READING FROM THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES (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— 2and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
6I 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— 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But 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! 9As 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!
10Am 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. 11For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
SERMON, preached on May 29, 2016
First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Listen to the sermon here
"When people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.” That’s what Saint Anne Lamott says.
And Saint Paul in his letter to the Galatians says: “Am I 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.”
I have a confession to make. I am a recovering people pleaser. I have been a people-pleaser ever since I realized at around age 5 that if I kept quiet about my hatred of rutebega and just ate it with a smile on my face and a thank you, life was easier. I figured out early that going along to get along would not only avoid a fight or a punishment, but people would like me better.
I became drunk on the thought of being liked. If I was liked, I must be good, I thought.
By 6th grade, it was solidified somewhere deep in my psyche that not being liked was not just uncomfortable, but actually terrifying. If I wasn’t liked, I must be bad, I thought.
And so I spent the better part of my life trying to make everyone like me. I did this to believe I was good; to avoid the discomfort and terror of thinking I was bad.
That’s a lot of work for not a lot of pay off, since people- pleasing in an attempt to create universal likeability always fails. It’s a doomed project.
There are many people-pleasers in this room. Do you want to confess, too? You’re welcome to stand up and say “My name is_________, and I am a people-pleaser.”
I want us to know something. Our value doesn’t come from other people. It comes from God. Beloved, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.
In the meantime, let’s join in a time of confession.
Dear God, we confess the following sins of our communities:
We are so concerned with people pleasing that we say “yes” to everything, when we really mean “no”. We are so concerned with people pleasing that we bend over backwards to make people happy meanwhile making ourselves miserable. We are so concerned with people pleasing that we end up spending our days crammed full of errands for other people, meetings we don’t want to go to, and things to do we shouldn’t have signed up for to begin with.
We forget that when you said “Love your neighbor as yourself”, it means we have to love ourselves first.
Frantic attempts to please people don’t end well anyway. We’re late to coffee with a friend who needs us urgently because we were busy feeding another friend’s pet. The next morning we forget to feed the friend’s pet because we are off at the hospital visiting our sick aunt, who is mad that we didn’t show up the day we were supposed to because we were picking up our boss’s dry cleaning, or volunteering at the school book fair. We people-pleasers make ourselves crazy and disappoint everyone anyway.
God, we are sorry and we humbly repent. We are only human and doing the best that we can.
It would do us good to remember this: our worth does not come from other people liking us. Our worth comes from God. Our job is to seek only the approval of the still small voice inside of us that reminds us who we are. Nothing in heaven, and nothing on earth, not even the failure to show up for the PTO bake sale, will separate us from the Love of God. And so I declare us a forgiven people. Can I get an amen?
Anne Lamott writes:
Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen. Repent just means to change direction — and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that. Shoot the moon.
Beloved: when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. Because we were made by God to have nice big comfortable tummies and big juicy creative lives.
Unfortunately, the Christian Church is guilty of waggling their forefinger at us and telling us who they think we should be far more than it should. The Church makes the mistake of thinking it’s speaking for God far too often. Most of the time, the Church speaks instead for human wants and preferences.
Our scripture this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the Church of Galatia. If you were paying attention, and not zoning out, you could probably tell that Paul was sounding pretty peeved. I mean, he’s calling people accursed!
This may sound like really old fashioned, or odd, or like peculiar Bible-y stuff to you, but the reason why he’s yelling at the Galatians is because they were having an argument about whether or not people should have to be circumcised. This was a really big deal in the early church. They fought all the time about whether or not men had to be circumcised in order to belong to the Jesus movement.
That’s not the kind of fight we have anymore, thank God. Right, guys? Can I get an amen?
But circumcision truly was the biggest concern of the early Jesus movement. The Jews and the Gentiles were trying to figure out what their rules were going to be. The Jews were circumcised, and the Gentiles were not. And rules for belonging were important. They figured they should have to look the same and follow the same law. And they fought about what that would look like.
