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How to be good – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

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Title: How to be good

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor 

Date: 18 June 2023  Second Sunday after Trinity 

Readings: Exodus:19-2-8a, Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10.8

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in the all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, for as long as ever you can.’

It’s said that this sentence encapsulates what has been called John Wesley’s rule of life. Whether he wrote it or not, it’s a very clear command to go out into the world and be good and do good. Often easier said than done.

It’s a high calling isn’t it- to do good and be good- to always give thanks, to err on the side of generosity, to give and not count the cost, to share good news not bad, to realise that all our doings without love, are worth nothing.

Yesterday, I was catapulted into a panel discussion at the Big Tent Ideas Festival: it was like being grilled on The Today Programme on Radio 4, quite exhausting! The question being posed to the panel, a Rabbi, a Muslim leader and myself, was this:  “Does Religion do more harm than good? Cause of global conflict and excuse for discrimination, or driver of social change and social good?” What would you say? Perhaps something to consider over Sunday lunch today!? How would you have answered that question?

We can’t deny that what we are doing here is ‘organised religion’, but does it make us good? On the panel, we talked about the good that religion can do- the grass roots ‘good’ of kindness, compassion and community- the practical ‘good’ that faith communities offer to the world through foodbanks, charities, advocacy, campaigning. But we did have to acknowledge the ‘not good’ too. The power and the privilege, the discrimination, the injustice, the abuse, the hypocrisy.

It hopefully won’t surprise you to know that I believe that at its very best, religion is a force for good, and that in some ways our faith will always both betray us and confirm us by the fruits that we bear in the world, by the difference that we make through our attitudes, and interactions and behaviours and imaginations, and importantly by our desire to imitate and embody the goodness of Jesus Christ.

Of course, we often fail in this aspiration, which is why the kind of question I was asked yesterday, keeps on being asked, again and again and again, and rightly so.

To be religious does not guarantee you an automatic persona of goodness, it doesn’t mean you are good, but the life of faith does perhaps help us to know that God is good, and that God so loved the world, that he gave us his Son Jesus Christ…for our good.

To be religious then, could simply be to acknowledge that we are on that journey towards the good and we are hopeful of the good which is found in God alone.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘as you go, proclaim the good news’.  What does good news look like in our world today?

Two thousand years ago, ‘Good news’ looked like curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, casting out demons. ‘Good news’ looked like forgiveness of sins, finding the lost, giving without expectation of payment, giving voice to the voiceless, good news looked like compassion for the lonely and the unloved. ‘Good news’ was turning the world’s hierarchies upside down, raising the fallen and making the last first, and the first last – and ultimately the good news was the new life that Christ wrought through his resurrection. We do have some idea what good looks like and what it could look like in our world today.

It seems to me, that a fully embraced faith in a good God, will leave goodness in its wake. I suppose the task of the Christian, is to discern and to learn what is good. We are called to inhabit goodness in the name of Christ, who is the expression of God’s love for the world and everything in it.

Our vision of what good is, comes from God, who, we have been promised, holds everything together in love.  To be good, says Rowan Williams, is to desire for the deepest and most hopeful love of love itself, and for all people to long to love one another.  The Good life, for the Christian person, isn’t just about living well- it’s about living as people shaped by Christ’s command to proclaim the good news.

We know this won’t be easy, St Paul tells us so, but if we boast in anything in this life, may we boast in our hope of sharing the glory and love of God.

So yes, I think religion is bad, when it discriminates, when it divides, when it self-serves, when it fails to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, when it breaks down rather than builds up, and when, in its wake it leaves only sorrow, hatred and death.  Let’s not pretend it’s easy to be good in our world, it never has been, and it never will be.

To be good, to desire love over everything else- is the hardest thing that any of us will ever do and yes, we will suffer for it, we will have to endure all kinds of persecution for standing up for the good, but through all this we still have hope, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts and we long for that love to be shared with the world Christ came to save.

We are drawn to this table in love, and this serves to sustain us in our mission of love for the world. As we take bread and wine today, Jesus says to each one of us, ‘As you go, proclaim the good news’.

So, in the strength of God’s love, do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in the 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, in the name of the God of love, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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