Living the Good Life

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, June 4, 2000

Readings


Micah 6:6-8 What does the Lord require of you?

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow down before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?


Mark 10:17-22 What must I do to inherit eternal life?

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'"

"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me."

At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.


Heaven and Hell #528 Living for heaven is not as hard as we think

Leading a heaven-bound life is not as hard as people think.

Some people think it is hard to lead a heaven-bound life (which is called a spiritual life) because they have heard that we must renounce the world, give up the desires of the body and the flesh, and live like spiritual beings. The only way they can grasp this is that it means we must reject what is worldly (especially wealth and status), walk around in constant pious meditation on God, salvation, and eternal life, and pass our lives praying and reading the Bible and devotional literature. They think that this is renouncing the world and living from the spirit instead of from the flesh.

But a great deal of experience and discussion with angels has shown me that this is not the case at all. In fact, people who renounce the world and "live from the spirit" in this way build up a sad life for themselves--one that is not receptive of heavenly joy; for we each continue in our own way of life.

On the contrary, if we are to accept heavenly life, we absolutely must live in the world, involved in its business dealings and tasks. Then, through a moral and civil life, we receive a spiritual life. This is the only way a spiritual life can be formed in us, and our spirit be prepared for heaven.

For living an inward life and not an outward life at the same time is like living in a house with no foundation, which gradually either sinks down, or develops cracks and holes, or sags until it collapses.


Sermon

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Today, as we end our regular church year, I am concluding a series of three sermons on the basic teachings of our church. On the first two Sundays in May, we looked at our beliefs about the Lord and the Bible. Today we will talk about what it means to live a spiritual life and be "saved," to use a popular Christian term.

I imagine that some people who pass by our church and read today's sermon topic, "Living the Good Life," on the wayside pulpit, may get a chuckle as the imagine a sermon touting the joys of a Caribbean cruise, or the pleasures of a new Jacuzzi, or even the wonders of a particular brand of beer. In fact, I was chuckling a bit as I put the topic up!

Yet this raises a real question--in fact, to the very question we are addressing this morning: What is "the good life"? From a materialistic perspective, having the money to take a cruise or buy a new Jacuzzi or even share a beer with some buddies would be real contenders in a contest to determine what it means to live the good life.

The winner of such a contest would be as individual as the people doing the judging. Some might think that having a big house, a nice car, and a high-powered job would do the trick. Others may think more of physical pleasures--getting a good "catch" in a mate, and maybe doing a little fooling around on the side here and there when some other good-looking person catches their eye. Others may think in terms of recreation: having plenty of time to go boating or skiing or hunting. Still others may figure they'll have it made when they have reached a position of power, influence, and respect in their chosen occupation.

In a sense, there is nothing wrong with any of these--except the adultery part, of course, and any other immoral, unethical, and unlawful ways of pursuing our goals and pleasures. Swedenborg insists that outwardly, the life of a spiritual person is often virtually indistinguishable from the life of a selfish and materialistic person. Both of them live, love, work, and play more or less according to the rules and expectations of our society. Yes, a selfish and materialistic person may be more likely to break the rules and get into trouble. But the very threat of getting into trouble is enough to keep most people in line even if they see nothing inherently wrong with the things that society has made rules against--such as lying, stealing, killing, and committing adultery.

The fact is, most of the time, most of the people live outwardly decent lives whether or not they have any devotion to God or to a spiritual life. And very few people--whether they are religious or not--live extraordinary lives of spiritual heroism. Most people live lives which, from the outside, look fairly ordinary. They grow up, get jobs, have families, have fun, worry about money, grow older, and eventually their lives on earth come to an end.

This has led some Biblical literalists to conclude that we have fallen far from the teachings of Christ. They might point to our reading from the Gospel of Mark as an example of Christ's teaching that most of us simply do not and likely would not follow. When the young man approached Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus first tells him, in effect, to follow the Ten Commandments. That was not enough to satisfy the young man, who pressed Jesus further. This was when Jesus told him that he must sell everything he had and give it to the poor, and then come and follow him. And the young man went away sad, because he was very wealthy.

I imagine that most of us would react in about the same way if the Lord were to come to us and tell us we must sell everything we have and give it to the poor. How many of us would actually do what the Lord told us, after all of our lifelong struggles to secure for ourselves and our families the basic necessities of life--food, clothing, housing--and enough of those extra material pleasures to give us some relaxation and enjoyment in life? How many of us would simply give all of that away and begin a life of voluntary poverty?

