Sunday, July 27, 2014

God is Good and Loving and... Out to Do Us Good

What are you suppose to do when you believe with all of your heart
that God is good and loving and... out to get you.

Sunday, July 27th, a.d. 2014
RCL, Year A, Proper 12, Track 2
Genesis 25:19–34
Psalm 119:105–112
Romans 8:1–11
Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23

God is Good, and Loving, and Out to Get Me!

Good Morning. I am really glad to be here, worshipping with all of you today. This past week, as I was making preparations to be here. I was in contact with Mtr. Laurie. And she mentioned that she has been preaching on the theme, “Be Fabulous for the Kingdom.” As I thought about the theme, I was really drawn to today’s reading from Romans, and I thought: It’s really hard to be fabulous for the kingdom when you think that God is out to get you.

Be Careful What You Pray For

When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I got one of those nasty colds that settles in your eyes. You know what I’m talking about. The kind of cold where your vision is blurred, and you keep blinking your eyes, hoping they’ll clear up but to no avail. I was miserable, and I remember praying, “Dear God, can you please take away this eye cold. You can give me a regular cold instead, but please, O please, just clear up my eyes.” Well, you can probably guess what happened. Within in a few days time, I was sneezing and coughing AND blinking. I now had a cold in my chest AND in my eyes.
This all happened right before Christmas. I know this because I remember going to church for midnight mass. I was an acolyte, and I was vesting in the sacristy, and I told my priest about my prayer and what had become of it. Fr. John just laughed and said, “Yeah, you’ve got to be careful about what you pray for.” That confirmed my suspicions. I was convinced. God was good and loving… and out to get me.

My Distorted Image of God

This was the image of God that I grew up with, the image of God that remained with me throughout junior and senior high. It was a distorted image to be sure, but I never saw any contradiction in it. The Bible taught me that God was good and loving; experience taught me that God was out to get me.
     Now I don’t have time to explain what all contributed to my distorted image of who God was; I’m not exactly sure myself. But I will say that my image of God seriously affected how I prayed. At times, I didn’t pray at all. At other times, I limited my prayers. For example, I stopped praying for things that I wanted, or even needed. Because I was convinced that, if I asked God for something, God would make a concerted effort to ensure that I didn’t get what I asked for. Praying just drew God’s attention. So I learned that it was better not to pray. Better not to pray than to risk God sabotaging my dreams.

God is Good and Loving and out to Do Me Good

When I entered Friends University as a religion major, this distorted image of God was firmly in place. But something happened during my junior year. Through reading and studying, through certain friendships, and through the messages of guest speakers that came to the University, the amazing grace of God broken into my life, and my image of who God was and of who I was began to be healed.
     One book, in particular, had a significant impact on my thinking, The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. In the Foreword, Manning explains who the book is for:

Include excerpt.

That year was perhaps the most transformative year of my life. I became increasingly convinced that God was not only good and loving, but that he was also out to do me good. But it was also a very painful and frustrating year. For while I was convinced of this truth in my head, I had such a hard time getting my heart to buy into it all. I just couldn’t seem to get this truth about God to take up residence in my gut, which is really where faith resides. I could offer up all manner of biblical and theological arguments for why God was good and loving and out to do me good, for why I was beautiful and precious in God’s sight, but my gut continued to betray me. In my head, I knew that nothing could separate me from the love of God; but I was still very much afraid.

Learning to Pray Again

And so, I began to do something that I hadn’t done I a long, long time. I began to pray again. In particular, I began to pray for things that I needed, even things that I wanted. Big things and small things. It didn’t matter. Because if God were truly out to do me good, then I should be able to trust God with anything, no matter how small or great, no matter how noble or selfish.
      Early on, when I began to pray this way, my stomach would get all tied up in knots and I would panic because my old, distorted image of God would stir up feelings of fear and anxiety. When this occurred, I would simply remind myself: “God is good and loving and out to do me good. God is good and loving and out to do me good. This is true. Even though my gut is not convinced, this is still true, and so I am going to act as if it is true. I am going to pray as if it is true. I am no longer going to hide anything from God. Instead, I am going to step out in faith. I am going to trust God enough to offer up to him all of my wishes, wants, and needs, all of my hopes and dreams.” And do you know what happened? Over time, my trust in God’s goodness began to take root and my fear and anxiety were slowly replaced by a sense of freedom and peace.

