Sunday, August 08, 2010

"So, What I Said Was..."

The following is one of the sermons I delivered recently. Someone suggested that I occasionally post them, so here's what I said at Mooresville (IN) Friends this morning...

How Good Is Good Enough?
Galatians 5:1-15

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area we call “The Twilight Zone.’”
We present for your consideration that a man dies and wakes up a moment later at the end of a long line. At the front of the line he sees two doors — one marked heaven, the other marked hell. There’s an usher present and he keeps saying, ‘Move along, keep the line moving. Choose either door, heaven or hell, and walk in.’

The man approaches the usher and asks, ‘What happened to the Last Judgment? Where are my deeds weighed and measured? Where am I told if I am a good person or a bad person?’ The usher replies, ‘You know, I don’t where that story ever got started. We don’t do that here. We’ve never done it. We don’t have the staff to do that here. I mean, look, ten thousand people arrive every minute. I’m supposed to sit down with every one and go over his whole life? We’d never get anywhere. Now, choose either door. Choose heaven or hell, and go in. I don’t want to see you again.’

The man then shrugs and walks through the door marked hell.

This old television drama points out one of humankind’s greatest dilemmas. How do we know when we’re being good enough? What’s the standard by which we are judged – by ourselves or by God? Certainly the man on TV decided he hadn’t been good enough. That’s why he chose the door he did. And while, for a moment, we may be amazed at his selection, when we thing about it longer I have a feeling that many of us would make the same choice. When we judge ourselves against society’s standards, or those of business colleagues or acquaintances, we may feel do okay. We may even feel pretty good. We don’t lie or cheat or steal from our bosses. We don’t do things that border on the unethical, even if they are not unlawful. But when we look at the end of our lives, we’re left wondering if we were good enough. And that’s because we know our own hearts and minds. We know in our innermost selves that we often miss the mark – even if we question exactly what that mark is.

Are we good enough? There is certainly ample evidence to say that we aren’t. A quick reading of the Bible seems to say it’s pretty hard to be good enough. We especially find the Old Testament full of laws and behavioral proscriptions. The books of Leviticus and Dueteronomy are studies in how rigid the standards for daily life for the people of God were. In these books we find laws about sin offerings, guilt offerings, war, duty to a brother’s widow, chastity, jealousy, feasts and more – and these are on top of the famous 10 Commandments. In addition to the law written in the Old Testament, Israelites had codified laws about the Law. For example, in Jesus day there were over 400 proscriptions for the keeping and breaking of the Sabbath – all in explanation of that one law.

In the New Testament, Jesus calls us to an even higher standard. He tells us even our thoughts subject us to possible judgment. And then he gives us the “blesseds” and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. How in heaven’s name can we ever live up to all this?

That is both the dilemma and the way out. Because, truth be told, I think most of us want to live up to all that. We know that there is something in the very deepest part of our being that calls us toward God and lives of positive goodness. We want to live moral lives that are positive examples of faith. We try to live as such. But we, like the apostle Paul, find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do and not doing the things we know are right. For most of us, the question of how good is good enough is serious one. It’s not one to try and get us off the hook, as in “how much can I get away with?” No, for those of us who want to be considered the friends of Jesus, the question is “what must I do to find favor in the eyes of the Lord? How good must I be to hear those words ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant?’”

We submit for your consideration another story. The tale is about a man in high authority. He’s the chief executive of his country. One day he spies a beautiful woman and desires her. He makes arrangements for her to come to him. She becomes pregnant. To try to cover his act, he calls her husband home from the country’s war and grants him leave. But the husband feels guilty for leaving his comrades who are locked in combat and so doesn’t sleep with his wife. The leader of the country then sends him to the thickest part of the battle, hoping he will be killed. His wish is granted, the husband is killed, his sin covered and nobody is the wiser. At least that’s what he thinks.

Then a man comes and tells him a story of rich man who steals poor man’s much loved pet and uses it for his own selfish gain. The ruler is incensed and says the rich man deserves to be punished because he had no pity on the poor man. And the visitor replies “You are that man.”
This, unlike our first account, is no Twilight Zone story. It’s from the Bible, II Samuel to be exact. It’s the story of David. And by the Bible’s own standards, which David accepted, David is not good enough. When he hears the words “You are that man,” David answers back “I have sinned against the Lord.” He knows he is guilty – and he has pronounced judgment upon himself. But the prophet Nathan says, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
Why? If David, the spiritual and temporal ruler of Israel, broke many commandments in his quest for Bathsheba and to cover his guilt, is judged not guilty, why? Surely he was not good enough. What made him good enough?

Well, for one thing, we read that the Lord loved him and called David a man after his own heart.

What makes the difference?

What justified David in God’s eyes was his attitude toward God. He sincerely wanted to follow God. He longed for God in depths of his heart. But his mind and desires, and not just for Bathsheba, frequently got in the way. His psalms, praises and devotion to God were counterbalanced by lying and duplicity and outright lust for life and power. Does this make him a hypocrite? I think not. Rather, it makes him human. One who struggles with the spiritual while living in the temporal. David is man who, like us all, is deeply flawed. David also deeply loved the Lord. And he was willing to acknowledge God and repent when he finally saw his actions for what they were.

That’s the good part about the question “How in heaven’s name can we ever live up to all this?” It is exactly in heaven’s name that we become good enough. The bad news is we can never be good enough – not on our own, anyway. The good news is, that in heaven’s name, we don’t have to be.

In our scripture lesson, Paul is telling the church at Galatia to watch out for those who use fulfillment of the Law as a mark of true faith. The people Paul is warning the church about want the followers of Jesus to obey the Law as a way of determining behaviour and a seal of Christianity. Paul tells the church, and us today, that it is though faith we are made righteous. Christ working in us in love is what justifies us in God’s eyes.

In theological terms, this is known as the doctrine of grace. In reality, it is hard for us to grasp. After all, it does seem to imply that we get something for nothing. That’s not the American way! Many of us act as if the saying “God helps them who helps themselves” is in the Bible. So the concept of grace is a tad bit unbelievable.

That’s true. It is unbelievable – but available. It is free, but it is not easy. What made God’s grace available to David, the early church and us today is a willing and contrite heart – an attitude that admits that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If we are honest, like the man in the television sketch, that is easy enough to own up to.

Grace lets us off the hook as far as ever being good enough. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The early Quakers held that Christ’s will could be known and obeyed. We call ourselves Friends after the verse in John 15, “You are my friends.” The verse doesn’t end there, though. We are the friends of Jesus, according the rest of that verse “if you do what I command you.” Grace then, as a guide for practical living, allows us to try to live lives that model as closely as possible the teachings of Jesus and while realizing that we will inevitably miss that high mark, we still find favor in the eyes of the Lord. We cannot, on our own power, ever be good enough.

David wasn’t. We will not. We don’t have to be.

What does the Lord require? A contrite heart and a willingness to follow him. We need to love God and be as good as we can. With God’s help we can be better than we think. And ultimately, if we learn to rest in God’s grace, that will be good enough.

And that’s no Twilight Zone story. And news I need to hear.

-- Brent


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Doug Sloan said...

My ending to the Twilight Zone episode would be for the man to walk through the "Hell" door the same time as someone walks through the "Heaven" door only to find out on the other side that they are both in the same place - the foyer of a 5-star hotel. Our man would complain to the front desk "I don't belong here" - only to be told, "God doesn't work that way."