I was blessed with good parents. Out of necessity, they went to work right out of high school, college not being an option. They worked hard for their modest salaries, and they saved when most people of my generation would have spent--with one memorable exception. They often gave to my late brother and me more than they could reasonably afford. Their rationale: "We want you boys to have what we didn't have." So on Christmas day, for example, Dale and I would open an embarrassment of riches while my folks would open a box or two. They sacrificed so that they could give us "the good life."
Ironically, though, I did learn a great deal about the good life from my parents, but not in the way that they intended. It's tempting for those who have not grown up with much to confuse the good life with having goods and plenty of them and showering gifts on others.
My wife, Jennell, and I have often fallen into that deceptive trap, even though experience alone should have taught us better. I can still remember one Christmas morning when our children, Erin and Josh, were very young. We had spent much of our savings, which wasn't much, to buy them the hottest toys on the market for a four-year old girl and a two-year old boy. We couldn't wait for them to rush into the room and dance with delight at getting the desire of their hearts. Well, you can guess what happened. After an initial blush of interest in these "hot" toys, they spent most of the morning playing hide and seek inside the large cardboard boxes in which these "treasures" were found.
As for myself, I should have learned the good life lesson long before that. As a youth, I was in love with basketball and to be in love with basketball meant that you had to have a pair of "Chucks" --Converse basketball shoes. This was years before there were more makes of sports shoes than Amelda Marcos had dress shoes. If you were to jump high, run fast, and dominate on the court, you had to have a pair of Chucks.
Not seeing these shoes as the necessity that I saw, my otherwise generous folks held the line on this purchase and told me to save for them myself. So save I did. And when I purchased my first pair of Chucks, I nearly glided out of that shoe store. It only took one basketball game, though, to realize that I had been duped. I still didn't run fast and couldn't jump higher than the curb. Despite my Chucks, I was lucky if I got into the game, and when I was in, I was lucky if I was ever passed the ball.
As an adult, I can't tell you how many times I've sought the good life by buying a new set of golf balls that "will fly like lasers to the hole" or a new computer that "will dance rings around that old jalopy" or a new car that will always look new, never accumulate a collection of junk in the backseat and never break down. With each purchase, I have convinced myself that I was that much closer to the good life, as if the good life was something that a clever pro could market and a motivated consumer could buy.
When Jesus announced to the crowd that he would build his church upon Peter and give to Peter the keys to God's realm, Peter must have felt that he had fallen face forward into the good life. Can't you see Peter's chest swelling with pride too wonderful to disguise? He had left his livelihood to take on a new life with Jesus. He had left the simple comforts of home to take on a tough life on the road. He had left a familiar well worn routine to take on the uncertainties of a whole new life. And, now, finally, the pay off comes as Jesus rewards him with his own set of keys. Ah, at last, the good life.
Then Jesus ruins the moment. He tells Peter and the other boys, "Look, the road to Jerusalem is filled with nails. They'll pierce me and put an end to me, but after three days God will reclaim my life." Peter takes Jesus aside and says, "Come to your senses, man. Don't you remember I just pronounced you the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God? These things don't happen to God; and God forbid, they must never happen to you." What goes unsaid is, "Because, of course, that would mean that they would also happen to someone who followed you. Someone like me."
Seemingly, Peter's brief taste of the good life came to an embarrassing halt when Jesus barked back at Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a scandal, a stumbling block, to me for you have set your mind not on divine things, but on human things." The rest of the air escapes from the balloon of the good life as Jesus goes on to say, "You want these keys? Then deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me. Those interested in saving their lives will lose them and those willing to lose their lives for my sake will find them."
Peter and the disciples are ready for a taste of what everyone else knows to be the good life. But Jesus gives them an ad hoc lecture in God's economic plan. As theology professor Tom Long says so well, "A life that is spent soothing the pain of the sick, caring for children in need, hammering nails in houses for those without shelter, sharing bread with the hungry, visiting those in prison, and denying oneself may seem like a squandered life in the economy of a self-centered age, but in the storehouse of heaven, it is a lavish treasure."
Some said then and some say now that God's economic plan just won't work. They say that people want to get rid of pain, not take it on. People want to accumulate assets, not give them away. People want to know their own minds, not bother trying to know the mind of Christ. With due respect to Jesus, they argue that the good life is a measure of what we have, how easily we can get what we want, and how seldom we are inconvenienced. They might never say this aloud, but they are confident that God's economic plan is destined for the same resting place as the Titanic. Listen to any of today's well-groomed and smooth talking prosperity preachers and you'll hear them denying God's economic plan and applauding Peter's idea of the good life when Peter corrects Jesus saying, "You just can't speak like this!" Maybe Peter and the prosperity preachers are the real wise ones. And Jesus is the starry-eyed economic optimist.
