According to some sociologists and historians of religion it is not too extreme a statement to say that Christianity should never have succeeded. In order to make my case let me read to you from an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1997. “The year was A.D. 60 and leaders of a fledgling cult that was breaking away from mainline Judaism had reason to be despondent. In the three decades after the execution of the young, radical Jewish sage and healer they believed to be the Messiah, they had fanned out from Jerusalem into the broader Greco-Roman world, taking his message to all people, Jews and gentiles alike, and yet they had little to show in the way of converts. The evidence indicates that fewer than 3,000 people scattered in small congregations throughout the Roman Empire could be regarded as committed adherents of this Jesus the Christ. Those who study religious groups say it is at this point that new movements typically give up their efforts to expand; they then commonly turn inward and start to die, the founders realizing that their plans to be a transforming force in the wider society cannot be met, that the obstacles are too great.” (How Jesus Won the West, Chicago Tribune (Thursday, March 27, 1997).
But Christianity didn’t die. Instead it thrived. Over the next 40 years the number of Christians increased from a few thousand to 7,000 and then to more than 140,000 by 150 A.D. In the next 100 years Christianity grew by more than 750,000 until by 350 A.D. half the population of the empire, or 33 million people, were Christians. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark, teacher of sociology and comparative religion asks this question: “How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?” His answer might surprise you. There are many answers, he says, but when asked for a single sentence answer he writes: “The Christians introduced into a world of hatred and cruelty a totally new concept about humanity – that you had a responsibility to be compassionate and caring to everyone.”
“Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, How can I help?” That’s how Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s imperative to the members of the church in Rome. “Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not status.”
The people in the Roman Church to whom Paul wrote had grown up steeped in one of two philosophies. Those who were former pagans, or gentiles, had worshipped a large number of gods and goddesses who were remote and unconcerned about human affairs. They had not been circumcised and had been free to eat meat offered to idols. Those who were former Jews had been taught to live by the law and to be very careful about what they ate and with whom they associated. Never would a Jew eat with a Gentile. Never would they eat meat used in the worship of idols. Now these two were worshipping together and eating together and it was causing tension, discord and judgment. Some former Jews were having difficulty feeling free from the law and they were demanding that the gentiles follow the law as well. Divisions arose in the community and different factions felt superior in faith and practice while others felt like they were second class citizens. Instead of finding strength in unity the community was being divided into them vs. us or weak vs. strong. So Paul writes to define for the Romans what Christian community is to look and feel like and to encourage them to live, not only in a superficial peace but with respect and in a deep and lasting commitment to one another. Reach out to one another, he tells them. Show mercy, help out, listen, give comfort, love one another as God loves us and has mercy for us. Don’t look down on those who you think are weak. Have compassion and lend a helping hand. After all, we are all in this together.
There is a Talmudic story about two men in a rowboat heading toward land. One man suddenly started to bore a hole in the bottom of the craft. Bewildered and worried the other man asked him what in the world he was doing and why he was doing it. He retorted angrily, “This is none of your business. I’m boring the hole under my seat! “Although Americans tend to think of faith as a personal experience, spiritual growth is really a team sport, write Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. “Through the teaching and support, sacrifice, worship and commitment of the church, utterly ordinary people are enabled to do some rather extraordinary, even heroic acts, not on the basis of their own gifts and abilities but rather by having a community capable of sustaining Christian virtue. The church enables us to be better people than we could have been if left to our own devices.” We know this to be true. The single twig, the proverb says, breaks more easily than the bundle.
Dr. Andrew Weil writes that “Human beings are highly social, communal animals. We are meant to live in families, tribes and communities and when we lack those connections, we suffer. Yet many people pride themselves on their independence and habitually distance themselves from others.” Erich Lindemann and his wife studied the life of those who survived Boston’s Coconut Grove Nightclub fire in 1942 in which 492 people died. They found that there were two different kinds of survivors. One group of survivors had a slow and tedious recovery. Some of them barely survived. The other group recovered quickly. The only difference they could find between the two groups was that those who recovered quickly found strength and support, not from counseling or therapy, but from a community of friends and family who called on them, kept track of them, wrote them and loved them back.
The Hindu’s have a prayer in their scriptures that starts with the invocation, Lord, lead me from the unreal to the real. Much of our lives are lived steeped in unreality where Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood define for us the meaning of strength. Tough, invulnerable to pain and of few words they exemplify what it means to be strong. Handling every situation on their own, never bending in the face of overwhelming odds they act out for us our cultural ideal. For Jesus, however, real life was lived with humility, vulnerability and a willingness to suffer for the other person. The meek, he said, would inherit the earth. In reality it is those who are willing to reach out and help others and those who are willing to risk reaching out to others for help and support who are the strong ones.
Stephen Ministry, along with the Prayer Chain and Care Guild, is at the core of our caring for one another here at Kenilworth Union. Right now 10 people are being trained to be in relationships with those who are going through transitions and difficult times. They are being trained to listen, and offer non-judgmental acceptance and support. They will be commissioned in February and join the current group of Stephen Ministers at KUC. They are being trained because each one has taken Paul’s words to heart, “Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, ‘How can I help?’” We know the blessings of giving but the challenge for many of us it to know the joy of receiving as we make ourselves vulnerable to one another by asking for help or being willing to accept help when it is offered and accepting that help can make a world of difference. Just listen to one person’s experience of care through Stephen Ministry!
My name is Amy Rogers, and I was blessed to have a Stephen Minister during a difficult time in my life a few years ago. When Jane asked me to speak about Stephen Ministry and what it meant to me, one of my first thoughts was how confidential and private my conversations were with my Stephen Minister. As testimony to this, I’m sure no one in the congregation knows I had a Stephen Minister, or who she was! It was so reassuring to know how important and precious she valued our talks, that they were confidential without question. Talking with her was a completely safe and trusted feeling, like that of open arms wrapping around you. She was not judging or condemning, she didn’t give advice. And I wasn’t looking for advice. Now I have a lot of friends. Yet this is different from talking to a friend. A Stephen Minister isn’t going to tell you what to do. Somehow the continuity of her caring, walking every step with me every week, helped me get through the difficult time faster and better. The loving feeling of that unconditional acceptance every week was something I could count on, and trust in. It’s an on-going and evolving relationship with your Stephen Minister. I’m blessed to say that it has now evolved to a friendship as a result of the closeness we shared. When people truly care, it shows and manifests in how the relationship can continue on into real and true friendship. So it’s different from therapy or counseling, or from talking to a friend. It’s that feeling of acceptance no-matter-what, just where you are. If you’re concerned or unsure about it…give it a try. You have nothing to lose, and love and healing and acceptance are on the other side. Thank you.
In a beehive producing 100 pounds to 200 pound of honey a year, a single bee generates only 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. But because the 80,000 to 90,000 bees that comprise one hive work together and attack common enemies, not each other, they can produce an amazing amount of honey.
During this time of Advent, as we wait with hope for the peace of God’s kingdom, we can begin to bring about God’s vision for our world as we support, love and care for those in need, never knowing when it might be our time to receive the same. Like bees in a honeycomb we can work together to help one another and produce a kind of sweetness of caring and love that can reach out and transform the world just as it did over those 300 years so long ago. Amen.