Sermon: Barrier Free

Rembrandt

Mark 4: 35 – 41
2 Cor 6: 1 – 13

Just as the disciples were being assailed by that storm at sea, Paul’s Corinthian church, and the earliest Christians, were being assailed by an un-accepting and resistant society. In his letter, Paul is encouraging his fledgling Christians, to remain steadfast and faithful in the face of all obstacles.

Over the past year, we have been discussing how we, as church-going Christians, are feeling assailed today…sports and shopping on Sundays, changing ideas about church and religion, increasingly busy work and travel schedules, the daily demands of our everyday lives that leave us exhausted and spent when we wash up, emotionally bedraggled in church on Sunday morning.

Sometimes, it seems there are nothing but obstacles in the way of us being good and faithful Christians in the world today.

Paul encourages his besieged church by reminding them that although they face many obstacles, he commends them for “putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may found with their ministry.”

Paul challenges us not to look at the obstacles we are facing but instead to examine the obstacles we are creating for ourselves and for others. That’s what we have been trying to accomplish with the Crossroads process. To take a look with new eyes at the physical, social, and emotional obstacles that are preventing us from pursuing the ministries we are passionate about and that might be inhibiting others from joining in our life of service together.

We have been evaluating our building, our organization, our skills, our passions, our assets, our communities needs, and our finances, in order to gain insight and perhaps a new perspective on our ministry together.

One of the phrases that struck me when I met with our Crossroads group leaders to talk about what they have been hearing in their meetings, is the phrase “Barrier Free.” In many of the discussions, the groups were asking themselves how we can make our church and our community “Barrier Free.”

That is exactly what we hear in Paul’s message this morning when he commends the Corinthians for, “putting no obstacles in anyone’s way.” No obstacles to God, no obstacles to participating in God’s grace and love, no obstacles to discipleship and ministering to those in need, no obstacles to all gathering together at Christ’s table. No obstacles. No barriers.

So what are some of the obstacles and barriers that have been identified in our small group discussions?

In all three groups, people had trouble even imagining leaving this church that we love, and where we have so much history, but people also feel that the building has become an impediment and an anchor weighing us down. No one will be surprised by the unanimous opinion that the greatest obstacle our building has is the problem of handicapped accessibility.

But there are also the things we might not even notice anymore, like the terrible damp mustiness when you go downstairs that assails our senses. We know we have mold and there are many people today with mold allergies, asthma, and respiratory sensitivities for whom that mold problem, is a huge barrier. The asbestos floors have become a barrier to planning youth and community activities in Memorial Hall. The lighting throughout the building is dim, the rugs are worn, walls are stained, and the bulletin boards are fading.

One discussion questions was, “Does the building serve us or are we toiling in service to a building that impedes the ways we want to serve and minister?” The consensus in the small groups was, If we are staying, let’s do what we need to do to make the building work for us, instead of us working for the building.

Another thing that came up in the group discussions was a desire to move away from a membership model towards a discipleship model.

The basic assumption of membership is that some are “in” and some are “out.” A membership model creates a class system where members are a little bit better and more preferred than non-members, even when those non-members are full participants in the life and service of this church.

A membership model offers privileges and perks for members vs. non-members. Even if they are seemingly small things, such as lower fees for building rentals, or more money for a campership or scholarship, voting “rights”, or certain help or money available for “members” only…these small things, imply that a member is more deserving than a non-member.

Jesus did not require membership for help or healing or love or grace. Jesus offered radical welcome, forgiveness and love to those who were living on the edges of society – the ‘non-members’ who had no standing, or place, or privilege.

Our Communion invitation says, “All are welcome” and we are called to ask ourselves, in all that we do, are they? Are all welcome as brothers and sisters, equals in standing, all children of God, sharing what we have with those who have the greatest need?

The earliest Christians, shared what they had with those in most need. If you had two coats, you gave one to someone with no coat. Paul says, there must be “no restrictions on our affections.” It is natural for us to yearn to belong, to fit in, to be accepted, and to be a part of something greater than ourselves.

But Jesus challenges us to expand our definition of “membership” to include all our brothers and sisters. Paul challenges us to ‘open wide our hearts’ and we must work steadfastly towards inclusion of all people, on a level playing field, with equal access to the gifts of God and God’s abundance in our lives.

We already know that our committee structure has become a barrier and a burden that has finally stopped functioning. It is not due to a lack of care or commitment. It is due to the fact that our committee structure was created for a different time for our church and our culture.

It is now time for us to examine how we can organize to better serve our neighbors and the community and to better enable our service and ministry. We need to identify and focus our ministries and then we need to streamline and organize around how we best support and carry out those ministries.

How might we change if we start with our ministry front and center on the page and we think about how we shape our lives together around facilitating that ministry? That means not organizing around the “business” of the church, but organizing to enhance and facilitate the service and ministry of this congregation.

So some of the fruits of our Crossroads discussions have been the following: recognizing a desire to eliminate the limitations of our physical space to better support our ministry; recognizing a desire to move towards a discipleship rather than membership way of being church; and recognizing a desire to organize not for “business,” but for service and ministry in the community.

There is, however, one more obstacle we face together as a faith community… and that obstacle is fear: fear of change, fear of spending money, fear of touching our endowment, fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of failing, fear of the storms swamping our little boat, fear of going under…..

In the midst of the storm, Jesus peacefully sleeps, seemingly indifferent. The disciples run and wake him saying, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” That is the fear that still has us paralyzed…is this church perishing? Is the Christian church perishing?

Jesus asks us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

We can’t see what the world or what this church will be like in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, or 20 years from now…and we can’t let that stop us from acting today. We don’t know what the future holds, and that is why Paul says, “see, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” The time for us to act is now…to help people today, not yesterday…not in the distant future…the time to step out in faith, and act, is now!

Stepping out in faith means moving ahead not knowing where we will end up.

Stepping out in faith means getting in the boat and shoving off in the direction that Jesus is sending us.

Following Jesus means, ensuring that we are not creating obstacles for ourselves or for others to relationship with God, to ministry, to full participation in our lives together, or to service in Jesus’ name.

Stepping out in faith means, “having no restriction in our affections…and opening wide our hearts to all people.”

Stepping out in faith means sailing into the unknown, pushing into unchartered waters – and even if there are storms ahead, remembering that we are all in this boat together, and we need to trust and have faith and confidence that Jesus is in the boat with us.

Let us step out in faith and “Open wide our hearts until we are barrier free.” It is time to hoist anchor and set sail in the direction that Jesus is pointing us, so that we can deepen our service to God and to others in Jesus name.

Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of Salvation!