June 7, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
BE GOOD AND HAVE FUN
Today’s title is part of our family lore. What I mean is that it is something that is remembered fondly and repeated often whenever our family gets together. I’m guessing you have things like this, too. Sayings or stories. You put up with the fact that you’ve heard it before. So many times! Some things you get tired of but family is precious, so whatever binds a family together is worth listening to again and again.
Like this story my Aunt Caryl tells about her mother, my grandmother (or as I called her, Grandma) Watts. Caryl must have been in her late teens. Old enough to have some freedom but young enough that she didn’t have much. She was going out for the evening. I’m sure it was all clearly understood where she would be and when would be home. Her mother’s parting words were, “Be good and have fun.” And Caryl’s response: “Mother, make up your mind!”
Be good. Have fun. Do we have to choose?
Graduation parties used to strike fear in the heart of parents. They still do. But at least today, there are safe alternatives to the adolescent tendency to get carried away and make poor choices. When my brother was here for Collin’s graduation, we were talking about the way things used to be. He said he attended an alcohol and drug-free party the night of his graduation back in the 70’s. I was surprised to hear that. I didn’t remember that we were that progressive back then. He said, “No, I’m pretty sure. The alcohol was free and the drugs were free.”
A lot of people think having fun and being good are inversely related. That is, as fun goes up, goodness goes down. As goodness goes up, fun goes down. Until you carry it out to the logical conclusion: Christians who take Jesus real seriously must have no fun at all.
You smile because you know better. I hope you know better. But that is what keeps a lot of people away from Christ. They figure it’s a choice between having a good time and being a good person. Let’s see: Will it be going to church or will it be enjoying my life? Hmm. Tough choice. A lot of people see it as one or the other. And a lot of people are intrigued by the possibility of living it up big time and then, when they are too old to enjoy all that debauchery any more, asking God for forgiveness and using the “thief on the cross” clause in the Bible to gain admission into heaven.
The truth is it’s not “either or”. Be good or have fun. It is “both and”. Be good and have fun.
There is a simple rule in life that too many of us take way too long to learn. Everything in life has a price tag. You can pay that price now or you can pay it later. When we make poor choices we get what we want first and we pay the price later. When we make wise choices we pay the price first and we get what we want later. Or as John Maxwell puts it, “You can pay now and play later or you can play now and pay later. But either way, you will have to pay.”
What is fun is what is still fun tomorrow. A momentary thrill in exchange for a lifetime of regret is not a good trade.
And it’s also true that what is fun tomorrow may not be at all fun today. Some of my most pleasant memories now are moments in my life that were real hard at the time. I don’t remember so well things that were easy, but things that really challenged me and stretched me I will never forget. Those are the stories I like to tell, and as I get older I’ll probably forget I’ve already told them. You will let me know when I start repeating myself in my preaching, won’t you? It’s great to have a testimony, but it can be a pain to get one.
Be good and have fun. The word is “and”, not “or”. Jesus once met someone who was confused about this. We call him the rich young ruler.
We read about him in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He isn’t called a “rich young ruler” in any of them. Matthew says he is young. Luke says he is a ruler. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all three say he is rich. So you put it all together and you get a rich young ruler.
Now think about that for a moment. Who doesn’t want to be rich? Who doesn’t want to be young? And who doesn’t want to be a ruler? This guy has money, he has youth, and he has status. He has it all. He has it made in the shade. He must be off the charts on the fun scale. Except he’s not. That’s why he approaches Jesus. His life, great as it appears to be looking at it from the outside, is not really that great at all. Not to the one who is living it. This guy who is seen by everyone else as the life of every party goes home at night and cries himself to sleep. All the fun things in his life are so shallow. So superficial. Inside he is dying.
So as Jesus is passing by, he runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks him a question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, there must be more to life than this. So what do I need to do to find it? To find the abundant, eternal life that is eluding me even though I am rich and young and important?
Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” That’s a bit of a head scratcher. Jesus isn’t good? That’s kind of like saying the Pope isn’t Catholic. Or water isn’t wet. Or sugar isn’t sweet. Jesus is the epitome of goodness. “No one is good but God alone”? But Jesus is God. So what’s he talking about?
Here’s what I think. Humility is part of goodness. Good people don’t see themselves as good people. Even Jesus. I think even Jesus, Son of God though he was, saw himself as a work in progress. He never looked at himself and was impressed. He always and only looked at God and bowed in adoration and praise. “No one is good but God alone.”
So this rich young ruler is bowing before Jesus. And Jesus says in effect, “Get up. Don’t worship me. I’m trying to be good like everyone else. Worship God. Be good in the way that God has revealed to us that we are supposed to be good. Keep the Ten Commandments.”
And Jesus starts listing them. One by one. Not in the order we know them. We’ll come back to that. He only gets through six of them before he is interrupted. “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” In other words, you aren’t telling me anything I don’t already know. This is review for me. I know the Ten Commandments. I obey the Ten Commandments. I was obeying them when I was even younger than I am now. I am a good person. And still my life isn’t any fun. So there must be something else I am missing. I thought you might be able to tell me what that is, but obviously you can’t. All you can do is recite the same Ten Commandments I learned back in SabbathSchool.
