Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22, Psalm 19:7-14, and Mark 10:17-31.
God is good.
I know this first hand. After all, last Sunday it was Kate, not me, who had to preach on the Proverb text “Ode to a Capable Wife.”
God is good, all the time.
Maybe you’ve heard the Baptists intone this call and response. It comes from the Psalms (23, 107) and the Gospel of John (10:11).
The preacher says: “God is good.” And the people say: “All the time.”
I say: “All the time.” And you say: “God is good.”
Some of us know this deep down in our souls. I was praying with a parishioner in her apartment the other day. She is off to have surgery on Tuesday.
And I prayed: “God is good.” and she said: “All the time.” And I said: “All the time.” And she said: “God is good.” The question is what does it mean?
I was at a curriculum night recently for one of my children. The instructor was outlining his philosophy on teaching, which was his way of letting us know the influences that formed his character and, by extension, his way of sharing the manner by which he intends to form the character of our children.
One of the truisms he advocates is that children should “always seek to choose the good.” And it made me wonder: “What is good?”
This is a big question that underlines many questions both philosophical and practical. The way we live into this question as Christians or should I say the way we live the answer to this question as Christians is through the formation of our character.
Our sermons throughout the fall are circling around this idea of character formation. As Christians we believe that character is formed, one way or the other, whether accidentally or intentionally. The question is: are we managing the process or not?
Jesus has something to say to about “what is good.” We are reminded of it in today’s Gospel. He was walking with his disciples and a rich man approaches him and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus responds: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)
What I am going to talk about this morning is the corollary to what I preached about a few Sundays ago when I spoke of Satan.
You may recall Satan as the bad guy who tempts humanity away from God; Satan as the singular enemy that enables Jesus to count everyone else as friend. With Satan alone as the bad guy, we can all be united as friends of Jesus; after all, everyone is included in the kingdom of God.
So the corollary to Satan as the bad guy is God as the good guy. Satan alone is bad. God alone is good. These are two pretty consistent messages in the Gospel.
And so you might ask, where does that leave us? To which the Gospel answers through the words and deeds of Jesus, not good or bad, but free! We are inherently free; free to make good decisions and free to make bad decisions, and, for the most part, we become what we do. But, always remember we are not bound by what we have done. We are free and this is what makes us so beloved to God.
We hear that in the words of Jesus as he turns to speak to the rich man. The scripture says, “looking at him, Jesus loved him.” It is as if he is looking at you or looking at me.
The foundational idea I’m trying to get across is this: when we fall into the trap of trying to decide who is good and who is bad, we are seen as judgmental and we become judgmental.
And when we sift this judgment through the veil of Christianity we set up barriers around the kingdom of God, which instantly expels us, ironically, from the kingdom of God. We are not good or bad, nor is our neighbor. Only God is good, all the time. And knowing this makes life a whole bunch easier. We can let go of judgment and focus on the good, which directs us back to Christian character formation and its most important practice: worship.
Worship is the action that says, by the very action of doing it, that God is good. And more than that, worship is where we say it together;
• with our neighbor,
• next to our neighbor,
• without judgment,
• without exclusion.
We admit: God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.
This is a choice.
We are free.
Freedom is our essence at any given moment in time. And yet, at times, it seems like the wind of inevitability is at our back, like we are bogged down by our history, making the moment feel like a foregone conclusion, not a choice.
That was the case with the rich young man. He was shocked and grieved, compelled by his circumstances to pass over his heart’s desire. This doesn’t make him good or bad, only shell shocked and sad.
Esther, from the Old Testament reading today, makes a different choice. She chooses to lift the veil of her circumstances, and seek the good that is God.
Here is her story.
The book begins with the whims of King Ahasuerus during a banquet for the leading officials and dignitaries of his kingdom. After much partying, the king orders his queen, Vashti, to be brought before everyone, so he could show her off. Vashti refused. In a fit of drunken rage Ahasuerus divorced her. After sobering up he realized that he had no queen which I guess is an embarrassment for kings. So the search began for a new one.
All the beautiful women in the kingdom were brought to the palace. Esther was one of them. She was a Jewish orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai.
For one year Esther prepared for the premarital examination with the king. She was one of hundreds who would be run through the process. And in the end, she was chosen and pronounced queen Esther.
Now this isn’t the end of the story.
Next an assassination plot against the king was uncovered by Esther’s cousin, Mordecai. This brought him into the king’s court and the king’s good graces, and angered his nemesis Haman, who then sought to get rid of Mordecai and Esther.
Haman wove a plot accusing the Hebrew people of treason against the king and tricked Ahasuerus into making a decree to kill all of the Jews. Mordecai implored Esther to talk to the king, but she was afraid. The king was crazy and fickle and unpredictable after all. Fear was the veil Esther wore, as was her privileged position as queen, but she still had a choice.
And unlike the rich man, she chose to lift the veil, she took the risk that God is good.
And God was. The king heard Esther and believed her and saved her people, and hung Haman from the gallows he had built for Mordecai.
Esther chose the good.
But Esther was neither good nor bad;
being the queen was neither good nor bad;
being wealthy is neither good nor bad;
being poor is neither good nor bad;
being dumb is neither good nor bad;
being smart is neither good nor bad.
They are only veils that can possibly keep us from seeing that God alone is good.
We all wear veils. They make the black and white of the kingdom of God look gray. Black and white are provocative words that we can easily trip over. Black and white imply judgment. Black and white suggest that nuance has been over looked and simplicity prioritized over knowledge. Which is why the Gospel teaching today is so hard. It is hard to hear from the mouth of Jesus – that only God is good.
Our impulse, if you’re like me, is to cry out: NO, NO, I’m good, I’m good! Even when I make bad decisions or choose to be stinky, I’m still good, deep down inside. I know it. I feel it!
And then I extrapolate this goodness out to people I meet along the way. If I’m good, they must be too, that is until their good bumps into mine and then they’re bad.
The rich man makes this extrapolation when he sees Jesus and calls out “Good Teacher.” To which Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”
The sensation of goodness we feel deep down inside is real, but misidentified or misdiagnosed. It is not goodness we feel, it is belovedness. Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him. Jesus looks at you and me and loves us, even when we do stinky things.
We are loved by God because we are chosen, moment by moment in every moment for all the time.
And in all these moments we have a choice. Our ascent to this choice is made known Sunday after Sunday after Sunday as we attend to the core practice of Christian character formation – praising God, worshipping God, as we gather together without judgment to say:
God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.