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Hold The Pickles, Hold The Lettuce

Text: 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don't upset us. If we really wanted to become better at evangelism, better at sharing our faith with others, then we could learn a lot from the nearest hamburger chain. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and the like are all eager to let you know, that they want to listen to you and to give you what you really want. But so often our attitude in the church is quite different. We serve up the Christian message like half-cooked piece of fatty meat, put it on a stale bun, fling it at people and say: There you go. Take it or leave it. And with that attitude on our part, many people do just that. They leave it.
You can't please everyone. That is the banner that we so often February under. And it is a good excuse for us to turn to, any time people do not respond to the way that we are serving up the gospel message. You can't please everyone.
But the apostle Paul, in this passage to the Corinthian church, takes that excuse away from us. For he tells us to be all things to all people. Yes, Paul does realize that there are some people that we will not be able to reach. But there are more that we could reach, if only we made the effort.
So many churches do their version of evangelism by saying: Hey, the doors are open. If people want to come, they can come. But how many successful businesses run that way? None. If businesses or churches want to succeed, they must spread the word about what they have to offer.
And that is exactly how Paul went about sharing the gospel. To the Jews, he went and told them what Jesus Christ had to offer them. And in the same way, he went to the Gentiles, to those who were not Jews, and explained the importance of Jesus Christ to them. Paul met the people where they were.
And that is exactly the same thing that businesses try to do when they advertise. They try to take their message and put it in places where their potential customers will see it. For example, during the Saturday morning cartoons, the commercials just about all deal with toys, games, and sugar-coated cereals. During sporting events, when advertisers think that many men are watching, they put on commercials for beer, cars, and some more beer. And during the daytime hours, many of the commercials are trying to sell homemakers food and cleaning products.
Recently the post office was trying to run ad's to get people to stop sending in postcards to win guaranteed, free prizes. Because almost all of the time, those guaranteed, free prizes are part of some scam that ends up costing the person a good deal money. But despite the advertisements, the post office found that apparently their message was not getting across.
So in May of last year, the post office mailed out 200,000 pink postcards, inviting people to call a toll-free number for a guaranteed, free prize. Now, most direct mail marketers are thrilled if they can get a 4% response to their mailings. The post office got a 20% response. 1 out of every 5 people who received a pink postcard called that number. But when the people called that 800 number, a recorded voice at the other end of the line scolded them saying, "Do you really think you could get off that cheap?" And the message went on to warn the people about the dangers involved in thinking that you have won a free prize. The post office wanted to get their message across to potential victims. And apparently they succeeded quite well.
Not only do we need to make sure that our message gets to the people we are trying to reach, but we also need to make sure that the message is put in such a way that it will make sense to them. Jesus realized how important that was. So he used parables quite extensively. When Jesus wanted to teach the people about God's forgiveness, he told about the prodigal son who returned home and was welcomed by his father. Or when Jesus wanted to teach about what it means to love other people, he told about the Good Samaritan, who helped an injured person when no one else would. Jesus talked to the people, using stories and words that he was sure that they could understand.
But today so many churches use words that no outsider is going to understand. On TV, preachers urge people to be justified and sanctified. They ask if you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. They talk about the atoning value of the crucifixion. But if you are new to the faith, or if that is your first encounter with the Christian message, then those words are not going to mean anything to you: words like justification, sanctification, atonement. Yes, those are good Christian words that hold a lot of meaning about our faith. But if our goal is to share the gospel message with people who are right now outside of the faith, then we need to explain the message in a way that they will understand.
And most basically what we want to say to people is what that familiar children's hymn says: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Yes, that is a bit oversimplified. But it is a place to start. What we definitely do not want to do is talk about our faith in way that is too confusing for people. We want to give people enough, so that they will want to come back again and learn some more.
Earlier we said that if you want to learn about evangelism, then go to the nearest hamburger chain. McDonald's, for instance, gives us an excellent example of how to take a message to people who are quite different from us. Recently McDonald's was told that they could open restaurants in India. But, they were told by the Indian government to leave the hamburgers behind. You see, India is a nation where most of the people are Hindus. And to the Hindus, the cow is sacred. So no one eats hamburger or steak.
So did McDonald's say: Here's our hamburgers. Take them or leave them? No. For they realized that their business is to sell food to people. Not just hamburgers. So today they feature chickenburgers and lambburgers in their Indian restaurants.
The same kind of idea is at work in their American restaurants as well. In recent years, McDonald's has realized that people are becoming more health conscious. So they have begun to offer low fat hamburgers and a variety of salads as alternatives to choose from. And by offering more choices, they are able to attract and serve more people.
And churches can learn a lot from that. Because many congregations operate with the attitude: This is the only way you can be a Christian with us. Take it or leave it. But Paul's message to us in this morning's reading from the New Testament is that there is more than one right way to be a Christian.
What that does not mean is that everyone is free to believe in just anything. At the heart of the Christian faith, there must be a trust in Jesus Christ, that he is the Son of God, and that by believing in him, we can share in eternal life. What is really at the heart of our faith must not and cannot be changed.
But there are many things in the church, that we must realize that there is not just one right way to do. Some people enjoy classical-type music in worship, while others prefer more modern music. Neither is more right than the other. Some people would prefer to visit in nursing homes, while others would prefer to work with young people. Some prefer Bible study groups, while others prefer to spend time in prayer. Again, none of those choices are more right or more Christian than any of the others. But the point is that the more choices that we offer to people, then the more likely it is that people will find a place where they can feel at home.
Every time a group in the church sits down to plan an event, what should be foremost in their minds is not what is best for us, but what is best for those who we are trying to reach. You see, so often we plan events that are convenient for us. But then we wonder why others do not want to come and join in. We need to think about what we are doing, and consider who were are shutting out.
For example, if we plan an event that has a cost attached to it, then undoubtedly there are going to be some who will be excluded because they cannot afford it. Or if a group meets during the day, then certainly that group is excluding those who are at work and those who must be at home to take care of children. Now it is true that rarely are we going to be able to plan activities that can include everybody. But as we sit down and make plans, we should at least be aware of those whom we are leaving out. And in the future, we should look for ways to bring even those people into our activities.
Instead of focusing on ourselves, and what is good for us, we need to look to what is good for other people. That is the apostle Paul's message to us. For Paul reminds us that once we were outsiders to the Christian faith. Originally the church was for Jews only. And if it had not been for some early Jewish Christians who were willing to reach outside their own group, we would never be here today.
Be all things to all people. That is Paul's word to us. True, we will not be successful in reaching out to everyone around us. Even Jesus met with rejection. The point is that we keep trying. We keep trying to share the gospel message with other people in ways that they will understand. To try. God expects nothing more than that. But God also expects nothing less.
Rev. Dr. Edward Bowen
Crafton United Presbyterian Church
Pittsburgh, PA