Encounter God encountering you, and be set free

The Rev Cynthia K.R. Banks; The Second Sunday after Pentecost—PR 4—Year C: I Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

How many of you are familiar with the term “people-pleaser”? I googled it this week, and here are some of the things that immediately popped up: How to Stop Being a People Pleaser: 8 Steps; Are You a People-Pleaser?; 21 Tips to Stop Being a People-Pleaser; there’s a TED conversation that explores People-Pleasing—it’s pros and cons—TED being that non-profit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading; Personal Growth Programs to move through the People Pleasing Pattern; 52 Traits of a Chronic People Pleaser, also known as the 52 Characteristics of a Niceaholic; one site delineates People-Pleasing as a type of co-dependency; there are recovery programs for People Pleasing Addicts; and my personal favorite, a cartoon with a tombstone that says, “RIP Niamh Scott” and below her name is this quote, “I apologize if my death saddens or inconveniences you” and off to the side are these two people, one of whom says to the other, “They say she was a chronic people pleaser.”

I first heard the term in the 1980’s when co-dependency first came into our societal lexicon. It’s described in many ways, but generally means an inability to say “no” and a sense that you’ve got to make everyone around you happy, and, once they’re happy, you will do whatever it takes to keep them happy, even to your own detriment. Most of us know someone who fits this bill, or the shoe just might fit our own foot, to mix my metaphors. Popular literature would cause one to believe that this is an epidemic particular to our day and time, but tis not so.

Today, in Galatians, we hear Paul say this, “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.” We really can’t come up with anything new, can we? The problems we confront in our humanity are the same problems human beings have been trying to figure out for thousands of years. Sometimes, it’s helpful to see the bigger frame and to know that we’re just not that different from human beings throughout the ages.

Obviously, Paul sees the challenge, sees the choice, sees the dilemma. There are times when what God asks of us, times when what Christ calls us to do will not be popular with the people around us, times when the gospel will unmask the False Self we have spent a lifetime constructing. Like the call to love the enemy that our society loves to hate or the invitation to hang out with the wrong people in the wrong places or the challenge to our attachment to mammon, to wealth or the command to make right loving primary and the dressing down of religious constructs that dare to make anything else numero uno.

Paul makes a distinction between the gospel he received through his direct experience of Jesus Christ and other gospels, different gospels that vie for our attention. What gospels vie for your attention? What gospels are operative in your life that may have nothing to do at all with the good news of God in Christ?

Are you living by the gospel according to people-pleasing? Do you have your radar up, ever sensing how others are experiencing you, and adjusting your self accordingly? How can you ever rest in your belovedness if you have to keep shifting who you are?

Are you living by the gospel according to security? If so, how can you hear Jesus’ call to “lose your life”?

Are you living by the gospel according to happiness? It’s awfully hard to embrace the Holy Weeks of your life if happiness is your gospel—who wants to be crucified and wait to rise? Who of us ever wants to let go of a happy life, even if it means we could then find a resurrected one?

Paul is right, there are many gospels of human origin, many gospels from human sources, many gospels that we are taught. But the only one that counts, according to Paul, and, I would say, according to Jesus, is the one we experience, up close and personal, as we open ourselves to the Holy. It’s that moment when you encounter God encountering you, and you are set free. And in that moment, you know gospel; you know good news—it’s not something you are taught; it’s something you are given, it’s something you receive, it’s supremely something you know, and it is True with a capital “T”. And when that gospel comes into your heart, no other gospel will do. You will risk everything for that Truth, for that Way, for that Life, for that reality. Human approval pales in comparison. People-pleasing, it’s just not necessary because your tank is full, your well is overflowing. Security, it’s irrelevant because you are anchored in the True Self which is the only place where we are ever really secure. Happiness becomes a poor substitution for the abundant life that Jesus promises. When the gospel, when the good news of Jesus takes up residence in your soul, when you accept your belovedness with the same passion with which God has already declared it, then you are truly free.

There are two kinds of people who seem to be more able to accept such grace—those on the bottom who have nothing to lose, and those on the top who have hit a wall they can’t get around—an illness, a death, a loss of some sort. The poor and oppressed, they never resisted the good news that Jesus offered them; they knew how hungry they were, and they got it immediately. They understood exactly what Jesus was offering them, and accepted the gift—that’s why they were blessed. At the other end, are people like the centurion of today’s story—he was at the top of his game—status, position, power—but he hit a wall he couldn’t get around when someone he loved got sick; he got the good news, too. It’s those of us in the middle, those of us who still have the illusion that we are doing just fine under our own steam, those of us who say that we believe in grace, but who live as though we still have to earn our way into God’ favor—it is we who struggle mightily to accept how beloved we are; it is we who struggle to see that we are the apple of God’s eye. What will get us to relinquish our little gospels? What will it take for us to let go? What will get us to say “uncle” and fall into arms of Grace?

Why was Jesus amazed at the centurion? I think Jesus was amazed because he saw that the centurion was the real deal. The centurion had hit the wall and was way beyond the worthiness game, a game that religious folk play only too well. There is something about hitting that wall that reveals everything else for the illusion that it is. I wish it weren’t so, but for those of us who live in some degree of comfort, it seems to be that it’s only when we hit the wall that we are truly willing to yield, to let go, and in letting go, we find that which is real and solid and true; it is then that we find the only life that is really worth living. That doesn’t mean that everyone we love who is sick will get cured, but it does mean that even if they don’t, we will know, as Julian of Norwich knew, that in some way beyond our comprehension, “all will be well.”

There are so many gospels out there. Which one would you die for? Even more, which one will you live for? And even more than that, which one will you allow to live through you? Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 2, 2013