(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.