Away Team (Message for February 8th, 2015)

Scripture:  1 Corinthians 9:16-23

With last week’s exciting Super Bowl, football season is officially at an end.   The truly hardcore fans can follow the Scouting Combine and NFL draft, but for most fans they will have to wait until the fall to get return to the gridiron.   I think that anyone who has ever played sports, or even been an ardent sport’s fan would tell you that home games are always better than away games.  In all sports, regardless of the sport, there is a strong belief in home field advantage.   There are often several reasons cited for home field advantage.  Such as the home team does not have the extra fatigue and stress of traveling, the home team is more familiar with the terrain, and the home team has the extra support of the fans pushing them to be better.  What is interesting is that some statisticians and economists studied football and discovered that while the home team is more likely to win, the players do not play statistically better.   Over the course of a season individual players do not have a significant increase in their stat line for home games vs. away games.  This means all of those common reasons for the home field advantage, which assume the home team plays better, are actually non-factors.   In this study though these scientists did find the underlying reason for a home field advantage.  Any fan who has ever found themselves yelling at a TV knows the reason:  It is the refs.   This comprehensive study found that referees were more likely to show a bias in favor of the home team.  However, it is likely that this is an unconscious decision by the referees as they are finding themselves subtly swayed by the moods of the home team crowd.  A study of professional soccer games found that in stadiums where there is a running track surrounding the perimeter of the pitch, and thus the crowd was further from the referees, there was less of a home team bias.  Because there is a home field advantage it makes it all the better when an underdog away team wins on their opponent’s home turf.   Perhaps the most infamous example of this is from 2007 when Appalachian State beat the University of Michigan.  In college sports, there is something called a “tune up game”.  This is where a big school invites a smaller, worse school to play a game early in the season.  The big school gets to work to tune itself up, and the small school gets national exposure even though they are making the trip to lose.  The 2007 game against Appalachian State was supposed to be a tune up game, but Appalachian State did not have the good sense to lose.  With 7 seconds to go Appalachian State was winning 34 to 32.  Michigan was attempting a field goal which would give them the win, but the kick was blocked, and the ball recovered by Appalachian State.  The small division 2 school beat one of the best football teams in the country, and they did it in Michigan’s big house in front of 109,000 fans! 

            I mention all of this because I cannot help but think that when we consider the place of the church and the Christianity in American culture today, we are the away team.  This is happening fast and getting faster.  I know that I am not all that old, but I can remember when grocery stores were closed on Sunday because it is Sunday, and the idea of organized sports taking place on Sunday was unthinkable.   Both of those notions are laughable in how old fashioned they are less than 30 years later.   Not only are we the away team, but there is a home field advantage to deal with.  Due to hate groups like Westboro Baptist church, countless stories of misappropriation of funds in the church, and the awful scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church there seems to be an all-time low in the trust of the church.   The people that we should be trying to reach, might have a negative opinion of us before we even get a chance to make a first impression.   Quite honestly, this can be a bit discouraging until we remember that God has tendency to use the underdogs to do amazing things.  This morning’s scripture also reminds us that back in Paul’s day, Christians were the away team as well. 

            This morning’s scripture comes from Corinthians which was written to the church in Corinth.   During this time the Corinthian church was very much both the away team and the underdogs.   In our era of mega churches, it is hard for us to really picture just how small the New Testament churches might have been.   In fact to the church of Corinth, we might look like a large church.  Paul wrote the letter to the Romans when he was staying in Corinth.  In Romans 16:23 Paul wrote “Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings.”    Did you catch that?   The whole church met in Gaius’ house.   Now we do not have any way of knowing exactly how many people were part of the Corinthian church, but we can surmise that it was easily less than a hundred, perhaps even less than 60.   Not only were they a small group, but they faced a giant of a task.   Corinth was a thriving Greek city and as such it contained at least 12 pagan temples.   The task of the church of Corinth is the same one that we have today:  To be faithful in following Jesus as Lord and Savior in our daily lives, and make disciples.   When it came to accomplishing this task, the church of Corinth was a small group of underdogs, who were the away team and they had a very stiff home field advantage working against them.  Despite that, in this morning’s scripture Paul still encourages them to run the race, fight the fight, and play the game.   Using himself as an example to emulate, Paul gives a couple of pointers on how the underdog away team can be victorious. 

            First, Paul tells the small church how he makes himself a “slave” to all in order to win as many as possible.   This is very strong language that has a social connotation that we might not appreciate.   At first glance it appears that Paul is simply following the example of radical service and putting others first that Jesus set when he washed the feet of his disciples.   That is certainly part of it, but what Paul is advocating for goes deeper than that.  Greco-Roman society of the first century was one of extreme stratification.   Everyone had their place, and knew where their place was in relation to everyone else.   As always, the rich were at the top and it was expected that everyone below them would treat them with properly in accordance with their rank.    At the bottom of this social ladder were the slaves.  They were beneath everyone.  Paul was not just being a slave to all by seeking to serve them, but he was in fact treating others better than himself.   He did away with all pretension, all of the social rights and privileges he should have been afforded and with great humility treated others as valuable.   

