Three atheists climb into a van. Along the way, the driver falls asleep at the wheel. The van goes off the road; they all die. Imagine their surprise when they find themselves face-to-face with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. Peter says, “I see you’ve led exemplary lives: giving to the poor and helping the elderly. Your honesty and integrity exceed that of the children of the Kingdom of God.” They say, “Then we get to go to Heaven, don’t we?” “I’m sorry, it doesn’t quite work that way. I’ll tell you what because I’m a nice guy, I’ll make a three-for-one deal today. If one of you can tell me who Jesus Christ is, I’ll let all three of you in.” The first atheist says, “Jesus Christ. Isn’t he the old fellow who comes down the chimney at Christmas?” “No,” replies Peter! The second atheist says, “Oh, he’s the one who, when you lose a tooth, gives a quarter under the pillow.” Peter shouts, “Next!” The third atheist begins, “Why Jesus Christ is the Son of God! Jesus Christ became flesh and was born of a virgin. He was baptized by John the Baptist and healed the sick and raised the dead,” the atheist continues. “In faithfulness to God, he died for the sins of humankind. He was crucified by Pontius Pilate. They laid his body in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Three days later, the stone was rolled away, and Jesus Christ stepped out from the tomb in all his glory.” Peter is impressed.
Then the atheist blurts out, “And he saw his shadow and went back in and we had six more weeks of winter.” None of them got into heaven… or did they? I realize this bit of humor brings up an interesting question of who gets into heaven and who doesn’t but since it’s a joke I don’t feel compelled to comment seriously on it.
Last week, I started this two-week series on fundamentals of Christian faith, or Judeo-Christian faith. I asked whether you are a fundamentalist Christian to get us to the idea that there are some deep and basic elements to Christianity. The first one arises from how scripture tells us God created everything, including humans. The second, today’s talk, deals with what it means to be a good person, a fundamental quest of human beings.
For sure, being good is something we understand. As parents, what do we want out of our children? We want them “to be good.” Teachers want their students to be good. We want other adults to “be good”—use their turn signal, not swear in front of our children, wash their hands after going to the bathroom. But when it comes to God, being good is more difficult to gauge, and it’s been a major source of significant confusion for a long time, if not forever.
Someone said, “Do not be too moral…aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” Henry David Thoreau This quote pushes us in the right direction when it comes to understanding what scripture really says about being a good person and a godly person. It helps us talk about one of the most important things to learn as a human being who wants to be a Christian. If you see the Christian life as foremost the attempt to being good and not foremost the attempt to be good for something, then you will end up living only a partial life, and not become the person God wants/asks/hopes you become. I can say it like this: We aren’t born, the Lord doesn’t create us, for us to be a rubber stamp, the same as someone else, as someone else as the model of how to be good. Being religious, being Christian, isn’t about copying some image of who we think/hope God liked or likes. Where is the joy and peace in that? It’s tiring to try to copy or imitate someone else. Make sure you live your life. See how God starts with you, then wants to build from there. Rejecting a part of ourselves to fit a model of who is good and who isn’t can’t be a starting point. When we try to be someone else, God can’t use who we really are.
The truth is being good isn’t about getting God to accept us. I know that sounds contrary to how we think about it, but so be it. We fall into thinking that God wants me to be perfectly good and then the Lord must find me to be acceptable. This is what so much of religion looks like: How to do certain things the right way so that God approves of me. There are several things that are off about this, not even including Christianity’s fundamental notion that faith in Christ’s grace is what saves us, justifies us, which is the same thing as saying God approves of us. Salvation is by faith in God’s gift of grace, not by how good we are, by our works. Still, even after saying this, several problems remain with why we often want to be good.
First, getting an A in high school chemistry or math is tough—getting an A in life is a lot tougher. Not that I want to depress you, but that bar is set way too high for anyone to jump over and get the Lord our God to say, “Wow, you really are the cat’s meow.” Second, making religion or Christianity into a program the result of which is to graduate upon death with a certificate of achievement of best in show, well, that seems self-centered, not God-centered, or other-focused, something that runs contrary to probably the most important thing that religion teaches in general: not to be self-preoccupied.
