Who Are We Here For?

(Preached at Melville United Church, Fergus, on February 4, 2018)

One of the difficulties with the lectionary is that we tend to read passages in isolation, with little or no context gleaned from the surrounding material. We read this passage from Corinthians today:

For thought I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all… To the Jews, I became as a Jew… To those under the law, I became as one under the law… To those outside the law, I became as one outside the law… To the weak I became weak… I have become all things to all people…

With our twenty-first century eyes, and without the surrounding parts of Paul’s letter, we are at risk of misleading this.

Paul is not a people-pleaser, pandering to the masses, changing his mind a dozen times a day. Nor is this a recipe for clergy burnout, an attempt to do and be the impossible.

Rather it is the message of an astute disciple who understands how his actions appear to unbelievers and newly minted Christians.

Paul starts off this section in his letter to the Corinthians talking about food sacrificed to idols? Is it all right for Christians, who do not believe in the idols, to participate in the community feasts held in their honour? After all, these established Christians know it’s just food, and those feasts are probably rare chances for them to get together with their entire community.

Yet Paul tells them to refrain, not because the food is unclean, nor because they would be actually worshipping idols, but because their participation might confuse new Christians, causing them to believe that they can worship both idols and Jesus. Even worse, it might cause them to see Christians as insincere in their faith and to reject the Gospel altogether.

That problem hasn’t gone away.

A number of years ago, I asked members of my online writing forum who didn’t go to church any more why they had stopped attending. The replies were revealing.

Not a single one of them said that they had stopped going to church because they no longer believed in God, or that they didn’t need either God or the church.

Rather, the replies were like this one, from a member who lives in a developing nation:

I stopped going to church because although I live in a poor community, our priest drove a new car and wore fancy clothes.

As Christians who want to share the gospel, we need to be sensitive to the context in which we minister.

I regularly eat meals with friends and family who are either alcoholics or recovering alcoholics. When I’m with them, I don’t drink. Not because I’m against drinking alcohol, but because I don’t want them to feel that they need to drink in order to be like me. Having learned how alcohol affects the brain, I realize that even just looking at my drink causes neurons in their brains to fire that could cause them to relapse, and I do not want my glass of wine with my meal to be the reason they fall.

In the church, we like to say all are welcome. We even have a song: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

But is that really true? Are we, as Paul says, really all things to all people?

Some churches, especially small rural churches, are having difficulties with new standards for accessibility. But even those churches that have elevators and ramps to get inside almost never have accessible chancels. Everyone is welcome, unless you feel called to be a minister, in which case, you’d better be able to climb a few steps… We have a shortage of ministers right now—how many really good ones might we have turned off ministry because when we renovated our buildings, we failed to see all of the barriers?

There are barriers, too, that we don’t even notice for those with developmental and psychological disabilities. Most of you know that I have a son, David, who is an ordained minister. Most of you know that I have a daughter, Allison, who plays the cello and teaches music. I’m not sure, though, how many times I’ve talked about their younger brother Robin. Robin is severely autistic. As a child, he would often have temper tantrums. Even at his best, he needs one-to-one help to stay focussed on any task. When he was five or six, his father and I were told that in order for him to continue attending Sunday School, one of us would have to be with him.

That might seem like a reasonable request. If we didn’t stay with him, someone else would have to learn how to deal with him. The church might even have to pay someone to be with him.

But we came to church in part for relief. To be, for a single hour, free from the need to be always on the alert.

His father’s decision was that neither he nor Robin would attend church any more. That decision cost the church two regular attendees, one of whom was not quite a believer, and yet who had taught Sunday School because that is where his gifts are, and because he felt that if his children were going to attend church, that they should at least know their Bible stories! He might have, in time, come to see the church and the Gospel as something valuable. Instead, he stays at home with our son to this day.

In 1988, the United Church as a whole declared that gays and lesbians were welcome as full ministers, and all members were eligible to be considered for ordained ministry.

Thirty years later, it’s still a struggle for some. Churches are still reluctant to declare themselves affirming because of protests from one or two members.

