2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Life Together: All Things, All People
One of the best movies I’ve seen, one that is on many people’s lists of best movies, is the film Schindler’s List, the Steven Spielberg film about a man named Oskar Schindler, who worked to rescue Jews from being sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust by employing over a thousand workers in his factory. His motives begin with profit for himself, but eventually his mission becomes one of compassion and urgency. In the end, in one of my favorite scenes from the movie, Schindler expresses his deep despair that he could have done more but did not. He says:
“I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don't know. If I'd just... I could have got more.” Stern, the man to whom he’s speaking, replies: “Oskar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.” But Schindler goes on: “If I'd made more money... I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I'd just...I didn't do enough! This car. [He] would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person... and I didn't! And I... I didn't!”
As church leaders, as people of faith, trying to make faithful decisions, I think perhaps we can relate to Schindler’s words. No matter what we try to do, it seems it is never enough, and that we always carry the burden of knowing that we should be doing more. This burden is a tremendous weight to bear, a sometimes immobilizing weight. We know we should be doing more that we aren’t doing, and so somehow we end up doing nothing at all. And then we come across passages of scripture like this reading from Paul, and my first response is to feel even more of a burden placed on my shoulders. “An obligation is laid on me,” Paul says, “and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! . . . I have become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some.” All things to all people! How can we live up to such a standard? All things to all people? I can’t do it. Trying to be all things to all people seems like the surest way to burn out physically and spiritually that I can think of. Paul may have had the dedication and the drive, but just thinking about trying to be all things to all people makes me feel overwhelmed.
And yet, the sentence is there. Woe to us if we don’t preach the gospel. All things to all people. So what do we do with it? It is finally in reading some of the words in the middle of the passage that I start to get the picture. Paul writes, “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. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s love but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. It is then that Paul concludes with his “all things to all people claim.”
I think that when we hear the phrase “all things to all people” we get the idea that we’re meant to be everything to a person: teacher, pastor, servant, leader, parent, friend, confessor, and even savior. If we try to be all these things to people, we are no doubt going to fail. In fact, when we try to do things this way, we end up feeling so inadequate that we end up doing nothing at all. But when Paul talks about being all things to all people, he talks about doing this by becoming one with the people he is trying to reach. Instead of trying to take on a million different roles, Paul’s strategy is to meet people where they are at, to experience life through another’s eyes, and so to share the gospel in the most authentic way possible, by embodying it in community with others. How better to show others the depth of your concern for their souls than by being with them, living with them, working alongside of them? Paul’s plan doesn’t call for us to meet all of people’s needs, but for us to meet the most basic of needs – the need to be loved as whole people, unique and important people. And so to the Jew, Paul is a Jew. To the Gentile, he is a Gentile, and to the weak, he is weak. Paul’s plan of action, though, isn’t an original idea. He’s simply modeling his ministry after that of Jesus Christ. God, to reach us with love, took the most direct approach. God became one of us. To reach us, God became us, lives with us, dwells within us.
We are in the midst of talking about our goals as a congregation, and last week we talked about shifting from a membership model of ministry to a discipleship model, a model that moves ourselves out of the center and brings those we seek to serve into focus. Today that is where we focus our attention: What are the needs of our community and how can we meet them? It is so tempting to just exist as a church and hope that we strike at something that interests others, so that they come here and fit in. It’s the “If we build it they will come” model. But that keeps us firmly at the center, and it doesn’t seem to be what Paul has in mind. He says that he has made himself a slave to all, so that he might win more people to Christ's gospel. If Paul is a slave to all, serving others, it means he puts the other in the role of the master, the other as the center of attention. Paul's message doesn’t change – he wants to share the good news about Jesus, or he wouldn’t be bothering with this all things to all people stuff. But how he connects with people – Paul connects deeply with those he serves in ways that are important to them in order to reach them. He builds deep relationships.
Our challenge, then, has two parts: What do the people in our community need (here in East Syracuse and in the wider community we connect with) and how can we meet these needs? There are many ways we can answer the first question. I can pull up some demographic data, and share figures and statistics about who we serve, but that doesn’t really help us know people. We can’t know about the needs of the community without knowing the people, building relationships, making connections. In the coming months, I have some ideas about how we can stretch ourselves to get to know our community better, and our Evangelism Committee will engage in some of that work as well. But in the meantime, let me just share with you this information (from slide) about how people end up becoming part of a community of faith. More than double any other reason, people connect with a congregation because of a relationship they have with someone who belongs to that congregation already.
The second part of the challenge is: once we feel like we know what our community needs, how can we meet them? I have heard some church leaders say that a critical question congregations have to ask themselves is: Who would notice, besides church members, if your church closed today? In other words, what measurable impact is your church having on the community? What void would we leave in the community if we weren’t here? If we have a hard time answering that question, it means we need to start doing some serious soul-searching as a congregation. How we answer that question now can help direct us into using the gifts and resources God has given us to reach people in need. For example, if we realize that one way we would be most missed if we weren’t here is because of the physical space we provide to groups in the community, like Meals on Wheels, or Scouts, or the Red Cross, maybe we learn that our physical space is a huge asset in the community and we can challenge ourselves to offer our space in new and different ways too, to meet needs in the community. What do you think? What would people most miss if we weren’t here? And what do you wish they would miss? If you wish the answers were different, then how can we become the place we dream of being? We are the First United Church of East Syracuse. And there is only one of us, uniquely called for this place and this time to serve this community. A blessing, and a challenge.
How do we do it? Like Jesus, we are called to give of ourselves for others. We become one with those we serve, one in the Spirit, one in God. Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” Let us go and do likewise. Amen.