Sing to the Lord a new song.
Once upon a time, far away and long ago, I started high school. I vividly remember the first day. I didn’t know anyone. I walked into the ninth grade classroom—a few minutes late, which should come as no surprise to some of you—to find a group of people I’d never seen before acting like they all had known each other for life. And a bunch of them had; they’d all gone to the same school from Kindergarten through eighth grade. They knew each other’s names and they knew each other’s stories. They were insiders; I was an outsider. It was an awful feeling. This experience is not new or unique or worse than anyone else’s experience of moving to a new school or a new job or a new town.
I dealt with the situation by exercising my budding skills as a leader and a troublemaker. I found a handful of other outsiders with whom to engage in what my grandmother might have called bad behavior. Then, with them, I was an insider. After what seemed like a lifetime of this, I sought out a community of people who would help me give up that behavior, one day at a time. In that community I was again an outsider. Or so I thought. (What happened after that is another story for another time.)
At its heart, the beginning verses of Paul’s provocative letter to the Galatians are about insiders and outsiders. Jewish Christian missionaries—who consider themselves insiders—have been telling the new Christian community in Galatia—outsiders—that they must become Jewish in order to become Christian. Kind of like if we said that everyone had to love incense and the Episcopal Hymnal in order to become Christian. In translation, Paul uses the language of approval, but he is really talking about listening, obedience. Who are you going to listen to? Religious insiders who tell you that you have to do certain things in order to obtain God’s favor? Or the Gospel?
Paul affirms the authority of the Gospel over any other authority. In doing so, he obscures any lines between insiders and outsiders. Paul’s entire mission is about bringing outsiders in, making clear that the Good News of freedom and reconciliation was as much for Gentiles and foreigners, as for the people of Israel.
Today’s gospel is also about insiders and outsiders.
The centurion is an insider in his own world. He is a person with authority over soldiers who obey his every command. In the world of Jesus and the Jewish elders, he is an outsider. The servant for whom he intercedes is even more of an outsider. The centurion crosses many boundaries to plead with Jesus. Like me in my early twenties, like so many of us when we finally give up on being able to fix ourselves, the Centurion knows he cannot do this on his own. He begins with community. He begins by making a connection with the Jewish elders whom he believes are closer to Jesus than he.
The elders, in their humanity, make a case for the centurion by arguing that he deserves Jesus’ help even though he is an outsider. They make him “worthy” because of something he has done, his contribution to the synagogue. Later, the centurion sends a message to Jesus saying no, no, I’m not worthy! Certainly not worthy to have you come under my roof. Both the community of elders and the centurion have it wrong. In God’s world, healing and grace having nothing to do with worthiness. Being an insider or an outsider may be related to our own perceptions of worth and worthiness, but not to how God sees us.
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Still being new in town, I get to have that “outsider” experience from time to time. I feel like an outsider when I attend a diocesan event with a bunch of people whom I’ve never met, who all know each other (not nearly so painful as 9th grade, I promise). I feel like an insider when I check into my little neighborhood gym and see familiar faces, or when the barista on the corner remembers my drink. On balance, being an insider is a better feeling than being an outsider.
I hope that all of you, when you are here, feel like you belong. Many of you, when you tell your St. Paul’s story, say “the moment I walked in the door, I knew I was home.” What a wonderful feeling! I’ve noticed many of you being welcoming to others. For a bunch of introverts, you’re good at helping outsiders to feel like insiders.
And yet, by contrast, during the week in this place I seem to spend a lot of time keeping people out. We fret over the state of our gates and door hinges. I regularly have interactions with people who are outside telling them they cannot come in, cannot sleep in our building, cannot drink open containers of alcohol on our property, and—again, channeling my grandmother—telling people it’s really not okay to use foul language loudly right outside the office door. These are all genuine, practical issues. And yet they reinforce the lines between insider and outsider. So today’s readings give me pause. Like the centurion, in my own little world I am a person of authority. I say the word and people come and go. (Or they hide their open containers of alcohol until I’m not looking.) But I am an outsider to many of their experiences.
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All the power and authority in the empire does not make the centurion worthy. The centurion only experiences grace, for himself and for his servant, when he steps out of his world, out of his authority, and becomes an outsider. In order to unveil the Kingdom of God, do we need to become outsiders ourselves? Or if we, too, embrace our own unworthiness, might we, like the centurion, experience our utter dependence upon God’s grace?
I don’t have any answers, except to say, as always, pay attention. Think about where you are on the inside and where you are on the outside. Look around. Who is on the outside when you are inside? Who is looking out when you are looking in? And then, try to remember that in the Kingdom of God, there are no such distinctions. Paul himself writes later in Galatians that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female. We don’t have to look far to see that the Kingdom is not yet here, or at least not in a recognizable way. As we gather at this table, I pray for God’s always-and-everywhere mercy and grace that we may find and proclaim the Reign of God where there are no insiders or outsiders, where all are welcome and all are fed, all the time.