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Winning for Jesus

Sermon - 2/08/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

The text for our reflection if from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 9, verses 16-23:

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For 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. 18What 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. 20To 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. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from Godís law but am under Christís law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.


Can I be honest with you?  I don't want to offend anyone (probably too late for that, I realize J).  But, I tell ya, Paul in this passage sounds a lot like that athlete, after winning the big game, who has the microphone put in front of their face on national T.V. and says "I just want to thank my Lord Jesus for this win".

I'm not critical of those athletes, there's a lot to be said with that kind of exuberance for your faith -- we can learn from their example, to be so willing to put it out there, to share our faith with people when we have an opportunity -- but the problem I have is that some of those sports-driven testimonies gives the implication that Jesus gives a hoot.

Now I can say this since the Duck men's basketball team hasn't won a game this year, of course God loves the losers just as much as the winners J

Kurt Warner, quarterback for Arizona, in the Super Bowl last Sunday, is one of those Christian athletes, very devout in his faith, who has been known at times to make that kind of statement.  And I really like Kurt.  He has a great story -- this guy who was bagging groceries to pay his bills before he was activated by the St. Louis Rams, and then went on to win the Super Bowl with them.  And then gets cut, and now playing for the Cardinals.  Kurt Warner is 37 years old, and in football years, that's just 1 step away from the nursing home.  So I'm naturally cheering for Kurt Warner and the Cardinals.  He gives me a sense of hope -- you know, maybe I'm not over the hill.  Maybe I still have something left in the game.

And for awhile, it looked like he was going to pull it off, if you watched that game, great come-from-behind rally.  But alas, it didn't happen, and that other team (whoever they were), pulled it off in the last seconds to win the game.  Great game, actually lived up to the hype of the commercials, was actually better than the commercials.

But had they interviewed Kurt Warner after losing the game in the final seconds, what if he had said "I want to thank my Lord Jesus for the loss".  Would that be a different message, make us think?

I mean, after all, doesn't Paul say "To the weak, I became weak".  'To the losers, I became a loser'.  Paul doesn't say in this passage, actually "To the strong I became strong".

So why shouldn't a player thank Jesus for a loss as well as a win?  Because the point is we are not in a game of winners and losers, Paul's language here about winning notwithstanding.  The gospel is not about winning some, because that would imply that we're OK with losing some.  The gospel, you may recall from John 3:16 is about winning the world.  And when you get to the end of the Bible, you get to the end of Revelation, it's also about the world winning.

One of the things that drives me crazy, as you know, with things like the Left Behind series and the end-of-world scenarios is that they're all about the world losing -- destruction of the world and the like.  But if you read it, if you really read the text, in the end it's not about the destruction of the world but the salvation of the world.  A new heaven and a new earth united as one, with God dwelling in the midst of humanity.

The vision of scripture is a vision of the possibility of new life, of hope and peace, in relationship with God.  And when Paul talks about winning Jews and Gentiles, those under the law, those not under the law, he's talking about everyone -- all of humanity.  Winning the world for God's vision of what can be, what should be, when we are in tune with the way of God.  When we live in relationship with God.

So contrary to conventional wisdom that says you can't be all things to all people, Paul says that he became all things to all people.  Now of course that's hyperbole -- you know "I've told you a million times not to exaggerate".  Well, Paul is exaggerating here just a tad, but he recognizes, realistically, he cannot win them all.  Conventional wisdom says you've got to pick your battles.

Marcus Borg likes to tell the story of when Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his best friend and eventual biographer were in a Bavarian cafe in the mid 1930's.  And a Nazi officer came in and immediately people jumped to their feet and gave the salute "Heil Hitler!".  And Bonhoeffer, much to his friend's disgust, was one of those who jumped up and gave the salute.  His friend looked up and said "What are you doing?!".  Bonhoeffer looked down at his friend and said "Stand up, you fool, you don't want to be arrested for this".

The wise person knows we have to choose our battles.  We have to choose that time and place to take a stand.  There's no use putting lots of time and energy into those battles you know you can't win. 

I serve on the Board for United Way of Lane County, and we have a group called the Financial Stability Partnership.  It includes leaders from banks and social service agencies and labor and business and education and the faith community all working collaboratively on strategies to lift people out of poverty.  And we have selected as the target population for these efforts those folks who are between 100% and 200% of the federal poverty level.  The thinking being, that those above 200% (which we've established as being the minimum living wage -- for a family of 4, I think it's around $40,000/year) are folk who probably don't need our help.  Those under 100%, there are programs -- we all know not enough -- to assist.  Those in-between are often those that fall between the cracks.

