LET’S BEGIN WITH GOOD WORKS AND GUILTY PLEASURES
[On Monday, July 31, 2006, I reread the manuscript and attempted to edit it to reflect as closely as possible the remarks I gave to Community Christian Church in Tempe, AZ on the immediately previous Sunday.]
Good morning. Let me begin by bringing you greetings from Chalice Christian Church. Things are going very well at Chalice. Our tradition of mission work, inherited from our mother church to be sure, is alive and well. We also continue to passionately question all things theological. We have started a couple of new ventures. We are working to develop a deeper, more intimate fellowship within the church, and a group of us are meeting to refocus our evangelism efforts; to try harder to bring the message of Jesus Christ to more people in our surrounding community. In other words, your mission is Gilbert is alive and well, and we are doing our best to make you proud.
I also need to personally thank you for starting Chalice, or as it was known back then, the Gilbert Congregation. By the time we came to Mesa, in 2000, my family and I had been searching for a church for a while in the various cities we’d lived in. I have to admit to you, we were beginning to that that looking for a community of thinking Christians that were dedicated to mission was too specific a desire. At the same time, it was clear that we could not go to a mega church, nor did we have any desire to join a country club church. So, if a very real way, we were lost at sea, and I owe my personal salvation to you all. So, thank you for starting Chalice.
Okay, let’s turn to the topic at hand. I want to talk about how we make the everyday decisions, both large and small, that when taken together make up our lives. I want to talk about how we as Christians make those decisions. So, let’s begin with Good Works and Guilty pleasures.
Good Works and Guilty Pleasures
It is a little tricky to define what I mean by good works, so I’m going to start with a comparison to our physical bodies. I want you to think about how it feels to exercise. While you exercise, your heart pounds and your blood pumps. You consciously pull in air, and force it out, then you are ready, almost desperate for the next the breath. When you are exercising you are fully alive. And despite have expended this tremendous amount of energy, for the rest of the day you have more energy than you would but for the exercising. Your body seems to be telling you, “Hey, this exercise stuff is great, let’s do more of that.”
Good works are like exercising, but for the mind and the soul. They are things like reading a challenging book that makes you grow, or having a deep, intimate conversation with a friend. When I say good works, I’m thinking of looking at a piece of fine art or lending a helping hand to someone in need. And think our souls and our minds, can perform a similar function to what our bodies provided. I think our souls can tell us, “Hey, I like this, let’s do more of this.”
The idea that our souls could do this came to me after a trip to the Mexican-American border with David Coatsworth. We left the Phoenix area very early. We spent hours on the road. Once we had reached Ajo, there were a set of pre-flight checks to be done on the truck. We spent a couple of hours walking in the Arizona desert. At the first stop, we loaded 10 five-gallon bottles on to wheel barrows and walked them up and down a couple of hills over about a quarter mile to several 55-gallon drums at the base of a blue flag. I felt so good after that experience. It was energizing, at not just because that effort qualifies as exercise for me—which it does—but because it fed my soul. To borrow a line from the 1980’s movie Chariots of Fire: when I filled those drums with freshwater I could feel God’s pleasure.
I share this story, not to make myself look good or because this was such an extraordinary event, but because I know it is an ordinary event for all of you. I know many of you have traveled to southern Arizona to keep our borders humane. I’m sure you have brought Christmas presents or school supplies to children that can’t afford them. Paz de Cristo is mission that both of our congregation can be proud to participate in. I know that you too have felt the Spirit flowing through you, filling you up and emanating from your hands and you do good work.
Now, I don’t think the opposite of this is sinning, at least not “Ten Commandments” sinning. I don’t think many of us need to stop and think, “Hmmm, shall I murder someone today.” Or even, shall I lie or steal today. And if we do do any of those things, I think we understand they’re wrong.
I’m talking about doing things that you feel guilty about afterwards, not because you hurt someone, but because it was a waste of time or not the best thing you could do. To parallel the initial analogy I think about eating certain foods that are high in fat or sugar. What are they called? That’s right, things that taste good. It is pleasurable to eat these things, while we’re eating them. It can even trigger some of the same feelings that you get working out. Sugars can give you a little energy boost. But how do you feel afterward. You are sluggish, not energized.
Guilty pleasures then, are for the mind and soul what sugar is for the body. For me playing on the computer and watching mind numbing TV are two that come up right away for my mind. For the soul, I think about “harmless” gossip. You know what I mean, the “nothing I wouldn’t say if she was right here,” sort of gossip. But then afterwards how do you feel? A little guilty, right? Not because it is hurtful, as much as because it is just vacuous empty chatter that doesn’t mean anything. To be sure, these things can be real problems. Gossip can be very hurtful, and spending time on the computer can become a serious addiction that causes people to neglect their families. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about wasting time.
I read an essay once that was advocating reading the Great Books of Western Civilization. The author reminded the reader that these books often come up when we play the party game about being stranded on a desert island with only five or ten books. But then he pointed out, we don’t have that must time in life to read. And while we can surely read more than five or ten books, we probably don’t have time to read 100’s. At least not really read and digest the contents of them. And that is the deal with these “guilty pleasures” we only have so much time.
But, let’s get back to the original question. Can we use these observations to help us make life choices. Can we say to ourselves, “Is it good works or guilty pleasures today.” Should I read a book that matters, or watch a sitcom? Should I talk about feelings, hopes and dreams or comment on what my colleague is wearing on casual Friday? Should I run or eat pie?
I think it helps to think of things this way. I can tell you that while working on this sermon I have felt my mind come alive as I’ve chosen to read more and gossip less. But it seems to be incomplete. For one thing, it can’t help with complex problems. Often times I don’t know how I will feel after making a particular choice, particularly if it is a new choice. But, more importantly, we already know all this. We know that we should exercise and read good books and help people, but often we choose not to, even knowing we’d feel better if we did. So, I’m going to propose we look at another option.
