“Insiders and Outsiders”

2 June 2013

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

June 2, 2013

Galatians 1:1-12

“Insiders and Outsiders”

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

My children almost didn’t exist; I almost didn’t get married to John Garcia, because of a turkey sandwich.  We were making turkey sandwiches for each other – preparing to go on a 4th of July picnic to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the day we met.  It made complete sense to me: in my family, when you made a turkey sandwich for someone you loved, you asked a lot of questions. “Do you want pickles?  Do you want your tomatoes peeled?  Do you want a lot of mayonnaise, or just a little?”  It was just one of the rules.  You made a turkey sandwich with care.  You didn’t just slap something between two slices of bread and hope they liked it.  And you didn’t even ASK if they wanted mustard.  You would NEVER put mustard on a turkey sandwich.  It’s just wrong! 

Inside your own family, all those unwritten rules make a lot of sense.  When you are a kid, you learn them so young that you never have to think about them.  You just know.  So… does the toilet paper go on the roll with the loose end over the top or under the bottom?  You know.  There are rules, unspoken rules, for every family –that’s true for many national, religious, and ethnic groups too.  We might never know our culture until we leave it. Church families are a lot like that.  We each have our own culture. 

Here at our church, as in a lot of families, practically nobody uses the front door – nearly everybody comes up the back stairs, up through Brooks Hall.  We have this thing in communion where we pass the plate like families do around the dinner table – nobody comes up and kneels at the altar rail – in fact, we don’t even have an altar rail, or call it an altar, because it isn’t one.  It’s a communion table, the dining table where Jesus broke the bread for his faith family.  You get the picture.  It’s not like other ways of worshipping God aren’t OK.  It’s just they aren’t what makes us feel comfortable.  And that’s why, when we visit someone else’s church – maybe on your travels this summer – we can just tell, without needing any more information, how they are doing it just a little bit...wrong!

Yes, and that’s why John almost didn’t ask me to marry him at that fateful Fourth of July picnic – I was preparing for a picnic the wrong way.  I suggested, with all my questions about sandwich-making, that he was making my sandwich all wrong.  And, of course, he was.  He was asking me NO questions, and besides, he wasn’t spreading the mayonnaise to all four corners of the sandwich bread.  I was beginning question the thoroughness of his love for me.  And he was starting to perceive – quite correctly, I might add – that I was stark raving mad.  We worked it out, I might add.  We’ve been making it work for more than 25 years.  Like Oscar and Felix in “The Odd Couple,” we have adapted.  Our new Smallwood-Garcia family rules are a lot more moderate and sane. 

But here’s the thing:  Paul, in this passage, refuses to compromise between what Paul would call “the bondage of the law” – MY neurotic and rule-bound way of making a sandwich – and “freedom of new life in Christ” – which is the joy-filled way John lives his life, where the only rule is that we love one another and have fun while we’re doing it.  And it turns out, this is the way that brings the most joy to the other creatures of the Kingdom of God, by the way – because it’s the way where the most pieces of bread and turkey are likely to fall to the floor, or right into the mouth of the happy little dog!

Paul was stubborn in the way he refuses to allow any gospel other than the Good News of God’s Grace to be preached.  But did you even KNOW that in the ancient world of early Christianity that Paul was considered a radical liberal – the one who was shocking the Jerusalem-based church with his joyful, free and ready acceptance of the Gentiles and their heathen ways?  We tend to think of him as a very straight-laced, orthodox Jew – which is who he was BEFORE he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and had his vision of the world changed forever.  But the “new revised” Paul was bringing outsiders into the new faith of Jesus in record numbers – like the Galatians, residents of what is today southern Turkey. 

His ministry was SO successful, in fact, that the other disciples were starting to grumble and wonder what he was up to.  They figured he must be cutting corners somehow – letting way too many people slip into church membership, without doing it right.  And so, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians suggests they set out to put a stop to it all.  They evidently questioned his qualifications and credentials for ministry.  So-called “Judaizers” showed up in the churches Paul had founded, to bring them into line – to sort out their misguided doctrines and teach them how to do it all the “right” way, the Jewish way – keeping kosher, and best of all, getting all the men properly circumcised.  Now if you want to discourage a man from joining a church, requiring him to get a painful surgery on that part of his body will slow down the conversion rate, I promise you!

And that enraged Paul, as you can tell.  People were joining the new Galatian churches in record numbers because he had been preaching the Grace-filled Gospel of the life-giving love of Jesus Christ.  He was sharing forgiving love the way he had received it – with no conditions or fine print.  He was sharing his own astonishment that, if God loves us so much that he sent his only son to die for us, “while we were yet sinners,” then how much more proof do we need that we don’t have to work so hard to prove our love for God?  God just wants us to get to the picnic and spend time with him.  God calls the church to go out and enjoy “fullness of life” with Christ as his beloved bride.  God doesn’t want us to have to struggle along with endless chores back home in the kitchen!

It has been my mission, as long as I have been in ministry, to create what I like to call “climates of Grace” – pockets of fresh air where human beings can breathe in deeply the “freedom of new life in Christ.”  But sometimes our human rules, even well-meaning church rules, can get in the way.  What are the messages we today allow to creep into the Gospel of Jesus Christ – messages that tempt us to think we are less than, or more than, beloved in God’s eyes – messages that tend to make worship guests feel like outsiders, as if they are not quite doing it right, the way OUR family insiders do things?

I’ve been asking this question over the past couple of weeks – what are the BAD NEWS messages that creep into our thinking that make us feel inadequate, messages that focus us more on pleasing people than pleasing God?  Here are a few of your responses:  1) “If you can’t do it well, or perfectly, don’t try at all.”  2) “You’re so selfish.  You have to put other people first, all the time.”  3) “Appearances are everything.  What will other people think?” 4) “It’s all your fault.  You have no right to complain: you brought this on yourself.” 5) “You can’t do anything right.  You’re so stupid.  You should know better.”  6) “It’s not enough. You should be doing more.” 7) “You should work harder.  Your duty should never be fun. You should never be happy.”  8) “A strong person doesn’t ask for help.  You have to do it all yourself, or you are weak or incompetent.” 9) “You have to be everything to everyone, and keep everyone happy all the time.”

Paul gets ANGRY about these creeping compromises, these exceptions to God’s gracious love, and so should we.  We have to stand up to those who would preach a false gospel that is NOT Good News, messages of what my dad used to call “The Unholy Church of Do-Good and Do-Right.” Thank God, Paul takes the time to fire off this angry letter to the Galatians.  Thank God he is willing to insist that living by nagging and correcting and perfecting everything is not just a little “off” but 180 degrees wrong. 

Believe Jesus, don’t just believe IN Jesus.  Believe Jesus, who says, “I love you just as you are … no matter what.” 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


Galatians 1:1-12

Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.


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