Gifts for the Common Good

We have the Apostle Paul to thank for the image of the Body of Christ. In this particular passage, he was addressing the quarreling followers of Jesus in Corinth. Paul had established this Christian community only a few years earlier, and he was writing because he had heard they couldn't agree on leadership. Sound familiar? So they were arguing amongst themselves. Paul is trying to tell them in this letter-you're missing the point. Spend your energy on what Jesus taught us. Respect the gifts in each other. And it doesn't matter what race or class or ethnic background you are, we are all equal in the eyes of the one God.

There's a lot of talk in our country lately about values. The political campaign for 2008 is bringing to the forefront all the "issues" that have been used to divide us. Americans have been no different than the church goers in Corinth-arguing about leadership.

The key phrase in Paul's letter is this: "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." The common good. There it is, right there in the Bible. God's Holy Spirit gives each one of us a unique gift for the good of all of God's creation.

Let me say a word about creation, particularly God's created earth. We live together-Jews and Greeks, Christians, Muslims, rich and poor-we live together on this fragile planet. We, as God's created human beings, can have a devastating impact on the rest of creation, or we can accept God's call to make care of the earth our central theme of our stewardship.

Jesus was the agent through which God created the heavens and the earth. And if we can believe the psalmist that "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;"-that's Psalm 24-why should there be any division among us about reducing greenhouse gases, switching to wind or solar power, or reusing materials we unthinkingly throw away.

When we are asked to recount our lives on that fateful day, what will we answer when God asks: "How did you take care of the earth I made for you?" Care of the earth-that's a central theme.

Jesus also had another priority. It was taking care of the poor. The Gospel of Luke, the first reported words of Jesus in public ministry come right out of the prophet Isaiah. He said this: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free..."

If we are followers of Jesus, what are we doing to eliminate poverty that kills? Thousands of people around the world die every day from starvation. The international relief agency, Bread for the World, says more than 15,000 children die each day from hunger-related causes. By the time this sermon is finished, 180 children will be dead because of not enough food to eat.

We have an obligation for "the common good" to share our abundance with those who have so little. We have an obligation to help our neighbor-no matter where in the world they live-to learn how to grow enough food to sustain all of the population of planet Earth.

The poor and the oppressed, the prisoner and hungry were so important to Jesus that he took them upon himself. He identified most with those who had the least. In Matthew 25, he told his followers-followers like you and me-that "...just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

Maybe this is why theologians over the centuries and the late Pope Paul VI concluded that what we find in the Bible is "God's preferential option for the poor." I like what Pope John Paul said. He said, "I dream of a world where none would be so poor they have nothing to give and none will be so rich they have nothing to receive."

However you read the Bible, it seems pretty clear. God's a whole lot more interested in helping the poor than in telling them to lift themselves up by their own boot straps. There are a lot of people who-no matter how far they bend over-cannot reach their own bootstraps.

Our job as followers of Jesus is to live a life of service to those who do not share equally in God's bounty. Yes, we need to pray for them. But we also need to help lift them out of poverty-especially the poverty that kills. Too many of our sisters and brothers across town and across the planet live in abject poverty.

One possible solution is for those of who are part of the faithful community to support the Millennium Development Goals. In my role as General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, I've been blessed to work with Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia University who helped to develop these important Millennium Goals, what we call MDGs. These MDGs are a list of specific goals, targets, that we can make and generate over the course of the next period of time to end the poverty that kills. The National Council of Churches and many of our member communions have endorsed the Millennium Goals. But some of our fellow Christians have actually condemned this good plan just because it was developed under the auspices of the United Nations.

Are we really going to argue about whose name is on the ambulance or who is planning to rescue the earth while thousands of God's children die?

I'm reminded of the preacher who says on that fateful day when we are asked to account for our lives: God will ask us for a letter of recommendation from the poor before we are invited into the heavenly banquet.

Finally, while it's important for us to be stewards of a fragile planet, to end the poverty that kills, another important topic that Jesus called us to focus on by saying, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the children of God," is the issue of peace. What kind of peace do we want? How do we achieve it? Can we get it at the barrel of a gun?