This passage and some others like it have been quoted to support an ideal of voluntary poverty and monastic self-denial as the highest form of Christian life. Yet I suspect this teaching of Jesus was individualized to the particular people he was talking to rather than being a general principle that everyone must sell all they have, renounce the world, and live a life of religious devotion. We know that some of his followers were wealthy, and remained so even after they became his followers. For example, Joseph of Arimathea, who took the body of Jesus after the crucifixion and laid it in the tomb, is described as "a rich man . . . who was also a disciple of Jesus" (Matthew 27:57). Apparently Jesus had not told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor!

Jesus himself helps us out of this apparent dilemma when he says, in the verses following our reading from Mark, "How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:24--emphasis mine). This, together with the knowledge that not all of Jesus' followers were told to sell all they had, puts a little different perspective on the commandment to the rich young man to sell all he had and give it to the poor.

After the young man assured Jesus that he had kept the Ten Commandments from his youth, it says that Jesus looked at the young man and loved him. Jesus loved this young man because of his commitment and devotion to doing what was right. And yet Jesus realized something the young man himself seems to have felt: there was still something lacking in his spiritual life. Even after following the letter of the law, he did not feel "saved." He still wanted to know how he could inherit eternal life. Something was holding him back. As Jesus looked into this man's eyes and his heart, he saw the blockage. What was holding this young man back was his trust in his wealth, which was stronger than his trust in the Lord. Instead of following the Lord, he went away sad. For the time being at least, the wealth won.

If Jesus were to look into our eyes and our heart right now, what would he see as the blockage that is preventing us from living a fully devoted spiritual life? Would it be too great a focus on material possessions as it was for this young man? Would it be our inability--or unwillingness--to forgive some person or group of people for the damage we believe they have done to us? Would it be an overdeveloped sense of guilt for the ways in which we fall short of our ideals in our daily lives? Would it be some particular destructive habit that we have long since resigned ourselves to? Would it be a sense of our own inadequacy to live a truly spiritual life?

Jesus is looking into our eyes and our heart right now, and Jesus does know what is holding us back from living a full and joyous spiritual life. And though we do not have the same penetrating, divine insight into our own inner character that the Lord does, each one of us has heard enough of the Lord's message, and knows enough about ourselves, to have some idea of where we need to go from here. Each one of us knows at least some of the rough areas in our attitudes, our feelings, our actions to know what part of ourselves we must "sell off" in order to follow Jesus more fully.

This is exactly what our church teaches that we must do in order to be "saved" and find our way to heaven. It is not necessary to give up all our material possessions and every earthly pleasure. It is not necessary for us to "renounce the world" and go to a convent or a monastery to spend our life in prayer and religious contemplation. Rather, it is necessary that in every situation we face, we do our best to avoid and put out of our mind the things that we are commanded not to do in the Bible, and instead live in the way the Lord teaches us to live. As Swedenborg expresses it later in the same chapter in Heaven and Hell:

We can now see that it is not as hard to lead a heaven-bound life as people think, because it is simply a matter, when something comes our way that we know is dishonest and unfair--something our mind pushes us toward--of thinking that we should not do it because it is against the divine teachings. If we get used to doing this, so that it becomes almost habitual, then little by little we are united with heaven. As this happens, the higher levels of our mind are opened; and as they are opened, we see things that are dishonest and unfair; and as we see them, they can be broken apart. For no evil can be broken apart until we see it. (Heaven and Hell #533)

Didn't I say earlier that selfish and materialistic people also usually avoid doing things that are immoral and unlawful? Yes, but there is a difference that is absolutely crucial. Selfish and materialistic people avoid doing what is wrong so that they wont get into trouble. If they thought there would be no bad consequences, they would go ahead and break the law.

People who are on a spiritual path avoid doing what is wrong, not just because they'll get into trouble (though that does sometimes help!) but because the Lord says it is wrong. In other words, spiritual people avoid what is wrong simply because it is wrong, and do what is right simply because it is right, according to the teachings of the Lord in the Bible. Our intention to follow the Lord and to love our fellow human beings is what makes a life that outwardly seems common and ordinary into a life that is spiritual--and that leads us to heavenly joy. As the prophet Micah said so beautifully, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Amen.







Music: Dusk and Dawn on Skye
1999 Bruce DeBoer