GEEZ magazine is looking for 30 sermons that would never get preached in Church. Here's my entry.
The other day, Bob was telling me about a series of lectures at the Humanist institute called “Can we be good without God?”. He said he found the topic freeing and that the lecturers confirmed his own thoughts. Namely – “Whether people go to church or not - or followed a religious practice or didn’t, - it seemed to have little to do with whether or not they were good people.”
We both agreed that we knew lots of atheists who were good people – and - lots of religious people who were clearly jerks (in our humble estimation).
“But you know Bob…” I said interrupting him before he could get into a full rant about church people, “…following Jesus isn’t about being good.”
He gave me a look. It was one of those “get-real-Al” looks that he uses when I talk about my invisible friend.
“Jesus wasn’t really big on rules Bob. In fact, he went out of his way to break the rules of his Religion just to raise questions about - What really matters.
Bob’s still got that look on his face. I go on with my rant.
“There was this time when someone in the crowd came up and began his question by addressing Jesus as “Good Teacher”. Jesus stopped him right there before he even got to the question. He asked “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God.”
Was he trying to mess with his head, or was Jesus pointing out the impossible futility of making “being good” your highest goal? He said outrageous things like “getting a rich man into heaven is like passing a camel through the eye of a needle.” Or how about this one? Jesus tells the good church people – if your eye causes you to sin – poke it out and if you use your hand to sin – cut it off.“ Have you noticed that there aren’t a lot of one-eyed, one-handed Church people out there? Is it because they never sin, or was Jesus pushing the “being good” race to its inevitable, ridiculous, impossible conclusion? As in “No one is good but God.”
Bob was intrigued now – “That’s exactly what I hate about religion! It gets down on you for just being human. It tries to make us feel guilty for the way we all are. Then the Church sets itself up as the authority whose tune we all have to whistle to if we want to prove ourselves good enough to get into heaven.”
“Yeah”, I agreed, “ Or, forget about heaven - how about proving ourselves just good enough just to get cozy with the good church people?”
Bob wasn’t expecting me to jump on that wagon with him but here we were sitting in a seedy Blues bar drinking pints - so he wasn’t exactly shocked. He knew enough of my story to know that I’d been on the end of more than one judgmental look.
“Okay, he said, “I’ll take your bait – if Religion’s not about being good, what is it about?”
“Oh no, Religion is about being good for sure.” I said. “Religion is a social control mechanism that you find in every society. Religion is how social conformity is established and maintained. Along with the rule of Law and the codes of Stock Exchanges go the codes of Sunday School. Without these systems, we’d have anarchy. And by the way Bob, speaking of social conventions -it’s your round.”
“Now you lost me.” Bob shook his head looking up and around for the waiter.
“What I said Bob, was that following Jesus was not about being good. Religion is about being good. But Jesus was about a whole lot more than religion. Jesus was all about relationships. He called a distant, angry, Jewish God “Daddy”. He didn’t boss his followers around like a tyrant using fear and guilt to move them. He treated people the way a creative, compassionate, good-natured Maker would. Jesus didn’t get hung up on people’s obvious faults and failures, he looked beneath their skin and saw their hearts; their hopes, the best that was in them just waiting to sprout and grow.”
“So, he was a good guy.” concluded Bob trying to end it there. He knew what was coming next and still wasn’t ready to go there.
I laughed “I just told you he didn’t like being called Good. Good is way too polite for Jesus. No, he wants the kind of relationship you have with your best friend or your sister or your wife. You know how sometimes it’s only someone that you really trust – someone who knows all the ugly parts of you and loves you anyway – y’know how it’s only those people who can tell you when you’re being a jerk?
Bob nodded. “Yeah, that’s very sweet Al” said Bob shaking his head again. I knew enough of Bob’s story to know that the trust he’d put in people had been broken more than once. I could see the walls going up behind his eyeballs. He shifted back in his seat and reached for his smokes, but I had to finish the story.
“You know why I love following Jesus Bob?”
“No, but I have a feeling you’re going to preach it.” he mocked. But he also leaned forward a little; elbows on the table now. .
“It’s because he gets me off the treadmill of the soul –that part of me that’s trying to please people. For me, it’s a treadmill from hell because it’s really about me trying to satisfy my inner Judge. That voice inside that keeps saying More, Better, Not Good Enough! No matter how fast I run I’m still in the same place.
“But you’re in better shape – right?” says Bob using my treadmill analogy “You’re stronger and healthier and feel better about yourself.”
“Yup” I agreed, “except for two things. Let’s say my life gets complicated and I don’t manage to get on that not-good-enough-treadmill, or, let’s say I’m injured and cant’ get on it. Now I’ve lost my source of self-respect.
Or, let’s say that I get so good on that treadmill that I get addicted to it. It becomes like just like any drug that makes me feel good.”
I pause to lift my glass and take a swallow. Bob grins.
“And the second problem with that treadmill is that eventually I realize that I’m not going anywhere. In the big scheme of things - when I realize that life is short and most accomplishments are temporary - then I start wondering what’s around the next corner.
“Now you’re pulling out the big stick. You’re gonna hit me over the head with Heaven. The big Disco in the sky where it’s all about dropping the right name if you wanna get in.”
“Maybe” I say. “but my friend Jesus tells me that heaven is waiting the second I step off the treadmill. Jesus tells me that heaven is here and now and today is full of miracles and wonders. If I ask him, and listen, he shows me the next step off that treadmill, and then the next, then the next and so on.
He shows me that God’s free gifts of grace and peace are powerful – most especially in the midst of suffering. I’m not talking about helping others with their suffering – that can be another feel good about myself treadmill. I’m talking about finding peace right in the middle of the things that I suffer through.
Jesus shows me the power of a flickering candle in the midst of darkness and doubt. He shows me the healing power of un-conditional love that is stronger than fear, guilt, pain, anger, or even death. How else could I love my enemies? How else could I do things that take me beyond my own self-interests and give me joy? It’s a joy that has nothing to do with being good and everything to do with being in touch with the Source of life; good, bad, and as ugly as it can be.
And the other thing I love about Jesus is that he sends me friends to walk with and share life with. In fact Bob, I believe that Jesus sent me you.” and I raise my glass.
“Well, thank you Jesus for that.” laughs Bob clinking my glass with his first sincere prayer in a long time.“Amen” I say.