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.

Amen!

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Finding the Unknown God

(Preached at Ripley-Bervie/Kinloss Pastoral Charge, May 21, 2017)

The 17th chapter of Acts starts with Paul in the city of Thessalonica. For three sabbath days in a row, he goes to the synagogue to argue with the Jews and explain the scriptures in light of Jesus the Messiah.

Some of those who heard were receptive, and became believers.

Some of them became incensed. They went to the house where Paul and Silas were staying. When they didn’t find the two men, they dragged their host Jason and some other believers before the city officials, accusing them of “turning the world upside down” and of proclaiming a king other than the Emperor.

Paul went on to Beroea, where more Jews and devout Greeks listened and receive the Word, but the jealous Jews followed them and incited the crowds against them.

Paul fled again, this time to Athens. He was deeply disturbed to find a city full of idols, and spent his time arguing with anyone who would listen—in the synagogues, in the marketplace, wherever he happened to be.

Athens at that time was noted as a cosmopolitan city where the inhabitants were entranced by the new and improved, but Paul seemed to confuse them. Was he proclaiming a new religion or a new god? Was he drunk? What on earth was he trying to say?

So they grabbed him and brought him to the Areopagus, which could have been either the council of the Areopagus, or the hill itself. Either way, they asked him to explain himself.

He starts off by complimenting his audience. Those idols which so distressed him are evidence of a deeply religious people who are searching. But the altar with an inscription reading “To an unknown god” indicates to him that they’re not really certain what they’re searching for.

Paul then goes on to explain to the Athenians that the God they were searching for was God who created the universe. He explains that the Creator is separate from the creation, and does not need to be served by it. God is not made of gold or silver, God does not live in a temple. All human beings are from one ancestor, and are one people, created in God’s own image and that we are born searching for God.

And Jesus, in the Gospel of John, tells us that God, through the Spirit, is with us always, and simply waits to be recognized.

What a powerful pair of readings for today’s world!

It seems that the entire world has become one big Athens—everything has to be new and improved.

Line up at midnight to get the latest iPhone before everyone else does, because the one you bought six months ago is already obsolete!

Listen to the talk show doctors, who advocate a different weight loss strategy every week.

Throw out last year’s clothes and buy new ones—styles have changed since last Spring, don’t you know?

And of course we’re all waiting anxiously for the next season of America’s Got Talent, because who knows what crazy thing the contestants will do to get noticed?

And yet our society is more religious than ever.

We can pick and choose not only which God to worship, but how to worship that God. Sacrifice or incense? Meditation or dance? Traditional worship service or snake handling and speaking in tongues? Do we throw coloured pigments, or smear foreheads with ashes?

Even the atheists have a form of religious expression, sermonizing against the evils of religious expression.

And many of us are babblers, which my bible helpfully describes as someone who pick up scraps of learning here and there and welds them together into a less-than-coherent whole.

Everywhere, there are the lost, searching for the God they do not know.

I believe the desperate search for the novel, the addiction to the “new and improved” is a symptom of an illness that can have tragic results. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for well-thought-out and -researched change. I enjoy new products, new activities, learning new things.

But I do that all from a base of knowing who and what I am, and knowing in whose image I am made.

When the base isn’t there, that deep down knowledge that we are loved, that we are created in the image of God, that we are only a part of a whole that is much larger than our own selves, the pain and suffering can be deadly.

Today’s world is not the world in which our ancestors lived. In times past, children grew up knowing to which class they belonged, what their employment and income would likely be, what kind of person they would marry. Most people lived and died within a very short radius of where they were born. They followed the religion and traditions of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

Mobility did happen, but not quickly, and not to many people.

Athens in Paul’s time was more like a modern city than like a village of its own time. People came from everywhere, and they didn’t necessarily follow the paths laid out at their birth. To paraphrase the musical Hamilton, “In Athens you can be a new man,” or woman. Choice was possible, but with choice comes a severing from the roots.

And with the severing from the roots comes a time of fear and dislocation. You wonder how you’re going to survive. You wonder if maybe you should go back to what you were, and when you find that isn’t possible, fear takes hold.

Sometimes the fear wins.

Suicide rates are high amongst those who face changes that they can’t navigate. Seniors faced with the end of their productive years, and unsure of what is to follow, but sure they won’t like it. Queer young people who come out to friends and family, only to find themselves abandoned to a world that views difference with loathing. College students, away from home for the first time in their young lives, caught between the pressure not to waste all that money partying, and the need to kick up their heels and let loose. Aboriginal peoples, longing for a way of life that was stolen from them, and unable to find a place for themselves in a country that still views them as alcoholic, uncouth savages.

There are people everywhere searching for they don’t know what.

So they worship idols. They give thanks to “whoever might be up there,” for the things that go well, and cry for deliverance to whoever is handy when trouble arises.

We live in interesting times.

On the one hand, when the whole order of creation seems to be in flux, some people, like the Jews in Thessalonica and the terrorists and hate-mongers of today, react with jealousy and anger.

But when everything is shifting, then too, we have a chance. Into the cracks of certainty, we can insert the message: There is a God, who is bigger than any evil that can happen. We are all one family, haters and lovers alike, and we are all made in the image of that God. As God loves us, so we are called to love one another. We are not alone.

Like Paul, we will find, if we take that message to the streets, that many will not listen. Some will hate us and persecute us. And some…

Some will listen. Some will find Jesus. Some will come home.

So go, and tell the Good News that God is out there, waiting to be found.

Do not be afraid, for two thousand years have shown us that the message is true and will endure.

You are not alone. You are never alone.

Thanks be to God! Amen.