Good, Better, Best

Sermon - United Ministry of Aurora, NY June 16, 2019

This first Sunday after Pentecost is called Trinity Sunday. At Pentecost, humanity was presented with the third facet of the Trinity. With the Holy Spirit bursting into the world our Creator’s full offering of good, better and best is complete, perfected.

How many of you remember the Sears Roebuck catalogue from the middle of last century -- that deliciously thick compendium of everything every ordinary man, woman and child in America wanted or wished for? We used to call it the Wish Book. In those olden days, long before Amazon reviews, there was a simple way to identify "the good stuff." Sears Roebuck simply described products as Good, or Better, or Best. Nothing in that book was bad. The worst thing offered was "Good."

Jesus promised to send us the Holy Spirit as Comforter and Guide to teach us all things. On Pentecost that promise was fulfilled for the disciples and for us. The Holy Spirit is the third of the three facets of God that are presented to humanity. The good news is we don't have to choose. With Christianity we get all three, Good, Better and Best.

All facets of God - the Trinity - existed before the foundation of the earth. Now they have all revealed themselves to humanity. God first revealed himself to humanity through the giving of the Law to Moses. Our Creator laid done the rules and principles of his creation. Jews celebrate this as Simchas Torah, the giving of the Teaching. Christmas marks the immanence of Jesus, the Son of God coming into the world to save us and teach us the meaning of the Teaching. Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia speaks today in our text from Proverbs announcing she has been with the Father since before the founding of the earth. Pentecost celebrates the experience of the gift of the Holy Spirit which now lives within every human. We went from Good to Better to Best in less than 2,000 years!

Creation has gone from Good to Better to Best. And many of us may not realize it. Judaism before Jesus was the Good. God revealed himself in the Law given through Moses. Growing up a child living under this Law I experienced the Goodness -- as well as the shortcomings -- of Judaism and the Law. I think I have a sense why many Jews are not particularly joyful and happy people. Judaism is rough sledding. As a kid, I took religion very seriously. I had no choice. My mother knew the dietary laws and enforced them. Only eat kosher. Not only are there rules determining whether and how a food can be kosher, there are a set of rules about meat versus dairy; how to decide whether a food is meat or dairy, and what foods are neither meat nor dairy. And, of course, no meat and dairy dishes can be eaten at the same meal. There's no such thing as a kosher cheeseburger. In fact, if you've eaten any meat, you need to wait at least four hours before any dairy can be consumed. And, to be safe, make it six. If you've eaten dairy, you only need to wait an hour and a half before you can have meat - unless it was a hard cheese, in which case the six-hour rule kicks in. There are a variety of reasons for this. All, I am sure, very sound. None of them are scriptural. But my mom enforced them. Human nature leads us to define and set rules to be sure the law is not violated. Oh, I almost forgot, meat and dairy must never be served using the same plates or utensils, no matter the passage of time. And, there is another complete double set of milk and meat dishes in the cupboard for Passover, since Passover foods are special and must contain - or touch - no leavening.

Whew! Now, that's just eating rules. Since eating and drinking are essential to life, and kick in at least three times a day, someone trying to be good is always on edge about possibly breaking a law. Since I was also taught that breaking one law is the same as breaking the whole law, there was a constant anxiety involved in being a good child trying to keep the whole Law and thus to, "stay good."

Once a year we got to do a formal repentance for any laws we either wittingly or unintentionally broke. This was during the High Holidays leading up to Yom Kippur. The One Great Day of Atonement when our names would either be written in the Book of Life and we be granted one more year of life, or pffft. Death. Fear of Death was another source of anxiety. Judaism is ambiguous about the afterlife. It's our duty to keep the Law and please God while in this life. Enjoy it, then it is over. Maybe your soul will get to go around again, but you won't necessarily be around to enjoy it. Many Jews believe God would in time, send a Moshiach, a Messiah, who may among other things, cause the dead to rise again. But, that isn't a sure thing. This, by the way, is what the Sadducees and Pharisees were arguing about in Acts. So, being a Jewish child, trying to be good, didn't necessarily feel good. I wanted better.

Being anxious and fearful, I didn't really understand the promise in Psalm 8: "...what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor." It seemed like we were not just a little lower than God. I felt we were way, way lower. I hoped for better.

Then "Better" came into the world. Jesus, the anointed Messiah arrived as promised. For God's own purposes, not all Jews caught on right away. But enough Jews followed Jesus to get the church started. Jesus taught the meaning and purpose of the Old Testament Law. I wish I had known this as a child. Today I am beginning to understand. And it is Better.

