Fan or Follower?

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Fifty Sunday after the Epiphany
February 4, 2018

Mark 1:29-39

One employment firm has estimated that 14 million people will call in “sick” tomorrow. And for those who do make it into work tomorrow, productivity will be abysmal. See, while you’re fighting the indigestion of scarfing too much quest and too many wings, you’ll be talking about the Super Bowl. There will be a buzz, a running conversation tomorrow about what will happen tonight – what was your favorite commercial? What did you think of Justin Timberlake? Can you believe what the quarterback said after the game?

To me, that is always fascinating. The winning quarterback is swarmed by a scrum of reporters, and with cameras and microphones shoved in his face, the quarterback has to answer inane questions like, “how does it feel to win?” “Uh, great, duh.” “What are your plans for next season?” “uh win again, duh.” Just watch, tonight, whether it’s Tom Brady or Nick Foles, the reporters will swarm, hundreds of articles will be written, the sports radio airwaves will be on fire – our ears will be tingling with what was said in the post-game interviews.

What happens tonight in Minneapolis is not so different from what happened in Capernaum two thousand years ago. Earlier in the day, Jesus had cured Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. The gospel story from Mark says that she was “raised up,” she was “resurrected” from her pain and illness and given a new lease on life. And just before that, Jesus had confronted a man with an unclean spirit and the spirit had left the man. And the whole town of Capernaum was on fire with the news. Like the scrum of reporters who will gather around the winning quarterback tonight, the gospel story today says “the whole city gathered around the door” where Jesus was. They were desperate to hear what he had to say.

The next morning, Jesus went to go get some alone time, like a banged up running back will ice down his weary muscles after a long game. Jesus snuck away to find some time to pray early in the morning while it was still dark. But the town, the people were still buzzing with the excitement from yesterday. They gather around the proverbial water cooler and talk, replay, rehash what happened yesterday. The newspapers, if you will, had huge headlines about Jesus. The radio commentators couldn’t stop talking about it. It was all over Facebook and Twitter. After these great deeds, all the people could think and talk about was Jesus. “Can you believe he cured that guy? Did you see that when he healed that sick woman? I mean, he cast out demons!” You’ll go into work tomorrow talking about commercials and touchdown passes – the people of Capernaum woke up talking about Jesus.

Still buzzing themselves, Peter and his companions go looking for Jesus that morning. And when they find Jesus, they say those beautiful words, “everyone is searching for you.” Everyone is searching for Jesus.

So we have to ask ourselves the most basic question – why? What was it that Jesus said or did that made them so excited? What did Jesus have to offer that they couldn’t find anywhere else? Were they simply gawking at him like a miracle worker, or did they want to know more?

Those same questions are turned to us. Why are we here? What are we searching for you? What have you heard, what have you seen that has caused you to search for Jesus?

This is the hard edge of the Gospel of Mark. This is the question that Mark will continue to ask us. Why are you here? Are you listening to Jesus because he’s like a celebrity quarterback, or are you listening because he’s the Holy One of God? Notice, that even the demons know who Jesus is, but not all the people do. It’s a subtle criticism of us – how can the demons get it and we still don’t? Are we followers of Jesus, or are we fans of Jesus?

Take the Bible for instance. The Guinness Book of World Records estimates that five billion bibles have been published, bought or given away since 1815. Five billion. You can find bibles in every hotel room, in secondhand bookstores, on Amazon. I probably have at least fifteen bibles of my own. But the mere fact that we own a bible is meaningless. You would think that if there are actually five billion bibles floating out there, that we would know what it says. More often than not, we are fans of the holy scriptures. We crowd around the bible with passing curiosity, we cherry pick what we like and then move on to the next thing. As Marilynne Robinson says, “the Bible today is much thumped but little pondered.”

Or, take Church. It used to be that church was the place for community. If you wanted to grow your business, if you wanted to find a good doctor, if you wanted to run for political office, you had to be part of a church. That’s not the case any more. If you want to find a job, you sign up on LinkedIn. If want a doctor, you ask your insurance company. If you want to run for office, you raise money. Churches were packed, sure, but to what end?

And I’ll go on record as saying this – I am glad those days are over. I am glad that the days of church as country club are over. Because it means that for us who are here, we are here for the right reasons. We are not searching for Jesus because it will further our careers, we are searching for Jesus because Jesus has the words of eternal life.

