Friday, February 5, 2016

What is Good (Matt. 6:12; Micah 6:8) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Ruby Bridges Hall is an American activist.  She is known for being the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in Louisiana in the late 1950's.

A federal judge had ordered New Orleans to open its public schools to African-American children.  The white parents decided that if black children were allowed to attend, they would keep their children out.  The white parents also let it be known that any black children who came to school would be in for trouble. So the black children stayed home too.  Ruby's parents sent her to school all by herself at six years old.  Every morning she walked alone through a heckling crowd to an empty school. White people lined up on both sides of the way and shook their fists at her.  But every morning at ten minutes to eight, Ruby walked, head up, eyes ahead, straight through the mob; two U.S. marshals walked ahead of her and two walked behind her.  She was the only student who spent the day with her teachers inside that big school building.

Professor Robert Coles was curious about what went into the making of courageous children like Ruby Bridges. He talked to Ruby's mother, who said: "There's a lot of people who talk about doing good, and a lot of people who argue about what's good and what's not good," but then there are other folks who "just put their lives on the line for what's right."

Which leads to our theme this morning about being a good person, about righteousness.  Do we need more goodness and kindness in our world?  Do we need more honesty, integrity and morality in the world?  Is the pope Catholic?    What parent does not worry about her child being bullied or kidnapped?  Who does not grieve the tragic deaths caused by drunk drivers?  Are we not horrified by stories of greed, corruption or evil, like shooting massacres in schools or movie theaters or in the workplace?

Question - are human beings born good?  Is human nature basically good?   You might  think – well of course, look at a beautiful, sweet, helpless, darling little baby.   Conversely are human beings born bad?  Is human nature intrinsically bad?   How would you answer the question?

Let's look at this question biblically.  The Bible does not say human beings are born good; that human nature is basically good.  Neither does the Bible also does not say human beings are born bad; that human nature is basically bad.   The bible says human beings are born sinners.   I refer to the story in Genesis of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.  This story is not only about Adam and Eve, it’s a story about humanity; it's a universal story, it's your story and my story.   Adam and Eve were created good by God, but then came the fall, which affected all humanity from that day forth; the fall from grace, the fall from God, the fall from goodness.    Because of their sin of disobeying God, Genesis says: “The Lord God sent them from the Garden of Eden, God drove them out of the garden.”

Biblically human beings are born as sinners, self-centered rather than God centered, separated from God, in a wrong relationship with God.  This is the result of sin. Sinners are capable of being good or bad, of doing good or committing evil.

That's of course why God sent Jesus into the world.  God sent Jesus to save sinners, to make us right with God, to bring us back into a right relationship with God.  And that act of redemption included instilling in us goodness, righteousness.   The Holy Spirit came to change our nature, to transform us, to make us holy, to sanctify us, so that we would become more and more like Jesus himself in our innermost being and outward behavior.

Here's the argument.  If human beings are basically good, then logically, we must blame our family, blame society, blame our race, blame our nationality, blame our environment, when we choose to do bad things.   We are not really personally responsible.   If people are basically good, then you don’t have to teach children morality and respecting authority and obeying the rules, about not cheating and lying and stealing.  Why?  As they grow they will naturally by their nature become good persons.   If people are basically good, they don’t need rules and laws to control their behavior, they will naturally by their nature follow the rules and be good citizens.  If human nature is basically good, we don't need the Bible or God or Jesus, because our nature will direct us to always do the right thing.

But if we are born sinners, we human beings need help, we really need to learn and internalize this elemental teaching of Jesus.  “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”   A modern day interpreter put it this way:  “Treat other people exactly as you would like to be treated by them.”  We of course know this as the Golden Rule.  Just imagine what a different world we would live in if everyone followed this single profound rule.

The Golden Rule was not original to Jesus.  A Gentile asked a first century Rabbi, Rabbi Shammai, to teach him the whole law while standing on one foot.  Rabbi Shammai replied:  “Do not do to others what you would not have others do to you.”  The man was so impressed that he asked to become a student of the Rabbi.  Other Rabbi’s in Jesus’ day taught:  “Whatever is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor.

The Jewish rule was stated in the negative.  Jesus re-stated this rule in the positive.  This was Jesus’ original contribution.  The old rule is basically passive, “don’t do this, don't do that.”  Jesus’ rule is active, “do this, do that.”  In other words, the old rule can be kept by not hurting another human being.  Jesus’ moral ethic summons his followers to be active; to take the initiative, to be pro-active, to do something positive toward others.