Realistically for those folks, the bar is not quite as high -- they are the people where probably we can be the most successful in helping to get to that level of being self-sufficient.  So, it's a cost-benefit analysis.  We can help the greatest number of people with the least amount of dollars by targeting the barely poor, rather than the desperately poor.  And given the United Way's limited resources, it makes good sense -- making the most use out of the donor's money (the United Way is wholly privately supported through donations).

We often use similar strategies in church growth.  We identify those most likely to respond to our kind of church.  Who would that be?  That would be people most like us.  And so that's good stewardship -- getting the biggest bang for the buck.  There's only 1 problem -- one tiny little flaw -- that's not the way of the gospel.  Even though I'm sure the great commission says "Go and make disciples of people most like you", because that's what most churches do, so I'm sure that's what it must say, right?  But of course the great commission doesn't say that, it says "Go and make disciples of all nations", in other words, don't exclude anyone.

And even though Paul recognizes he cannot win them all, he does not give up on anyone.  He doesn't use that as an excuse.  He says he's willing to be all things to all people, doesn't matter of nationality, or race, or heritage, or sex, or orientation, whatever the case may be.  And if you stop to think about it, that's a pretty radical message.  Kind of like a black politician trying to appeal to white voters.  Only this was 2,000 years ago.

One of the programs that United Way is considering to reach that goal of moving families out of poverty to become self-sufficient is called "Circles".  It's an exciting brainchild of Scott Miller, head of Move the Mountain Foundation, who came to Eugene this week and spoke to a group of us working with United Way in different areas.  Miller seriously describes this program as an effort that will end poverty in the United States by the year 2050.  That seems like a long ways away -- 40 years, but in the long-term it's really not.

What's amazing is that this program doesn't do it with a massive amount of government welfare or spending, instead it's through a people-to-people program forming partnerships between those of low income, middle income, and upper incomes, and they call these groups 'Circles'.  Each Circle has a family or individual who wants to move out of poverty and 3-6 allies (people from higher income levels) who form a support group for that individual.  The Circle Leader who directs the group -- and this is what I love most about it -- is that person who wants to move out of poverty.  They're the ones in charge.  So in other words, it's not an effort for the rich folk who are telling the poor folk what they need to do to become more like 'us'.  But rather it's about those at the higher earning levels learning about what it's like to live at that lower income level.  Meeting that person or that family where they're at, learning from their struggles.  And then figuring out 'what can we do?' as a support group to help that individual or family move out of poverty.

What happens in these groups is that it becomes a cross-cultural exchange of learning each other's language, learning the hidden rules of class that often prevent those from lower income levels of moving into higher levels because of those barriers that they may not understand, they don't speak the language, they don't move in the same circles.  So to break through those hidden rules of class, to work your way out of poverty.

And in the process, it does so by building empathy and compassion rather than using shame and blame on folk in the lower income levels.  And you see, this is precisely the secret behind Paul's success.  He goes to where the people are.  He becomes as they are.  He meets them on their terms.  And if we want to do anything more than provide a handout to those in need, we need to become conversant with the poor, to learn their struggles and challenges.  And if we want to truly be a diverse congregation, to attract more people not just like us, then we have to be willing to move out of our comfort zones to meet people where they are, instead of expecting them to act like us, to adapt to different ways of being.

I love an example Judy Siebert gave to us years ago in one of our Elder meetings.  We were talking about how we minister to and with people with Alzheimer's.  And she said the secret is to go into their world rather than trying to bring them into your world.  When you try to bring someone with Alzheimer's into the present world, it's frustrating -- it'll do nothing but bring you grief.  But when you go into their world and meet them there, then you can do something that is mutually satisfying.

To be all things to all people simply means a willingness to meet people where they are.  The old Indian saying, you know "To get to know a person you have to walk a mile in their moccasins".  Are we ready to do that?  Are we willing to meet others where they are at? 

When we do it for the sake of the gospel, Paul says we share in its blessings.  So what blessing might that be?

It might be the blessing of actually helping someone to move out of poverty. 

It might be the blessing of seeing someone break free of their addiction.

It might be the blessing of learning to live a simpler, freer life ourselves, free of all the 'stuff' that clutters our lives.

It might be the blessing of a wonderful relationship with someone you never imagined as your friend.

It might be the blessing of a new sense of purpose and meaning in your life.

It might be the blessing of seeing your church grow, filled with all kinds of people.

It might be the blessing of mentoring just 1 person, a relationship with God.

It might be a blessing that will change your life, and open doors of new possibilities.

Whatever that blessing is, it is the reward of sharing the gospel freely with all.

We can't really be all things to all people.  But all we need to be is what someone else needs us to be, and what God calls us to be.

If we do just that, it will be enough.


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