As Christians for the last 1,600 years or so, we have (been) divided on matters of war and peace. As Christians we have a shameful legacy. What some who have gone before us have done in the name of God defies reason. But then, war and violence always seem to defy reason.

Some of us will be surprised to discover that for the first four centuries of Christianity, followers of Jesus were not allowed to serve in armies. They followed a totally non-violent Jesus. After Christianity became the religion of the empire, all that changed as faith was enlisted as an ally of the emperor to support his ambitions.

There was an interesting question of one of the presidential candidates, recently: "Does God take sides in war?" If we go to the Bible, of course we can find chapter and verse to support whichever answer we want. But when we look at the example of our Master, it's plain. The first words of the risen Jesus to his frightened followers were "Peace be with you." In one Gospel he says it not just once, but twice: "Peace be with you."

Across the entire recorded life of Jesus, we can only find one example of a violent act. One. It's the one used all the time by those who want to justify war or an act of violence to achieve some good. Invariably any discussion about peace, war and the life of Jesus turns to the cleansing of the Temple.

The story appears in all four Gospels. It gets mentioned in two-Mark and Luke. A little more in Matthew-that's where we get overturning the tables. But it's in the Gospel of John where we hear of Jesus making a whip of cords and driving out the moneychangers and animals from his "Father's house."

Some of the best Bible study I've heard on this act tells a very different story than "Jesus resorted to violence, so can we." Instead, a closer look uncovers the context of the story, and that has to do with the poor. It's about a system of ritual sacrifice and the selling of the animals used in sacrifice for very high prices to wealthy people who had come to the Temple in Jerusalem to make their sacrifice to God. The system precluded those without money from taking part in their religious services. It was about a religious system that discriminated against the poor and kept them out.

If we look at the rest of the life of Jesus in all four Gospels, we find Jesus-time and time again-moving through his public ministry acting non-violently in a very violent time of history.

We find Jesus telling Peter to put away his sword when he tried to prevent Jesus from being arrested. We find Jesus-immediately after his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded-we find Jesus standing in front of five thousand men (not counting women and children). If ever there was a time Jesus could have gathered together an army to take up arms against the occupying empire, this was it.

But what does he do? He sits down, gathers up what food there is, thanks God for the abundance of the earth, blesses it and shares it with everybody. That non-violent action has been done by millions of faithful followers of Jesus through the centuries to this very day.

As followers of Jesus, we must stop arguing among ourselves about who's in charge and find the gifts given to each of us. And indeed each of us has been blessed with gifts of insight, resource, talent, and time that we can use to make a difference where we are. We must use those gifts for the common good to build up what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called, "the beloved community."

I leave you with these words of Howard Thurman. In his life, he helped to bring the message of non-violence to the social and political movements of America in the last half of the last century. His words-like Paul's words-speak to us now:

The concern, which I lay before God today, is
My concern for the life of the world in these troubled times.
I confess my own inner confusion as I look out upon the world.
There is food for all - many are hungry.
There are clothes enough for all - many are in rags.
There is room enough for all - many are crowded.
There are none who want war - preparations for conflict abound.

I confess my own share in the ills of the times. I have shirked my own responsibilities as a citizen.
I have not been wise in casting my ballot.
I have left to others a real interest in making A public opinion worthy of democracy.
I have been concerned about my own little job,
My own little security,
My own shelter,
My own bread.
I have not really cared about jobs for others,
Security for others,
Shelter for others,
Bread for others.
I have not worked for peace; I want peace,
But I have voted for war and worked for war.
I have silenced my own voice that it may not be heard
On the side of any cause, however right,
If it meant running risks
Or damaging my own little reputation.

Let Thy light burn in me that I may, from this moment on, take effective steps within my own power, to live up to the light and to courageously pay for the kind of world I so deeply desire."

Let us as the faithful majority work for peace, care for the poor, and heal this fragile planet. May God bless us in our work. Amen.