            This idea has a great deal of application today as well.  In a powerful experiment and expression of this scripture a Christian rented booth space at a Portland festival.  Portland, OR is one of the least Christian places in this country, and at this festival he set up a confession booth, but it was a confession booth with a twist.  Instead of listening to the confessions of the mostly non-Christians who came into the booth out of curiosity, he instead confessed to them.  He apologized on behalf of all Christians for judgmental and hateful attitudes that these people may have experienced.  He apologized that we do not always do the best job at loving people the way that God loves us.  What is amazing is the profound impact an apology had on these people.  They had come into the booth looking for a fight, they were expecting to be look down and disparaged but instead found themselves being the ones who say “I forgive you.”   One woman specifically said, “One of things that kept me from being a Christian is being treated so poorly by Christians.”   It is heartbreaking that there are many people who would echo that woman’s story.   We follow Paul’s example when we get off our high horses and down into the mud of life, when we care more about the people coming through our doors then the mud they drag onto the carpet, and when we stop expecting people to be perfect before they are saved.   We practice being a slave to all when we willingly love people and serve them even though we know they are different or even if we know they are unrepentant sinners.   To put it most simply, we practice being a slave to all when we put people first the way that Jesus did. 

            The second pointer that Paul gives the Corinthian church is to meet people where they are.   He says that he is all things to all people.   There are two main things we can get out of that.  First, not everyone receives or experiences the gospel in the same way.  People come from a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs, and we need to be willing to listen their story, share our story, and be aware of ways that our stories may intersect.    As a practical example from my time in youth ministry I remember two different teenagers, who just might be the two smartest people I have ever known.   Both of these geniuses though approached faith differently.   One really struggled with simple and route answers, like “the bible told me so”.  In her faith, she needed to be able to ask questions and search deep for the answer.  The other had spent so much time being taught to critically evaluate everything that he just wanted answers.  He did not want to question faith, he just wanted a firm foundation he could spiritually stand on.   For some people the church need to be a place where people have freedom to ask questions. Yet there are other people who have a life full of questions, and they are desperately seeking answers. I think there is space (even in the same congregation!) to provide both.   We need to be willing to engage with people as individual people and not as projects.   

            Second, thing we can get out of the idea of being all things to all people, is we need to be where the people are.  Paul said to the Jews he became like a Jew.   Jews were not going to show up at the small Corinthian house church, for Paul to engage them he  had to go to the synagogue where they are.    He had to go into their home field.  In the same way we have to give up our home field advantage of our church building and be the away team someplace else if we want to “win as many as possible.”  Fortunately, this is easier for us than we might think.  We all naturally have people we might be able to reach based on the things that already appeal to us.  If you enjoy to fish or hunt then become like a fisher and hunter to reach fishers and hunters, if you like to knit then become like a knitter to reach knitters.  If you like to play games, then become a gamer to reach gamers.    We all have specialized social circles that we can interact with, and that can be the place where we start trying to loving serve people.

            The final point, is that we have to always, always remember the reason why Paul was telling the Corinthians to do these things.  The reason why Paul made himself a slave to all was to win as many as possible.  The reason why Paul became all things to all people, was to win save some.   What drove Paul was sharing the amazingly good news that Jesus died for our sins so that we may be reunited with God.    Sharing that gospel is what drove what he did.  Even though the Corinth church was a small underdog, he was encouraging them to give it their all anyway and share the gospel with those around them.   To carry this morning’s sports analogy to it’s completion, when is the last time you scored?   When is the last time your sacrificial love save the lost and introduced them to the grace and assurance of Jesus for the first time?    Better yet, when is the last time you even took a shot?   When was the last time you shared your faith with someone or in the very least invited them to come to church with you?     Just like in basketball, we miss 100% of the shots we do not take.    It is possible with some people, we may sacrificially love and serve them, we might invest in a relationship, put time in modeling Christ like love around them, and then share our story only to have it rejected.   That can happen, but just because we face that risk does not mean we should not try.  I would rather go down swinging then strike out just looking.  

            Today, you may feel completely unequipped to share your faith and to love like Jesus.   You may feel like you are on the away team and the home field advantage against you is insurmountable.   You may feel like a hopeless underdog with no chance of success.   If that is the case, fear not!   The scripture is consistent, that God prefers to change the world and lives through underdogs.   If we feel unequipped, good!   Because remember, we are not the one who saves people-it is God working through us.   May you have the courage to be a slave to all, and engage the people around you.   May you meet people where they are at, and may you love them humbly the way that Jesus loves us.    May you do this fearlessly and with your full trust in God.  May you do all of this for the sake of the gospel, that you may share in it’s blessings.