are deemed too difficult or challenging removes the power of Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of sinful humanity, as well as God’s initial selfless desire to form a perfect creation ex nihilo. Shocking as it may be, the commandment is to be radically inclusive, not exclusive, and I take that to also include the language of sermon writing as well; congregations need to be challenged, not sheltered from difficult texts, especially in a world of instant gratification, “vending machine Christianity” and an “I do what I want and deal with the consequences later” mentality. The language choices (explicit, implicit and null) used in a sermon indicates a personal willingness to lay one’s life down for the Gospel – perhaps not literally (which is ok), but even theologically. Accepting God’s call to ministry comes not without a further acceptance that boldness (a word which Paul uses frequently in his letters to the various churches across the First and Second Century Mediterranean world) is a must; using bold language in sermons, albeit intentional and carefully placed, is not only a must, but also good for the well-being of the congregation. To borrow from my favorite author, if ministers used only the words that their flock agreed with, their sermons would be quite brief, if substantive at all.
We are encouraged and even commanded to boldly preach, as Christ’s ministry on Earth and God’s initial act of creating was bold; if we are to read scripture and faithfully live according to it, then it seems only right to continue such a streak. What is more, it seems to me an act of loving hospitality to not censor the language of our sermons, our prayers and our liturgy out of fear that someone, somewhere at some point might find a minute problem with it. Life ought not be lived in fear, and yet for many it still is; therefore, the preaching and sharing of the Gospel should not be associated with fear, at least in the context of the church, in our context as modern Americans (despite the fact that in many corners of God’s creation, it still very much is).
Have courage and preach courage, because courage fosters courage and acceptance, as well as hospitality and boldness, not just in our congregations, but also out there in the big, bad, amazing world! Christ’s message was bold in the first place, and his intention was not to encourage others to be safe for generations to come, but to breed a church that was radical; thus, don’t mince or parse words out of fear of offending this congregant or that one, but do so in the name of Jesus Christ, who was willing to sacrifice it all so that we could be welcomed, and therefore welcome others.