New Life United Methodist Church, Grant, Alabama
Rev. Sherill Clontz, Pastor

All Things to All People
February 8, 2009
1 Corinthians 9:16-23

16 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel?!

I don't know about you, but the "woes" always get to me! For whatever reason, I can read the threats of hell with its wailing and gnashing of teeth without pausing, but every time I read a "woe" passage, I stop. Perhaps it is because hell seems like something in the future and woe seems like a present reality. But I think the real reason the word stops me in my tracks is that while I really have no concept of what wailing and gnashing of teeth might be like, I know something of woe.

Woe is that feeling when you have lost something wonderful. It is that gut wrenching feeling that nothing will ever be the same and that perhaps nothing will ever be right. It's the feeling of regret you have when you realized you missed your chance to say goodbye, to say "I love you," to say "I'm sorry." Woe is a feeling I know and one I wish to avoid at all cost. And of the sixty-five verses in the New Revised Standard version of the Bible proclaiming "woe" nearly half are found in the New Testament and most come from the lips of Jesus. But here is Paul proclaiming a woe-not on someone else-but on himself: Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!

So I stop and I ponder.

For a month now, we've been talking about God's call and our response to that call. And just a moment ago, we watched a beautiful drama illustrating what it means to respond to that call. I love those words:" I'm captured by Your holy calling." Then the chorus, "Call me, guide me, lead me, walk beside me, I give my life to the Potter's hand."

We have been called to this place. God has called us here and God has called us here despite the fact that we are far less than perfect, far from wise, and all too ready to sin, to doubt, to fear. And yet, God has called us here. As I said to someone yesterday, who remarked that the surprising thing about New Life to him was that there were lots of people like him here: "Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys!"

Do you remember that Christmas special? It was a follow on to Rudolph the Red Nose reindeer. It was the island where all the mismatched and odd toys went to live. Trains with square wheels. A cowboy riding an ostrich. Or a Charlie-rather than a Jack-in the box. And they lived a life of woe on the island because they were not doing what they had been created to do-which was to bring joy to a child---until, of course, Rudolph shows up and they find a new meaning and purpose in life. And that is what Jesus has done to us. He has found us, accepted us, and called us to have a new purpose in life!

What good news!

What a tremendous calling!

And woe to us, if we don't share that good news with others! Woe to us if we do not share the good news -the Gospel-of Jesus Christ! We call it evangelism-a word which means to proclaim the good news! And yet evangelism is a word that gets a bad rap-and let's be blunt, in my opinion, deservedly so.

Way too much of what is labeled evangelism is simply manipulation. It is cut off from any genuine care or relationship with others and is simply a way of adding more numbers to the folks someone claims to have "saved." It's knocking on a door, approaching a stranger in a park, saying a prayer, asking them to fill out a commitment card, and then walking away.

But notice this is NOT what Paul is recommending. Paul says that he became all things to all people so that some might be saved.

So let's tease this out a bit. What is Paul recommending and how might it be different from door to door evangelism?

For Paul, the Christian life is a life modeled on the example of Christ. Specifically, for Paul, the Christian life is a cross-shaped life-a life molded by the example of one who gave up the glory of God to dwell in our midst and to become so like us that he even faced the ultimate end of all human beings-he died for us! And, therefore, we are called to do the same!

Luckily, few of us will ever be called to die for our faith-although there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than the 19 centuries preceding it! But we are called to give our lives for those Christ loves and that requires daily commitment not only to God but to those God loves. We are called to enter into their lives, to know them, and to walk with them as Jesus did. That is why Paul can be proud to proclaim that he has become all things to all people!

The passage we are studying today comes in the midst of a controversy with the Corinthians. The Christians of Corinth had heard the good news-they were free from the constraints of the law. They were free in Christ! And, well, they were apparently taking advantage of that freedom. They were eating meat offered to idols. They were drinking way too much of the communion wine before everyone arrived. They were not practicing much self-discipline. And when called to account, they would declare their freedom in Christ! And much of the book of 1 Corinthians is Paul telling them that they had misunderstood what that freedom meant. Sure, they had the right to do some of those things, but the bigger question was were they the right thing to do?

Many people who find their way to the doors of a Methodist church have similar ideas. I hear way too often that Methodists can believe anything they want. Or that Methodists are free to do whatever they please because we preach about a God who loves and forgives. Is that what Paul means by "being all things to all people"? Can we do what seems right in our own eyes simply because we won't be condemned by our church friends if we do so?

And what a strange reputation for a denomination that was started when a small group of men formed a "Holy Club" to study scripture, pray, and serve the least, the last, and the lost. In fact, they were so methodical about their spiritual disciplines that they were nicknamed "Methodists" as an insult.

Those who first called them Methodists meant to say they were a bit OCD and over the top in exercising their faith. After all they issued "tickets" to people for studying the bible, praying, and doing service in the community. And they began their weekly meetings with such strange questions as, "What was your greatest temptation this week?" and "When did you fail in your discipleship?" And John Wesley and his friends were proud enough of their disciplines that they embraced the name!

