Sunday, July 10, 2017: Pentecost Sunday "After Pentecost: A Kinder and Gentler God II" Fr. Carey Stone


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 Proper 9A ‘17

Matthew 11.25-30

9 July 2017

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

North Little Rock, Arkansas

The Rev. Carey Stone

 

Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying

                     heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. In the Name

                     of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

 

‘What am I supposed to preach about?’ This is a question that I find myself asking frequently as a priest.  I’ve noticed that it’s an intrusive question that can pop into my head at the oddest times.

While I was away on vacation this week I was reminded of an experience I had before preaching my first sermon as a newly ordained priest. As I recall I was playing golf with a parishioner I’ll call Mark. I hadn’t touched a golf club in several years so to say my game was a bit rusty is putting it mildly! Most of the time I was not up to par. After one hole where I had gone several strokes over par I began to verbally beret myself, ‘Gaw lee man can’t you beat that, you can do better than that, what’s the matter with you!’ Meanwhile, Mark, who was faring much better overheard me and said, “Naw Man, it’s all a learning process – it’s all about forgiveness.” Some pretty good theology  - In that moment I realized a couple of things #1 that condemning myself was not improving my game and #2 I found out what I should preach about – my journey out of legalistic religion to a loving relationship with God!

            Joseph Campbell in his book The Power of Myth describes life as a heroic journey. He identifies two primary manifestations of this journey.  The first journey is one where the individual is called upon to perform a physical deed that either saves something or someone from destruction. The second type of journey is a spiritual deed where the traveler has a series of experiences that provide an important message to share with the world. Campbell goes on to say, “This person takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir.” (152) I believe my spiritual life has been such a journey. I believe that it has been one of recovery and discovery, a recovery of the true Gospel of Grace and the discovery of God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ.

 

Grace and Love, two words that are very familiar to us in the Church but two words that I had no idea of their real meaning for years and I fear are also foreign to many who have grown up like me, in the buckle of the Bible-belt.

          Growing up as a Southern Baptist I met some very fine people – some of them were as good as gold but many of those I met there had a very harsh and rigid view of God.  The loving God that I had naturally believed in as a child gradually morphed into an angry Father on the throne that held his proverbial Louisville Slugger at the ready to knock me in the head if I sinned.

 

This God was extremely demanding and hard to please and fickle.  God’s acceptance and love for me depended upon my behavior – It was as if God sat in a huge swivel chair. When I did something good, God would look at me and smile. When I did something bad, God would turn his back to me until I made amends, when he would swivel back and accept me again. I kept God constantly on the move!

 

            This view of God has some pretty powerful effects on all my relationships. I felt constantly alienated from God, from those around me and most importantly alienated from myself. I was afraid of God, judgmental towards others (when I walked into a room of classmates that ‘weren’t living right’ it was like I was the cartoon character Pepe LePew and they were like the flowers that wilted as he walked by and sprayed his skunky smell). I was judgmental towards others but the one I judged most harshly of all – myself! Because this God was so hard to please and demanded such perfection I was in a constant state of condemnation and in a downward spiral of guilt and shame. ‘Perhaps If I tried harder to please God’, I thought to myself, ‘then God would like me!’  For most of the time it seemed that God was merely tolerating me. Like Paul that which I wanted to do (keep the law) I couldn’t and the sin that I didn’t want to do I wound up doing. When we live like this we end up saying like Paul “O Wretched man that I am!”

           

During this period of my life there were many things I tried to do to get on the good side of God. Like praying for one hour each day without fail.  A traveling evangelist had come through town and he had started a spiritual program that got people to make a one hour commitment to prayer each day called ‘Could you not tarry one hour?” loosely based on Jesus’ words to the disciples when he was in Gethsemane. Inevitably I failed to keep, my end of the bargain –this caused me to feel more ashamed for letting God down and only confirmed that I must really be a ‘crumby Christian.’ During another phase of trying harder to please God I got rid of my TV set. This was yet another effort to be more holy and acceptable to God and to reduce the evil influences of the world like David Letterman and Jay Leno and those terrible PG and R rated movies.  ‘Only a G rating would be acceptable to God,’ of this I was certain!

 

I could go on but I think you probably get the point. To use my golfing metaphor, living my life this way ‘was not helping my game.’  For someone who was supposed to be so close to God – why did I feel so miserable? Why did I have to try and put on a happy front while on the inside I was anything but happy? Why did I feel sick when I attempted to share my faith with others?

The answer- this was not the Gospel of Grace but another gospel based upon human will power and performance - it was a waterless pit. This false gospel only produced guilt and condemnation in my life. 