So that question is turned to us again – why are we here? Why do you have a bible at home? Why do you go to church? Are we followers of Jesus, or are we fans of Jesus?

And it’s that “why” that I ask you to ponder. Why are you here? Why are you searching for Jesus? It is not enough to simply go through the motions of a life of faith. It is not enough to simply own a bible and belong to a church. By themselves, those are meaningless.

And this is actually what Christians can learn from the Super Bowl. No player out there tonight is just going through the motions. No one out there on the field thinks it’s just enough to be there. You know that Tom Brady and Bill Bellichik have been thinking about, studying, practicing, planning for this game for the entire year. Every single one of those players has an intent. A reason to be there that will drive them to play their hardest. Everyone of them wants to win the Super Bowl.

Could the same be said of us? That we are here because and only because we are searching for Jesus?

As we approach our Lenten journey, I ask you to set aside those forty days as a time for figuring out the why – why are you here? Why do you search for Jesus? Why do you want to be a disciple? So often during Lent we get wrapped up in the how, the when, and the what. By all means, during Lent, commit to reading the bible more, commit to be in church more. But those are only the means to the end. It’s the “why” question that matters. And I cannot give you that answer – that is an answer that you have to discover for yourself.

Everyone is searching for Jesus. And the good news is that Jesus is also searching for you. Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” What Jesus came to do, is to find you. To open your heart to love. To cleanse you from what ails you. To bring you into God’s loving arms.

I pray that tomorrow you wake up with some indigestion, indigestion because you have eaten at this holy table and you have met Jesus here. I pray that tomorrow your proverbial water cooler is buzzing about Jesus, and what Jesus has done. And then I hope you go beyond the simple things; do not be a fan, be a follower.


Where We’re From

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 14, 2018

John 1:43-51

America is the great experiment in modernity. See, the whole presumption of modern life is that we can choose. We have the freedom of choice. We have the freedom to choose what kind of TV we want to buy. We have the freedom to believe that Whataburger makes the best fast food hamburger in Texas, though I do believe In-n-Out is better. We have the freedom to prefer the Longhorns or the Aggies, though I have no idea why you would choose the Aggies.

But as theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, we also believe to have the freedom to choose our own story. I’ll use myself as an example. Somebody asks me where I’m from, and I choose my story. I can choose the story in which I’m a native of Los Angeles, born and raised in southern California. That is true. Or, I can be a Texan. I went to the University of Texas, I’ve lived here most of my life. For goodness’ sake, I even have a set of longhorns hanging in my office. I choose my own story. I can also choose my heritage. My last name is Abbott, and when I want, I’m English. But my mother’s family, the DiPietro family, were Italian Catholics who came straight through Ellis Island and settled in New York. In this land of freedom, we choose our own stories.

This freedom, as beautiful and as wonderful as it is, also has a shadow side. We believe that we have the freedom to tell other people what their story must be. And rarely do we choose stories for other people that are better than our own story. When we feel threatened, when we are hurt, we tell negative stories about the other. Our country is full of peoples who were given stories that were not accurate, stories that were meant to be demeaning.

A certain story from my own family is by no means the worst story ever told about someone, but it helps to paint a picture. I remember my grandfather telling me how he hated, he hated that all the kids at school assumed his family was part of the mob because his last name was Italian. Nothing could be further from the truth – my great-grandfather was a dressmaker. And I’m sure that this feeling, this anger at being given a story that is not true, has been felt by many communities throughout history. Judging by last name, by skin color, by accent, by birthplace, we choose other people’s stories for them, and usually they are bad stories. Including the story chosen for Jesus.

Jesus calls Philip to be a disciple of his. Jesus says, “Follow me.” Then, as Jesus found Philip, Philip goes and finds Nathanael. Philip says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Now Nathanael, a proud Israelite – proud of his heritage, his story, his people – turns up his nose at Philip. Nathanael sneers, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

You know, in all the other ancient writings leading up to the time of Jesus, no one ever mentions Nazareth. That’s not because Nazareth didn’t exist. It did. It’s just that nobody cared about it. For the people of the time, Nazareth was a nowhere.