And some recent stories indicate that those who do go through the process invariably lose a couple of die-hard opponents of inclusion. Those same congregations often find that despite those losses, a few years after their designation as affirming congregations, attendance at worship has doubled, or tripled, or…

Because more than 80 percent of those outside the church are affirming of equal rights for LGBTQQ2+ folks, and the insistence of some churches, which is not backed up by any of Christ’s actions or words, that only heterosexuals are loved by God has turned them off church and off God.

Even more recently, I’ve been reading books about the different ways people learn. We all have a primary learning style, and researchers have named the three primary styles. There is auditory, which means we learn by hearing, visual, which means we learn by seeing, and kinesthetic, which means we learn by doing.

Protestant churches are a huge fan of auditory learning. Sit still, keep quiet except during the hymns, and focus on what is being said. Church decorations are to be modest, if present at all, and dancing is right out! Don’t clap, either during hymns or after the anthem. Just sit there and listen, preferably with your arms crossed and a slight frown on your face that indicates you’re concentrating on what’s being said or sung. Could it be, perhaps, that one reason churches don’t thrive is because up to two-thirds of the population finds our traditional style of worship inaccessible and boring?

To be honest, traditional worship is my preferred style of service, except maybe for the “no clapping” part. I’m an auditory learner, and traditional ways of instruction suit me to a “t”. But many others, if not most others, are not like me. They need pictures, they need hangings and stained glass windows, they need movement and action. One of my learning goals around worship is to get better at integrating visual and kinesthetic components into worship. In order to make worship meaningful for all and not just some, I need to become a visual learner for the visual learners, I need to become a kinesthetic learner for the kinesthetic learners.

Becoming all things to all people does not mean disowning who we are. We do not have to change into ultra-conservatives just because we are amongst ultra-conservatives. We do not going to change into native persons because we are amongst natives. We do not suddenly have to lose our faith because we’re amongst unbelievers.

Rather, we need to mute those parts of us that might end up being barriers to others and keep them from seeing Christ in us. We should take the time to learn about the life experiences of those who differ from us, whether those differences be cultural or racial, developmental, psychological, age-related or gender-related, or related to sexual orientation or learning style or physical ability.

Because as Paul says often, the Gospel and the love of God shown to us in Christ are not just for us and people like us, but for all of humanity, in all of its wonderful diversity.


Say “Friend” and Enter

(Preached at Trinity United Church, Guelph on March 11, 2018)

The word “fan” that we use so lightly to describe someone who likes something or someone has its root in the word “fanatic,” which is often used in a much less complimentary way to describe someone who is obsessed with something or someone.

I’ll leave it to you to decide which of those two descriptions describes someone who has read a particular thousand-page novel at least once every year for the last forty years, and who sat through the three films made from the novel a total of fifty-seven times in the theatre, not to mention uncounted times at home. This person (who shall not be named in order to spare her family the embarrassment) has gone through about six copies of the books in total, owns Lego, light-up plastic wine tankards with the characters on it, has a couple of super-sized plastic drink cups with figurines on top from the theatre, has a lovely knitted character doll that her extremely talented daughter made for her, and has more than a couple of posters, calendars, Valentine’s card sets, planners and notebooks, all based around the book and movies. Oh, and a couple of pieces of jewelry that she may or may not be wearing at the moment. Somewhere in her house, she has the One Ring, but Sauron will never find it under all that other junk, or so we can hope.

Okay, so “fanatic” it is…

It takes all types to make a world, or so the saying goes. Even Lord of the Rings fanatics have their place in this world.

One of the things that many of Tolkien’s 10 million and more fanatical readers may not know or may choose to ignore is the fact that Tolkien, though not writing straight allegory as his friend C.S. Lewis chose to do, did write from a distinctly Christian viewpoint. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and one of his sons became a priest. The world of Middle Earth comes complete with an entirely Catholic cosmology, including angels, demons, heaven, hell and purgatory.

The stories Tolkien tells of Middle Earth are rich in Christian symbolism and messages. Tolkien gives it to us straight about the dangers of absolute power, power that should belong to God alone. He tells stories of fall and redemption, death and resurrection, and hope amidst unbearable loss and the dark shadows of almost certain defeat.

