Sermon: All Things to All People

All Things to All People
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
Feb. 8, 2015

Choir Anthem


Jodie read earlier what has always been for me one of the most confusing sentences in scripture. Paul writes, with his usual confidence, “I have become all things to all people.” And in my experience I have never heard that statement used in a complimentary way. It has always reminded me of people who have no standards, who are chameleons, will-o-the-wisps, wishy-washy, pulled by one force or another, possessing no real identity or independence, willing to twist themselves into a pretzel if that is what is required.

This assertion has made me uncomfortable because, honestly, I’ve been there and done that. I’ve been a pretzel person – tried to be all things to all people — and it wasn’t a good time in my life. Maybe you’ve experienced that feeling of being pulled in every direction, trying to please everyone and feeling like a failure when you couldn’t. And because of over commitments to family, friends, work, school, church, and community there was very little time for you – whoever that might be, if indeed you even remembered yourself anymore. It’s so easy to get lost in the multitude of duties and responsibilities that come with feeling obligated to do everything you can to meet the expectations all of the people in your life who want or need something from you. Being all things to all people is a huge burden. It can cause resentment, alienation, and burn-out.

I think maybe Jesus was feeling a bit of that at the end of what must have been an overwhelmingly busy day. The day had started with a visit to the synagogue where he preached with what onlookers described as great “authority,” and everyone was amazed by him. Additionally, as he preached he exorcised a demon in a man who confronted him while he was preaching. And this healing also astonished the gathered crowd.

Then, after these rather startling and dramatic events, Simon and Andrew invited Jesus home for dinner. Perhaps they were all looking forward to a good meal, relaxation, and conversation together around the table about what all had happened in the synagogue. But when they got there, Simon’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever, so instead of sitting down to dinner, Jesus went to her room, “took her by the hand and lifted her up,” and healed her of her illness.

Maybe he hoped that later that evening there would be time for relaxed conversation and for focusing on and some planning for the days ahead. But instead, people started drifting towards the house. Word gets around fast in a small town and what happened at the synagogue had apparently become the news of the day. People were coming with their sick and disturbed family members in hopes that Jesus could do for them what he’d done for the man in the synagogue or for Simon’s mother-in-law. Who knows how long that went on. Mark says the whole town was gathered around the door – probably a great exaggeration, but bottom line – lots of people wanted Jesus to do lots of things for them. “He cured many,” Mark says, and he “cast out many demons.”

Jesus must have fallen into bed that night exhausted, maybe wondering what he’d gotten himself into. But in the morning he got up early, before the others – sometimes getting up before everyone else is the only time of the day when you can be guaranteed of some alone time, some peace and quiet. Those of you with small children know that’s true! And he went outside – Mark says to a deserted place, an empty place – a place without people in it – a grove of trees, a garden, a place of solitude. And there he prayed – but probably not the way we might think of prayer – not a lot of words, not a lot of requests, but simply a quiet communion with God, being silent and being present.

But his quiet time was quickly interrupted by his disciples, whom Mark describes as “hunting” for him. It’s not a good feeling to be hunted. “Everyone is searching for you,” they say. Everyone with an ailment who hadn’t gotten to him the night before is looking for him now – needy, demanding, insistent. Everybody wants a piece of Jesus. And he has to make a decision – what should he do now; where does he go from here. Does he go back to people who want him for what he can do for them, not for who he is; or does he go forward to share the good news with others that the Kingdom of God has drawn near. Is he going to be a people pleaser or is he going to be what God has called him to be.

Fortunately for all of us, Jesus remembered who he was. He remembered the voice he’d heard as he rose from the waters of baptism saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Even as the crowds wanted Jesus to be who they wanted him to be, he remembered who he was and what he was supposed to do. If he’d submitted to the need to please the crowds that were hunting for him, he would have become what the crowd wanted him to be – a magician, a wonder-worker, a faith-healer—not who God wanted him to be, the proclaimer of God’s good news.

So he says, “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Jesus’s decision illustrates what Paul was getting at when he said he was being all things to all people, and it obviously does not mean sacrificing your identity or losing your life’s purpose in order to be present to others. Paul explains what his confusing “all things to all people” statement means when he adds, “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.” The key word is “free.” If one is free, then one can choose. And so Paul chooses how he will interact with people in various circumstances without feeling burdened and without losing himself in the process. And his interaction is not motivated by his desire to please them, but by his love for God.

And it is the same for Jesus as he chooses freely to move to the next town, rather than stay in one place. It doesn’t mean that he would never heal another person. In fact, next week, we will read in the gospel lesson about a leper who says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean,” and Jesus responds, “I do choose. Be made clean.” It was his free choice just as it was his free choice to leave Capernaum and all the good people who wanted to keep him all for themselves.

Jesus remained throughout his life a free man, free to choose. And he showed by his choices that for him true freedom did not lie in insisting on his own way, or in controlling all the events of his life to secure success; nor did it consist of doing special things for special people, feeling pressured or coerced, in order to gain approval and acceptance. For him true freedom was to choose to give his life in service to others, literally to lay down his life for others. His actions were the ultimate expression of the freedom Paul described in another of his letters, his letter to the Galatians, when he wrote, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:12-14)

Perhaps we can understand a little better now what it means to be all things to all people. It has exciting possibilities and promise. It doesn’t mean being a people pleaser or a doormat. It doesn’t mean being anxiously reactive to every request or demand that is made on us. It doesn’t mean being held captive by the wishes and desires of another. It doesn’t mean being a bottomless reservoir for everyone else to draw on. It doesn’t mean losing our identities. It means being so sure of who we are in Christ that we can choose freely to respond with love; to step out of our comfort zones, to meet people where they are and accept them as they are. It means sharing the love of God that we have found with others, confident that there is enough love to go around. It means we all equally and together are called to participate in God’s work so that the Kingdom may draw near.  It means we are all fellow travelers along the pathway of faith together; so sometimes I help you; sometimes you help me, and we all draw strength from a reservoir that will never run dry.

If there’s one thing we have learned from this first chapter of Mark’s gospel, it is that Jesus has a plan and he is on the move, and he calls us to join him, to follow him and not to hold him back. We can’t hunt him down and demand that he stay with us and do as we say. And although it may sound nice to say we’ve taken Jesus into our hearts, we don’t take Jesus anywhere; he takes us. In John’s gospel, the risen Jesus warns Mary Magdalene, “do not hold on to me.” And Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The only thing we cannot do is hold on to him. He has asked us please not to do that because he knows that all in all we would rather keep him with us where we are than let him take us where he is going. Better we should let him hold on to us,” and take us to the next town, and the next, and finally into the presence of God “who is not behind us, but ahead of us every step of the way.” Thanks be to God. Amen.