So Nathanael has made up his mind. Nazareth, a little backwater provincial town. Nazareth, way out in the boonies. Nazareth, they aren’t real Israelites. Nazareth. This Jesus guy is a nobody from nowhere. There is no way he’s the one God has sent. Can any thing good come from Nazareth? Nathanael has chosen his own story with pride. Nathanael has chosen Jesus’ story with contempt.

A contempt that we have all known and seen. A contempt that still lives with us. It was a contempt that Martin Luther King, Jr. knew all too well, this contempt is, in part, what we remember this weekend. This contempt, its names are Legion – racism, xenophobia, chauvinism. In our pride, in our contempt, we look at the other and we sneer, “can any thing good come out of Nazareth?”

The delightful answer is, yes, of course. In fact, the best thing comes out of Nazareth. This little town, this little nowhere, this bumpkin village is precisely the place where Jesus is from. His story, the story of the gospel, the story of God’s irresistible grace comes from Nazareth. The story of a God who loves us so much that nothing, not even death will stand in the way, comes from Nazareth. Can any thing good come out of Nazareth? You better believe it.

So how on earth do we can we get to a place where we listen to each other, instead of telling each other who they should be? How does Nathanael get over his contempt to see the grace that is right there before him? How does God open our hearts to see the beauty and the truth in each other?

The answer is extraordinarily simple. It’s a phrase that runs throughout the beginning of the Gospel of John. “Come and see.” Nathanael’s contemptuous sneer is met with Philip’s gentle invitation, “come and see.”

Philip doesn’t spout off Jesus’ resumé. Philip doesn’t give Nathanael the story of Jesus’ birth, his credentials, his story. Philip’s gentle invitation, the invitation to come and see Jesus, is the only thing that will soften Nathanael’s hardened heart. “Come and see,” Philip says. Come and see this extraordinary man, this Jesus of Nazareth, who knows everything about you. Come and see this Jesus of Nazareth whose very life is the embodiment of love. Come and see the man from nowhere who is everything.

Nathanael, you may think that you know Jesus’ story because you know where he came from. You may think you know his background, his people, his education level, his sensibilities. But really, Nathanael, you know nothing. And in fact, it’s the other way around. This nobody from nowhere knows everything about you. And this nobody from nowhere, this Jesus of Nazareth, he is the one who will give your life meaning. At the end of the day, it’s Nathanael who is given a new story. Nathanael comes to know, to believe, to live with Jesus. Nathanael is given this great gift, this gift of talking with Jesus about the glories that are to come. Nathanael has come and he has seen. And now Nathanael’s story is Jesus’ story.

Part of the challenge of today is that we are too isolated – in our little communities, with our finely curated news feeds. The gospel challenge for today is to “come and see.” Rather than trying to formulate their story, sneering if anything good can come from Nazareth, the gospel challenge is to open our hearts to hear a new story. We do have freedom – the freedom to not dictate a story for anybody else.

And God, God also had the freedom to choose. It would have been no thing for God to choose that Jesus came from some place nice, some place decent. Perhaps from Jerusalem. This surely would have helped Jesus’ credentials. In that scenario, he would have been trusted and revered. His resumé would have been immaculate. He could have gone to the best schools, come from a respected family, he could have been a wealthy man, he could have the right name and the right birthplace and the right pedigree. This would have impressed Nathanael.

But God does not care about impressing. No, God only wants to change our hearts. To change our hearts of contempt, of pride – and to change them into hearts of grace and humility.

We have the freedom to choose. To choose our cars and our hamburgers. We have the freedom to choose our story. We are a sort of chameleon people, crafting our own stories in a way to impress others. Either by our humble beginnings or by our vaunted positions.

But always remember, remember that the stories we tell ourselves are rarely the whole story. God’s story for you is so much more than what you can choose on your own. And the story we tell about others is rarely accurate, and usually demeaning. And as it turns out, a nobody from some backwards bumpkin village is the Son of God, the King of Israel.

Come and see. Put away your contempt, your pride, your polished credentials. They have no place here. Come and see Jesus, and you will be given a new story.


The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Admittedly, I did not stay up past midnight to watch the Texas – USC game. And though it didn’t out the way I wanted it to, the game brought back many memories of that national championship game twelve years ago.

See, it was the end of the 2005 college football season and my Texas Longhorns had made it to the National Championship. You all remember that game – Vince Young, USC, the Rose Bowl. All that. Anyway, I was there, on the field, in the stadium, because I was in the Longhorn Marching Band.

