Sunday, August 07, 2022

New Covenant Baptist, August 7, 2022

 Luke 12.32-34, Isaiah 1.15b-17

Call it the ultimate personality test: Do you want the good news first or the bad news first?  

Let me put words in your mouth then, and suggest that receiving bad news first gets it out of the way, and then you have only good news to look forward to.  It’s akin to eating your vegetables first, or finishing your chores before you play outside.  For the rest of you, the good-news-first crowd, there seems to be a sense that perhaps getting some good news will fortify you for whatever comes next.  It also has elements of eating your dessert first, something that over at our house we call “pressert.”

There is no right or wrong answer, unless you’re reading the first chapter of Isaiah.  The Most High, speaking through Isaiah, doesn’t even offer a choice, leaping instead to the bad news. In fact, you could make the argument that the entire book of Isaiah is a bad-news-first book, with 39 chapters of it, and then a sudden shift to the good news.  

But that would be jumping ahead.  For chapter one, there seems to be a lively mix of good and bad news, with heavy emphasis on the bad.  The first section, the really bad news, is a message about worship.  

People! Enough burnt offerings! Enough meaningless offerings! Enough worthless assemblies!

It’s not that God is rejecting offerings, assemblies, prayers and the like, it's just that God is considering the source.  The truly bad news is that God has examined the hearts of the people gathered and found them wanting.  It’s not that worship is tiresome, meaningless, or worthless, it’s that worship has been rendered tiresome, meaningless, or worthless by the people attempting to do it.  

But it’s not just bad worship at issue here, though it does point to the priority the God puts on integrity in worship.  The issue is revealed in the next section, where God transitions from a generalised complaint to a more specific accusation:

Your hands are full of blood! So wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.

So we’ve got a complaint, and we’ve got an accusation, and then a suggestion.  Maybe more of a command.  And like a good parent, God doesn’t just rail against bad behaviour, but offers some guidance, a way forward, a new way of overcoming the past.  God says:

Learn to do good; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Again, we get a window on God’s priorities here.  First it’s worship with a clean heart, then it’s seek justice (which here begins with care for the vulnerable).  If you’re hearing a faint echo here (“seek justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God”) then it’s no accident.  The call to righteousness is framed in a variety of ways, but the echoes and interconnections are always there.

So I want to go back to the centre of this passage (“stop doing wrong; learn to do good”) and suggest that we’re often in a little over our heads.  It’s not enough to say ‘stop doing wrong and learn to do good.’  We need some help.  Some years ago I was invited to speak to a local non-profit to talk about basic ethics.  It was an interesting challenge, and it was nice to be asked, so off I went.  Of course it had been some years since seminary, so I dusted off my old ethics textbooks and set about creating a summary of principles.  And then I decided to frame this summary of principles using something most people could relate too—like a trip to the supermarket.  So this is what I shared:

You’re in a hurry as you approach the supermarket, you know exactly what you need, and you won’t be a minute.  All the spots are taken, except that handicapped spot near the door, and in a flash of moral turpitude, you take the spot.  “What’s the harm?” you say to yourself, “I’ll just be a minute.”  Of course, immediate harm ensues, when the next person to enter the parking lot needs the spot.  So the first principle, rather aptly, is Do No Harm. 

It turns out the first item on your list is chocolate covered almonds.  Mmmm, you love chocolate covered almonds.  And as you lean over the bin, scoop in hand, you realize that you’re alone in the aisle.  Remember, you’re already on some sort of moral holiday here, so you decide to sample.  And as the taste explodes in your mouth, you remember this sermon, and with it the second principle: Pursue the Common Good.  Laws against theft are in place to allow us to live together as a society—and provide a set of assumptions about how we will behave—as we pursue the common good.

Next, you’re at the checkout, and the cashier has given you too much change.  It’s a simple enough mistake, “an error in your favour” like Monopoly, but this time you have a choice.  The first thing to consider is ‘what would I do if the situation was reversed?’  If you were short-changed, would you say something?  Of course you would!  So the next principle is simple: Treat Others as You Wish to be Treated.  We call this the “Golden Rule,” a principle that exists in some form in almost every religion and philosophy. 

