Sermon: The Good Life
The Good Life
Text: Matthew 16:21-28
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 9-3-2017)
I was blessed with good parents. Out of financial necessity, they went to work right out of high school. They worked hard for modest salaries and they saved when most people of my generation would have spent – with one memorable exception. They consistently gave my late brother and me more than they could reasonably afford. Their rationale was: “We want you boys to have what we didn’t have.” In so many tangible ways, they sacrificed so that they could give us “the good life.”
I did learn a great deal about the good life from my parents, but ironically, I learned not in the way that they intended. It is tempting for those, like my parents, who did not grow up with much to confuse the good life with having goods and plenty of them and showering gifts of goods on others.
I will confess that I have also fallen into that deceptive trap with my own children, even though experience alone should have taught me better. I vividly remember one Christmas morning when Erin and Josh were very young. Jennell and I had spent much of our little savings to buy them the hottest toys on the market for a 4 year old girl and a 2 year old boy. We could not wait for them to rush into the room and dance with delight upon seeing the desires of their young hearts sitting under the tree. Well, you can guess what happened. After an initial blush of interest in these “hot” toys, they spent most of the morning playing hide and seek inside the large cardboard boxes in which these expensive “treasures” were found.
As for myself, I should have learned the good-life-lesson long before that. As a youth, I was in love with basketball and that meant I had to have a pair of “Chucks” – Converse basketball shoes. If you were to jump high, run fast, and dominate on the court, you had to have a pair of “Chucks.”
Not seeing these shoes with the same necessity that I saw, my otherwise overly generous folks told me to save for them myself. So, save I did. And when I purchased my first pair of “Chucks,” I nearly floated out of that shoe store. It took only one basketball game to realize that I had been duped. I was wearing the best pair of shoes but I still did not run fast and could not jump higher than the curb.
As an adult, I cannot tell you how many times I have sought the good life by buying new golf balls that “will fly like lasers to the hole” or a new computer that “will dance rings around that slow, old jalopy” or a new car that will always look new, never accumulate a collection of junk in the backseat and will never break down. With each purchase, I have convinced myself that I was that much closer to the good life, as if the good life was something that a clever pro could market and a motivated consumer could buy.
When Jesus tells the crowd that he will build his church upon Peter and give to Peter the keys of God’s realm, Peter must have felt as if he had fallen face forward into the good life. I can see Peter’s chest swelling with a pride too wonderful to disguise. He had left his livelihood to take on a new life with Jesus. He had left the simple comforts of home to take on a tough life on the road. He had left a familiar well worn routine to take on the uncertainties of a whole new life. And, now, finally, the payoff has come as Jesus rewards him with his own set of keys. Ah, at last, Peter grabs his share of the good life.
Then the life of the party Jesus ruins the moment. He tells Peter and the other boys, “Look, the road to Jerusalem is littered with nails. In Jerusalem, people will pierce me and put an end to me, but after three days God will reclaim my life.” Peter is aghast. He takes Jesus aside and says, “Come to your senses, man. Don’t you remember I just pronounced you the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God? These things you are talking about do not happen to gods and God forbid, they must never happen to you.” What goes unsaid or unwritten by Matthew is: “Because if these things can happen to you, then, that must mean they can also happen to someone who follows you.”
Seemingly, Peter’s brief taste of the good life comes to an embarrassing halt when Jesus barks back at him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a scandal, a stumbling block, to me; for you have set your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” The rest of the air escapes from the good-life balloon as Jesus goes on to say: “Peter, you want these keys? Then deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me. Those interested in saving their lives will lose them and those willing to lose their lives for my sake will find them.”
Peter and the disciples are ready to taste the good life and what they get is an ad hoc lecture on God’s economic plan from Jesus. Tom Long says it well: “A life that is spent soothing the pain of the sick, caring for children in need, hammering nails in houses for those without shelter, sharing bread with the hungry, visiting those in prison, and denying oneself may seem like a squandered life in the economy of a self-centered age, but in the storehouse of heaven, it is a lavish treasure” (Tom Long, Matthew, WBC, page 191), and I would add, it is the good life.
Some said then and some say now that God’s economic plan just does not work. People want to be rid of pain, not take it on; people want to accumulate assets, not give them away; people want to know their own minds, not try to know the mind of Christ. With all due respect to Jesus, they argue that the good life is a measure of what we have, how easily we can get what we want, how seldom we are inconvenienced, and how happy we are.
If you want to hear preachers endorse that view of the good life, then listen to the best-selling Joel Osteen or any of today’s well-groomed, well-compensated, and smooth talking prosperity preachers. You will hear them applauding Peter’s idea of the good life and joining Peter to correct Jesus, saying, “You just can’t talk like this!”
Well, I would advise not giving up on God’s economic plan quite yet. Peter never had any hope of understanding the good life until Jesus told him to get behind him. That is the only position from which you and I will ever learn about God’s baffling economy, ever learn the good life that God intends for us and Jesus models for us; it is only by standing behind Jesus, listening to him, watching his every move, and learning to trust God’s economic plan despite the most vocal critics within and outside the church.
That brings me back to my parents. What they did not realize is that they taught me the good life not by giving me and my brother a stockpile of presents, but showing us what generosity and self-sacrifice looks like, by their quiet faith and constant love. Nearly at the point of death, my dad would drag his oxygen tank with him to watch his grandson play baseball. This was the same father who would spend hours at our local church repairing what the church could not afford to have repaired professionally or serving as a deacon and visiting with people whom others most often neglected. These were the parents who gave up good jobs and good lives in the DC area to relocate back to the Tidewater, so my mom could care for her elderly mother for over twenty years.
I learned the good life first at home, but my education has been enriched by so many people. In 1963 Howard Zinn was fired from Spelman College in Atlanta for his civil rights activities. Forty two years later, Dr. Zinn was invited to address the graduates of Spelman.
In his address, Dr. Zinn challenged them to think differently than does our society about “the good life.” He told these graduates, “I know you have practical things to do -- to get jobs and get married and have children. You may become prosperous and be considered a success in the way our society defines success, by wealth and standing and prestige. But that is not enough for a good life.
“Remember Tolstoy's story, ‘The Death of Ivan Illych’. A man on his deathbed reflects on his life, how he has done everything right, obeyed the rules, become a judge, married, had children, and is looked upon as a success. Yet, in his last hours, he wonders why he feels a failure. After becoming a famous novelist, Tolstoy himself had decided that this was not enough, that he must speak out against the treatment of the Russian peasants, that he must write against war and militarism.” So, Dr. Zinn encouraged the graduates of Spelman to spend their lives in pursuit of a real good life. Whenever we ordain officers to serve the church, they are asked a long series of ordination and installation questions. I would make the list even longer by asking this very long question: “Will you seek the good life in all you do and work to achieve the good life for all God’s people by following the path of Jesus and signing wholeheartedly onto God’s economic plan, by giving extravagantly to those in need when reason tells you to hold back for rainy days, by living for others, especially the least, the lost, and the forgotten, when society tells you to live for yourself and to pile pleasure upon pleasure, by embracing your own and the world’s suffering, when common sense says to dodge pain at all costs, by living each day with thanksgiving for the richness of your blessed life, when the word on the street says that you need more and more and more?
If ministers and deacons and elders can say a loud, resounding “yes” to that question, then you and I would do well to get behind them as they get behind the One who leads us all into the good life.