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The Consequences of Doing Good

17 May

01917a06e9daedcd0f6d00ee6f4231805fe8d61fb7(a sermon for May 17, 2015, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on 1 Peter 3:8-17)

It is the last Sunday of Eastertide, so let me be quite emphatic about this: Christ is risen indeed; and in and through the Risen Christ we are a resurrection people; and that changes everything for us as persons, as a people and most especially as the church.

What this means is that because of the resurrection there is always to be a link between the life we lead and the new life we’ve been given.  In other words, friends, if you and I truly understand that Jesus Christ has given us new life, then what other response can there be but to be living good lives and doing good things! As the great 18th century theologian and founder of Methodism John Wesley said it:

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

The point is not so much to become, in the words of the Wizard of Oz, “good deed doers,” but rather for us to do good simply because Jesus did good; for us to “…love one another”  as he has loved us.  This is who we are as resurrection people, and that’s our shared mission; in fact, one of the primary reasons we’re here today is so that by God’s Spirit and grace we might perhaps nurture the “unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another … tender heart[s]and… humble mind[s]” each one of us needs to go out there and “do good” in the week ahead.  And there is much that we can do, far more than most of us even think is possible; it is true that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.  The question is whether we’re willing and able to face the consequences of our actions; whether we can deal with the consequences of doing good!

One day some years ago I was driving through the Old Port region of Portland, trying to inch my car into a parking space on one of the many small, narrow, and very crowded backstreets they have there.  And as I’m doing this, I look up to see these two young girls in a little red convertible racing up the street toward me I know going at least 60 mph!  In that split second, friends, I was absolutely sure I was about to have a serious accident, and so were they; because the driver of that convertible slammed on her brakes, the tired squealed, and you could see both passengers slam forward in the front seat.  It was close, too close, but luckily we missed each other.

Everyone was OK, but I could tell that the girls in the other car – both of them looking to be teenagers, by the way – were clearly shaken by what just almost happened; and they looked terrified.  So I followed my first instinct (both as a pastor and as a Dad!), and immediately got out of my car to walk over to the convertible to see if they were alright.  Maybe I could calm them down; reassure them that everything was fine; perhaps even gently remind them that the speed limit on that street was 25 mph, and maybe that would be something for them to keep in mind moving forward! This was my plan for doing good, friends, and it was all grounded in Christian love; but the thing is I never got the chance to follow through, because almost immediately the look of fear that I’d seen on their faces turned to rage, and well, let’s just say that as they hit the gas and tires squealed once again, these two young women offered up a gesture expressing great displeasure!

But here’s the preacher’s mindset (!); immediately I’m thinking, well, there’s a parable for you!  Just a small but fairly profound example of what can happen when our doing good comes up against a world that’s resistant to our effort.  Sometimes – not always, thankfully – the response to our random acts of kindness isn’t love returned nor even simple gratitude, but rather fear and anger.  The fact is, there are always going to be people who, no matter how you reach out to them will feel the need to lash out: at you, at the world, at life, or just because.  Perhaps it’s misunderstanding, or pride, resentment, or simply because for whatever reason they don’t know how to deal with kindness at all! But it happens, and if you’ve ever had a well-meaning effort get rejected like that, you know it can hurt; but that’s one very real consequence of doing good, that sometimes this is the response you’re going to get.

This is particularly true of the Christian life; if there’s one thing we know biblically, historically and perhaps even personally, it’s that if there is a viable connection between the life you lead and the life you’ve been given in Jesus Christ, you can expect some measure of rejection and suffering!  I know that doesn’t exactly sound encouraging (!), but here’s the thing; we who are “resurrection people” are called to live right and to do good, but not merely in the times and places where it is easy and acceptable to do so, but also and especially in the face of the world’s evil and abuse; that, in fact, is where “doing good” really counts.  That’s the truth we find in our text for this morning, which serves as  both a reality check for us “do gooders,”and also word of hope: “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do good?” we’re asked. “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.”

To put this into context, we need to understand that this particular passage from 1st Peter was actually meant as a word of encouragement to early Christians who lived under the constant threat of persecution; it was an admonition to always continue setting the example of a Godly life even as the world and its culture kept on lashing out at them for who they were, very often at the cost of their very lives.   Understand, friends, it was no small thing for those of the early church to heed this call to “not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse,” but instead to “repay with a blessing [for] it is for this that you were called.”