The Christian church in recent centuries placed a great deal of focus on Jesus as a fully-human, fully-divine sacrifice made to make compensation, to pay for our sins. Putting the primary focus on salvation from sin and hell, takes our eyes off a better and greater truth. We sometimes miss the Good News that Jesus came to get us over the fear of death - to demonstrate in his life, his mortal death and his physical resurrection that this life with all its suffering and final death of the mortal body is a path to a better life.

As a child living under the law, I didn't fear hell and I didn't feel sinful. I Just felt constantly on edge, anxious. My whole life was characterized by fear and anxiety. Like early humanity, the Law taught me there was a right and a wrong, and that if I knew which side my matzo was buttered on, I would choose the right. I would be good. But, as good a child as I was, I lived in perpetual anxiety about life and fear of the endlessness of death. Jesus’ life and teaching taught me that the Law is, as Paul says, a schoolmaster to teach us to discern and choose right from wrong. Keeping the Law doesn't earn you a thing. It's homework, practice. And for me, anxiety.

What's the purpose of this training regimen? As a child I never knew. Now I do know. No matter how free from doing wrong, how free from sinning we might be, you and I will die. Life on earth really is a vale of tears. It will in fact end for each of us in the death of our physical bodies. Along the way, we will suffer as all humanity suffers. Paul, this morning, explains to us the meaning of suffering. In the Letter to the Romans we read this morning, Paul explains in plain Greek what Jesus taught in parable and example. Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ... we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

First comes the Law, knowledge a Creator exists, accepting there is purpose to life and there is right and wrong. This is GOOD. Then, through Jesus, comes the comforting understanding that the Creator is in fact merciful, not judgmental. The Creator is a loving parent to each of us, with a selfless love for you and for me greater and better than the necessarily flawed parental love any human parent can possibly feel or express towards their children. And the Creator is the parent of every man woman and child on earth, not just a select few. He has made each of us a little lower than God, and wants for each of us to be lifted up all the way home. That we all may be one as Jesus is one with the Father. That God is in each of us as his Son is in each of us, as each of us is a part of each other human being on earth.

Our suffering forces us to share in the oneness of each of us with each other. But suffering is inevitable, part of the human package. God sends each of us the Grace that our suffering might produce endurance. And our endurance produce and develop our character, and our character will experience the Grace of Hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Ahh, this is better.

And that brings us to BEST.

There were still issues. The anxious child buried inside me asked, How do I know this New Testament thing isn't just another interpretation of the Law? How do I become a better believer? What am I to do day to day? How do I deal with stresses of everyday life? The suffering. The fear of not earning enough to take care of all my responsibilities. How do I deal with the daily choices needed to navigate this Vale of Tears?

On Pentecost, two gifts of the spirit dramatically burst into the world! The gift of speaking in tongues and the gift of interpretation of tongues were the Holy Spirit's way of announcing something new, something real. The Best has come. The moment of Transformation has arrived.

At Pentecost, the promise of a personal guide, a comforter, a true life coach is fulfilled. My soul had always been hidden deep within me, experienced as me when I was a little child, but now lost to me. My soul, my true self, was buried by the by the defenses and techniques I developed to protect and counterpunch my way through the hostilities and challenges of living. This artificial, protective shell we call "Ego" kept my soul so closed off, I thought the shell was me. It was not. Now God's Spirit, the third "person" of the Trinity, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit gently shakes my soul awake. Together the Spirit guides me in gently dismantling the defensive apparatus of my ego, my "false self". While St. Paul was able to say he gloried, he “boasted” in his suffering, I can at least accept the suffering I have experienced so far. Now, rather than shielding myself from fear and suffering by armor-plating an ego, I can see that suffering reveals the glory of my one-ness with every other sufferer on this planet.

For me personally, I now know what Salvation means. Jesus saved me from the constant, killing anxieties and fear of breaking an unkeepable law. I started with the knowledge of God and His Law. That was Good. Through Jesus I am saved and taught about living in harmony with God on my way to resurrection. I am saved from the anxiousness about the unknown terrors of eternal death and imprisonment of my soul. This is Better. Much Better. Through the Spirit I personally experience in my body and soul God’s love. This is Best.

And that's the Best News. The hope that doesn’t disappoint. The completion of God's self-revelation at Pentecost. The same Spirit that descended on the disciples at Pentecost is within each of us, guiding us, offering new life to each of us, all of us. Walking with us each step of the way. Leading us to accept Jesus’ teachings of Love and Praise of God, and Love of one another. A personal, individual transformation, a radical change made here and now in this world in preparation for the next. With the Holy Spirit with us to help.

The final thought I would leave you with this morning is the Word of scripture that woke my soul when I first heard the Good News proclaimed: Be not conformed to the pattern of this present world, but be TRANSFORMED by the RENEWING of your mind. Then you will see and understand that Good, Better, and Perfect will of God for you.