The Spirit of Goodness

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We’ve heard of goody-two-shoes…
Good riddance…
Goodness gracious great balls of fire…
Things can taste good, we like to read good books and tell good stories.
We tell our children to be good and to get good grades.

But what does it really mean to be good?

The Random House dictionary has 41 different definitions for the word… and that’s just the adjectives.
But in general, I think we usually say that something is good if it fulfills our expectations – if it does what it is supposed to – and if we get some kind of benefit from it.

Take the cookies we just gave the children, for example. If they had taken a bite of the cookie and it was old or dried out… they wouldn’t be so good. They wouldn’t have been all that they were made up to be.
In the same way, we are good when we fulfill the expectations of ourselves and others and if we benefit others as we do so.

I keep using the word benefit, and that is because there are lots of things that fulfill their purpose that we would never call good.
An example – those cookies might taste good – but for all of you adults who didn’t get to eat them, since we didn’t have enough to share, they are only good for our children.
Or, think about what makes a good chef’s knife.
It is sharp, it cuts the way it is designed to, and we can use it to prepare food and eventually be fed. We benefit from the design and use of a good chef’s knife.
But, in the hands of someone unskilled, like a child, the knife becomes dangerous and what we thought was good could harm them.
In the hands of someone who is angry or revengeful – the very thing that we called good only a moment ago, can turn into a weapon.
It still has the same qualities that fulfilled its purpose… only it is being used to harm instead of help.

So… to be good, something or someone must fulfill the expectations and be a benefit.

Throughout the scriptures – we hear stories of men and women who were good:
Noah was a good man and so his family was saved from the flood.
Lot was a good man and so his family was rescued from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Even Rahab the prostitute was good. She fulfilled the expectations God had of her by taking in the spies from Israel, benefitting the people of God, and because she did so, her family was saved in the battle of Jericho.

Culturally, morally, we might wonder how could such a person be considered “good.”
Well, God has a tendency to upend our assumptions about a person’s worth or value. All throughout the scriptures, God chooses unlikely people to accomplish God’s will.

Throughout the scriptures, there are also people that are not good.
They didn’t do what was expected of them.
They lived not to benefit others, but only themselves.
And It is to such people as these that the prophets were sent.
Prophets like Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Hosea… and our prophet for this morning: Nathan.
Today’s story is one of paradox.

You see, David was a man after God’s own heart.
We always think back on all of the good things that he did – his trust in God, his loyalty to Saul, his music, and his love…
But in some ways, David was a kind of bad dude.
As we heard this morning in our scripture, David breaks two commandments all in a week’s time.

First, he sleeps with another man’s wife. Bathsheba was married to one of his soldier’s Uriah and David saw her from afar and decided that he wanted her. Her husband was away at war, and so David took what he wanted.

Then, to cover up the fact this terrible thing he has done, David breaks another commandment. He has Uriah killed out on the battlefield.

Neither of these are good things. His actions go against God’s expectations for David and they harm both Uriah and Bathsheba and they mar his moral leadership, harming the entire nation.

Nathan’s job here is simple. He is called, he is expected, to bring God’s judgment upon David for these acts.
So this morning, we are going to look at how the goodness of Nathan shines through and how WE might be called to be good in the fact of another person’s wrongdoing.

First, Nathan helped the truth to come to light.

In Ephesians 5 we hear that God’s children should live as children of light and that “the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth.”
With the Holy Spirit living inside of us, we are expected to allow the truth to be seen in the world.

Grace and mercy, forgiveness and love are all good and holy things, but they only have meaning in relation to the truth of what has gone wrong.

When I attended the General Conference in Tampa, Florida five years ago, we spent one evening participating in a service of truth-telling about how United Methodists and our predecessors had harmed Indigenous Peoples across the world. As people of faith and in the name of Jesus Christ, we perpetuated crimes against our brothers and sisters. We took land, forced our values upon others, and destroyed cultures. We actively resisted peace processes and in some cases were the instigators of violence and bloodshed. That night, we heard stories about the role that Methodists had played in the Trail of Tears, and in the slaughter of peoples in Philippines, Africa, and Norway.

