Sermon bingo

Sermon bingo

If you could fill a bingo card with likely words for a Unitarian Universalist sermon, what might they be?


There’s a subversive, do-it-yourself version of bingo I learned about from a high school teacher. She and her colleagues play “buzzword bingo,” putting words they thought the school principal was likely to utter during a faculty meeting on bingo cards. As the principal was speaking, the teachers would check off the words on their cards, and the first person to fill a whole row or column called out “bingo”—softly enough to be heard by colleagues but (hopefully) not loudly enough to be heard by the principal.

The game gave expression to a feeling among the faculty that a lot of the words uttered during meetings were meaningless jargon. It wasn’t far into the meeting when some lucky teacher called out, “bingo.” On the upside, the winner gained five dollars, but, on the downside, he had to endure a very angry principal censuring him at length without her ever actually unclenching her teeth.

I have to say there is a lot to dislike about this form of bingo. It’s rude to the speaker, it draws attention away from what is actually being said, and it is an in-joke shared by a few listeners. Having said that, I can’t help liking it. This game makes us aware of language and its functions in a new way. To make up bingo cards like the ones used in the game, you have to extrapolate the key terms of a discourse and consider how that language functions.

Are the key words we hear in the discourse we listen to meaningless or meaningful to us? Do we hear the same language again and again until the words lose their ability to reach us? Are the words simply catchphrases meant to mark us as belonging to a group? Language should change us, move us, and bring us into a more intimate relationship with ourselves and with the world around us. When we don’t get that, we become bored, angry, even mutinous.

While buzzword bingo gives expression to some of those feelings, it isn’t only fit for subversion. Once we extrapolate the essential words that make up a particular kind of language, we may discover that many of them do resonate, that in fact the language in which we are awash rings for us like a bell.

If you could fill a bingo card with likely words for a Unitarian Universalist sermon, what might they be? This question is important to me, because I’ve been in churches where the words I heard were not meaningful to me and did not move me. Here are words I would put on my bingo card if we were playing “sermon bingo” in a UU church on a Sunday morning: justice, equality, acceptance, gay, straight, spirit, compassion, celebrate, life, death, wonder, question, welcome, dignity, mystery, diversity.

Take a moment to consider whether these words differ markedly from words in other discourses, words in another denomination or in a presidential address, words culled from the language of commercials, or words you hear in your workplace. More importantly, consider whether these words call up something concrete for you, whether they connect you to something real in the world. When you hear the word justice, do you see the faces of friends struggling to gain or keep their rights? When you hear the word mystery, do you think of birdsong, the first light of dawn, the woods at dusk? When you hear the word welcome, do you see a gay couple entering a church for the first time, a little shy, a little unsure of their reception, and do you experience a longing to make them feel at home? If so, then “bingo!” you are in the right place on a Sunday morning.

We come to church to hear meaningful words spoken to us. Our faith does not use ornate language or a fancy liturgy. We tend to say, “Here are some words that are important to me. Maybe they are important to you, too.” As we go about our life’s journey, perhaps it would be helpful to create a bingo card full of words that matter to us. It might be helpful to others if those cards were shared. It may be that there’s an empty space on someone’s card that one of your words could fill. Maybe the filled card, when you read it aloud, sounds a lot like prayer.

Maybe it’s a little bit silly but I envision a church full of people, listening avidly to a sermon. The Sunday morning sun shines through the windows and falls on the cards they hold. Each card is lined with white squares, and in each white square is a meaningful word. Every once in a while, where someone might call out “amen” in a fundamentalist church, we hear a voice, raised in joy and praise, calling out “bingo!”