Declaring God's Marvelous Works

June 23, 2019

Series: June 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Galatians 1:6-12

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.

 Declaring God’s Marvelous Works

At the risk of boring those of you who have already heard some or all of this story, I want to share with you today a little of my own call story … the events and experiences that led me to pursue ordained ministry.  For I am deeply reminded of my own call story when I read this letter from Paul to the Galatians.

I grew up here, in northern California, up in Sebastopol.  My dad was a pastor, and I was very involved in church as a child.  It was a theologically progressive United Church of Christ congregation, quite similar in many ways to Westminster, though as a child, I had no idea what “theologically progressive” meant.  I just knew that when I was at church, I knew I was loved and accepted just the way I was.  I knew I was loved and accepted by God, and I knew I was loved and accepted by my fellow church members.  There was no one “right” way to be a Christian at my church.  Instead, we were on a journey of love and discovery together.  You may have noticed on the bulletin cover last week the slogan of the United Church of Christ – “God is Still Speaking.”  The church of my childhood was very aware that they did not have all the answers, and that together we were listening and learning and practicing how best to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Fast forward to my post-college years and this northern California girl found herself in Baton Rouge, Louisiana as part of a teaching program.  After settling into my apartment, one of my first priorities was to find a church to attend.  Easier said than done!  I must have attended at least a dozen churches in the first several months that I was in Baton Rouge.  Time after time after time, I found myself disagreeing with the sermons that I heard.  At church after church – mostly Presbyterian and Methodist churches – I heard a message of exclusion and division preached.  According to these pastors, there was only one way to be a Christian, and anyone who did not conform to their specific rules and regulations simply was not a proper Christian.  It was so rigid, so absolute, so certain.  It certainly did not seem like God was still speaking in these church communities.  God had spoken, and, somehow, these churches each knew the exact right way to be a Christian.  And that way excluded a whole lot of people and beliefs and ways of being in this world.

As I mentioned, I am vividly reminded of these experiences when I read Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Paul had been in Galatia previously, and had preached to them about the Good News of Jesus.  That is the calling Paul had perceived for his life – to travel around to different communities and share the Gospel.  For Paul, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was, at its core, about God’s love for us, God’s beloved children.  Dr. Wendy Farley, a professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary writes that for Paul, “Love makes one a Christian.  It is love that justifies, that makes us right.  That love is not conditioned by anything but God’s own love for humanity.  If we miss this, for Paul, we miss everything.”[i]  As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  That is the message he preached in Galatia; that is the message he preached wherever he went.

At some point after Paul leaves Galatia, according to his letter, some other people arrive, also claiming to teach and preach about Jesus Christ.  We can tell by the letter that Paul is very disturbed by what they are teaching.  He says they are “confusing” the Galatians and wanting to “pervert the gospel of Christ.”  In the short passage we heard today, we do not get specifics about what these people are teaching, but later in the letter we learn that they are telling the Galatians that they must first take on Jewish practices in order to become Christians. 

At that time, the early Christian movement had two distinct groups of people – those who were Jewish and had decided to become a follower of Christ.  And the Gentiles, who had not been Jewish and had decided to become followers of Christ.  Those with roots in the Jewish community kept many of their Jewish traditions, such as eating specific foods and circumcising the males.  The Gentiles did not feel the need to take on these specifically Jewish traditions, but some of the traveling teachers believed this was the only way to truly be a follower of Jesus.

Paul, as you can hear in the letter, vehemently disagreed.  In his mind, this goes against everything Jesus taught.  Jesus, who welcomed the outsider, who included everyone, who made sure to include the Gentiles in his ministry.  Certainly Jesus would not have rules and regulations about who does and does not get to follow him.  As Wendy Farley says, “Paul makes a passionate case for the radical inclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  Jesus’ ministry was about drawing people in, not pushing people out.

So there I was in Baton Rouge, hearing preacher after preacher telling me what I had to do and believe in order to be considered a Christian.  I was not hearing or experiencing radical inclusivity at those churches.  Instead, I was hearing things that totally contradicted the Jesus I had learned about growing up and had continued to read about in the Gospels as an adult.  Things that did, indeed, sound like a perversion of the gospel – the good news - of Jesus Christ.

My search continued, church after church, until finally I did end up finding a church that preached the radical, open, inclusive love of Jesus.  That did not put up any barriers to being a disciple of Christ.  I had found my new church home.