But I'd hold up a bit on jumping to that conclusion. I suggest that we don't give up on God's economic plan too soon. Notice that Peter never had any hope of understanding the good life until Jesus told him to get behind him. That's the only position from which you and I will ever learn about the good life that Jesus intends for us and models for us by standing behind Jesus, listening to him, watching his every move, and trusting in God's economic plan despite the most lively critics within and outside the church.
That brings me back to my parents. What they did not realize is that they taught me about the good life not by giving us a stockpile of presents, but by their generosity and willing self-sacrifice. Also by making me earn what I wanted, like those Chucks, when I wanted them simply given to me. If Christianity is about grace, why didn't Jesus just give Peter the answer and the life he was looking for? Why require this taking up a cross and following business? Why was that necessary for Jesus and why is that necessary for you and me?
Nearly at the point of death, my father would drag his oxygen tank with him to watch his grandson play baseball. This was the same father who would spend hours at church repairing what the church couldn't afford to have repaired professionally or as a deacon visiting with people whom others most often neglected. These were the parents who gave up good jobs and good lives to relocate back to Virginia, so my mom could care for her elderly mother for over 20 years.
I learned about the good life first at home, but my education has been enriched in each church I have served. I saw the good life at Bob's house when I would pay my monthly visit to a man who took early retirement to care for the woman he loved. She was deep in the haze of Alzheimer's, which required that he watch her 24 hours a day. He did this for 10 years, until her death, even though she could not speak his name. In his journeys, Jesus once said, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for a friend." Bob would occasionally complain to me, as is only natural, but whenever I would suggest that he consider a group home for his wife, he'd quickly change subjects.
I learned an unforgettable lesson in the good life from old railroad man with severe emphysema whom I used to visit in my first church. He coughed his way through our visits, lived in conditions that were atrocious and had neither the physical energy nor financial resources to improve on these conditions. Each visit, he'd give me a bundled handful of offering envelopes and ask that I deliver them to the church treasurer. He'd also apologize for not being able to give more. One visit, recognizing how badly he needed the money, I said, "Jim, the church is doing fine right now. Why don't you keep these gifts to get some things you need around here?" The words were barely out of my mouth, when he spoke through his coughing, "Gary, never deny a person the joy of giving to his Lord."
In 1963 Howard Zinn was fired from Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., for his civil rights activities. Forty-two years later, in May 2005, Dr. Zinn addressed the graduates of Spelman. In his address he challenged them to think differently than does our society about "the good life."
Dr. Zinn told these graduates, "I know you have practical things to do, to get jobs and get married and have children. You may become prosperous and be considered a success in the way our society defines success, by wealth and standing and prestige. But that is not enough for a good life.
"Remember Tolstoy's story, 'The Death of Ivan Illych,'" he continued. "A man on his deathbed reflects on his life, how he has done everything right, obeyed the rules, become a judge, married, had children, and is looked upon as a success. Yet, in his last hours, he wonders why he feels a failure. After becoming a famous novelist, Tolstoy himself had decided that this was not enough, that he must speak out against the treatment of the Russian peasants, that he must write against war and militarism."
Whenever people are ordained to service in the church, I suggest that we add this question to the ordination questions: "Will you seek the good life in all you do and work for the good life for all God's people?" And if they say yes, where do they go to seek the good life?
Well, returning to our text from Matthew, Jesus seems to say that the good life is found by following the path of Jesus and signing wholeheartedly onto God's economic plan-by giving extravagantly to those in need when reason tells us to hold back for rainy days, by living for others, especially the least, the lost, and the forgotten, when society tells us to live for ourselves and to pile pleasure upon pleasure, by embracing our own and the world's suffering, when common sense says to dodge pain at all costs, by living each day with a sense of thanksgiving for the richness of our blessed lives, when the word on the street is that you and I need more and more and more.
Looking for the good life? Inasmuch as you and I are ready to get behind Jesus and follow where he leads, well, it might just be closer than you think. Amen.
Let us pray. Good and loving God, for the gift of the good life we give you thanks and ask that we live in such a way that others may know your goodness as well. In Christ's name, Amen.