Granted, most of us don’t have to face that kind of persecution in this day and age, but it seems to me the challenges are much the same.  I don’t think it’s any secret that these are difficult times for us to be the church; not only, as a new Pew Research study has just revealed, are the numbers of those claiming to be “Christian” decreasing, but the numbers of those who would choose “none” as their religion of choice are increasing!  Moreover, these days there seems to be this prevailing wind of culture that would seek to render what we believe as something irrelevant and antiquated at best, and harmful and oppressive at worst; so given all that, the question is how do we live lives that are loving, caring and distinctively and unashamedly Christian?   How does one abide; how does one “keep the faith” as true disciples and “resurrection people” when more and more there are those who would actively reject and discredit what we stand for?

Well, the answer to that is the same as it’s always been:  the bottom line, says Peter, is that suffering on account of one’s faith is real; that persecution will happen; and that your Christ-centered goodness will be shot down sooner or later; but that doesn’t mean you should stop.  For, says Peter, “it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, then to suffer for doing evil.”  Indeed, rather than holding back, these are the situations in which we are to be consistent in our outreach; doing what we do, being who we are, and living with our conscience clear, so that “when [we] are maligned, those who abuse [us] for [our] good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”  It is not be fearful, nor intimidated by those who act out of fear, but to stand strong, and stand ready to make our defense for “the hope that is in [us],”  and in the proper spirit; not with anger, nor in bitter reaction but always “with gentleness and reverence.”

Beloved, there is already way too much negativity, divisiveness and finger-pointing in this world; and quite frankly, all too much of it has found its way into the life of the church.  What we need is to be able to speak our faith in a way that is articulate and intelligible, a mirror reflection not only of the truth of what we believe as resurrection people, but also of how we intend for the community of God’s people to be.  Because in the end, you see, as Christians we are held accountable not so much for what we think, but rather for how we love; so we need to always be prepared to courageously speak God’s truth to the world… but to always do it with love girded in action.

And lest we start to think that this is nothing but “warm and fuzzy” kind of thinking that has no real effect on the world around us, remember that we have the supreme example for this in Jesus Christ, who was in fact, “the righteous for the unrighteous,” in order to bring you and me and us all to God.  In all the struggles we encounter trying to live faithfully in an often hostile world, we must never lose sight that our sheer persistence in doing good for Christ’s sake cannot help but bringing others, however slowly, closer to God himself!

The late Rev. Dr. W. Frank Harrington, a renowned southern Presbyterian pastor, was once asked what he felt was the main thing he had provided for the church and its people over the course of a lifetime ministry, including some 29 years spent as senior pastor of one congregation.  And he answered that while, for better or worse, he always tried to do his best every day, he recognized that his greatest contribution may well been the fact that he endured; that he persisted, and had become, in his words, “a point of continuity in a constant climate of change.”

And you know what; whether you are pastor or parishioner, that’s pretty important!  For you see, as Harrington went on to say, one of the ways we cope with an often harsh and faithless world is that there are many people who, “in the warp and woof of every day, are keeping the faith.  Ordinary men and women [who] are ‘points of light’ in the darkness that we see and experience.”  Sometimes, as they say, and this is especially true in faith, the first and best thing you can do is simply to show up!

I’ll be honest; sometimes I struggle with this whole notion of “doing all the good I can” in every way and place and time that I can; not because I don’t want to, but because no matter how hard I try, there’s always more that needs to be done.  Speaking pastorally as well as personally I can’t do it all, and I’m learning that this is why we’re gathered here as the church; a community of faith, and simply not a group of well-intentioned individuals!  And I’m very grateful for that.

But I do know this: that as I persist – that as we persist – in whatever way we can in doing good in the name of  our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we make a difference. What’s that old verse?  “I am but one person, but I am one.  I cannot do everything, but I can do something.  What I can contribute, I should… and I will.”

Beloved, may each one of us here have the strength to go out there this week and keep on doing good…

…and may our thanks be to God as we do.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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