2 Lent B, 2021: Good vs Good

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A video version is found at the end of the sermon text

I have a friend
who, with a younger wife,
had his first child at age 49.
He was both joyful and anxious
in anticipation of having kids in college
at age 70.

I told Katy I didn’t want to be 40
and still having kids.
I was going on 41
when my youngest was born.

But 90 and 99?
Who in the world – who in any world –
would ever think that was a good idea?
Having and raising a baby
at those old ages
is every bit the bad news
as Jesus talking about losing your life for his sake.

And Jesus.
Who thinks giving up your life to save it
is a great sales pitch?

Honestly, I do not know what to say.
Instead, I will echo a proverb
an old classmate from high school
sent me this week
in reference to my newspaper column:
”Like cold water to a thirsty soul,
so is good news from a far country.” (Proverbs 25:25)

We are in the wilderness
and in need of some good news –
a bit of cold water
to slake our parched thirst.
That’s what I want to be preaching.

The theme of our Lenten worship
is “wilderness wandering.”
But that is kind of ridiculous too,
because we have been stuck in a wilderness
of pandemic social distancing
for almost a year now.
We have no need
to make up hard liturgical themes

for the sake of Lenten practices
because we’re living it.

So I am hard pressed right now
to squeeze lemonade out of those biblical lemons.
Yes, Abram and Sarah
is an epic odyssey
that has served as a prototype of faithfulness
in three world religions.
And yes, Jesus’ condemnation of Peter
and command to pick up the cross and follow him
is about as famous a line as there is in the gospels.

But both of those are hard news to us.
We are grounded, probably bounded,
by the stuff we own.

Too much stuff to go wandering off
at the drop of hat
like Abram did.
Too much prosperity
and security
and just plain cool stuff
to lose it all.
In fact, we don’t even know how
or why
we would give it up
or lose it all
for Jesus’ sake.
How would that even happen, do you think?

So for me, in the midst of wilderness,
pandemic-style,
it feels like too much work
to rope in the abstract stories
we read this morning.
Too much work
to bring them close enough
to find our home in them.
I almost don’t know what to say.

But, regrettably, I do know this:
that we live at right angles
with biblical wisdom.
Truly, we really we do.

In our world,
we assume success is the goal.
Accumulation of wealth is a measure of success.

Greatness is measured by how important,
powerful, and famous we are.

Power is very much a part of that success.

Material comfort is part of that success.
In fact, material comfort is just really good.
Material comfort
is so good
our standards for the difference
between abundance and opulence
has basically been rendered meanlingless.

Education is part of success too,
because it is one of the key ingredients to achievement –
and therefore to greatness and power.

Security is part of how we measure success.

The more secure we are
the happier we will be.
And we all know happiness
is a critical criterion of success
because Thomas Jefferson said so.
In fact, the pursuit of happiness in America
is widely assumed
to be a gospel virtue.

Longevity too, a long healthy life
lived well,
without too much suffering
and with a quiet, peaceful death
is rendered a part of success.

So, to summarize,
the assumptions of success,
what makes for a good life
in our culture, are:
wealth
greatness
power
material comfort
education
security
happiness
and a long healthy life
with a peaceful ending.
These are the prizes of a good life.

Oh, and we need to add a few more to that list:
beauty, love, and good hair.

None of these criteria for success
and a good life
are even very controversial.

Even the once criticized
craven decadence
of American materialism and consumerism
is now mostly taken for granted.

When we put these criteria up alongside
the biblical description of success and a good life,
well, they don’t necessarily overlap a lot.

Life lived in relationship with God
is number one for biblical wisdom.
That is not even questioned.
It is what defines good.

Then there is fidelity
to the norms of our relationship with God.
Living in close proximity to those norms
is the criteria of success
for biblical wisdom.
Mercy
kindness
compassion
justice
servanthood…these are the standards of success.
These are the standards
of a good life.
Compare that to the personal acquisition
of power, wealth, security,
and achievement.

This biblical wisdom
has a grounded, earthy application to it.
The way goodness and success
are judged in the Promise Land
is by how well its resources are shared.
Living in fidelity
to the norms of relationship
with God,
means that no one does without.
That is what makes the Promise Land
a land flowing milk and honey.
It is what makes it “good.”

In fact, for biblical wisdom,
land minimizes the dangers of drought
and enslavement,
while increasing the opportunity to build
an equitable community.
Land is actually a metaphor
for fidelity to God
and one another.
Living in fidelity
is how the land was going to be kept,
and infidelity
was how the land would be lost.

So living in relationship with God –
in fidelity to the norms of that relationship –
is pretty much how our spiritual wisdom
describes the good life – the successful life.

Spiritual good
describes a way of being in relationship,
whereas our cultural definition
of the good life
describes possessions
and benefits to the Self.

Being in relationship to
and having stuff for the Self
is our wisdom.
Being in fidelity to God
and in an equitable relationship with the community,
is biblical wisdom.

Now I don’t want to go overboard.
Biblical wisdom does not disdain money
power
greatness
health
comfort
security, and the rest.
It does not preclude the possibility
of being a wealthy, comfortable, successful
and a healthy person
who lives in fidelity to the norms
of relationship with God
and the community.
But what we know
is that the culturally defined goodness
that is all about acquisition,
is far more compelling
and dominant than
the biblical notion of goodness
that is about fidelity to relationships.

What we also know
is that the acquisition of the good stuff
makes us forget
about the primacy of fidelity to relationships.
Getting all the things
our culture defines as good
and measures as success,
confuses us.

That is why Peter
can recognize Jesus as the Messiah
and then turn around
and tell Jesus to stop talking about hard choices
and dangerous possibilities
and other scary stuff.

It is why Jesus gets so angry at Peter.
It is because it is hard enough for Jesus
to stay in fidelity to his relationship with God
without Peter trying to convince him
that there are other equally good
and less painful choices.

Something about money
comfort
security
power
greatness
and all the rest,
makes us forget the primacy of fidelity.
Something about it
confuses us
at those very moments
when we most need to be clear.

In that story we heard, Jesus is trying to stay clear
and Peter is making it murky again.
Knowing Peter,
he probably had a moment of clarity too,
and immediately reverted
to forgetfulness
and confusion.
I think we all do that pretty well,
I know I do.

Biblical wisdom’s measure of success
and the good life
is fidelity to our relationship with God.
That fidelity is practiced
with all those community-related norms
that do not necessarily have the Self
at the center of it all.
That doesn’t seem like a very good idea to us
and so we pull the hoodie
of opposing desires and acquisitions
over our heads
and pull the strings.

You can see now,
why I didn’t have much to say.
In the midst of pandemic,
when it is a difficult time already,
who wants to listen to biblical wisdom
when there is so much else to distract us
and make us feel more comfortable?

I know I should have more to say
on this important topic
but that’s all I got right now.
I hope it offers a little bit to chew on.