The act of betrayal that hit closes to home was that of the Sand Creek Massacre. A Methodist preacher, U.S. Army Col. John Chivington, ordered the attack on an encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho. These native peoples had come to that site to fulfill their side of a recent peace treaty that had been made with the U.S. Government. While their men were away hunting, Chivington attacked the camp, killing mostly women and children.
It was hard to hear. It was hard to re-live. It was hard to dream that the damage could ever be reversed and that wounds could ever be healed.

And that night, one of the things our leadership focused on was that this night was not the full act of reconciliation. That night was only the first step. Repentance has to begin with understanding what we have done.
Nathan did not ignore or shy away from the wrongs and the harm that David had perpetrated. Rather, he made sure that the truth came to light and that David knew that he had done wrong.

Second, Nathan provided a way for David to turn away from his harm towards good.

The prophet was fully aware of David’s sin.
Had he followed the letter of the law, the right thing to do as soon as David confessed would be to have him stoned. The law was clear that the punishment for adultery and murder were death.
But Nathan shows us that goodness goes beyond simple righteousness. It is far more simply pointing out the wrongs in others.
Nathan spoke the truth about David’s sin, but his first instinct is not to carry out a sentence, but to wait for a response from David.
As people of faith, too often we are quick to bring judgment and condemnation upon others. We are good at bringing unrighteousness to light. We demand that justice be carried out swiftly through every possible means available.

What we aren’t good at is leading people into repentance.
When righteousness is only about the letter of the law, judgment can become a weapon, leading us to harm people or communities.
But by telling David a story, Nathan creates an opportunity for David to confess, to repent, and to choose to live a different life.
In the years that have followed that night at General Conference, United Methodists in various parts of the world have been working to listen and to repent of the various ways we have harmed indigenous peoples. One group in particular was formed to learn more about the tragedy at Sand Creek and to explore whether or not healing could be possible.
Four years later in Portland, a member of the Northern Cheyenne, William Walks Along, shared that although that date “can never be erased from the memory of our people… together let us discover the treasurers we can learn from hardships and from the deeds and misdeeds of our fellow human beings.”

He was extending a hand of friendship to the United Methodist Church and the willingness of fellow descendents of those victims to reconcile and move forward together.

Third, Nathan blessed David because of his repentance.

Not only did the prophet bring the truth to the light, not only did he invite David into a spirit of repentance, but Nathan also gave him the encouragement he needed to faithfully follow God in the future.

Nathan did what was needed to set David back on the right path… what was needed to build him up so that he could once again fulfill God’s expectations for him and live to benefit the children of Israel.
That does not mean that there were no consequences of his actions…. But Nathan reminded David that there was also room for God’s grace and mercy to flow back into his life.

That is a reminder that we all need.
As Christians, we have all have fallen short of the glory of God.
That is the plain and simple truth.
Every single one of us have places in our lives where we need to repent, where we need to turn around and seek God’s forgiveness.
On our own, we are unrighteous and our hearts seek our own benefit and expectations instead of God’s.
And yet, through the grace of Jesus Christ, we are made righteous.
I believe the basis of righteousness is fact that God sets us right.
God forgives us.
God leads us on the right paths.
It has nothing to do with how many answers we get right or how many good deeds we do.
It has everything to do with God and the divine goodness that exceeds every expectation and whose great love seeks only our benefit.
And when we are made righteous, when we are made good, we are meant to let that goodness become contagious. God’s grace and mercy is not ours alone… it is meant to be shared.