To be all things to all people does not mean that we can believe anything we want to believe or do whatever we want. Those whose lives are shaped and molded by the one who died on the cross are those-who like Jesus-are willing to give up their rights in order to serve those God loves!

Those who follow the lead of Christ are those who wish to live a life of holiness-not for fear of hell if we do not-but out of a desire to please the one who loves us and out of a desire to best serve those who need to hear the gospel.

Folks-we are being watched! The "lost," the "unchurched," and the "unaffiliated," whatever you are most comfortable calling them are watching us. They are watching to see if we truly believe what we say. They are watching to see if being a Christian makes a difference in our lives. And what do they see as they watch you? Do they see a cross-shaped life? Or something else?

But Paul is challenging us to do more than live a life that looks good from a distance! He is calling us to be in relationship with the people we are sharing the good news with! And this is much more radical than simply telling someone we are praying for them, or donating used clothes to the Outreach

Center, or baking cookies for a Kairos Walk---as wonderful as all those things are! Paul is challenging us to enter into their world. To walk with them. To hear their questions and their doubts. To share their burdens and their griefs.

And in order to do that, we have to accept them as they are and meet them where they are.

Just this past week. I read a story (http://www.abpnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3751&Itemid=53 ) that illustrates Paul's point dramatically. And it all began very simply one day at a gas pump in a suburb of Houston. A man named Clint was pumping gas and started up a conversation with a young woman at the pump next to him. As casual conversations often do, the talk turned to what they did for a living. Clint shared that he was the associate pastor at a Baptist church nearby. The young woman shared that she was a waitress at a restaurant near his church. She bemoaned the fact that come Sunday she was often too tired to go to church.

Now I suppose a different type of pastor would have given her a lecture on not attending church. But instead of judging her, Clint had compassion on her and he gave her his card and told her to call if she ever had a need. Then they both went home.

Two days later, he got a call! The manager of the restaurant where the young woman worked was on the line and he invited the church staff and their spouses to come have dinner.

Sounds great, doesn't it? Except there was one slight problem-the restaurant where the young lady worked was Hooters!

Now I've never been to a Hooters myself-but I hear tell it isn't the sort of place where Baptists normally hang out!

So Clint told the manager that he wasn't sure if they could, but he'd check with the senior pastor and get back with him. (As a friend used to remind me regularly, one of the advantages of being the associate is that the buck does not stop at your desk!) And the manager said to him, "We're just looking for answers like everyone else."

And thus began a relationship between Temple Rice Baptist Church and their local Hooters restaurant. For over nine years now, Temple Rice has been conducting Bible studies for the waitresses. The older ladies in the church bake them cookies. Some of the waitresses have even joined the church, although most of them can't afford to live in that neighborhood and so the staff of Temple Rice works hard to direct them to churches near their homes. And Associate Pastor Clint is now the senior pastor.

Then last year in the wake of Hurricane Ike, the congregation of Temple Rice and Hooters restaurants throughout the state of Texas worked together to send a mission team composed of Baptists and Hooters waitresses and cooks to Oak Island, Texas. There they fed the people, worshipped together, and brought Christmas gifts for the children.

Needless to say, the relationship was not without its critics. Comments to the article I read this past week criticized the church for their relationship with those women. Some questioned their faith and others predicted dire outcomes as the church members gave into temptations. But what I noticed was that the church was not doing anything inappropriate. They weren't having happy hour in the bar. Their men weren't visiting Hooters to ogle the waitresses under the guise of telling them about Jesus. In fact, Pastor Clint saw it as a great place for women to be in ministry to other women.

They are simply doing what Jesus did-entering in the real lives of people with all the struggles, all the pain, and all the joy. They were doing what Paul recommends: Being all things to all people so that some might be saved. They were quite simply-being the Church as it was intended to be-in relationship with God and with the people God so loves!

So the question for us is: who is God calling us to be in order that some might be saved?

Some of us are heavily involved in ministries that reflect Paul's lesson to us today. Kairos, SoFar, Emmaus, prison ministries and the Outreach Center are all ways we can enter into the lives of others. And all of us have the opportunity each day as we work, play, go to school. Opportunities not to act holier than thou or to act as if we can do whatever we please, but rather opportunities to reach out, to struggle with and suffer with those who need to hear the gospel.

But we also need to stop and ask ourselves what kind of Church is God calling New Life to be? Who is God calling us to reach out to? Who must we become like in order that some might be saved?

I've only been here 8 months now but I'm beginning to have an idea. I've heard time and time again how hard it is for new people to find their place in Grant. Could God be calling us to identify with those new to this community, to reach out to them, and to help them find their place here? And what about those that don't fit into Grant culture easily? Are there those who might not be comfortable entering into a church building for fear they won't fit in? Is God calling us to go out and to find them, to build relationships with them, and to pave the way for them to open their hearts and lives to God?

These are serious questions for those of us who claim to follow Jesus Christ because "Woe to us if we do not declare the gospel of Jesus Christ! For it is the good news we have received and the good news we are called to share!