I love a story with a happy ending.  However, the story does not end there.  For now we move to the Psalm, which urges us, “Declare God’s glory among the nations, God’s marvelous works among all the peoples.  For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.”  According to the Psalmist, it is not enough to simply resist the teachings of those trying to confuse the gospel.  It is not enough to simply attend worship at a church that preaches and teaches about the inclusive and welcoming love of God.  No, we are called to declare God’s glory.  We are called to declare God’s marvelous works.

As I sat in that church in Baton Rouge, I got to thinking … if there are so many people out there putting up barriers to knowing the love of God through Jesus Christ, what can I do to tear down those barriers?  How am I called to declare God’s marvelous works to those who need to hear it?  For me, that became a call, slowly, to ordained ministry.  The stubborn side of me decided that if there are preachers out there trying to exclude people from the love of God, I was going to become a preacher that would do the opposite.  I would not and could not allow their voices to be the only voices out there.

I am fully aware that most people are not called to go into ordained ministry.  Thank goodness.  What a weird world that would be!  However, we are each called to declare God’s marvelous works among the people in our own way.  I am so proud to serve a congregation that embraces the radical inclusivity and love of Jesus Christ, that understands there are many ways to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, that realizes it does not have and never will have all the answers.  I do wonder, though, if we could do a better job of declaring that good news beyond these four walls.

A few years ago, Rob and I led our Deacons and Elders through a “Natural Church Development” survey process.  It was designed to illuminate Westminster’s strengths and weaknesses in eight categories that the Natural Church Development organization had studied and determined to be essential qualities of healthy churches.  We scored quite high in several areas, including inspiring worship and loving relationships.  There was one category, though, in which we scored noticeably lower than anything else – that category was called “passionate spirituality.”  When we started to share these results with our church officers, we received a lot of pushback.  “We’re very spiritual … we are passionately spiritual … we are just quiet about it.”  The consensus was that, though our members in general feel connected to their spirituality, they are a bit reluctant to share about their faith with others.  I can understand that … it can be uncomfortable to share about God to someone who does not hear about or talk about God regularly.  It can perhaps be even more uncomfortable to share about the inclusive and welcoming love of God to someone who understands God’s love differently.  And we certainly don’t want to become in-your-face proselytizers, trying to forcibly convert people to Christianity.

But that is not what the Psalmist is talking about.  The Psalmist begins by encouraging us to sing.  O sing to the Lord a new song.  Because we are so filled with the love and the glory of God, we can’t help but be moved by song.  And then, says the Psalmist, share.  Because God loves us so abundantly, we can’t help but share about this love.  We cannot and should not keep quiet about the good news of God’s love for us and for all people.

A few weeks ago, Rob talked about Rachel Held Evans, an influential voice in the national conversation about progressive Christianity, who died suddenly in early May.  Two of Rachel’s friends wrote a remembrance of her where they noted that her mission was not to convert people, but instead to remind them and to let them know about the wondrous and miraculous love of God made known in Jesus Christ. They write, “She never positioned herself simply ‘against’ anything. To tell the truth is to recognize Rachel for who she was — someone who, inspired by Jesus’ love for her, poured out uncommon love and worked relentlessly ‘for’ the good of all people, whether they agreed with her or not.  Rachel was ‘for’ an all-embracing vision of Christ’s church and the relentless inclusion of refugees and those suffering poverty, of LGBTQ people, of women and especially women of color, of the unseen and unheard and swept-aside. She used her writing to build the bridges so many of us needed to get back to God’s love, to one another and to the church. Rachel was ‘for’ Jesus; in many ways, she would have gotten in much less trouble if she hadn’t believed so deeply that Jesus meant what He said. Ultimately, Rachel was ‘for’ the abundance of ordinary ways we encounter God. Everything she did pointed to these encounters: feeding people, opening her home, stirring our laughter, attuning our ears to the predawn song of a mockingbird.”[ii]

Since her death, the main question people have asked is, who is going to pick up where Rachel left off? Who is going to be the voice for the marginalized?  Who is going to see that all are included?  Who is going to boldly declare God’s marvelous works?  My answer?  Each one of us.  Each one of us is called to preach and to teach the gospel … each in our own way. May it be so. Amen.

 [i] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3

[ii], by Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu