Habits of the Heart | All the Good That You Can Do Sermon Series

What makes a person good? What makes for a good life?  

The opening scene of NBC’s sitcom, “The Good Place,” introduces Eleanor Shellstrop, newly deceased and now being welcomed into heaven. Heaven, colloquially known as “the good place,” is portrayed as an idyllic small town, complete with her dream house and an eternal soulmate. The hinge of the series, though, lies in Eleanor’s self-knowledge that she has not lived a good life.  Her earthly years were spent indulging desires, ignoring others’ needs, getting mired in petty grievances and making selfish choices. But the setting in which she’s landed – and the threat of being sent to “the bad place” – propels her to learn what might be involved in improving her character.  She is aided by Chidi, assigned as her soulmate, who reluctantly agrees to teach her. Over the next four seasons, they, along with a cast of characters, tackle the topic of ethics.  What makes someone good or bad? What do we owe each other?  How do we persevere when the choices are difficult? To what end does the ethical life lead?   

The show is thoughtful, creative, funny, and at times outrageous. It’s appeal, I believe, comes from its knack of displaying how large, existential questions about goodness, fairness, or mutual obligation present themselves during daily life. None of us escape these dilemmas.  

“Do I tell the truth or offer this one, small lie?”  

“Should I give up eating meat? Add solar panels to my roof?”  

“Do I invite conversation with my neighbor, whose yard has an election sign for a candidate I despise?”

“Do I let in the car attempting to merge in front of me, despite the fact they sped past every other waiting car via the shoulder lane?” 

Rather than a simple sorting into good choice/bad choice, or good person/bad one, these situations reveal how complex our choices really are and how often even the best choice can often be a less-than-perfect one.  

Just entering the dialogue tends to change us. The show’s creator, Michael Schur, wrote a book, after the series ended, titled How to be Perfect, because his experience with Eleanor, Chidi, their friends and their enemies, sparked a desire in him to more deeply pursue an ethical life. During the Sundays of July, we will be delving into these good questions, exploring some of the ethical frameworks the show presents, and placing those frameworks into conversation with scripture. The hope behind the sermon series is to spark holy conversations about how we live, how God envisions a good life, and what good we can do as persons of faith in the world.   

When Eleanor arrives at The Good Place, she is acutely aware she has not earned her spot in this heaven AND she knows she wants to stay here. She exists in the tension created between the reality of who she has been and a nascent longing for that better, more whole existence.  Another man, this one appearing centuries before, along a road headed to Jerusalem, stops Jesus with a similar dilemma. Unlike Eleanor, he knows he has led an exemplary life. He has chosen not to lie, steal, kill, or covet. And he also knows something is missing in his life. He seeks that something else, for he wants to encounter the space of life, love, and grace that is God we call eternity. He asks Jesus about a deeper way to live.  

How does Jesus reply? He tells the inquirer to let of what you own and give from its abundance to those in need. At first hearing, Jesus presents another commandment, a rule about dis-possessing and distributing to be followed by those who seeking eternal life. There is truth contained in such an interpretation. 

But rather than adding another requirement to the man’s rules of holy living, I believe Jesus is offering a different mode of living. Go, sell, and give are directives that encourage a faithful follower to trust that all will be provided, to sacrifice something of one’s treasure, and to be generously attentive to others’ needs. Sacrifice, trust, generosity, and service are virtues, habits of one’s being, practices that shape one’s character while aligning one with the God who is good.  

A virtue is a quality we cultivate because it enables us to grasp life in all its fullness. Aristotle was the first philosopher to develop a system of virtue ethics, the end-goal of which is a flourishing life. For Aristotle, flourishing means not material gain or fleeting pleasure, but wholeness, the satisfaction of being all you were created to be. Jesus spoken of such wholeness when he said, “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Virtues are actions we undertake that are intrinsically good, in and of themselves. Virtues also cultivate other virtuous behaviors within us, and all together, bit by bit, such virtues form our character. Think of an athlete who strives to perfect their sport and by their effort, learns discipline, perseverance, teamwork and the capacity to lose with grace. The sum of their efforts also elevates other players and the sport itself. Or a musician, whose sensitivity and precision in playing invites others to listen not only with their ears but also their hearts and creates a shared musical moment that the world has not had before. As Christians, the end to which we strive is a life lived in abiding awareness of God’s goodness, a goodness permeating our days and all creation. We embrace the practices, the virtues, that bring such goodness alive to us. We do so not because we seek a reward – a good place for eternity – but because we long the wholeness God offers as a good in and of itself. Such a transform happens for Eleanor over the course of the series. In the beginning, she is focused getting into the Good Place and embraces the path of accumulating points, numerical rewards, for right actions. But as the show progresses, the reward system will be exposed as lacking. Gradually Eleanor will strive for kindness, sacrifice, generosity for their own sake.  

What virtues lie within Jesus’s command to go, sell, and give? Sacrifice. Generosity. Service. Early Christians added other virtues: joy, patience, peace. Any of these habits of the heart require practice. The more we act with generosity, the more clearly we see how God has been generous to us. The more we embrace a patient spirit, the more clearly we grasp the slow work of God within ourselves and the world.  

What virtue needs cultivating in your life? I invite you to ponder what virtue you might undertake in the week ahead, committing to practicing patience, peace, generosity or sacrifice and anticipate God’s slow work coming more alive within you. Amen.  

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