The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 5, 2023
A thousand years ago, a group of Vikings led by Erik the Red sailed from Norway to the landmass of Greenland and established Norse colonies along its coast. Those colonies, eventually becoming home to 5,000 people, were socially cohesive and economically viable. They lasted 450 years…and then vanished.
While we think of Vikings as seafaring raiders, they saw themselves as farmers and ranchers whose success was measured in cattle. Therefore, they didn’t think of the environment when they deforested the terrain to create pastureland and let it be overgrazed by their cows. Soon the arctic winds and rains carried the fertile but thin topsoil away into oblivion. Then, first, the Viking cows and, afterward, the Vikings themselves started starving to death.
Now just off the Greenland shore is one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Thus, taking up fishing would have been a simple and effective way to feed themselves. Yet, all the archeological evidence suggests that the Vikings chose to starve to death rather than to let go of their identity as cattle ranchers. Archeologists have unearthed lots of cow bones, but no fish bones to speak of.
In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, UCLA professor Jared Diamond argues that communities typically die, not due to some cataclysmic change, but to their turning inward, perpetuating their cultural model at all costs and holding on to an identity that once fit the times, but ceased to.
For decades I bought my razor blades for shaving in stores. But then times changed, shoplifting increased, blades had to be locked up, and customers had to track down an employee with a key to get them – lest you set off an alarm and are shot with blow darts. As a friend back then quipped, “It’s like they don’t want you to have what they say they want you to have.”
Some entrepreneurs, however, thought outside the box, formed mail-order companies like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s, and took a big bite out of the market share of Gillette, the company that had dominated the shaving market since 1901. Though Gillette eventually started a mail order branch itself, it lost many a customer – including me.
How did Gillette let that happen? It had turned inward and was looking at things from the company’s perspective rather than from that of consumers. Set on holding on to its long-established business models and customary practices, it paid little mind to its present or its potential customers. Hence, it ended up serving neither itself nor consumers well.
Of course, churches are not commercial businesses, but they may also turn inward and look at things from the perspective of preserving their cultural identity and customary practices. They may forget they exist to serve more people than their own, and give little mind to how they, in changing times, might devise new ways to serve those outside the “inner circle”. Their attitude occasions some to quip, “It’s like they don’t want you to have what they say they want you to have.”
Yes, the church is a family God created, but it is one God created to bless “all the families of the earth”.
God started that one family, with Abram its first father – and with us his distant descendants. God started our family right after the fiasco of the arrogantly ambitious Tower of Babel project. The confusion that ensued resulted in the human race becoming, no longer the “one people” the Bible describes it to be before Babel, but a people “scattered…abroad over the face of all the earth” and incapacitated for understanding, let alone relating with, each other. So God, with Abram, embarked on making one little family that He’d build into “a great nation” whom He’d “bless” and who would in turn “be a blessing” by which “all the families of the earth” would be “blessed.”
If we are Abram’s family and embrace its God-given mission, how can we make decisions without an outward look as well as an inward one? How can we ponder our future just for our own sake, and not also for the sake of those we are meant to serve? How can we fail to reach out to all kinds of people from all kinds of families? How can we fail to get to know them better that we might find out how we might bless them?
How do we even begin to find out? We can start by imitating our father Abram who, to fulfill the family mission, left the comfortable cocoon of his “country”, his “kindred” and his “father’s house”; and ventured out into unfamiliar lands that God would show him. We too can leave the church cocoon and venture out into unfamiliar lands that God will show us: into community groups, coffee shops, volunteer gatherings, parks where we play, neighborhoods where we walk. We can, like Abram, “go”, and see what happens – as we pray for chances to make new acquaintances and nurture development of friendships, as we seek God’s grace to be the respectful, kind and generous-hearted people folks want to know better, as we invite them over to our home or favorite snack spot for a treat and some talk, as we convey (either obviously or obliquely) that they matter to us, and to God.
And, if ever they decide to check out church, we can stay at their side to make them feel at home, to show them the ropes, and to introduce them to everyone.
It’s not easy. It’s costly in time, effort and sacrifice. And I for one don’t know how to do it all that well. But I believe that if I, or any of us, keep trying and praying we’ll learn as we go and we’ll play some part in God’s blessing “all the families” out there.