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Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
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.”