And let me tell you, when we won, when the game was over, I remember these feelings that were unreal. Relief, joy, elation, happiness. I remember that was the loudest and fastest I had ever played my tuba. I remember the thrill of it like it yesterday.

Now, my cousin was also at the game. Oddly enough, my cousin’s name is also Jim. We aren’t that creative in the Abbott family. Anyway, Jim was at the game, he was also on the field. But you know, as far as I understand it, he has a completely different memory of that game. Because he was on the USC football team. My joy was his bitterness. My elation was his dejection. I remember a fourth quarter comeback victory, he remembers a fourth quarter collapse and defeat.

Memory is a funny thing. Here we are – in the same stadium, at the same game, we even have the same name and yet our memories, our memories couldn’t be any more different than Texas burnt orange is from USC cardinal and gold.

We remember things differently. If your house flooded during Harvey, you will remember the storm differently from a person who was high and dry. If this is your first time in this church, you will remember this service differently than if you’ve been here a thousand times. Memory is not equal. And that’s what has happened to Peter in the gospel lesson this morning.

Peter says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him?” Peter’s assumption is that it’s only other people who will ever do the sinning. Peter’s question assumes that he is always right and righteous. Peter has forgotten, he does not remember, that he too has sinned.

Peter’s forgetfulness is our forgetfulness, we have the same spiritual amnesia. We remember and hold grudges against the people who have wronged us, but we explain away and justify the wrongs we have done. You need to come to me begging for forgiveness because I’m good and you’re wrong. It’s quite an assumption.

We forget that we have also wronged. We forget that we’re the ones who need to ask for forgiveness at least seventy-seven times. Ask your spouse, your family, your best friend – my guess is that there is some event in your past that you two remember differently. It was some offense that, let’s admit, was your fault. Same people, same event, different memory. You think that whatever you did was not a big deal, but for them, they can’t forget about it. And the person needing forgiveness of the sin is you. But since it was your fault, you whitewash the memory.

See, a wise old priest once told me that the memory of the oppressor is short, but the memory of the victim is long. The memory of the oppressor is short, the memory of the victim is long. This is Peter’s problem. He can only think, he can only imagine the ways and the times that he has been wronged, when he was the victim. He can’t remember, he can’t conceive of a time when he has done the wrong, when he was the oppressor. His memory of his own sins has been whitewashed.

This is also the reason why the national conversation about Confederate monuments has been incoherent. We have failed to realize that, depending on who we are, we remember differently. Same statue, same park, same name, different memory. We have failed to acknowledge that the memory of the oppressor is short, but the memory of the victim is long.

So we can go around and around about Confederate monuments. We can talk till we’re blue in the face about the Civil War, about slavery, about Jim Crow, about history. But we actually won’t get anywhere until we talk about memory; until we have the courage, as communities, as churches, as a country, to talk, but more importantly to listen, about how and why we remember things differently. Don’t make Peter’s assumption that all memory is created equal. It’s not.

What is equal, is that we are in desperate need of forgiveness. This is a pointed parable, as all of Jesus’ parables are pointed. And in each of the parables, God is a character, and we are a character. So this one is pretty easy to piece together. The king is God and we are that unforgiving slave. We have been forgiven and released from an insurmountable debt. Ten thousand talents is an enormous sum of money, adjusting for inflation since the time of Jesus, it equals about a bazillion dollars in today’s money. The king, in his mercy, releases the slave, releases us, from that burden. Through Jesus Christ, God gives us a new lease on life. God sets us free from our sins, from our past, from ourselves. You know what it feels like when you finally get out of debt, when you pay off that house, that car. Total relief. Freedom. Like it’s a whole new world. God cancels our debt so that we can be free.

But only if we remember. When we forget, that’s when we refuse to forgive others. After that slave is forgiven, notice how short his memory is. Immediately after being forgiven he demands that the other slave pay him back a few hundred bucks. He’s forgotten, he’s forgotten the forgiveness that was given to him. God has freed us from the weight of sin that held us down, and yet we refuse to release that burden from anybody else. Every Sunday morning we hear that God has forgiven us of everything. And by Sunday lunch, I’m back to judging and criticizing the waiter who is giving me crumby service. The lady who stole my parking spot. The panhandler who can’t seem to get his life together. We armchair quarterback somebody else’s life because they have incurred a small debt. All the while, forgetting that we were the ones who amassed an enormous debt.