The facet of the stories that I want to highlight this morning are about friendship, and the value and strength in diversity.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a world bedeviled with separatist attitudes. The doors and the trees that you see pictured on the screen were at one time a symbol of friendship between dwarves and elves, two very different races with very different gifts and values.

The friendship as so strong that the password was simply the Elvish word for friend. Not only was it a simple word, but it was actually written on the doors!

It would be, in today’s world, like leaving the password to your phone taped to the back of it, or leaving the door to your home wide open so anyone passing by could enter.

Can you imagine a world like that? That’s how deep the trust was between those two very different races.

But times changed. The beginning of the story that is Lord of the Rings, the free races are all ensconced in their little countries, defending their borders not only against the evil that is the Dark Lord Sauron, but against each other as well.

The fellowship of the Ring seeks to enter Lothlorien, a stronghold of the elves. The elves are willing to allow the fellowship to enter, but only if the dwarf Gimli is blindfolded, so he doesn’t spy out their secret ways.

Gimli, of course, doesn’t take this lying down. He refuses to go forward until he is joined in his blindness by the elf Legolas. The leader of the company, the human Aragorn, states that all the company shall fare alike, and that if one is to be blindfolded, so they all should be.

The elf Haldir, one of the elves of Lothlorien, justifies his actions by saying, “Folly it may seem. Indeed, in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly seen than in the estrangement that divides all who still oppose him. Yet so little trust do we find now in the world beyond Lothlorien, unless maybe in Rivendell, that we dare not by our own trust endanger our own land.”

It’s kind of like they wanted to build a wall between themselves and the world, isn’t it?

The separation of the races hurts more than it helps, though. Dwarves and elves and humans and hobbits spend valuable time and resources keeping one another at bay, time and resources that should have gone into destroying the enemy that threatened them all.

Fortunately for Middle Earth, Elrond, the half-elven Lord of Rivendell, is charged with creating a force to oppose Sauron by destroying the One Ring, and he commissions a fellowship consisting of representatives of four different race—elves, dwarves, humans and hobbits, as well as the wizard Gandalf. Each of the nine companions has their own gifts—Aragorn is wise and experienced, Boromir is strong and good with both sword and bow, Legolas the elf can see far off, and has an understanding of the natural world, and Gimli the dwarf keeps his head in underground spaces and has exceptional endurance. Even the hobbits, as small and as rustic as they are have their gifts—the appreciation of things as simple as good food, a warm bath, and a comfortable bed remind those who live under the shadow that there is something still worth fighting for, and their friendliness and trust and ability to make friends in a world where distrust and suspicion are the norm win them powerful and unlikely allies.

The diversity of the fellowship, seen by some as foolish or even dangerous, turns out to be their greatest strength, and the key to overcoming the dark power of Sauron.

And so it is in life and in the church.

There are all too many examples in our world of what happens when fear destroys our ability to interact with others who differ from us. Walls, shootings, immigration bans, hate graffiti, riots—these are only the most visible effects of xenophobia. We pat ourselves on the back when we realize that these things rarely happen in “our” city or country or church.

Yet there are more subtle signs that things are wrong in Canada as in Middle Earth.

Look around at who’s here. Do we see many different kinds of people, or do we see a lot of people who look and probably think just like us?

The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King once said that the most racially segregated hour of Christian America was 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. Things haven’t changed all that much in most churches, and in some ways it’s gotten worse. Churches are not only mostly monolithic as far as race is concerned, but also as far as political affiliation, age, sexual orientation, educational level, occupational status, and income. And churches, once leaders of inclusion, are now lagging behind society with regards to those whose physical, psychological, emotional and intellectual abilities are different from the norm.

That lack of diversity impoverishes us immensely.

Paul tells us that each of us has specific gifts—how are we to function as a church if some of those gifts are missing?

Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves—how can we do that if we don’t know anything about our neighbours beyond what the papers report?

The early church, before the establishment of an establishment, seems to me to have been incredibly inclusive. Jesus ministered to Nicodemus, a leader amongst the Jewish elite, in the dead of night. In the glaring light of the noonday sun he ministers to the village whore, one of the most marginalized people in the community.

