Adapting to the Context (Sixth Sunday of Easter)

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A couple of weeks ago, Pr. Christine was here for Lexi’s baptism, and after the service and most people had left, we had a chance to talk for a while and catch up.  We both agreed that we needed to get together to talk some more, and at one point I said, “when we get together I want to pick your brain about a couple of things that just haven’t been working as well as they used to.  We’ve needed to adapt them for a long time, but I’m not sure how to do it.”  And I noted a couple of things in particular.

And at that point, Pr. Christine told me something they’re doing at the church she and Maddie are attending right now, and she started by saying, “you know, I have always been opposed to this, but now after Covid, I think it’s something that we need to consider.”

And you know, whether I say those words or not, so many of the things we’ve done in the past few years have begun with me thinking the same thing. There are things I have always been opposed to doing – and often for very good reasons – but now it seems like the context demands that I re-think that, and at least consider something like it.

Broadcasting worship is a good example.  If you had told me 5 years ago that we’d be streaming worship services online, I’d have balked!  I was always deep down opposed to that.  The whole concept of a TV preachers was somebody who had really bad theology and was often just trying to be a wanna-be celebrity.  But even more than that, worship is supposed to be an event in which you participate, not a show you watch.  People I knew who watched TV worship didn’t know each other.  And I didn’t want to encourage that.

But then Covid happened, and we suddenly had to adapt.  Yet as we did that, I realized we were now making regular worship experiences possible for people who were sick or shut-in.  We kept people connected to our congregation who were away for travel.  And we made it possible for people who lived far away to be here virtually for weddings and funerals and baptisms.  And when I look at the view counts each week, I realize there are still a lot of people out there who need that.

And so, even though I was always opposed to this, I now realize that after Covid, the context has changed, and things like streaming worship need to be one of the ways we adapt to a new situation.

And that’s actually what Paul is doing in today’s first reading.  It wasn’t quite as dramatic as a pandemic, but Paul also had suddenly been thrust into a new context that he probably wasn’t expecting.  Paul and his companions had been traveling through northern Greece, and Paul had been doing what he had done in other places: on the sabbath, he’d find the synagogue where local Jews gathered, and he’d debate the scriptures with them and try to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. 

But in the process of doing this, unsurprisingly he ticked people off!  They drove him out of one town and then the next.  And eventually, for his own protection, his buddies sent him to Athens to hang out for a little bit while things cooled down.

Now today, Athens is the capital of Greece, and it’s one of the few places Paul visited that you probably have heard of and know where it is!  But in Paul’s time, Athens was a sleepy little college town. There were a few Jews there and there was a synagogue, but it wasn’t a place Paul figured was a place ripe for evangelization.  He hadn’t planned to go there, and after he left, as far as we can tell, he never went back.

But in today’s reading, Paul is wandering around in this new (and Gentile) context, and people who aren’t Jews drag him up to the Aeropagus, which was a big square where people debated all kinds of philosophical ideas, and asked him to tell them more about what this “new teaching” was that he was spreading.

This was NOT the context Paul was used to.  He found himself talking to pagans who probably had no idea what a “messiah” was.  For that matter, they probably had never read what we call the Old Testament – or cared what it said.  And so all of the context that Paul had when he did his thing in the synagogue was missing.  He could have simply said, “sorry, we don’t do online worship – come on the sabbath to the synagogue and I’ll try to explain!”

But he didn’t.  He began with what they knew – and he did know Greek philosophy.  And then he spoke of the Resurrection of Jesus.  And he did that not only because he knew that was the central point of the Gospel.  He also did that because he must have realized that the new life the Resurrection of Jesus brought about was itself about living into a new context.  And the Resurrection itself meant that Paul was now living in that new context and had to adapt to that new context, even if it meant doing things that maybe just a few years ago might have seemed unimaginable.

We, too, are living in a new context.  It’s not just that Covid has brought about a new context (or, maybe more precisely, that Covid accelerated trends that were long-standing.)  Instead, in every age and in every place, the Resurrection of Jesus means that God is bringing us into new life right now, and that means living into new contexts and new life situations.

Adapting to those new contexts can be hard.  Like Paul (and like us during Covid), it’s hard because we’re not always expecting the shift in context.  Adapting can be hard because we’re not really sure what to do in order to adapt.  And sometimes for me at least, adapting is hard because I’d really like to believe that the need to adapt will pass!

But the Resurrection means that, like Paul, we’re always being called to adapt to a new and different context.  And we’re going to work on adapting to a new context this summer at Prince of Peace. 

And that includes re-imagining Yard Sale.  If you just come to Yard Sale, you might not see a lot of difference.  But we’ve been really trying this year to adapt to what Yard Sale is really supposed to be all about.  For years, we’ve talked about how Yard Sale is about serving the community, recycling and reusing and building community within the congregation.  I remember years ago how Scott Gowing, in the lead-up to Yard Sale, would tell us wonderful stories about families we had helped…; and at the end of those stories, everyone would smile sweetly and truly be glad we had helped.

And yet, as soon as Yard Sale ended, the question always asked to me over and over again was, “how much money did we make?”  And whenever I said, “OK, this is the count right now”, that was the line that got thunderous applause…

In the old context in which Yard Sale was begun years ago, the money really was the point.  If we didn’t make enough, we literally couldn’t pay our mortgage. And so, no matter what we all said, it was necessary to have a massive event and kill ourselves to make every extra buck we possibly could. But that’s not the context anymore, and sometimes it’s hard to transition out of that.  

And so this year we’re trying to adapt to the new context by only staffing departments if people want to work them.  We’re focusing on things that needy people in our community really need like kid’s clothing.  We’re going to go through the stuff ahead of time and take out things that we’ll use to furnish an apartment for a refugee family (even if those things could make us money!).  And we have no goals for how much money we’re going to raise.  It’s a step to adapting our Yard Sale to a new context.

And we’re going to adapt to a new context with Vacation Bible School as well.  From the beginning, VBS here and in other churches has been focused on helping kids to grow in faith, learning Bible stories, and to having opportunities to dig more deeply into those stories than they would in Sunday School because it’s a more intensive program.

But the context has changed. Over the years, many more of our kids can’t attend a daytime event.  Fewer adults are available to lead.  And while years ago, we felt we were reaching many kids who were unchurched or didn’t have any other opportunity for Christian education, that’s rarely been the case anymore.

A few years ago, I remember a conversation I had with a mom at one of our parents’ nights… (where she told me how great our program was, and that we did it better than the other three exact same VBS programs her kids had been at that summer…!)

So part of adapting to the new context is to still do VBS, but put it in the evening when more kids who want and need Christian education can come.  It will include dinner, so that we can actually have time to grow together as community.  And it’ll include an adult class, so that adults (who have also been asking for study opportunities) can grow as well.  It’s all an attempt to adapt what’s important to a new context.

Adapting to a new context can be hard.  And it takes time.  It did for Paul and the first disciples of Jesus as well.  But they kept at it, and so should we, because the Resurrection of Jesus has already brought us into a new and different context in which Jesus is leading us even now into a new and different life.