Other than making us highly uncomfortable, the other things that Jesus’ parables do is cast a vision for a new society. For a new way of living together. Jesus speaks in parables to inspire us. The vision that Jesus casts in this parable is of a world that is merciful. The king says to the slave what God says to us, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

I am not Polly Anna. I’m not saying that we will ever create a society here on earth that is free of sin. I don’t think that possible, I’ve met enough humans to know that. I only need to look as far as the mirror to know that humans are broken. But what is possible, is mercy. We pray it every day: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

I know this sounds silly. In the world’s calculus, forgiveness is unrealistic. Our economic system is built on the premise of retaining debts.The foundation of our penal system is punishment, not forgiveness. I have not heard a conversation in our national life in a long time that resembled anything close to mercy. Because we have forgotten, we have forgotten just how merciful God has been to us. We have refused to forgive our brothers and our sisters from the heart. We have refused to remember that we are the ones in need of forgiveness.

Finally, consider what this parable says about God’s judgment on us. The good news is that God will not judge us on how sinful we have been, on how much debt we have incurred. Ten thousand talents or a few hundred denarii makes no difference. The hard news, is that God will judge us on how merciful we have been. Remember to be merciful, because God has already been merciful.


In a Flash

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Feast of the Transfiguration
August 6, 2017
Luke 9:28-36

Three witnesses. Three witnesses to the day that changed the world. Three witnesses saw the light, a light that was beyond any light ever seen before on earth. After beholding the light of the moment, high up on that hill, one witness said, “it seemed a sheet of sun.” Another one of the witnesses of that moment said that, “everything flashed whiter than any white” they had ever seen. It was a moment, just one brief moment in time, when everything stopped. When the blinding, dazzling, white light inaugurated a new era in the life of the world. A light from the heavens. That third witness, overcome by what he had seen, could only manage to say, “My God.”
That light struck fear into the hearts of those three witnesses, obviously. They were terrified, for what they had seen no one on earth had ever seen before. And what they had seen was the flash of an atomic bomb.
There is some coincidence, or perhaps it’s providence, that the Church’s Feast of the Transfiguration which is today, August 6, is the same day as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. We heard the story of the Transfiguration today from the Gospel of Luke, and every year on this day the Church is forced to call to mind the bombing of Hiroshima. The parallels are chilling. A dazzling light from the heavens. Witnesses who can hardly comprehend what they have seen. Terror, fear, confusion all around.
Kiyoshi Tanimoto was a Methodist pastor in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. From his vantage point on a hill outside the city, he was the one who said the blast seemed a sheet of the sun. As he made his way through the wreckage of the city later that day, everything about the city had changed. Because much of it was simply not there any more. Peter, James, and John climb this hill with Jesus, and Jesus’ appearance completely changes. In a flash, in a moment, it’s obvious that Jesus is no mere mortal. Everything has changed.
It was a seamstress who said of the bomb that everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen. She was terrified. Not all that different from how Luke paints the picture of Jesus’ transfiguration, “his clothes became dazzling white,” and the three disciples were terrified.
Of the bomber crew of the Enola Gay, the plane that delivered that frightful weapon, only three of the airmen knew what kind of bomb it was. The others were only told to wear dark goggles. And in the flash of that moment, there was silence on the plane’s intercom except for a sudden gasp as they all cried out, “my God.”
“My God,” the disciples must have thought, as they beheld Moses and Elijah with Jesus on that mountain in dazzling glory. Moses represents the Old Testament Law; Elijah stands for the Old Testament prophets. And here they are, the pillars of history conversing with the man who represents the future of God’s Kingdom. There was the age of Moses, there was the age of Elijah, and now is there is a new beginning again with Jesus. In a flash of white, in dazzling array, the world enters a new era. “My God,” the disciples must have thought. This Jesus, this God, has begun something new.
In a more sinister way, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima also inaugurated a new age. There had been the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Industrial Age. Then, in a single flash on the morning of August 6, 1945, the world entered a new age; the Atomic Age.
It wasn’t just a bomb that went off that morning, it was a new way of understanding humanity. Peter, James, and John came to understand God in a new way, with the bomb we came to understand ourselves in a new way. We had grasped the technological and mechanical ability to erase ourselves from history. I think that much of the latent fear, anxiety, and stress in our culture stems from this internalized realization that with a single flash, humanity could be gone. That sheet of sun, that whiter than any white ever seen before, changed the world. We live with the shadow of Hiroshima in our minds, knowing full well that the power released that day is but a fraction of the power we now hold in our hands. And like the disciples, we are terrified.
Our thoughts now turn to North Korea and to all the foreign powers who also harness this catastrophic threat of the atomic bomb. We fear others who could threaten the existence of life on earth. And that’s the other parallel between the Transfiguration of Jesus and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima – both call into question life and death. Notice what Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are talking about; they are talking about Jesus’ “departure.” That is, his crucifixion. His death. His resurrection. The flash of that moment forced Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to consider life and death.
In a flash, on August 6, 1945, 80,000 people vanished from the earth. Regardless of its role in ending World War II, this bombing should still give us pause. That we hold such tremendous and terrible power to kill.
In moments when the world changes – be it the Transfiguration or Hiroshima – we must consider our existence. Our life and death. That has happened to you, it’s happened to me. In a flash, your world changes and it calls everything into question. A child is born, a diagnosis is made, a check bounces. It’s never just about that moment, it’s about life and death. It’s about how a new era has begun in our lives.

