This is a transcript from the October 6, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
This morning, I want to begin to talk this month's theme around doing good. I know that seems like a no-brainer for churches, that church would talk about doing good but actually, it's much more difficult than it seems.
Partly, because we're not always sure what good is.
We have this definition of good and we can't even always agree on what is good, right? It's good when my team wins. Sorry about your team. It's good when the hail destroys my neighbor's roof but not mine. It gets a little tricky, right? We define good in different ways. We define good in good people differently as well.
It's like a club, but then there are certain things that happen to people and then they're voted out of the club. It used to be, and in some places, still is true that you get voted out of the good people club if you are divorced. You can't be part of that group anymore because you're not good. You get voted out in some places if you smoke or you drink because that's not what good people do. The old statement about good girls is when they're looking for someone, they don't drink, they don't smoke, they don't chew, and then they don't go out with boys that do.
That's good, right? It changes. You can still be in the good club if you don't drink or smoke but you can be greedy and selfish and envious. Somehow, those are still okay in some circles. It gets a little tricky but that's not the hardest part. The hardest part about good is this, and the hardest part is that-- I think the biggest assault on good is this: the question first and foremost isn't just what is good but what good is good?
There's a suspicion that what we used to think of as good isn't all that important anymore. In fact, in the church, especially, there is this suspicion about good because there's this idea of--You've heard it perhaps in your circles. I certainly heard it growing up and I still hear it today. "You know, Russ, being good won't get you into heaven. You can't be good enough for heaven." Good is okay but it's not great. In fact, sometimes it comes across as being good is a little naive because there is so much terrible stuff in the world and you know you're never going to be able to bring that kind of change in the world, so it's a little naive to be giving yourself to so much good.
In fact, in some places, it's almost considered anti-God. In the last three weeks, not in this church, I'm happy to say, but somebody was talking about some of the problems and the finish of the sentence in the conversation was, "You know, it's all going to burn anyway. Praise be to God. It's just all going to burn and at the end of it all, God is going to bring it all together."
I remember having conversations with people when we were talking about ethics and somebody said, "What's the point? It's all going to come to a crashing close anyway. Shouldn't we be okay with the fact that all these things are going to happen? It just means that Jesus is coming sooner so that by doing good I'm trying to not only push against the river and the inevitable, I am pushing against what God is inevitably wanting to do." Sometimes it's even anti-gospel because by being good, maybe I am trying to substitute for grace.
Not that long ago, in the community, I was talking and hearing and somebody was talking about New Hope and they said, "That's a do-gooder church but they don't really talk about the gospel." As if the gospel and doing good were two different things. Good has a hard time sometimes and sometimes it's the church itself. I know what they're talking about.
I know maybe you were one of those people too, who, when they memorize scripture, one of those scriptures you memorized was Ephesians 2:8 and 9 where it says,
"Because it's by grace that you've been saved through faith and not by anything of your own." "Not by anything of your own,
it's a gift from God."
Not by anything on your own, it's a gift from God. Not by anything that you have done, so no one gets to claim credit. Those were the verses in one version or another that I got to memorize. Perhaps you did too. This was part of presenting the gospel.
Listen, it's all grace and there's nothing you can do, because if you try to do it, you're going to go against grace and, in fact, it gets a little prideful. Just remember, it's all about grace. Somehow, by doing good, we are doing something that is anti-gospel. I want to do something radical today and I don't want to make a radical statement. Sometimes we talk about radical things and we talk about controversial things. We have a group talking about race this afternoon. We have talked about sexuality around here.
Let me add one more which may even be more radical.
Good is good.
I'll pause so you can write that down in your notes. I'll give you a moment. That's more than just tongue-in-cheek because there is something I want to reclaim about this idea of good and goodness and being good. There is something that is essentially wonderful and it is godly. It is not anti-gospel.
I believe that at the heart of all this misunderstanding are two misunderstandings, two misconceptions and I want to address them. The first one has to do with what is the nature of good in the first place. Good sometimes can be defined by myself, but in the Bible, it has different ways. There are different words for good in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the word for-- Good in Hebrew is tobh, so if your name is Toby or Tobin, you're good. That's really what it means.