Praying Shapes Believing

This experience taught me something important, something that Christians throughout the centuries have known, that praying shapes believing. That is, how we pray to God informs and reinforces what we believe about God. At one point in my life, I believed that God was out to get me, so I stopped asking God for anything. And that practice of hiding from God served to reinforce my distorted image of who God was. It became a downward spiral because praying shapes believing.
     But then the truth and grace of God really broke into my life, and I began to understand that, as Paul says in today’s reading from Romans, that God was on my side, that God not only loved me but he liked me, that nothing, absolutely nothing could separate me from the love of God in Christ. And when I began to step out in faith, when I began to risk asking God for what I wanted and needed, my faith began to flourish because praying shapes believing.

Cultivating Faith in the Power of the Spirit

What we do affects what we think. What we pray and how we pray, shapes how and what we believe about God. And so, we need a practice of prayer that reminds us of God’s goodness and faithfulness, of God’s being on our side and out to do us good. Now faith is not something we create; it is a gift from God. And yet, for faith to flourish, it must be cultivated. Like the mustard seed in today’s parable, faith has great potential for growing and producing more faith. Yet, like that mustard seed, faith’s potential can lie dormant. Faith must be planted in our hearts and in our minds, in our bodies and in our guts, at the core of our being. For faith to flourish, it must be cultivated, and prayer is one of the principal methods of cultivating faith, because praying shapes believing.
     But thank God, we are not left to our own devices to cultivate our faith; thank god, we are not even left on our own to pray. As Paul writes in Romans, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Sometimes, we don’t know what to pray or how to pray. And in those times, the Spirit steps in, and “intercedes [on our behalf] with sighs too deep for words.” So while our praying shapes our believing, it is the Holy Spirit who shapes our praying. And thus, it is the Spirit who is able to heal and transform our distorted images of who God is and of who we are, which in turn makes us fabulous for the kingdom.
     And so, let us rest in the truth that God is fabulous, that God is good and loving and out to do us good. Moreover, let us learn to rest in the truth that, because God’s Holy Spirit has been given to dwell within us, we too are good and loving and able to do good for the kingdom, we too are able to be fabulous for the kingdom.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Delivered on Sunday, July 27th, a.d. 2014
at Grace Grace Episcopal Church (Winfield, Kansas)
and at Trinity Episcopal Church (Arkansas City, Kansas)

The Following Didn’t Actually Make It Into the Sermon.

God Doesn’t Have Any Taste

Let me conclude with a brief story. Some of you may know the name Rich Mullins. Rich was a contemporary Christian artist, who died in a tragic car accident in 1997. He was at Friends when I was there, and the other night I came across a video of him in concert. Rich was talking while playing at the piano, and he said,
Picaso once said, “Good taste is the enemy of great art,” which I think is very, very true. Good taste has all to do with being cultured and being refined. If art has to do with anything, it has to do with being human. And one of the reasons why I love the Bible is because the humans in the Bible are not very refined. They’re pretty goofy if you want to know the whole truth about it.

      I remember when I was a kid,… I was one of those typical depressed adolescent types,… and people would go around saying, “Cheer up, man, because God loves you.” And I would always say, “Big deal. God loves everybody. That doesn’t make me special. That just proves that God doesn’t have any taste.” And thank God for that. Because God takes the junk of our lives, and he makes the greatest art in the world out of it. And if God were cultured, if he were as civilized as most Christian people wish he were, he would be useless to Christianity.

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