Friends, you are armed with a powerful tool that can be used for good or for harm in this world.
The truth of God, the reality of God’s expectations in our lives is now in your hands. And you are invited to let that truth to be know, but you are also invited to share it in a way that brings blessing and benefit to all.

the wedding garment

When a girl gets married these days, one of the most important decisions she makes is what to wear. On television, you can watch Bridezillas and Say Yes to the Dress and Four Weddings – or even an hour long special on Kate Middleton’s wedding gown – and I guarantee, one of the most expensive items included in any of those celebrations and the one that causes the most anxiety is the dress.
I try not to watch those shows.
And… I tried really hard to “NOT” be one of those girls. I wanted to throw off the shackles of consumerism and find a nice, simple, elegant dress that did not cost me an arm and a leg.
As my mom and grandma and sister-in-law and maid of honor walked into the bridal shop, I made them promise: I was not trying on a dress that cost more than $200. I was not going to fall in love with something that I could not afford.

And seven or eight dresses into the experience, I found the one. It was simple and elegant, understated and yet gorgeous. It was MY dress. And after sashaying around the room and standing in front of the mirror, and picking out bridesmaids dresses that matched, I looked at the price tag: twelve-hundred dollars. I had done it. I had fallen in love with something that was far too expensive.

Unfortunately for the bridal shop, but lucky for me, I am a skilled online shopper. I found the exact same dress for about half the price a few months later. And the dress did make the day. It was and still is – MY dress. And it helps me tell the world who I am. One look in my direction, and people not only knew I was the bride, but also that I wasn’t showy, or stuck-up or traditional.
I love this dress… I really do… but the simple fact is, I can’t wear it to any other wedding. 😉
Wedding garments seem to be the theme for the day, because in our gospel this morning, Jesus tells the crowds a parable about a wedding feast. And he tells them – what you are wearing matters.

Will you pray with me:

We could spend hours talking about the first half of this parable… about how the king threw a wedding feast for his beloved son and how the guests one by one declined the honor, made excuses, and in some cases slaughtered his servants when they showed up with the invitation.

As we have discovered in the past few weeks, there are a number of people in this world who think there are more important things to do than respond to the call of God. There are some who are so caught up in being religious, they forget about who they are accountable to. And as the gospel makes clear, they do so at their own peril.

But for today, I’m more interested in the second half of this story.

You see, when the king’s guests don’t show up, he doesn’t cancel the party. No, he just invites more guests. He has his servants go out and pull people in off the street. Homeless folks, addicts, fishermen, swindlers and thieves, families with children, small town merchants, teachers, retirees… the good and the bad, the simple, the unworthy, the unprepared, the underqualified. You and me.

Never in our lives would any of us ever dream of being invited to a king’s wedding feast. Through the miracles of television, some here got up very early in the morning to watch the latest royal wedding festivities, but our television screens are the closest we are ever going to get to that kind of celebration.

And for most of the people gathered around Jesus as he told this parable, that would have been true as well. They just didn’t bump elbows with those kind of people.

This unexpected invitation, this outpouring of love and acceptance, this grand gesture is one more reminder that God’s ways are not our ways… It is a reminder that the Kingdom of Heaven is opened up to all who will receive the call – the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the good and the bad… as long as we accept that invitation and drop what we are doing to respond.

Here WE are. In one way or another, you have responded to the call of God upon your life… to the invitation from the great King to participate in the holy celebration.

In the church, we often like to talk about how faith saves us. How belief in Jesus Christ and his righteousness leads us into the Kingdom of God. Jesus died for my sins, I accept what he has done for me, bing-bang-boom, one way ticket to heaven.

But you know what… this parable throws a wrench in that simple formula. You see, while everyone was invited… while the invitation and the gospels tell that each one of us is now entitled to heaven through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross… not everyone at the party is allowed to stay.

“When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” and the man was speechless. Then the King said to the attendants, “bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Sheesh – all because he wore the wrong thing?

If you are anything like me, you are utterly grateful for the grace of God in Jesus Christ that invited you to the Kingdom party. And you were more than happy to drop what you were doing in order to accept that grace and be found worthy of the feast.

We understand that our being a part of the Kingdom of God has very little to do with our actions, but everything to do with the righteousness of Christ, freely given to us through repentance and communion and baptism and faith and prayer. We know we don’t deserve to be here, we know we don’t deserve the grace that has been given to us, and we know that “deserving it” isn’t the point…. Christ is. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us…

But (there is always a but, isn’t there), But, if you are anything like me, in the middle of the party, you start to worry about that guy who wasn’t wearing the right clothes… and maybe you look down at your own clothes.

