This is from Sunday, May 29th at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Georgetown, Washington, DC.
The text is Galatians 1:1-12
Did you ever use a tin-can telephone? With the 2 cans connected by a string? And somehow, (I’m guessing it’s actually magic since I don’t understand the intricacies of physics that make this work, but I do love Harry Potter so magic is clearly real), somehow the sound travels from my mouth, across the string, vibrates in the receivers head and those vibrations are translated into sounds.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a tin can telephone we could use to talk to God? Since in my head these telephones work by magic instead of physics, this direct line to God is entirely possible! People often ask me to pray for them because I have a direct line to God. But the reality is that I don’t. I wish I did, but I don’t. And that’s why I want this magical tin can phone to use to talk to God.
I want all of us to have one, not just me. It would be up to us when or if to use the phone. How often to use the phone. And if we listen to the recommendations we receive. But it would be really nice to just have God say: yes, take the job; no, don’t take another drink; yes, your dog is here waiting for you; or, I don’t understand why Donald Trump is poling so well either.
This phone could potentially be used to solve a lot of problems before they became problems. I realize that my tin can phone would also cause A LOT of problems, but this is in my magical perfect world, so we’re going to glance over those today.
On this weekend we remember those who died in service to our country. I am not going to comment on the validity, or necessity, or importance of war, but I don’t in any way want my words to take away from the sacrifices made by so many to protect this nation, and others who were defenseless. But: could you imagine if FDR could have picked up a can and asked: hey God, there’s this crazy guy in Germany who is pretty terrible things in your name. Are you okay with this?
I don’t want to speak for God about what God thinks about war. And that’s not my point anyway. My point is that it would be really helpful to be able to ask God what God thinks about things and get advice in those times when we really need advice. Especially in those times when people or persons are claiming to have Divine information. And whatever Divine information they have, sounds really, really good. Or easier. Or somehow more beneficial to me. Or it just makes more sense. Falls more in line with cultural expectations. Allows me to justify making what I know is a terrible choice. Or to justify being cruel to others.
What Paul is addressing the Galatians reading today is something that would fall under the category of teachings that make more sense, or fall more in line with cultural expectations. A direct line to God would have really helped the fledgling church of Galatia. But here’s an interesting question: do you think they would have used the phone? I don’t. I think the Galatians thought they were doing just fine!
In this letter, Paul is mad. He has gotten wind of what’s happening in Galatia, and he is none too pleased about it. Most likely, the Galatians sent a report of what they were doing to Paul, who founded the Christian church there. This letter from Paul is a slap on the wrist, telling the Galatians to stop listening to people who aren’t Paul or Christ.
It’s easy to be on Paul’s side here. Paul was just there. Taught the Gentiles and Jews alike about how to be a Christian. Taught them about the teachings of Christ. Taught them how to follow Christ. When Paul felt confident the members had a solid understanding, he moved on to plant another church in another place. Shortly after Paul left, the Christian bubble he created started to be infiltrated by outside influences.
In this instance, it probably wasn’t people who were the false teachers (though there may well have been). The false teachers here were society and cultural expectations. Not because the actions being taught were wrong, but because by focusing on the way worship looks, these Galatian Christians were missing the point of why and how to actually worship God.
It is really easy to fall into the trap of a false teacher when it is easy, or flashy, or falls directly in line with what you’ve always done, or what you really want. When a wealthy guy with a flashy smile looks at you and says: God wants you to be happy. Just ask God, and God will give it to you. It is really easy to fall into believing that it’s really possible. That God really wants you to drive the car you can’t afford but want. Or to buy the house that’s way too big and out of your price range, because you want it and that will make you happy.
The people who stand up and say these things, these are false teachers. They are twisting the word of God. They probably aren’t doing so on purpose, but they are doing so anyway. And you know what, millions of Americans are blindly following. These are people who want to follow God, and want to do the right thing. They are following teachers who are saying things that make sense. Just like the earliest members of church in Galatia.
Paul was still around 2,000 years ago to correct the actions of the Galatians. We are not so lucky today.
It has gotten really, really hard to hear God’s voice over the last few millennia. The further we have gotten from Christ speaking the words, the harder it has become to hear the words. There are societal and cultural influences, some claiming to be good, and others that are honest that they could care less about God. These things press in on us from all sides. Consuming us. Making it hard to differentiate what we should do or how we should act.
Couple this with false teachers shouting at us that God wants us to follow a specific version of morality. One that allows us to act in ways that go against the very essence of the Word of Christ. Make no mistake about this: missing the point of what Christ was teaching is why Paul was so mad at the Galatians. The Galatians were focusing on how they show they follow Christ. What are the actions that need to be taken. How do we worship? Not why do we worship? Not how do we live our lives. But: how do we showoff that we are Christians?
I talked with a friend this week, well, I texted with her, about my particular approach to evangelism. My approach, my belief, is that I will be known as a Christian by how I live my life. It’s easier to hear those who stand on street corners with bullhorns, but it’s easier to follow someone who actually walks the walk of faith.
But it can be hard to make out God’s voice when so many people, are shouting their proclamations that they know the way to follow God. This is another reason I would really like a tin can phone to talk to God on.
But of course, I do talk to God. All the time. I’m in constant conversation with God. And then I try to use my understanding of my relationship with God to help me decipher what God is telling me, opposed to what I really want. Sometimes, what I want and what God is telling me are the same thing. Sometimes, doors close that shouldn’t have closed and I know I shouldn’t go that way. Sometimes, there’s a nagging inside of me pulling me in a direction that I don’t particularly want to go.
It’s hard though, to determine what’s God, and what’s me, and what’s the world. I stand before you as a person that others follow in developing their relationship with God. And I will honestly tell you that there are times when I am wrong. I don’t always get this right. But as I grow in my relationship with God, I find that I can figure it out most of the time.
Paul gives a pretty good hint at how to figure this out. “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval?” What is the motivation behind your actions? Ask that. And answer it honestly. That answer will lead you to a better understanding of what Christ was actually teaching. The Centurion in the Gospel, he got that.
It would have been totally taboo for a Roman military captain to ask for a Jewish Rabbi’s help. Especially one who was as controversial as Jesus. This centurion was a good man, who was trying to do the best he could for the people put under his jurisdiction – the Gospel tells us that.
It was not expected, or even common, for an invading and controlling army to be kind and supportive of native populations. But this unnamed centurion was doing what was best for people, not what was expected by the society and culture from which he came.
The common reading of this text is that the centurion’s faith was so great that he thought Christ’s words would be enough to heal his slave. And while that’s entirely possible, I think the faith might go deeper than that. I think this centurion was living out a faithful life without knowing what it meant to do so, and without having been taught how.
I’m glad that we have an example to show us it’s possible to live faithfully without ever having heard God’s words directly from God’s mouth. While it would be great to have a tin can phone with God, it’s possible to live faithfully without one. God’s answers still find a way to vibrate throughout my being, just as those words would if they traveled via string. Knowing myself, even if I had the words directly from God, I’d still mess it up a bit. Because I’m flawed. And human. And so are you. So was Paul. So was the Centurion. And God loves us all anyway.
So how about this: instead of proclaiming that we have the right answers, maybe we can just embody the words of Christ instead.
Maybe we can just love everyone as we love ourselves? Let us be known by our actions, instead of empty proclamations.