Anyway, you’re probably wondering why fighting over circumcision has any relevance to us today. Well, Saint Paul was trying to make the case against having to be circumcised to be a Christian. He was saying that requiring circumcision is human law, not God’s law. He was saying that to be “in” God’s club, you didn’t have to do anything to mark your appearance. He was trying to make the case that the Gospel is simple: “everyone’s in.”
This is God’s big tent. The kingdom of God doesn’t have painful requirements for entry.
The people who would stand at the door telling people that they didn’t “belong” in the Church were perverting the Gospel of Christ, Paul said.
And man, I can’t think of anything more relevant for the church today. Because there are so many people standing at the doors of churches trying to define who’s in and who’s out based on appearance, belief and identity. This gatekeeping all in the interest of keeping the people who are already inside comfortable and happy.
This is a perversion of the Gospel, Paul says. “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Truthfully, it would be so much easier to make people happy if we were all more alike. We would be far more comfortable if we could somehow ensure that only “people like us” filled these pews.
And so we may be tempted to say:
Oh, you’re from Rutland? There’s a congregational church there, you know. This church is for Sterlingites.
Oh, you’re a Catholic? There’s a Catholic church across the green. This church is for Protestants.
Oh, you’re gay? Maybe you’d be more comfortable at the UU church in Worcester.
Oh, you’re a Republican? This church is only for people who vote for Bernie Sanders.
Oh, you’re an atheist? Why are you here? This church is for believers.
You’re black or Latino? You’re welcome here, but you better learn to like “our” old dead white guy music.
It’s a lot of work to constantly redefine what it means when we say “we.” And it isn’t comfortable.
But church: when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.
As a church, we are consistently told who we should be, both internally and externally. But our call is quite simple: to recognize all people as children of God: Jews, Gentiles, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, people from all towns and cities and states and countries, people of all ages, races, nationalities, abilities, sexualities and gender expressions. No one needs to earn their place here by adhering to old ideas of what it means to be Christian, if those ideas do not represent the heart of the Gospel.
We were featured in UU World magazine this month. The article highlighted our particular way of representing the heart of the Gospel. (First Church: enjoy this year of fame while it lasts, because when no one is paying attention to us five years from now, we can say wistfully, “well, we will always have 2016.”)
The article in the World was titled “Blurring Denominational Lines.” The UUs apparently think they have something to learn from us about the ways in which we bridge theological and ideological divides here. For good reason.
After reading the UU World article, one of my friends said to me, “wow…with a congregation that theologically and ideologically diverse, how do you keep everybody happy?”
Such a good question, right?
I told him that I crack a lot of jokes.
But the real answer is: I don’t and I can’t. God led me to a place where it is literally impossible for me to try and please all the people all the time, as if that ever was possible anywhere. And so I have been forcefully ejected from the land of people pleasers by the grace of God, and liberated at last to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our friend Joanne Janeski was quoted in the World article saying that people’s boundaries are pushed here. She says that’s a good thing because “being comfortable in life is a dangerous place.” I love that. My colleague Shane Montoya said: “if there is anything Jesus was good at is blurring lines and transgressing boundaries.”
I do believe that this is our call, First Church in Sterling. To gather in the spirit of Jesus by blurring lines and transgressing boundaries. And there ain’t nothing about that work that is people-pleasing.
After all, Jesus didn’t worry about our comfort, or keeping people happy. He worried about the coming kingdom of God, in which the last would be first; the hungry fed, the prisoner released, the naked clothed. The kingdom in which the meek would inherit the earth. Jesus didn’t say that only the “nice” people that everyone liked would get to heaven in the end. Thank God, because heaven would be pretty boring if that were the case.
So beloved, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. Stop people pleasing. Practice disappointing people with your commitment to love God and yourself first. Practice welcome and inclusion and celebration of all people as your gospel. Stop apologizing for choosing the Gospel of Love over the heresy of trying to make everyone happy. Practice saying ‘no’ to life-sucking activities you hate so that you can say a holy ‘yes’ to what you were put on this earth to do. Open the doors as wide as you can, to your church and to your heart. When God tries to tell you who you are, believe God. You are known and named Beloved. You are worthy. So is everyone else. Believe it, and live it.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org