Jesus replied by saying nothing at all. Before he spoke, there was a moment of silence. We’re told that during this moment Jesus looked at him and loved him. No words. Not yet. Just compassion. Jesus could feel the inner anguish this man who had it all was feeling. And Jesus cared.
So before he said a word, Jesus just looked at him and loved him. Maybe in that pregnant moment of silence, the words Jesus needed to speak next came to him. The diagnosis of what was wrong in the heart of this good man whose life wasn’t much fun: “You lack one thing; go sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.”
A lot of Christians down through the ages have read this as a prescription for all of us. If we’re serious about following Jesus we need to hold a huge garage sale. Sell everything, garage included. Take all that money and give it to the poor. And since we aren’t ready to do this, we aren’t real Christians.
Now it’s true that real Christians do care about the poor. As Shane Claiborne has said, “How can we worship a homeless man on
Sunday and ignore one on Monday?” It’s all through the Gospels. It’s all through the Bible. God wants us to reach out in love to those who don’t have life’s basic necessities. But does God want us all to give everything away so that we all become poor? If none of us has anything, then who is going to be able to help us?
Jesus is giving the rich young ruler a specific prescription for a specific diagnosis. Jesus, the Great Physician, is able to see what it is that is keeping this good man from also being a happy man. The problem is money. More specifically, his attitude toward money. Money is his god. Money is controlling his life.
When Jesus started listing the Ten Commandments, he didn’t list them in the order they are listed when God gave them to Moses. In fact Jesus is interrupted before he gets to the commandment that we all learned as the very first one. “You shall have no other gods before me.” Which is interesting because it may be true as the rich young ruler claims that he has obeyed all the commandments that Jesus had listed. He hasn’t killed, committed adultery, stolen and so forth. But he most certainly hasn’t obeyed the very first one. He has another god that he has placed before the one true God. Money. Money for him is like a huge weight he has to drag everywhere he goes.
There was a golfer who got home from his golf game much later than expected. His wife asked him if he’d had a bad day. He told her it was a terrible day. He said everything got off to a great start but on the tenth tee his good friend Harry had a heart attack and died. His wife said, “Oh I’m so sorry! That’s awful!” He said, “It sure was. For the whole back nine it was hit the ball, drag Harry, hit the ball, drag Harry.”
I wish I could have come up with a more appropriate joke to illustrate the point! But the point is that we so often drag things through life that sap the joy right out of our lives. It could be our love of money. It apparently was for the rich young ruler. As long as money is the source of our security, it will also be the source of our anxiety. Money can solve a lot of problems. Money can also create a lot of problems. The very next verse after we stopped reading has Jesus saying, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” It’s hard to drag that ball and chain around everywhere we go and still follow Jesus everywhere he goes!
There are other things we can drag through life. It can be debt. Those of us who have taken the Dave Ramsey class will never forget his on-stage illustration of what debt feels like. He took out a heavy chain and started wrapping it around his arms and legs until he could barely move. And then he set himself free and that chain fell to the floor with a thud, illustrating what freedom feels like.
What is it for you? What are you dragging around that you need to let go of if you are going to live fully and joyfully. Maybe it’s a divorce you went through. Maybe it’s a broken relationship and you are still hurting. Maybe you got betrayed and you still feel bitter. Maybe you had a parent who neglected you, maybe abused you. You just can’t let go of that. Maybe it’s a son or a daughter who did something to break your heart and that’s what you are dragging along. Maybe there is a boss or business partner who you can’t forgive. Maybe there is someone you loved and lost. Maybe you lost a job or made a bad choice or there is some habit or addiction that is like a chain that is holding you back. Maybe you played when you should have paid a long time ago and you’ve been paying for that choice ever since. Whatever it is, Jesus knows. Jesus has your diagnosis. Jesus has your prescription. The good news is you don’t have to drag that silly thing around everywhere you go forever.
Maybe the rich young ruler did. We will never know. All we know is how the story ends. “His countenance fell and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.” He went to the doctor. The doctor told him what he needed to do to get better. He said in effect, I don’t want to get better that much. Rich, young, important, and miserable. Too miserable to enjoy life. Not miserable enough to change.
It doesn’t have to be that way for you. We’re going to close today with an old Charles Wesley hymn that is sometimes called the bicycle hymn. Why is it called the bicycle hymn? Because of the fifth stanza where it says, “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.” “My chains fell off.” Has that ever happened to you when you were riding a bicycle. OK, I’ll admit that is probably about as poor an attempt at humor as the one about dragging Harry around the golf course.
The scripture reference is Paul and Silas imprisoned at Philippi. They are in the inner prison with chains to make extra certain there is no way they can escape. And then about midnight, as they were praying and singing hymns to God, there was a great earthquake. Their chains fell off. The prison walls fell down. They were free.
Historians say this is an autobiographical hymn. Charles Wesley is writing about his own conversion. He is writing about the time in his own life when the chains he was dragging around fell off, his heart was set free, and he rose up and followed Jesus.
That’s what Jesus intended for the rich young ruler. That’s what Jesus intends for you and me. Not be good or have fun but be good and have fun. Jesus said, “Come, follow me”. Jesus meant, “Come, experience the life, abundant and eternal, for which you were created.”
God, we bring you our chains. We bring you our burdens. We bring you our guilt and our regrets and our sins. We seek your forgiveness, your freedom, your new life that can be ours through Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, Amen.