Sunday, October 8, 2006

(Life on the Vine: Goodness) Why Christians Need Heroes

Life on the Vine: Cultivating goodness in the midst of self-help
Mark 10:17-27; 2 Peter 1:3-8

Somewhere along the line, I developed a knee-jerk suspicion of heroes.
Maybe it was my Mennonite upbringing.
We were proud of our humility.
We made sure not to make heroes out of any of us.
If one of us got too uppity, we had ways of taking care of that.
For my mom, it was quoting Proverbs:
“Now, Philip! Pride goeth before destruction!”
Besides, as children of God, we’re all on the same level,
equally susceptible to sin,
equally capable of being good.

Of course, we told stories of good and faithful people—
Felix Manz, Dirk Willems, Mother Theresa, Corrie Ten Boom.
Or our own relatives—many times our family told stories
about Grandpa Lloy Kniss, a C.O. in World War I,
who suffered ridicule and beatings for refusing to fight.
But these stories were told mainly to teach us a moral lesson.
Be kind. Be honest. Have courage. Make peace.
When you face a situation like that, do like they did.
But never did we make saints of these persons,
or make them to be the image of goodness.
We said there was only one worth imitating, Jesus himself.
To go beyond that was idolatry.

We had good reasons for this.
If we elevate one of our own, put them on a pedestal,
we are tempting them with the sin of pride.
Furthermore, there is real danger in making super-heroes
of exemplary Christians.
If their faithful deeds were super-human,
then we’re off the hook.
Because we’re just ordinary.

But this morning, I’m asking us to reconsider.
For cultivating the fruit of the Spirit called “goodness,”
I’m suggesting Christians need heroes.
Even us Mennonites.
Not comic-book-style Super-Menno’s.
No, just exemplary disciples of Jesus,
people who can become exemplars for us,
mentors, models.
Someone to point to and say,
“Ah, follow Christ that way, and not this other way.”

Philip Kenneson, author of the book Life on the Vine,
identifies several obstacles we face in cultivating goodness.
One of them he says, is that our Western culture
has democratized goodness.
We have given up on the notion that goodness has its source
in some authority beyond ourselves.

He gives an illustration.
Since the goodness of something
depends on what we believe about its purpose,
if I say, “This is a good watch,”
it’s obvious what I mean, because its purpose is clear.
It’s good, because it tells time accurately.
But if I say, “This is a good car,”
I could mean different things,
depending what I determine is the purpose of my car.
I might mean it does a good job getting me to work.
I might mean it’s one of the fastest cars on the track.
I might mean it’s could win first place at an antique car show.
And if I say, “This is a good human being,”
then it’s anyone’s guess what I mean,
because there are so many different understandings
of the purpose of being human.
In modern Western culture, we have decided
the purpose of human existence is a private, individual matter.
And we all have different ideas about the purpose of being human,
so we’ll never agree on what make a “good” human being.

Thus, we have democratized goodness.
Goodness is simply what the majority of people believe is good.
Oh, we have legal definitions for some things that are “wrong,”
but not much to help us know what is “right” or “good.”

Where does this leaves us as people of faith?
Where does this leave us as people who believe that God,
and only God,
is absolutely good.
That God alone determines what is good.
That our bondage to sin makes it impossible
for us to be good apart from God.
But that God, in love, created us with the capacity for goodness,
as we find our life in the life of God.
If we believe that, then we have to admit our culture has it wrong.
We are not capable of deciding what is good by majority rule.
We need God’s Spirit to guide and inform us.

There’s a great Gospel story for modern Western ears.
It was read this morning, and I want to call our attention to it again.
You can find it in your Bibles in Mark 10: 17-27.

One day, a man ran up to Jesus, knelt before him, and asked,
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Fascinating question.
Tells us a lot about this man, and his theology.
He saw Jesus as an expert on the subject of goodness.
And he believed goodness was a human virtue
that required expert training to develop.
He wanted Jesus to teach him a few things about goodness,
so he could learn them, practice them at home, be good,
and inherit eternal life.
Inherit it! That is, life would be owed to him.
It would be his right, he would be entitled to it.
What must I do, he said, to be entitled to eternal life?