Third, and this is the most important for me—reading the Gospel and seeing Jesus in them never gets me in the mood to try to be perfect and holier than most everyone else. Now Jesus was a really good guy, but he never
seemed concerned with doing things a certain way at a certain time for an acceptable purpose with the perfect intention in mind. Rather, he comes across as alive and living, not playacting what a super good person might do in the situation he found himself in. He never seems to wait for someone else to give him a signal so he can speak or act. He doesn’t mind running counter to the prevailing sentiment. He’s no cardboard cut-out of someone else. Jesus lived more than just a good life. He lived a life worth living; indeed, he did even more than that—he lived a life worth dying from or for.
Our reading from Micah raises the standard for what doing good is. This is no eat your vegetables or clean your room or use your turn signal when turning type of list. Saying, “Yes, sir or ma’am,” when talking to one’s elders is a fine thing to do but it doesn’t make Micah’s grade either. The fact is Micah was a prophet, not a priest. What he understood was that polishing oneself by the prayers, rituals, and religious stuff of his day was something anyone could do. A complete jerk could play the game. A heartless and soulless person could go through the motions. The prophets were tired of everything thinking this was what God wanted from them, when their country was crumbling all around them, the poor getting poorer, and abuse of power continuing. The word of the Lord said being that type of good, that type of moral, was good for nothing.
There’s more to the God of the Bible than playing church or synagogue gets us. What is this more? Micah told us: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” That’s what true religion is about. When we live this, we live a life worth living. Do good that makes a difference. Stand on the side of those who need more help than those who have all they already need and want. Christ saw that sometimes and with some people what was happening didn’t fit the kingdom. He was the kind of good that made a bad situation better.
Now don’t get me wrong, we’re all pretty good, and that’s important. If we were grading ourselves on goodness, we would rank up there high on the scale. Let’s call ourselves Danny or Debbie Decent. From our perspective, we do most things right. We pay our taxes, pay our bills, pay attention to our family, and pay some things forward, doing good to others and letting such acts have their effect. We’re good people, and this is important. But where’s the beef? When do we come to the real issue tugging at our hearts and souls?
That’s the issue the rich young man had in mind when he came to Jesus. He was a good boy. Religious. But nothing more. He kept the rules, imitating what was good or religious, keeping up with prescribed rituals and long-set patterns of what makes a Jewish man a good Jewish man. But it felt
like a box to him. He knew deep down that it couldn’t be the whole story. There had to be more to this being Jewish or faithful thing. That’s why he took a trip to meet up with Jesus of Nazareth, someone he hoped would have an answer to his problem of living a life worth living, of being good for something. As it turned out, he really wasn’t that upset about his spiritual problem because he wasn’t willing to accept Jesus’ solution: Give away your possessions and go beyond being merely moral or simply good. Jesus wanted him to become good for something!
For others. We want to live a life worth living, and worth living for others. To be good, says the Bible, is to do good for those who need, to make your humble actions, based in kindness, bring about good things, blessings, even justice. To be good is to do real good that’s more than window treatment for one’s image. Help heal someone or something. Right wrongs. Imagine what could be better for another, for others, and strike out on that path.
Josh Cyganik was working across the street from 75-year-old Leonard Bullock’s home when he overheard some teenagers making fun of the Leonard and his wife’s home’s condition. Cyganik could tell the comments bothered him, so he rallied some volunteers. With supplies donated from a local lumberyard, they fixed the porch and gave the home a fresh coat of paint. Bullock and his wife were ecstatic over the change. “According to the media, I’m a hero. I’m not a hero; I just heard something that bothered me,” Cyganik said. “Anyone would have done the same thing. Everyone has it in their heart to do things like this.” Well, some do; some don’t.
Seven-year-old Jack Swanson does. When this Texas boy heard that a local mosque had been vandalized in a hate crime Jack sprang into action. That very same afternoon he gave every penny of the $20 he had accumulated over quite some time to the mosque. While $20 may not seem like much, it was everything to that little boy.
Losing one’s hair while undergoing chemotherapy can be a traumatizing experience, especially for children. Holly Christensen, mother of three and former oncology nurse, aims to help make things a little easier. With the help of partner Bree Hitchcock and money raised by their GoFundMe page The Magic Yarn Project was created, helping kids all over the world feel beautiful.
We want to live a life worth living. When we try to be someone else, God can’t use who we are. Bring all of you, and let God do something with it. Own your gifts, your heart, your truth. Offer these to the Lord. Do justice,
love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Be good for something that God needs.
Can the church say Amen?