In Greek, in our New Testament, agathos is one of the words for good. If you are someone who's named Agatha, you're good. Kalos is one of those words so Kaley, Kelly, Katy. All those things are good. Then there's one called Arete. Ariel, Arie, and Aretha are good. Anybody who's listened to Aretha says, "That's good."
Our word good comes from something that I think is very telling, and it comes from the word God. When the English language was being put together, they substituted the word God and good. When you're saying good day to somebody, you're saying, in essence, "God bless your day."
When we have Good Friday. It's not because it's a great day. It's the worst of all possible days but it's God's Friday. This is the day that God took control and conquered sin, sickness, and death on the cross. It's God's day. When we come together and we look in creation, every day at the end of it, God says, "It's good, it's good. It's got my fingerprints on it. It is the essence of who I am." The creation isn't a finished thing, it's ongoing and so God creates trees and then trees get to create more trees. God creates fish and they get to create more fish. God creates people and there's more people and more flowers.
He just creates and it's the essence of who God is and it begins to grow and it becomes the essence and it becomes the agent of the God who is still creating and still redeeming. It's of good, it's of God. You know what else is good? Is you and me. When God created humans, God says at the end of that day, "And it was very good." More than that part of the creation that keeps creating, and we not only bear the fingerprints and the DNA of God, we are the agents of God in this world.
I remember the first time I actually went and read those verses from Ephesians beyond the flashcard and I was reading it in the Bible and it was-- Oh my goodness. Look at this. It was not only because it's by grace that you've been saved through faith, not by anything of your own. Not only is it a gift from God and nothing I've done and nothing that I could take credit for but the very next verse says...
we are God's work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated
to make up our way of life.
The way of life is the way of extending the essence of God. It is the way of extending the imprint of God. The creating, the redeeming work. That's why we were created in the first place.
I remember the first time I read this verse. It's like, "Who kept this from me?" Why do we talk so much about grace as if there's nothing I can do when in fact the grace was the foundation. It's not the antithesis of doing good and talking about grace. The gospel and doing good. The gospel is that we are created and it's all by grace and by grace, we get to extend and be the essence and extend what God is doing in this world. That is the good news.
We get to not only partake of but participate in the ongoing goodness and creation of God. That's what we are invited to.
It is his work of art that some versions will translate as masterpiece or masterwork or handiwork.
It all has to do with, not only, catching the blessing of God and in the validation of who we are, but it's our charge. It's our job description to extend that. That's why Teresa of Avila, in the last century, into the century before and into the next century, had it so right when she was able to say, "Christ now has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on Earth but yours. Yours are the hands which he blesses all the world." It is this wonderful quote, it goes on for about a paragraph. I invite you to look it up.
It is this wonderful thing saying "No, no. You see, that's who you are. We are the extension of Christ. We are the hands. We are the feet. We are the eyes. We are the heart. We are the very presence of God. That's the good news." That God is continuing to work in this world in and through those and by faith we receive that, and by faith, we get to live into that. Jesus anticipated the same when he was telling his disciples-- He says, "Look, anyone who is going to follow me, you're going to do more than I did." Which seems crazy. We're not going to feed 5,000 people with two loaves and fishes. No, but the followers of Christ have fed billions in his name.
We're not going to heal the person who's right in front of us miraculously, most of us, but the hospitals and the teaching institutions and the care have cured billions of people. The same for those who are lonely, and the same for those who are orphans, and the same for those who are on the outside, and the same for extending compassion. The miracles of Jesus not only validated his credentials as the one who is divine, the fingerprint and the DNA of God dwells in him.
It is also the marching orders and points the way and the path for all those who are to follow. This is the work that you're to do because we were created to do the good works, which God has already arranged to make up our way of life. This isn't presuming to be God. This is growing up to be fully human, but this is who we are and this is who we were created to be.
It is when we misunderstand the word, good as if somehow it could exist somehow outside of itself. As if it isn't an extension and bearing the very essence of God, that we get into trouble. We can even talk about the good life. When we talk about the good life it's in different place and different times. Usually around here, it means you are financially independent and vulnerable. You have a house with a great view and you don't have a lot of those noisy nuisance neighbors and yet you're part of a great close community.
