Colleen Hartung’s Homily from February 7, 2021

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Homily, February 7, 2021

“You cannot be all things to all people.

Be unique.

Be different.

Give to others what you want yourself.

And do what you were made to do.”

(a quote by Robert Kiyosaki – owner of a private financial education company called “Rich Dad”).

“Strategy 101 is about choices: You can’t be all things to all people.”

(a quote by Michael Porter – self help guru writing books about competitive advantages and strategies).

“You can’t be all things to all people.”

(attributed to Joseph Abboud – owner of the company “Joseph, Joseph” a purveyor of ultra-cool kitchen stuff).

“You can’t be all things to all people.”

(attributed to Katy Widrick – Vice President of Sales and Growth, FASTerWay to Fat Loss).

The dictionary of idioms defines the phrase “all things to all people” as a reference to something or some action that pleases or appeals to everyone.  It is used in various ways.  For example, “I don’t trust that candidate because she is trying to be all things to all people and still hasn’t committed to a clear course of action.”  The idiom can also be used as a sage piece of advice to a person who is overcommitted and just doesn’t know how to say “no”.  We might say to this person, “Stop trying to be all things to all people.  Take some time to focus on yourself and your needs.”

In these common interpretations, trying to be all things to all people is either somewhat dishonest and inauthentic because you are making promises that won’t be kept or unwise if the goal is to achieve success or personal well-being. Lying behind these interpretations is a basic assumption about the limited nature of the resources we have available to us as we interact with the world around us to achieve our goals and live a good life.  If you want to be competitive. If you want to be successful.  If you want to be rich.  Even if you just want to lead a healthy balanced life or be a worthy parent, or an effective minister or social justice advocate – you have to make tough choices because resources like time, money, material goods, employees and even emotional labor are limited. In any of these areas, whether worldly or more spiritual, being true to yourself and your aspirations involves asking some hard questions: What is it that you have to offer or sell or, in spiritual terms, what are you called to do?  AND Who is your market audience or more spiritually, who are you called to serve?  Whether your focus is worldly or spiritual, the point is to maximize your limited resources by attending to the people who naturally align with your needs, your goals, your mission.

There is actually some needed wisdom here in these contrarian adaptations of Paul’s statement from his First Letter to the Corinthians, “I have become all things to all people.”  There are only so many minutes in an hour, so many hours in a day, so many days in a year, or a life for that matter.  Personal and communal resources are limited and the earth’s resources as well.  Furthermore, there are those who critique Paul’s assertion that he has made himself a slave to all as the unconscious and even destructive boasts of a privileged Roman male who didn’t really have any idea what it meant to be a slave or to be constrained by cultural and material limits.

All of this is true from a certain perspective, both the wisdom or our present day, conservative twist on Paul’s over the top pronouncement and the wisdom of his critics.  However, for our purposes of breaking the good news open – today – in a time when we cannot even have a simple conversation about the weather across the chasms that divide us and where this separation threatens our very survival, I would like to take a few minutes to consider Paul’s evangelistic perspective and strategy.

Paul was preaching in a time of rampant divisions between communities about how the gospel should be proclaimed and lived out in the lives a Jesus’ followers.  And in the First Letter to the Corinthians, he addresses this controversy.  Prescriptions having to do with food, or language or cleanliness might mark a person as part of an in group – as a Roman citizen, as a Jew, or even a Christian but for Paul, these markers have nothing to do with the Gospel.  Instead, for Paul, the Gospel is the good news of the coming reign of God experienced as abundant love.  He proclaims this Gospel as a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all thing, endures all things.  [As a] love [that] never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:7-8).  Such love is not bound by the limits that govern social and tribal circles of connection or even by the very real limits we experience with regard to material resources.  Further, because Paul has embraced Jesus’ teachings and he dares to proclaim them, he is obligated by love – to save whoever he can by all means.  He notes that this obligation comes with its reward – Paul shares in the blessings of the Gospel by sharing the Gospel – by loving people regardless of political, religious or ethnic affiliation.  And the more people he shares it with the greater the blessing and so he crosses the limiting boundaries of his Jewish associations and meets people where he finds them.  To the Jews, he becomes a Jew.  To those under the law, he becomes one under the law.  To those outside the law, he becomes one outside the law.  To the weak, he becomes weak.  However, Paul keeps reminding us that while he is not bound or limited by any particular set of social mores, he is yet bound by God’s law which in the embodiment of Jesus is love.  This is Paul’s inspiration; his guiding light. 

It’s hard for me to imagine what that looks like in today’s world with its bitter political and religious divisions.  The temptation for me is to just unfriend – figuratively and literally – everyone that I disagree with and judge to be hateful, racist, sexist and the list goes on.  And there are justifications for this.  (My time is limited. My emotional resources are definitely limited.  And the chance that I will change their mind about anything is nil – very much in line with the philosophy we began with – “You can’t be all things to all people”). But instead, under Paul’s strategy, the challenge is to proclaim the Gospel in a time of division – to engage with those outside my echo chamber and my closed networks of sameness.  And once, you dare to move outside these silos of sameness, the challenge is to be present to difference.  Paul, in his context, uses the reality of difference to more clearly embody the gospel for the people he touches.  Instead of instructing people using unfamiliar words and condescending mannerisms, following Paul, we are challenged to speak about and become an embodiment of the Gospel in a way that makes sense within their framework.  I am still not sure what this looks like in our larger context of so much actual violence and vitriol.  But I imagine that small acts of kindness and courtesy that keep me in relationship with and meet the actual embodied needs of those I disagree with might be a start.  Something like a helpful phone call to a sick neighbor with a sign in her yard that I find distasteful.  It isn’t much but it might be an embodied way forward toward something more meaningful and lasting – a chance for grace and an inbreaking – perhaps.

At any rate, in case you are wondering about today’s Gospel where Jesus cures Simon’s mother-in-law and then cures the sick and those possessed by demons in the whole city – after healing the people and winning them to his message, Jesus moves on beyond his familiar circles to the neighboring towns and then throughout Galilee.  He does this because the message of boundless, abundant love, that he embodies is nothing if it is not shared beyond the limits and boundaries that constrain and divide us.  And so, Mark’s Gospel focused on discipleship, like Paul’s letter to the Corinthians calls us all to a love that is all things to all people.         

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