Now, there is one curiosity about the atomic bomb that I have to mention. No one in Hiroshima remembers hearing a sound. No thunderous boom. No explosion. Just a sheet of the sun. Of course, there was a boom. People far away from Hiroshima heard it. But for those at hand it could have been that the light was so overwhelming it was as if their ears couldn’t hear.
Peter, James, and John, they hear something. In the midst of their fear and terror, they hear a mysterious voice from a cloud, and whether it sounded like a thunderclap or a whisper we don’t know. All we do know is what the voice says, “this is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.”
Listen to him. Listen to Jesus. When you are terrified because a cloud has come into your life, listen for the love of God. When you see a news story about intercontinental ballistic missiles and military exercises, listen to Jesus. Listen to the voice telling you that you are loved and that God loves the whole world, no matter what happens. When the talking heads are speculating wildly about geopolitics and sanctions, listen to Jesus. Listen to the voice telling you that with God, even death is nothing to be afraid of. This is God’s Son, the chosen, listen to him.
In this age of uncertainty, it is awfully easy to be trapped in fear. And remember, it’s not love and hate that are opposites. No, it’s love and fear that are opposites. Love draws us outward as fear drives us inward. Fear is contagious. Fear is addictive. We live and breathe fear. Fear is what runs political campaigns, fear is why we amass such terrible weapons, fear is what drives us to distrust each other. This is not so much the Atomic Age, as it is the Age of Fear. We may not recognize all the ways that fear shapes our lives, but then again, a fish doesn’t know it’s wet.
And so I must ask you – what do you fear? And when you are overcome with terror, who are you listening to? In the moments when your world has changed, do you respond in love or fear? Do you seek life or death? Listen to Jesus, and you will have nothing to fear. Listen to Jesus, and you will hear love.


My Grace All Sufficient

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 9, 2017

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

My Grace All Sufficient

It was the 1870s, and the Episcopal Church had a problem. A big problem. People had stopped coming to church on Sunday. Numbers were declining. Remember, I said this was the 1870s, not the 1970s or the 2000s. And church people in the 1870s, people like me, priests and bishops, began to worry. They worried about the future of the church. They worried that people just didn’t care about church and Christianity anymore. Some priests wished that they had served the church in an earlier time, perhaps the 1770s. Yes, they thought, those were the glory days. That was when everybody went to church and when the priesthood was easy. They longed for an earlier time when the church was part of society’s routine and everybody attended. Sound familiar? Funny how things haven’t changed in one hundred and forty years.

Now in the 1870s, one of the most popular Episcopal preachers of the day was Phillips Brooks. You know him because he’s the guy who wrote the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Anyway, he was giving a lecture on the problems facing the Church and why certain priests thought that people had stopped coming to Church. Of course, back then, it wasn’t the kids’ soccer practice. It wasn’t the iPhone or the internet. What did Episcopalians think was causing people to stay home from Church on Sunday morning? Books. Books. That’s right, Episcopalians were blaming the mass publication of books for the declining numbers in their churches. No joke, I can’t make this stuff up. Some clergy thought that people were staying home on Sunday morning because they were reading books. Kids these days. Ugh. This next generation, they don’t come to church because all they do is hold these things up to their faces, and stare at them for hours on end. Sound familiar? Maybe it’s not so funny that we haven’t changed in one hundred and forty years.