You would live in a place that has the lowest tax rates in the country and yet has the best streets, the best police, best fire, best schools, best everything. Your team always wins. Your political party always wins. Your candidate always wins, and when they win they always keep all their promises. They do exactly what they said and the world is as it should be and your 401(k) always goes up. That's the good life.
What it really means is it's good for me, because I have become my ultimate concern, and so anything that's good is good for me. Me, my family, my tribe, my party, my nation. The misrepresentation is that the ultimate concern is God and so what good may be, may not always be comfortable for me. It may mean me sacrificing myself, giving myself away so that the essence and the ongoing creation of God can continue. Which gets to the second misconception which is, you can't work your way into heaven. I just contend that's just the wrong question. If you start with the wrong question, you can never get the right answer.
There are volumes and bookshelves full of people who have given extraordinary answers to the wrong question, because they believe the question is, "What do I need to do so that when I die, I get to go to heaven?" They'll explain this, and that's why they cut verses in half so that it fits in with what they're talking about. The question isn't that. The question is, the question that we pray for every Sunday and we will do so again at the end of this service. It's in the Lord's Prayer. How do we get heaven here? How do we take the things that God has already done, and how do we extend that goodness and that grace here on earth as it is in heaven?
If that's the right question, then that means that you and I have something to do. It means that our good works do matter. They do mean something, and they have validity, and they are part of what we are growing into.
This week, I've got a couple things I want to hold up. I want to hold up this quote from Wesley, that I think is a wonderful quote, "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.". That's not a bad one.
Likewise, I would invite you to take on a couple of other things this month. The first in the practice for October is this. I want to build this into who we are. I want you to commit yourself to this week, daily doing acts of kindness and gratitude and service. I'm not talking about feeding the world and changing, and getting rid of Diphtheria. I'm talking about the little acts that extend you beyond yourself.
The acts of kindness. Being a little kinder than you normally would. Saying thank you and acknowledging the goodness of others, a little more than you normally would. Serving, maybe doing what you've always done, but do with a little bit of different attitude than you normally would. Nobody else may even notice, but you will and that's the point because this is what's drawing you out into this world of doing the good that you and I have been given to do.
Then I want to encourage us to encourage one another. When you go out beyond the name tag-table, there's this table and it's called the "doing good wall". You're going to see that down the prayer walk, on one side is the Habitat for Humanity, which is one way of doing good. We're going to take the offering for that next week. That's a way of doing good, but this is a way of catching and noticing and acknowledging and celebrating the good that others have done.
I'm going to invite you as you go down to take one of these throughout this month and write just the first name of somebody that you want to celebrate, and maybe just a few words of what it is that they did. Then you'll notice this, very lovely chicken wire that has been stuck against the wall with these clothespins. What that's for, is so that you can take a clothespin and clip it and put it on there.
Somebody says, "What if we don't have enough clothespins?" What a wonderful problem that will be. Don't worry, we'll find more because the whole point of this as the month goes on, is to see the cumulative effect of the very small acts of goodness and kindness and gratitude and as they begin to build, to watch it just start to cover a wall.
There's three things which you can't do. The rules are these. No staff, no sports...no politics. Everything else is fair game. If you can acknowledge people in the congregation, great. If it's somebody who we don't even know, that's great too because it's a way of saying, "Look at all the good that's going on, let's celebrate that, let's encourage that, let's acknowledge that and let's own that as something that is good for God."
Then I would invite you to memorize this verse that's in front of us, that's in your book, we got little cards, you can read it on your own. Do use your own version if you want. "We're God's work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life." I think there's power in memorizing and I would invite you to do that.
This may seem like a to-do-list, and I don't mean it to do that, but I do mean this to be a to-be-list because this isn't to make us busier. This is to make us more fully human, and this is who we are called to be. Friends, we have been called to be the hands and the feet and the very essence and presence of God. We are the extension of God's grace. We are the agents of God, continuing work that God has given us to do.
We were created by grace and we have been saved by grace. We had nothing to do with any of that so that we can get on with what we were called to do because you are God's work of art. You are God's work of art and you were created in Christ Jesus for the good works, which God has already designated to be our way of life. Amen.