Reflection: Don’t Get Mad, Get Curious April 29, 2018
I’ve always read the story of Paul on the Areopagus from his perspective – the missionary encountering foreign worship and bringing his understanding of the Gospel to them. All the commentaries and sermons I read this week focussed on the brilliance of his preaching. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve been drawn to look at this passage from the perspective of the Athenians.
The author of Acts rather mockingly describes them as spending all their days discussing new ideas and philosophy. These are curious people. They want to know things, and not just recycle the same old habits of heart and mind. They welcome Paul, this rather arrogant and very zealous preacher, and allow him to offer his ideas – even when those ideas conflict with theirs. Listen to the courtesy and respect they show Paul: “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means. “ That’s a large contrast between how Paul and his ideas were greeted in other cities! Paul launches into an eloquent speech, basing his preaching on his hearer’s own experiences. While he criticizes their religious beliefs, he also compliments them on their dedication to their faith. In the end, many scoff, but a few convert to Christianity.
What struck me about this story was that it’s a story of hospitality: making space for new people and new ideas. Today we do just that, as we welcome new members to the congregation. I didn’t choose this Scripture passage deliberately, but it’s perfect for the day.
What makes it even more fitting is the news I received last week that a newcomer had come to church here at Gordon one Sunday and been told to move because they were sitting in someone’s seat. OK – this happens in nearly every church I’ve ever encountered, and it makes every minister I’ve ever heard of really mad, and really disappointed. We sing songs that say “Nobody here has a claim on a pew” and then we say, “You’re in my seat.”
A few years ago I decided to try to let go of being mad when I heard things like this, and start being curious. By asking questions I discovered that some people sit where they do because it’s where they can hear best. Some sit where they do because it’s where they always sat with their spouse or parent or friend who has since passed away, and when they sit there, they feel that friend’s presence. Some people sit where they do because they need to be able to see my face so they can read lips. Some sit where they do because there’s a cushion there that allows them to sit through a service without too much back pain. There are reasons why people get attached to a particular spot in the church – reasons I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t gotten curious.
Now, none of that gives anyone an excuse for being inhospitable. One could just as easily say to a newcomer; “Would you mind switching seats with me? I can’t hear as well over here.” Or, “May I sit beside you?” And introduce yourself. You might even offer a story as to why that spot in the church is important to you! Or when you see a newcomer hovering in the aisle, scoot over and invite them to sit with you, and who knows, you might get a new “pew buddy” out of that overture! I do want to note that incidents like the one I described are more the exception than the rule here at Gordon United; on the whole this is a very hospitable congregation; but I don’t believe we can ever over-emphasize the importance of making people welcome.
Hospitality was one of the most important and basic virtues in ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean culture – a value that was absorbed into the Christian community and became one of its premiere values as well. Part of hospitality is being hospitable to the whole person – responding not to just their needs for a seat at the table or in the worship space, but their need to contribute, their need to feel welcome, and to belong. There are bound to be “culture clashes” as familiar meets new – that’s just the way it is in human interaction. But if we approach what is new with curiosity rather than resentment or anger, good fruit may grow from those places where “the way we’ve always done things” and “why not try this?” meet. This is a fluid interaction, as those newer to Gordon United bring your experiences and thoughts and become curious about why certain patterns or practices seem to be in place here, and as long-timers encounter different ways and means of being part of Christian community and say, “I’m curious about what you’re describing (or doing). I’d like to know more!”
Today we welcomed new members into this congregation – and in a moment we will welcome everyone here to the table of Christ. No matter what you believe, no matter what your age, no matter who you love, no matter how you worship, no matter what your abilities or disabilities, no matter whether you are brand new to Christian faith or have been following Jesus a long time, you are welcome at the table of Christ – because that’s what Jesus taught us. His is the ultimate hospitality.
One of the things we often do in our United Church 101 membership class is look at the United Church Crest. It is an example of what it means to be hospitable – to be curious and to welcome new points of view and new ways of being into the lives of our churches. There are four symbols on there: one for the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists and the Evangelical – all of whom came together to form the United Church – all of whom are held together by the cross of Christ, and held together by the ichthus shape, an ancient symbol for Christianity. A few years back the colours in the logo were changed to represent the four directions of many indigenous teachings, each associated with a different quadrant of the earth and a different segment of humanity. The words around the outside are in French, English, Latin and Mohawk: the French and English are of course, the name of our denomination; the Latin is the prayer of Jesus for his followers, “That all may be one”, while the Mohawk communicates a similar idea from First Nations teachings: “All My Relations”.
Our United Church of Canada has made a commitment since its very beginning to welcome new ideas, expressions, cultures, ways, teachings, experiences. That’s what true hospitality means. So if something bothers you about the way another person behaves in the congregation; or if something happens that hurts or offends you; try not to get mad. Get curious instead. With respect and honesty, we have much to learn from one another. This is what it means to be the United Church of Canada, this particular branch of the body of Christ. May it be so. Amen.
Reflection: Don’t Get Mad, Get Curious April 29, 2018