Feb. 8, 2015: 1 Cor 9:16-23 & Mark 1:29-39

February 15, 2015

Woe to me

Year B   Epiphany 5                             
            I have a band that I absolutely love.  I have been obsessed with them for over 20 years. I have brought dozens of people to their concerts.  I have given many of their cds away as gifts.  I do this for 2 reasons.  The first is that I love them.  I think that anyone who hears them will love them too.  I want to bring other people the joy that I experience when I hear this band. That is the first and most important reason. The other one is that they are local band.  They have been around for awhile, but most people still have not heard of them.  So I want to make sure that the word spreads about them so that the band can continue to be successful.  One day as I was going on and on about the band to someone, I had a rather troublesome realization.  I have introduced more people to this band, than I have to Jesus Christ.            

            In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he wrote: “…woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!”  Paul truly believed that he had been given no choice about proclaiming the gospel.  When he had his conversion experience and was thrown off that donkey, he was marked. He was obligated to spread the word to all people.  His whole life was talking to people about Jesus Christ.  Why did he do this?  He did it because he could not imagine doing anything else with his life. He did it because he loved people so much that he wanted them to know the love of Christ. He believed that the words of Christ would bring people salvation. Because of that it was critical that he spread that message to as many people as possible.

             Paul made some pretty radical statements in this reading for today.   He claimed that he made himself a slave to all, so that he might win more of them. He became all things to all people.  When I first studied this passage, I found these phrases a little peculiar and disturbing.  How can we be all things to all people and maintain the integrity of the Gospel?  Paul was never a person to straddle the fence, so what could he have meant? He did not mean that he was willing to compromise the Gospel.  But he was willing to make certain accommodations for the people who needed it, which was everyone.  When he was with the Jews, he observed Jewish law.  When he was with Gentiles, he ate the food that had already been sacrificed to idols.  He did this so he could meet people where they were– where they were comfortable.    

            We still struggle with this balancing today.  We often ask ourselves how we can make the Gospel message accessible to as many people as possible while also being true to the Gospel message.  How can we be all things to all people without watering the core message down?  I mean, we know we cannot please everyone.  But that’s not what Paul was saying.  Paul was not talking about pleasing people; he was talking about bringing the message to people where they were—whether they be Gentile or Jew, woman or man.

            That is still a challenge today.  People are all at different places.  Some people like the King James version of the Bible. Some people can’t understand a word you say when you read the King James.  Some people have been to church and know the rhythm of the service.  Some people’s only experience with church is weddings and funerals.  How then, do we know how to talk to these different people about God and the church?

            The best way to do that is to be yourself.   But here’s the catch, let them me themselves as well.  Don’t try to make them into your image.  People can tell when you are being genuine and they respond to that authenticity.   They also know when you are trying to change them into someone they are not and no one likes that. 

            Most people respond to enthusiasm.  When you really love someone or something, that comes through.  Sharing the Gospel of Christ is about sharing a part of yourself.  It’s about sharing your love, your passion with the people around you.  But before we can do that, we must first have that spirit within us.  We can’t share passion that we do not have.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get as excited about the Gospel as we do about other things that we love?  Wouldn’t it be great if people cheered after the absolution, or if someone gave a loud woohoo during a hymn?  I am not saying that we should do this, I am just trying to paint a picture.  Just for a minute, let’s imagine a world where people talk as much about the Bible as they do about reality TV, where adults bring as many people to church as they do their favorite restaurant,  sporting event, or  band’s concert? It’s a bit strange that people are more apt to post pictures of the food they eat on facebook or twitter rather than share a Bible passage or prayer.

            A big part of the Gospel reading is about Jesus healing various people.  The reading ends with, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.”  The disciples wanted Jesus to cure more people, drive more demons out.  That was the real crowd pleaser; that was what appealed to the masses.  Everyone wants to see a good miracle.  But Jesus said no, I came here to proclaim a message, and that is what I am going to do. Jesus did not have any ulterior motives.  He was not raising money.  I doubt that he counted at the end of the day how many people showed up for his talk.  He just wanted to spread a message that he believed in.  In the end, there was only one way for that message to really come alive for people.  That was for him to sacrifice himself for us, the crowds, the masses, the people who needed healing so desperately…the people who needed more than a miracle.     

            “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel.”  You might think, “Sure that is easy for you to say, you are a priest.  You do it every Sunday.”  It’s not quite that easy.  To proclaim, you’ve really got to step outside the confines of the church.  I admit it, I struggle with that.  I am afraid of offending people.  I do not want them to think that I am trying to convert them from their own faith or lack of faith.  In my more courageous moments, I realize that is not what this is about.  God is a huge part of my life, leaving that part out when I talk to someone else is a misrepresentation of who I am.  People will not be offended if what they see in you is sincerity and genuine love.  People will not be offended if what you’re sharing comes from your own joy—your enthusiasm for what you are sharing.   

The first step is to get excited.  You are never too old or too young to be excited about the Gospel of Jesus.  Then share that excitement.  Some people will probably roll their eyes.  But some people will see the spark, the spark that started many years ago with a simple carpenter who set the world on fire.  The fire was set, but it is up to us to fan the flames.  It can go out.  It is tempting to think that if we don’t continue to spread the word, other people will.  But there are adults today who have never heard about God’s unconditional love for humanity.  There are also people who have heard about God, but the stories have been infused with hate and bigotry.  It is up to us to change that.  It is up to us.