His followers were also diverse—although we think of his followers simply in terms of the twelve (who were themselves a pretty diverse bunch), his regulars seem to have numbered about 120 people, including women of means who supported him, a well-to-do Jewish man who offered up his own burial site after the crucifixion, and his own mother and brothers and sisters, who may have thought he was crazy at times, but apparently followed him and loved him anyways.

After the resurrection, in the early days of the church, the diversity continued. In Acts we hear about the crowd at Pentecost being from every nation under heaven.

The individual baptisms mentioned in Acts highlight that diversity—from the baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch, a black man who would have been excluded from full participation in temple rites for a number of reasons, to a magician who seemed to be more interested in the disciples seemingly magical ability to heal than in the message of Jesus, to a Roman military commander, to a jailer and all of his family.

The early church debated whether or not non-Jews could become Christians without following Jewish dietary laws or having the males circumcised, and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t necessary for Gentile Christians to act like Jews in order to be part of the growing community.

As the church grew in numbers and power, and as bureaucracy settled in, the human urge to build walls reared its ugly head. Being Christian wasn’t good enough any more—in order to get into heaven, one had to subscribe to a particular form of Christianity. Still later, one had to also subscribe to European values and culture in order to be considered fully Christian. We lost trust in the world outside us, and the evil that stalks our world rejoices, knowing that as a divided people, our power and influence weakens.

Those walls we built are the source of our greatest sin—the shutting out of the Spirit of God present in those whose gifts and thought processes differed from ours. I would venture to say that those walls we build were also the cause of the near-extinction that mainline denominations have been threatened with in North America over the past few decades.

When our churches are so divided, when new people and new gifts and new ideas find it hard to find a way into our sanctuaries, it is inevitable that with the passing of time we will diminish.

A few weeks ago, Reverend Gaylyn gave a riveting sermon with the tagline, “Trinity—Agents of Transformation!” I think it was during that sermon that she mentioned that everyone is for transformation, as long as it doesn’t require us to change!

I’ve been around Trinity now for twenty seven and a half years, and I can honestly say that I’m incredibly hopeful. Things really are changing, and they’re changing for the better.

Today, we welcomed eiight new adults into fellowship with us here at Trinity. Whereas two decades ago most of our new members would have been either teens who grew up at Trinity being confirmed, or members of some other United Church who were transferring, today only three of our new members are transfers. I don’t know the church backgrounds of those who are reaffirming their faith or being baptized, but I find the trend a hopeful one. We are, for the first time in a very long time, receiving new members who may not share church backgrounds that are similar to ours, who may have different understandings of the bible, of faith, and of culture.

Another change I’ve seen, especially over the past two or three years, is a change in our worship. I know it’s uncomfortable for some, and encouraging for others. I also know that the most valuable thing that’s come out of it is the conversations about what is really important in worship. Why do we do what we do, and why do we do it in the way that we do it? How do we honour every person’s need to feel closer to God? How do we honour the need of every person to share their particular gifts with the rest of the congregation?

I personally don’t know the answers to any of these questions, though I’ve been asking them and trying to find the answers for years. I do know that inclusiveness is a journey, not a destination. As soon as we find answers to our questions, the both the answers and the questions become obsolete.

What I do know is that inclusiveness isn’t just something we ought to try because “it would be nice” if everyone felt welcome. It’s quite literally a matter of life and death for the church and for society.

We need to throw open the doors, make the passwords understandable not just for those inside and those who are like those who are inside, but for those who don’t know what we’re about, who don’t even know we’re here.

We’ll have squabbles, and disagreements. We’ll mourn and wish that the church stayed forever the way it was in our memory of the “glory days.” We’ll be incensed that traditions that we find meaningful and spirit-filled are discarded because the newcomers don’t feel the same way. We’ll grumble when we have to learn new hymns, when the drums are too loud, when the children too rambunctious, when someone sits in “our” pew.

That’s okay. Really. We’re allowed to be human.

But we should never, ever, let our complaints and disagreements blind us to the truth of the gospel, so well put in John 3, verse 16.

For God so loved the world that God gave the one and only Son, that whosoever believes should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.

I am a “whosoever.”

You are a “whosoever.”

And the person in this church who is least like you, or least like me, and who may annoy the heck out of you or me, is also a “whosoever.”

We are all friends here. We all belong. We all have gifts to share.