In essence, Jesus’ answer was, “You don’t get it.
You’re asking the wrong question completely.”
But he didn’t say that. He played along at first.
He ticked off a list of things to do.
Well, Jesus said, you know the law.
Have you honored your father and mother?
Have you refrained from murder?
Have you kept from committing adultery?
stealing? lying? cheating?

Jesus played right into what this man wanted to hear!
He recited the do-good-er’s check-list.
And with every law mentioned,
the man checked it off in his mind,
and his shoulders rose, his head lifted.
Keeping the law was his forte.
He was entitled to eternal life, and he knew it.
Jesus was setting him up for the zinger.
The man said proudly, v. 20, “I’ve kept all those laws since I was a kid.”
“Well,” Jesus said, “looks like you’re almost there.
Just one more little thing on your to-do list.
Sell everything you own, give the money to the poor,
and come follow me.”
Verse 22 says, “When the man heard this, he was shocked,
and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

Wow! No doubt he was shocked.
Jesus just turned the whole issue on its head.
He listed all those laws, but basically what he was saying was
it’s not about dutifully doing the deeds.
That last “little thing” Jesus mentioned,
wasn’t even one of the laws.
So it’s not about being legally perfect.
It’s about risking everything
and giving yourself to God so completely,
that you’d be willing to lay down your life,
and say to God, my life is in you.
See how that turned the man’s question upside down?

He asked, “What can I do, so I can be entitled to life?”
And Jesus answered, “Just one thing. Give up your claim to life.”

You know, this is one of the most difficult Gospel stories to swallow.
Some people might say the miracle stories are hard to accept.
Like feeding 5,000 or raising the dead.
We try to explain away miracles, to make them easier to believe.
But this story, this one takes the cake.
There are precious few people I’ve met
who are ready to take this one seriously.
Not even me.
We have all—way too quickly, I’m afraid—
explained this one away,
so we don’t have to take it at face value.

No, of course, Jesus wasn’t talking to all rich people,
only those certain few rich people who, unfortunately,
have allowed their wealth to keep them from serving God,
with their good deeds and generosity.
Apparently, this man was a selfish miser, we say.
And no, of course, Jesus didn’t mean what he said in v. 23,
that it would be easier for a camel
to go through the eye of a needle,
than for anyone with wealth to enter the kingdom of God.
No, no. There’s...some other explanation.
And clever Bible scholars, no doubt scholars
with an American middle-class lifestyle like mine, to protect,
came up with a theory.
The so-called “needle’s eye” Jesus was talking about
was a low, narrow passage in the city wall.
It’s difficult, but a camel can get through it.
You have to unload it first,
and help it scoot through on its knees.
Jesus meant it’s hard, but definitely possible with some effort.
I say, baloney.
Jesus meant a camel, and he meant the eye of a needle.
Literally impossible for human beings to achieve.
But possible, with God. Verse 27.

And some of us wiggle out of this story by claiming not to be rich.
Jesus must have meant the very, very wealthy.
Like the 300+ billionaires that live in this country.
More baloney.
Do you have a car to drive?
A job that brings enough income to buy or rent
a decent home to live in?
Do you have a good education?
Got extra food on the shelves?
I do.
We’re in the richest 10% of the world.
We obviously fit Jesus’ description:
“those who have wealth.”

So let’s be real radical here, and real simple-minded,
and assume Jesus meant it, when he said,
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!”
You know why it’s so hard?
Because we, like that rich man in the story,
think it’s all about how many good deeds
we can check off the list.
We forget that the question is not
how much good we can do with our resources,
or how generous we can be with our wealth.
The question is how much we are willing to risk for the kingdom.
How much are we willing to put our wealth on the line?
How ready are we to let go of
the very thing that brings us a sense of security?
When we look at the story this way,
I have to wince.
Because I’m not at all sure I’m that ready myself.
I can preach this Gospel story till I’m blue in the face.
But to be honest, I’m not sure I’m ready to live it.
I’m not sure I could hear God’s voice to me,
if God was telling me to give up what I have,
to release it all for the Kingdom of God.
I’d be quick to come up with an alternate explanation.
God surely must have meant...10% of what I have.

