February 14, 2015

By Any Means Necessary?


(There is no recording available for this sermon.)

Text: 1 Corinthians 9:22b: “I have become all things to all people,
so that I might by any means save some.”

We can be pretty sure what Paul would be to us today: He would be a snowplow driver. He would be a Florida real-estate salesman. He would find some way to come alongside our greatest need, and would find a way to get us into church, get us baptized, get us coming more often than we do by leveraging that basic fact about us.

Later, once we found ourselves signing up for coffee hour or work days or the volunteering at the food pantry or helping out at the Shrove Tuesday pancake supper, we might—we might wonder about what happened to that nice man who promised us a time-share on the beach or waterfront property or a clear driveway and sidewalk no matter how much snow fell.

There is something just slightly slippery about this statement of the Apostle Paul. Something just a little unsettling. Can we really trust someone who so bluntly admits that he’s trying to be all things to all people? Can you trust someone who wants to get you into the church by any means?

It sounds almost a little unprincipled, doesn’t it? If there’s nothing Paul won’t do to get people baptized and into the church—well, is it a place worth being part of? All things to all people sort of sounds like anyone at all might end up here. Is that really what we want to join?

It’s a little disorienting, this idea of a person who wins our confidence to bring us along into the community of the church—and then, when we turn around at coffee hour, is chatting up someone else in a totally different way.

I mean, here I thought he was interested in the Patriots.

That’s what we started talking about, you know, when this guy just pulled up next to me in South Station, and I’m there in my Patriots coat, and he starts talking to me about Malcolm Butler and that amazing interception, and here he seemed really pretty smart about the Pats.

And now I just walked by him and he’s talking to that woman I don’t know about the late Beethoven string quartets. I mean, when has Beethoven ever been in the Super Bowl? Who is this guy, anyway?

•  •  •

It’s enough of a challenge getting us to join a group these days. Most of the groups we join are of people who like the same things we do or enjoy the same things we enjoy. We do meetups with complete strangers because we all agree that we like the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, or we all are interested in knitting with alpaca wool, or we are all left-handed goose quill calligraphers.

Getting us to join a group of people who might be really different from us—that’s a harder sell. What are they like? What do they think? Why would I have anything in common with them?

So to find out the same person who brought me to the gathering of alpaca knitters is also showing up at the archery enthusiasts meet-up—well, that’s a little weird. Can we, you know, really trust him?

We can’t really know what it looked like for Paul of Tarsus to be all things to all people, or as near as he could manage to it. We don’t know ridiculous he made himself, or how his reputation might have suffered, or what the folks in Ephesus thought when he started talking to the folks in Corinth.

But we do know this: It worked. At least, it worked pretty well. The people he found ways of connecting with, they stayed. Those little churches of his flourished.

We may be suspect of a person willing to do anything, and what’s more saying he’s willing to do anything, to get us to join his cause. We’re pretty suspect of anyone who wants us to join anything anyway; we’re especially suspect of anyone who’s so willing to be up front about their objectives.

But there’s some good news here.

The first piece of good news is, here we are. We all, somehow got taken in by this con man, and thank heavens we did, because at least my life is so much richer for knowing all of you, and almost none of you are folks I’d meet at any meetup I would go to, and I suppose the same must be true about me.

Our lives in the community of faith confront us with an important piece of evidence about ourselves that is always worth considering: We actually manage pretty well being among people who are different from ourselves, and indeed without them—without each other—we would feel a great deal poorer, diminished by a considerable measure.

And the second piece of good news is, because there are so many of us, such a wide variety of folks here, none of us have to be all things to all people. Because by God’s grace enough of us are here, a wide enough variety of us have come to this faith, that all of us together will find some way to make a welcome to just about anybody.

But that means one thing more: All of us are part of the means by which God grows the church. All of us have a circle of friends, all of us dwell in a number of intersecting circles. Of course not everyone in those circles would want to be part of a community of people trying to figure out their spiritual lives. But some of them probably would be.

The good news is that we only have to be some things to some people. We only have to be willing to talk about our faith, about this community we’ve found, when people we already know through some other connection give us a signal that they’re interested in this part of our lives.

Now here’s the challenging news. When that happens—when that moment offers itself—we have to have the courage, the will, the audacity, to speak up. The minister can’t be the only person at Saint John’s advocating for Saint John’s. First of all, I don’t know nearly as many people as you do, and I don’t have nearly as many Facebook friends. None of us have to do this all of the time, but all of us have to do it some of the time, so that some of the people we know might find their way here by any means useful.

Epiphany, the season of manifestation, does not happen without us, the manifesters, doing our part. It isn’t all up to each one of us, by God’s grace. But it is up to all of us together. By any means we are capable of, by any means each one of us can offer in the world, God’s grace is shared and shed. Amen.