At weddings today, the bride’s dress is gorgeous, the bridesmaids look lovely and the groom and his men are dressed to the nines. But who really cares what anyone else is wearing. As I have officiated weddings lately, I’ve seen people in suits, people in polos and khakis, jeans and t-shirts, cotton summer dresses, flip flops and sunglasses. And in my experience, no one has been thrown out of any of these weddings I have been to for what they were or were not wearing.

But there it is. At the end of this beautiful parable that has us feeling all warm and fuzzy because we didn’t deserve the invitation, we have a conversation about proper wedding attire.

As scholar Alyce McKenzie reminds us,

Though his actions are harsh, they are not completely unjustified, when understood in the first century context. It was the custom in Ancient Near Eastern weddings, that the guests would wear a garment that symbolized their respect for the host and the occasion. Often the host would provide a rack of such garments at the entryway for guests who had [not] brought theirs. Not to be wearing a wedding garment, when one could have chosen one on the way in, is a sign of disrespect for both host and occasion.

Ahh…. A missing detail from the parable.

When we, the unworthy, accept the invitation and show up for the wedding, we are supposed to “put on” this special garment as we come in the door. AND – it is something that the Lord our King will provide for us, if we only chose to accept it.

I am reminded that there are many places in the New Testament “putting on clothing” was used as a symbol for new life in Christ.

From Galatians 3:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

From Colossians 3:

Since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self… Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… And over all these virtues put on love.

From Ephesians 4:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self… to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

In his sermon, “On the Wedding Garment,” John Wesley describes this special clothing as our personal holiness. He claims that while the cross of Christ and his righteousness bestowed upon us entitles us for the Kingdom of God… only personal holiness with qualify us to continue there. The first makes us children of God and heirs of the kingdom… but the second makes us worthy of have the inheritance of the saints.

If we think about all of those New Testament scriptures – they have one thing in common – we are called to put on a different life in Christ Jesus. We are called to actually BE different. As Wesley describes it, “holiness is having ‘the mind that was in Christ,’ and the ‘walking as Christ walked.’”

The righteousness of Christ saves us… but as the parable reminds us, we have to show up… we have to honor the King through our actions… we have to participate in the Kingdom… we have to put on the life that he has prepared for us.

I keep my wedding dress hanging in my closet, in part, as a reminder of our wedding. But I have to admit, that it is also a reminder that I no longer fit into the dress. It is a goal, a challenge, staring me in the face and daring me to start exercising again. This dress has become like a mirror in which to evaluate my physical health.
In the same way, we all need to evaluate our spiritual health. We need to take time every now and then to look at what we are wearing and decide if it still fits. We need to remind ourselves of the wedding garment that God has provided… of the holiness that he asks of us… of the new life that has been prepared for every single one gathered here.
Are you putting on Christ?
Are you practicing patience and gentleness?
Are you humble?
Do you forgive others?
So you seek peace with your neighbors and your enemies?
By the grace of God and the strength of Christ do you seek to love everyone you meet?
Are you walking as Christ walked?
And if not… what are you going to do to get back into those wedding clothes? What are you going to let go of so that they fit once again? Which person in this room will be your accountability partner, pushing you and reminding you and walking along side you?
As John Wesley concluded his sermon, he reminded us that “The God of love is willing to save all the souls that he has made… revealed by the Son of his love, who gave his own life that they that believe in him might have everlasting life… But he will not force them to accept of it; he leaves them in the hands of their own counsel… Choose holiness, by [his] grace; which is the way, the only way, to everlasting life…. This is the wedding garment of all that are called to the “marriage of the Lamb.” Clothed in this, they will not be found naked.

May the power of the Holy Spirit fill us all with knowledge and guidance and strength as we seek to not only be children of God, but to be found worthy through his grace.