The fruit of the Spirit of goodness is not cultivated
by doing more good deeds,
and trying harder for the sake of the Kingdom.
Goodness is cultivated by sacrificing all for the only One who is Good.
It is placing our very life, placing our security, in the hands of God.
It is to do the one thing the rich man lacked the courage to do.
To trust fully, and only, in the Goodness of God.

And this brings me back to my opening statement
that we Christians need heroes.
In other words, we need to have examples to follow.
We need to see, and know, that some people have indeed
given up everything for the sake of the Kingdom,
and survived...even thrived.
We don’t need more “Good Teachers”
who will train us to do more good deeds,
give us techniques to master the finer points of the law.
We need people who will show us by example
that giving up all, for the sake of the Kingdom of God
is a good way to live.

I’m not saying we need heroes to worship,
or to put on a pedestal as super-humans.
Besides, there aren’t any super humans.
Not even Jesus.
He was fully God...and fully human.
But his humanity was in every respect like ours.
Read Hebrews 4.
Rather, Jesus showed us how to be human.
He is our supreme hero.

But by God’s grace,
there have been some disciples of Jesus in history,
and there are some disciples of Jesus that we ourselves know,
who have shown God’s goodness by example.
They are exemplary in their faithfulness to the Kingdom of God.
So let us thank God for them.
Let us tell their stories.
And when we discover them among us,
in our own community, in our congregation,
because they are here among us,
let us, figuratively speaking, sit at their feet
and learn from them.
They are not perfect.
They are fallible examples of faithfulness.
But we should seek out opportunities to be with them,
watch them, interact with them,
being challenged by them.
If we want to cultivate goodness,
we will be far better off choosing to live
in a Christian community of mentors and examplars,
than by going off by ourselves
and trying to memorize a list of good deeds
and trying harder to inherit life, or inherit “goodness.”

Oh, it’s a lot easier to live independently and freely,
to decide ourselves which checklist of goodness we’re going to use,
and then give it our best shot.
That’s the American way.
But the way of cultivating the fruit of goodness in Christian community
is a lot more difficult and complicated.
Choosing to join a community of disciples of Jesus,
who are called to sacrifice all for the Kingdom of God,
now that’s a challenge.

And that is precisely the challenge that caused one man to be shocked,
and turn and walk away from Jesus.
My invitation to us all this morning, including myself,
is to take courage,
and together as a faith community invite the Spirit to come,
and guide us and guard us and preside over our life together.
And then, God may grow the fruit of goodness among us.

Turn to #303 in the blue Hymnal Worship Book,
“Come, gracious Spirit.”
This is a familiar invitation for the Spirit of God to come.
But this is not a prayer for individual spiritual inspiration,
it is a prayer of the community
for the Spirit to preside over our life together.
Before we sing this sing,
everyone take a look to your left and to your right,
in front of you and behind you.
See who is sitting around you.
These are the ones being referred to in this hymn,
when it says “we” “us” and “our.”
Let us sing this together,
to the Spirit of the One and Only source of goodness.

—Phil Kniss, October 8, 2006

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Ruby Lehman said...

Somehow I didn't like the comment, "I say baloney", used twice in the sermon. It reminded me too much of the expression "bull shit", but of course it was in much better taste.

I've always wondered about the "eye of a needle", and how Jesus' words were translated from the local language which he spoke.

Ruby Lehman

Phil Kniss said...

Thanks for your comment, Ruby. I appreciate your feedback. I used the word "baloney" as a light-hearted (but emphatic) way to say we like to fool ourselves into finding the easy way out of Jesus' hard teachings. Sorry if it sounded to harsh to some ears.

There isn't any doubt about the actual translation of the words "eye of a needle." However, there are a few manuscripts that differ on the word "camel." Instead of the Greek word "kamelon" (camel) they use the word "kamilon" (a heavy rope, or ship's hawser). Generally, textual critics believe that the most reliable manuscripts have "camel." But that issue is kind of beside the point. Jesus was using an illustration, in any case, of something that was impossible to imagine from a human point of view.
Thanks again!