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.


The Nuts on the Family Tree

(Preached at Ripley-Bervie/Kinloss Pastoral Charge, Christian Family Sunday, May 14, 2017)

I was born in 1960 into what was then a very typical family: I had a mother and a father who were married to each other, and within a couple more years, I would have, in addition to my parents, a brother and a sister. We lived in a nice suburban semi-detached house, amidst lots of other families who were, at least on the outside, just like us.

Everybody went to church on Sunday. The fathers worked and the mothers stayed home, and there were no couples without children, or gay couples, or single parents, except maybe in the subsidized housing down the street and around the corner. Everybody was white, until the woman down the street married a black man.

Even as a child I knew that this 20th century ideal wasn’t universal, though. I knew it because for a few years, my parents were foster parents to babies who weren’t so lucky—infants who had been born to single mothers, or to parents otherwise unable to care for them. In 1969, we adopted one of those children—my brother Bill had been featured in the “Today’s Child” section of the Toronto Star. He’d been difficult to place because of his mixed Asian and Caucasian heritage.

My father had been an only child but I had, on my mother’s side, numerous aunts and uncles and first cousins. On Sunday afternoons, we, along with many of those aunts and uncles and cousins would converge on my grandparents’ house to talk and play and have roast chicken for dinner. All of my cousins’ families were just like us, except for my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Ronnie and their kids, who were Catholic. I thought that was a little odd—exotic even!

This was the family I grew up in.

Actually, this was the family I thought I grew up in.

It was only later on in life that I learned that there were many secrets. There are, in my immediate and extended family, adopted family members, divorced and remarried family members, family members who have become pregnant before marriage, adult family members who have never married, gay and lesbian family members.

In 2015, I had the joy of attending my brother’s wedding in St. Lucia. His wife Lisa is a lovely person. We met her family before the wedding. Her mother, and her sister, and her mother’s current husband. We also met Lisa’s biological father, and the biological father of her sister, who had adopted Lisa when she was an infant. At the wedding, all three men—Lisa’s biological father, her adoptive father, and her stepfather, stood side-by-side wearing identical outfits, and when the officiant asked, “Who gives this woman to be married?” they answered in unison, “We do!” Who walked Lisa down the aisle? My brother’s son Patrick, now her stepson.

My family tree is like some kind of exotic hybrid that bears apples and pears and peaches and walnuts and beechnuts all on branches that come from the same trunk!

And the truth is, I think this exotic, beautiful, exciting tree is more “normal” than the “Leave it to Beaver” family with two parents, one male, one female, and the two-point-one children that television would have us believe is the ideal to strive for.

I was taught as a child that that “ideal” family was not only a cultural ideal, but one ordained by God. God created them male and female, and children should grow up to fall in love with and marry one and only one person of the opposite sex, who is not closely related to them by blood, and have children. This nuclear family should live in their own suburban castle, and be self-supporting, but they should definitely visit the grandparents on a regular basis.

But a close study of the Biblical witness refutes this interpretation of what a family should be. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah, and had a child by his wife’s slave girl. Sarah didn’t have a child until she was well into old age. Isaac grew up, got married, and had twins who were rivals from the moment they were conceived. Jacob grew up and had two wives and many children, some of whom sold their brother into slavery.

David married Saul’s daughter Michel, and Abigail, and Ahinoam, and Maacah, and Haggith, and Eglah. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, then sent her husband to his death in battle and married her.

As one of my classmates said in a seminar on marriage, the biblical standard for marriage is polygamy!

By the time of the New Testament, this practice is dying out. By the time 1 Timothy was written, it was obviously becoming viewed with disfavour, as according to this letter, a bishop was to be above reproach, the husband of only one wife.

The Biblical witness and a study of different cultures and times serve to show us that what I grew up thinking was a “normal” family structure isn’t universal, or normal, or ordained by God. It is simply one of the many ways human beings can covenant with one another to support each other and nurture the young.

And that’s essentially what a family is—a group of human beings brought together by covenant to support and nurture one another.

The two readings this morning were chosen to highlight not the form the family takes, but the function.

Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. They were going to kill him, but decided that selling him was the better option. Maybe they felt bad about committing murder, or perhaps the chance to make a little profit appealed to them. However it came to be, Joseph endured years of servitude, and unjust accusations leading to time in prison, and finally found himself as a top advisor to Pharaoh.

You’d think that after such a life, he would cut his brothers off, forget that he even had a family. But when his family is threatened with starvation, he’s there. He plays a few games with them, it’s true, but he acknowledges the kinship and steps up to the plate to do his part when it’s needed.

In the gospel reading, Jesus is dying on the cross, and his mother, presumably widowed by this time, is weeping below. Jesus turns to one of his disciples and says, “This woman is now your mother. Take care of her as you would your own.” And that disciple stepped up to the plate and did his part, taking her into his own house.

That’s what families are for—mutual support and caring that is given freely, and not bought or bartered for. Faithfulness, not to the form of the covenant—to the marriage or to who lives with you or to who is related to you by birth—but to the function, to loving and nurturing and caring for one another.

The church, at it’s best, is a family.

The last time I was here, I went after the service at St. Andrew’s with my friend Heather, who is as much my sister as anyone born to my mother could be, to have lunch at Boston Pizza. By now, some of you know that her husband is from Kincardine, and that she knows some folks who live around here, so I expected that if anyone knew either one of us, it would be her.

But as we were going out to my car, someone said my name. “Ruth!” she called, and I turned around.

I didn’t recognize her or her husband, but I thought maybe someone from here or [the other church] had come to lunch.

“It’s Shirley Marie and Ron ******,” she said.

My jaw dropped.

Shirley Marie and Ron were members of Rexdale United Church when I was growing up. Rexdale is the first church family which truly nurtured and loved me. I was confirmed there, married there, and my first child was baptized there.

Ron and Shirley Marie hadn’t seen me in almost thirty years when they hailed me in that parking lot, yet they knew me and were delighted to see me.

Because they’re part of the family.

I went back to Rexdale once, to celebrate the 80th birthday of a long-time friend. Since I left 30 years ago, it’s amalgamated with another church and become Martingrove United, yet as long as there are folks there who were part of Rexdale when I was growing up, I know I will have a welcome.

Since I’ve moved to Guelph, Trinity United has been my home. I’m not always there on a Sunday, but I manage to attend regularly enough to check in with my church family, and they can check in with me.

We support, care for and nurture one another in Christ.

When I have gone through difficult times, they’ve been there with the prayer shawls and prayers, casseroles and food, and even money.

When others in the church are facing difficult times, I join with the congregation in providing the same care and support that I’ve received.

We sometimes get to choose who is part of our family—we choose our spouses, we choose to have children, we choose those dear friends who are as close as kin to us. We can choose which church we attend. Other family members we get stuck with—our parents, our grandparents, our siblings.

But whether we choose them or are simply gifted them by God, we are called as Christians to love them and care for them to the best of our ability. Even if sometimes they are a little nuts.