But Phillips Brooks didn’t buy it. You know why he thought people had stopped coming to Church? Because Church had become irrelevant. Remember, this is the 1870s.

It wasn’t books, and for that matter it’s not the internet, it’s not the kids’ soccer practice, it’s not that new brunch place that just opened, that is keeping people away from church. It’s us. It’s because we in the Church have failed to communicate the gospel to the culture. We say that God forgives sins, but we actually aren’t that gracious to people who we think are sinning. We say that the most important parts of the Christian life are to love God and love neighbor, but we hardly even know our neighbors. People aren’t staying in churches because when they do visit, they don’t hear and see the gospel of Jesus Christ. They see some shadow of Christianity, but not the real thing. Not the life giving, liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. See, while we were busy blaming everybody else for not showing up to church in their bodies, we have not showed up to God in our hearts and in our minds. And that, that was the problem in the 1870s, the 1770s, the 170s, and now in 2017.

And so there is one remedy, as there has always only ever been one remedy. The one remedy to heal our sin sick souls. The one solution to all of our problems. The one thing that can save us and can save the Church. It’s not a choice between guitars and organs. It’s not if we should wear a suit and tie or shorts and a t-shirt. The solution is not shutting down the internet, or the printing press, or stopping baseball practice on Sunday morning.

No, the only way out of the mess that we’re in is to hear again those words from Jesus. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This, my friends, is the gospel. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. We are weary. We are weary of this world that is so hurtful and hurting. We are weary of ourselves, that we want to do the right thing but can’t ever seem to actually do it. We are burdened with the cares and concerns of life – how am I going to pay the bills this month? What do I do if my cancer comes back? Why have my kids stopped talking to me? Come to Jesus, and we will find rest for our weary and burdened souls.

This good news, this liberating gospel of love is what the world desperately needs to hear. This is what people are looking for on the internet, on their kids’ baseball field, or in a book. They’re looking for love, connection, meaning, community. They’re looking for someone or something to help shoulder their heavy loads. And the sad thing is, that it can oftentimes be the internet, the baseball field, or the book that provides this better than the Church does. It’s not about them, it’s about us.

So hear again the words of the gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Now, to be clear, it’s not that if you come to Church and believe in Jesus, all your burdens will be washed away. You know that old line, “God never gives you more than you can handle”? Yeah, that’s garbage. And the people out there in the world know it’s garbage, too. Because it implies that we’re carrying the burden by ourselves. Which is the opposite of the life giving, liberating gospel of Jesus. Jesus says that he wants to shoulder our burdens. Jesus isn’t up there in the sky, laying agony upon agony on our shoulders, just wanting to see how much we can take. No, he wants us our yokes to be easy and our burdens light. Rather than, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” the saying should be, “life gives you more than you can handle, thanks be to God that Jesus is with us.”

Hearing the gospel, hearing the liberating love of Jesus isn’t going to solve all your problems. It won’t wipe away your credit card debt, it won’t find you a job, it won’t make your kids start talking to you again. But the gospel of Jesus will make that pain bearable, and it will give you hope in even the darkest places.

And hope, hope is what the Church needs, too. I tell you, there was no great perfect past in the Church. There was never a time when all people came to Church with perfectly loving hearts and they packed the pews with all the right intentions.  That is a false memory. But it is a future possibility.

I sense a renewal taking place in the church. I see communities and churches actually living this way. I see people who don’t want to read books at home on Sunday morning, I see people who actually put down the phones, I see people who don’t sign their kids up for soccer practice because the gospel they have heard in the church is more compelling. In this renewal, I sense that once we have heard that God truly loves us, and will carry our burdens through the pains of life, then we’ll have to start building more churches. Once the word gets out that there are actually communities of people who want to live this gracious, loving life; and that other people will carry our burdens with us, then the Church will become the only place we ever want to be.

Obviously, this is a sermon to the church, but also a sermon to myself. For it is I, most of all, who needs to hear the gospel again. I need to hear again the words of Jesus that are both comfort and challenge. I need to hear again this call on my life, and this call on the church. Just as you do, I need to hear these words again and again and again.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”