          Well how was I able to get out of this legalistic version of Christianity you may ask? Two things the first was weariness – it is a lot of hard work to live this kind of graceless life and the other was a meeting with a person who understood grace.  This is where our passage from today’s gospel became a lifeline for me. Jesus knew of the heavy burdens laid upon his people by the religious teachers of his day called the Pharisees. Acceptance with God was based on one’s ability to perform the Law of Moses. There were multitudes that had become weary with trying to keep all the laws and were at the point of despair and that is the point I finally came to. I just about gave up the whole Christian faith and I probably would have if it hadn’t been for an Episcopal priest that many of you have heard me speak of before – Father Patrick Murray. On a ‘fluke’ one day I was out visiting area ministers as a part of a community relations project with my work and I happened into Patrick’s office there in Jonesboro. He was one of the most gracious people whom I had ever met. He didn’t treat me as an interruption but was kind and made time for me and invited me to a seminar at the church. I started visiting the Episcopal Church and a whole new world opened to me as I discovered that Patrick to had been raised Baptist and understood exactly what I needed – I needed to hear about a kinder and gentler God whose mercy was greater than his judgment. And that is exactly what I began to find with God and in the Episcopal Church.  Jesus’ invitation became a personal invitation with my name on it: “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.”  Rather than trying harder to get it all perfect we are invited to come and rely upon Christ as our source of life.

 

The Aramaic word for the English word ‘easy’ that Jesus used to describe his yoke meant ‘kind,’ not an oppressive yoke imposed upon us by a harsh taskmaster - Jesus’ yoke is kind. It is like Jesus is saying, “Become my yoke mate, and learn how to pull the load by working beside me and watching how I do it. The heavy labor will seem much lighter when you allow me to help you with it.” Like we all say together at our baptism and subsequently in the renewing of our baptismal vows, “I will with God’s help.” It is not about us becoming super-spiritual or striving for perfection it is about a simple trust in the God who has already saved each and every one of us – it is a gift to be received.

 

Whether you are a life long Episcopalian or whether you have made a spiritual journey similar to mine we all can answer ‘yes’ to Christ’s invitation to join him by taking on his ‘kind’ yoke that teaches us to grow by receiving his love rather than trying to earn his unconditional love and joining him in serving those around us and inviting those weary pilgrims who are right here in our own backyards that may be weary with the unending demands of the mega churches and worn out from striving for perfection and who, whether they know it or not, are looking for just such a place as St. Luke’s! 

There is an old hymn written by F.W. Faber that summarizes what I have been trying to say today:

There’s wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea

There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.

 

But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own;

And we magnify his strictness, with zeal he will not own.

 

For the love of God is broader, than the measures of man’s mind;

And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

~F.W. Faber The English Hymnal #499

 

This, my friends is Good News worth sharing! Amen!

 Proper 9A ‘17

Matthew 11.25-30

9 July 2017

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

North Little Rock, Arkansas

The Rev. Carey Stone

 

Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying

                     heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. In the Name

                     of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

 

‘What am I supposed to preach about?’ This is a question that I find myself asking frequently as a priest.  I’ve noticed that it’s an intrusive question that can pop into my head at the oddest times.

While I was away on vacation this week I was reminded of an experience I had before preaching my first sermon as a newly ordained priest. As I recall I was playing golf with a parishioner I’ll call Mark. I hadn’t touched a golf club in several years so to say my game was a bit rusty is putting it mildly! Most of the time I was not up to par. After one hole where I had gone several strokes over par I began to verbally beret myself, ‘Gaw lee man can’t you beat that, you can do better than that, what’s the matter with you!’ Meanwhile, Mark, who was faring much better overheard me and said, “Naw Man, it’s all a learning process – it’s all about forgiveness.” Some pretty good theology  - In that moment I realized a couple of things #1 that condemning myself was not improving my game and #2 I found out what I should preach about – my journey out of legalistic religion to a loving relationship with God!

            Joseph Campbell in his book The Power of Myth describes life as a heroic journey. He identifies two primary manifestations of this journey.  The first journey is one where the individual is called upon to perform a physical deed that either saves something or someone from destruction. The second type of journey is a spiritual deed where the traveler has a series of experiences that provide an important message to share with the world. Campbell goes on to say, “This person takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir.” (152) I believe my spiritual life has been such a journey. I believe that it has been one of recovery and discovery, a recovery of the true Gospel of Grace and the discovery of God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ.

 

Grace and Love, two words that are very familiar to us in the Church but two words that I had no idea of their real meaning for years and I fear are also foreign to many who have grown up like me, in the buckle of the Bible-belt.

          Growing up as a Southern Baptist I met some very fine people – some of them were as good as gold but many of those I met there had a very harsh and rigid view of God.  The loving God that I had naturally believed in as a child gradually morphed into an angry Father on the throne that held his proverbial Louisville Slugger at the ready to knock me in the head if I sinned.

 

This God was extremely demanding and hard to please and fickle.  God’s acceptance and love for me depended upon my behavior – It was as if God sat in a huge swivel chair. When I did something good, God would look at me and smile. When I did something bad, God would turn his back to me until I made amends, when he would swivel back and accept me again. I kept God constantly on the move!