Yes, both perspectives are essential in the moral life.  Both the positive and negative have merit.  They constitute the Judeo/Christian ethic.  We think of the 10 Commandments for example – don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness.   And now comes Jesus rule – do unto others. These are two biblical perspectives on goodness, on righteousness.   They both are saying – God created us to be good and Jesus teaches you to be good, to do good, to be righteous in your life.

Radio talk show host Dennis Praeger, a practicing Jew, said:  “A lot of people feel that if you don’t rob or don’t kill you are a good person.  That’s not true.  If you don’t rob and you don’t kill you’re not a good person, you’re just not a criminal.  In order to be a good person, you have to do something positive.”  Do you agree?

Does the golden rule still have authority today?  Do people still try to follow it as a basic moral guide for their lives?  I don’t know, I’m just asking questions. The Golden Rule summed up the law and expressed Jesus’ passion for righteous living, for good behavior among his followers.  Jesus taught by word and example that his followers are to be good people.  Are we as Jesus followers passionate about leading good, moral and righteous lives today?  Are we passionate about teaching goodness to our children and grandchildren?  Are we passionate about promoting righteousness in our society?

Doing good, shows our love, our obedience and respect for God.  It shows we live under God's authority.  It is a crucial witness to others.  People are far more apt to see Jesus in you and me, to hear Jesus in you and me, if they see us leading righteous lives.

It is inspiring when we see examples of people living righteous lives. I remember some years ago when I was in Philadelphia.   I had gone to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  In front of the museum was a large gathering of mothers.  There were posters and pictures, gospel music playing, prayers spoken, reporters, booths, people giving speeches.  It was a swirl of activity.  Then I saw shoes lined up in rows on the steps leading up to the museum.  It turns out that these hundreds of shoes belonged to the sons and daughters of these mothers who had been killed in violence on the streets of Philadelphia over the past few years.  The moms and dads were speaking out against inner-city gang violence and drugs.  They were grieving the loss of their own children, and seeking answers to trying to curb the violence and loss of these young lives.  Through tears and witnessing, they were striving to make a difference in their city.

Why aren’t more people involved in promoting goodness?  For many reasons.  Some people have become cynical.  Why should I be good and follow the rules?  No one else does.  You can’t get ahead if you’re honest.   Only fools and losers play by the rules?    And then there is moral relativism, which claims there are no longer any moral absolutes, no longer absolute distinctions between right and wrong.   What may be wrong in one context might be right in another context.  And there is the universal reality of selfishness, self-absorption, self-centeredness.  People lack empathy and sympathy toward others.

Further there is fear.  People are afraid to take a stand for righteousness.   You may be filled with righteous indignation about some issue.  But it’s risky confronting or speaking out against corruption.  It’s uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst.

Jesus says: “Do unto others!”  Stand up against evil, do the right thing even if it’s difficult, treat others with respect, love your neighbor, sacrifice for a just cause, act fairly and kindly.  It may mean buying lunch for a police officer or firefighter, or serving at Sunday Night Ministry and providing meals for homeless people, or bringing a homebound member to church or visiting one of our homebound members or going out to pick up trash on the beach or going out on Graffiti Day to clean up gang signs around our city.  It may mean giving someone the benefit a doubt instead of immediately condemning them.  It may mean insuring that someone has due process.

Jesus says - “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”   This is not a quid pro quo - you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.  It's not making deals.  Jesus says think how you want to be treated and treat others the same way.   Love your neighbor as you love yourself, speak the truth in love, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, pray for your enemy, etc.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a committed Christian, coined the phrase “Reverence for Life.”  He writes:  “While making a difficult 160 mile trip on a small steamer up an African river in 1915, at the very moment when at sunset we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase Reverence for Life.  It means that life itself is sacred and our duty is to cherish it.  Life is a great gift that needs to be treasured and respected.  It includes love and appreciation for life, for God, for other people and the desire to serve them, for all living things, for beauty in nature, and honesty and integrity in all things.  The more we have a reverence for life, the more life becomes richer and more beautiful.”

I like what we read in I John:  “Little children let us love not in word or speech but in truth and action.  All who obey his commandments abide in him and he abides in them.  And by this we know that He abides in us by the Spirit that He has given us.”   We are able to overcome sin, we are able to do good, we are able to lead righteous lives, because of the forgiving grace of God and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

Philosopher Edmund Burke wrote:  The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  The prophet Micah summed it up well:  God has told you O mortal what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  Where in your life is Jesus calling you to put the golden rule into practice?

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