The next option comes from our evangelical brothers and sisters. Have you all seen the WWJD bands and necklaces at the bible bookstores? It stands for “What Would Jesus Do.” I have a variation on my license plate. I drive a Prius and have an environmental plate that says WWJDRV. That stands for What Would Jesus Drive. I know. It is sort of double barrel arrogance because it means not only do I know what Jesus would drive, but he would drive the same car I’m driving. I will say this, I think I drive more politely these days. I mean, as bad as the license plate itself would be, how much worse would it be to cut someone off and make them look at a license plate declaring the sanctity of my automotive choices?
In all seriousness, I like this because it seems to ask the right question. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “[M]y concern is not whether God is on our side. My great concern is to be on God’s side.” The idea is not to act and then justify your actions by claiming God would approve, but instead to think about what God would want you to do.
It is also versatile. We could use it when consider the types of questions I just talked about. Would Jesus waste his time on this, or would Jesus have savored every minute on the planet? But it also calls us to reclaim our prophetic role in society. By prophetic, I don’t mean fortune tellers, but I mean social commentators. In his book, God’s Politics, Jim Wallis implores us to reclaim this role in the community. Fulfilling our prophetic mission requires that we throw off our compliancy; it demands that we do more than complain, as well. We are to look at our society and try to make it the type of community Jesus would want. It urges us to ask: What would Jesus do in the face of poverty? What would Jesus do if his country started wars of aggression? What would Jesus do if our consumerism was tearing apart the environment? What would Jesus do in the face of the increasing sexualization of children and objectification of women in everything from advertising to pornography? What would Jesus do in a world where the sick went untreated? What would Jesus do in a world where a young woman who is pregnant looks at her options and realizes that single-motherhood is so hard, such a predictor of poverty and unrealized dreams that she chooses instead to end the pregnancy?
Implicit in asking this question is the acknowledgment that you, like Jesus, have the power to change the world. It is no excuse to say you are powerless. You are not powerless. You are a child of God!
But can this intellectual exercise move us to action. William James, a psychologist from the turn of the twentieth century, said that “impulse cannot be counteracted by reason, but by another impulse.” Is this question sufficient to create in us an impulse to act? Let’s look at the story from John for the answer.
A crowd of people followed Jesus and the disciples to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus and his closest friends were sitting together on a mountain side and saw the people coming, when Jesus asks them, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” First off, in this version of the story anyway, Jesus didn’t say how can we feed these people, but where shall we buy bread for these people. So he set them up. Jesus could have evidently been a decent law professor.
Okay, so do you think the disciples asked themselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” Surely! I’ve worked for bosses far less inspiring that Jesus and nonetheless frequently asked “What would Captain Haskin do?” or “What would Fuller do?” and so on. If nothing else to avoid getting in trouble. I imagine Philip was no different. Still, he said, “What are you kidding? No way? We can’t do this.” It isn’t that Philip didn’t want to; it was that he could not do it. You see, Philip didn’t realize it was miracle time. Philip thought it was ordinary time. And I’ve got to tell you, I suspect we are guilty of the same. Even if we tried as hard as we could, even if we had necklaces, bands, rings, and license plates that reminded us to ask WWJD, I’m afraid we would mistake miracle time for ordinary time.
Be the Christ
Let’s look at the rest of the story. So, Andrew has an idea, maybe the crowd can feed themselves. Maybe they’ll be generous. No dice. All they get is a boy with five loaves and two fishes. Not enough. I sort of imagine this scene with arrows of force, I was a physics major so sometimes I think of things this way, I see these arrows of force directed toward Jesus and the disciples. Maybe the disciples are getting a little anxious. But Jesus is completely calm. He tells them to have everyone just sit down, and they do. Then Jesus says a prayer. He focuses the crowd on God. Then he performs the miracle. He says, alright, now use this and feed them.
Imagine the baskets. As they are passed from one person to another they start getting heavier not lighter. These people that had such a tight grip on their food are moved. Jesus took the arrows point at him and turned them around. The miracle is now emanating outward from Jesus and the disciples. As the baskets move out, another group of people are transformed. Their greed become generosity. And this power, this new creation cannot be contained, but spills over. There is food for others, even those who were not present; Jesus has to send the disciple to gather the pieces that are left over, so that nothing would be wasted. What a marvelous mission indeed.
This is what I think: Christ fed the five thousand; but the five thousand were the Christ.
I know, it sounds absurd. But this is how I came to it. It is impossible for us to be Christ like. Phillip couldn’t do it, and he was right there in front of Jesus. Because it is impossible to be like Christ, our only choice is to be the Christ. To literally surrender ourselves and BE the resurrected Christ in our world.
Eugen Herrigel wrote a book called, Zen in the Art of Archery. In that book the author talks about trying to learn Zen archery. He keeps being scolded by his master for being to self – centered. The master explains, there is a target, an arrow and a shooter. The shot happens when it must happen. The shooter is no more the cause of the shot than the arrow. Now, I like this because I think it teaches us about being overly concerned with ourselves and reminds us that we are a part of the whole. But what I really like is what he says about someone transformed by Zen. He said, “Yet a man who is transformed by Zen . . . leads far too convincing a life to be overlooked. . . . He lives, but what he lives is no longer himself.” I say, “One who is transformed by Christ, leads far too convincing a life to be overlooked. She lives, but what she lives is no longer her own.” She is the resurrected Christ.
Let me leave you with a prayer for the Ephesians [read from a notecard]:
For this reason I kneel before God, from whom the whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name and pray that out of his glorious riches God may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to the power that is at work within us, be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.