 

            This view of God has some pretty powerful effects on all my relationships. I felt constantly alienated from God, from those around me and most importantly alienated from myself. I was afraid of God, judgmental towards others (when I walked into a room of classmates that ‘weren’t living right’ it was like I was the cartoon character Pepe LePew and they were like the flowers that wilted as he walked by and sprayed his skunky smell). I was judgmental towards others but the one I judged most harshly of all – myself! Because this God was so hard to please and demanded such perfection I was in a constant state of condemnation and in a downward spiral of guilt and shame. ‘Perhaps If I tried harder to please God’, I thought to myself, ‘then God would like me!’  For most of the time it seemed that God was merely tolerating me. Like Paul that which I wanted to do (keep the law) I couldn’t and the sin that I didn’t want to do I wound up doing. When we live like this we end up saying like Paul “O Wretched man that I am!”

           

During this period of my life there were many things I tried to do to get on the good side of God. Like praying for one hour each day without fail.  A traveling evangelist had come through town and he had started a spiritual program that got people to make a one hour commitment to prayer each day called ‘Could you not tarry one hour?” loosely based on Jesus’ words to the disciples when he was in Gethsemane. Inevitably I failed to keep, my end of the bargain –this caused me to feel more ashamed for letting God down and only confirmed that I must really be a ‘crumby Christian.’ During another phase of trying harder to please God I got rid of my TV set. This was yet another effort to be more holy and acceptable to God and to reduce the evil influences of the world like David Letterman and Jay Leno and those terrible PG and R rated movies.  ‘Only a G rating would be acceptable to God,’ of this I was certain!

 

I could go on but I think you probably get the point. To use my golfing metaphor, living my life this way ‘was not helping my game.’  For someone who was supposed to be so close to God – why did I feel so miserable? Why did I have to try and put on a happy front while on the inside I was anything but happy? Why did I feel sick when I attempted to share my faith with others?

The answer- this was not the Gospel of Grace but another gospel based upon human will power and performance - it was a waterless pit. This false gospel only produced guilt and condemnation in my life. 

          Well how was I able to get out of this legalistic version of Christianity you may ask? Two things the first was weariness – it is a lot of hard work to live this kind of graceless life and the other was a meeting with a person who understood grace.  This is where our passage from today’s gospel became a lifeline for me. Jesus knew of the heavy burdens laid upon his people by the religious teachers of his day called the Pharisees. Acceptance with God was based on one’s ability to perform the Law of Moses. There were multitudes that had become weary with trying to keep all the laws and were at the point of despair and that is the point I finally came to. I just about gave up the whole Christian faith and I probably would have if it hadn’t been for an Episcopal priest that many of you have heard me speak of before – Father Patrick Murray. On a ‘fluke’ one day I was out visiting area ministers as a part of a community relations project with my work and I happened into Patrick’s office there in Jonesboro. He was one of the most gracious people whom I had ever met. He didn’t treat me as an interruption but was kind and made time for me and invited me to a seminar at the church. I started visiting the Episcopal Church and a whole new world opened to me as I discovered that Patrick to had been raised Baptist and understood exactly what I needed – I needed to hear about a kinder and gentler God whose mercy was greater than his judgment. And that is exactly what I began to find with God and in the Episcopal Church.  Jesus’ invitation became a personal invitation with my name on it: “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.”  Rather than trying harder to get it all perfect we are invited to come and rely upon Christ as our source of life.

 

The Aramaic word for the English word ‘easy’ that Jesus used to describe his yoke meant ‘kind,’ not an oppressive yoke imposed upon us by a harsh taskmaster - Jesus’ yoke is kind. It is like Jesus is saying, “Become my yoke mate, and learn how to pull the load by working beside me and watching how I do it. The heavy labor will seem much lighter when you allow me to help you with it.” Like we all say together at our baptism and subsequently in the renewing of our baptismal vows, “I will with God’s help.” It is not about us becoming super-spiritual or striving for perfection it is about a simple trust in the God who has already saved each and every one of us – it is a gift to be received.

 

Whether you are a life long Episcopalian or whether you have made a spiritual journey similar to mine we all can answer ‘yes’ to Christ’s invitation to join him by taking on his ‘kind’ yoke that teaches us to grow by receiving his love rather than trying to earn his unconditional love and joining him in serving those around us and inviting those weary pilgrims who are right here in our own backyards that may be weary with the unending demands of the mega churches and worn out from striving for perfection and who, whether they know it or not, are looking for just such a place as St. Luke’s! 

There is an old hymn written by F.W. Faber that summarizes what I have been trying to say today:

There’s wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea

There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.

 

But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own;

And we magnify his strictness, with zeal he will not own.

 

For the love of God is broader, than the measures of man’s mind;

And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

~F.W. Faber The English Hymnal #499

 

This, my friends is Good News worth sharing! Amen!