Being moral is hard work, so it’s time to head home.  As you walk toward the door, you notice that the edge of the rubber mat is flipped over, creating a trip hazard.  What do you do?  In the strictest technical sense, it’s not your problem.  Stores have liability insurance just for such situations.  But what if your 90 year-old granny is two steps behind?  You fix the mat.  What if it’s your 90 year-old neighbour?  You fix the mat.  What if it’s someone you’ve never met? (You fix the mat)  See, ethics is not hard!

This scenario includes elements of all the principles we have defined so far: pursue the common good (a society where people care for strangers); do no harm (a reasonable person will see that the mat is potentially harmful); and treat others as you wish to be treated (I wish the person before me fixed the mat before I nearly tripped).  Using all of these principles together, we define our fourth principle as Develop a Moral Character. 

So just to close this story, the workshop at this local non-profit was going along swimmingly until one of the participants sharply disagreed with example four.  And they just wouldn’t let it go.  I tried more and more examples (what about your grandmother’s grandmother?) but the response was the same every time: ‘it’s not my responsibility.’  Meanwhile, at the edge of the room, various managers were wide-eyed and staring at each other, taking mental note.  

So if the task to ‘learn to do good,’ we have the outline of a program:

Do no harm, Pursue the common good, Treat others as you wish to be treated, Develop a moral character

(I should mention that I have handy wallet-sized cards available, so see me after)

Before I go back to Isaiah, I want to say more about pursuing the common good.  While I hope that you’ll never look at a chocolate covered almond the same way again, there is obviously more to the common good than deterring thieves and protecting tasty treats.  The common good is about how we live together as a society, and the various ways we safeguard each other, and in particular, the vulnerable.  

In other words, the common good of society.  And there is even a word for that—the common good of society—most often called the commonwealth. Yes, it’s also the name of an organization headed by my great and glorious queen, but it’s primarily an idea, defined as “a nation, state, or other political unit...founded on law and united by...the tacit agreement of the people for the common good” (Merriam-Webster).  It’s also a state where “supreme authority is vested in the people” and while sounding a little like Monty Python, it simply means we have a vote that matters.

So this commonwealth, the common good of society, is an idea that should inform every aspect of our lives.  Equal treatment under the law, equal access to the “goods” we share, like public education, government services and so on.  Plus, there is an element of responsibility implied too, paying our fair share of taxes, serving on a jury, making sure that others receive equal treatment and an equal share.  It’s not supposed to be political in the sense that it belongs to the left or the right—it’s foundational, the commonwealth we enjoy together. 

Until it’s not. When voices enter the conversation that reject the idea that we have a responsibility for the well-being of others, the commonwealth begins to fray.  When some are “more equal” under the law, or even believe that the law doesn’t apply to them, the commonwealth begins to fray.  When some suggest that the “goods” we enjoy cannot be shared equally—based on the state of the economy or the status of an individual, then the commonwealth begins to fray.  The commonwealth, like democracy, is an idea, and always more fragile than we assume.

And this brings us back to Isaiah.  Call him the original “social justice warrior.”  He spends chapter after chapter chronicling the ways society has failed to maintain God’s original vision.  He decrys those who make unjust laws (10.1), those who deprive the poor of rights (10.2), those who accept bribes to pervert the law (5.23), and even speculators who increase the homeless population (5.8).  And hanging over all of this, is his concern for the widow, the orphan, and the alien, the primary victims of this sort of malfeasance.  

Just as an aside, let me share with you a Canadian fun fact:  Just over 100 years ago, J. S. Woodsworth (who would go on to found Canada’s first socialist party) was busy editing a newspaper for those engaged in our most notorious general strike, in Winnipeg, Manitoba (picture Fargo, then drive north 150 miles).  The police were alarmed by his words and decided to charge him with seditious libel, a serious charge then as now.  On closer examination of his editorial however, the crown was forced to withdraw the charges, since almost everything he wrote in the paper was a direct quote from Isaiah.  

I share all of this for a couple of reasons, the first being that reading the Bible can turn you into a dangerous radical, and the second being that when society begins to fray, we need to find some common ground to begin again.  When everything is polarized, and politics shifts firmly from competitors to enemies, and even the events of the recent past are subject to wild variations of interpretation, we need to find some common ground.  

So what if we began with moral theology?  What if we could agree that there are three or four principles that form our common moral heritage and tried to move forward from there?  For you see, moral theology doesn’t belong to the church alone.  People beyond the church might simply call it “ethics” or “values” or even “civics,” it’s still moral theology, and it begins with a few, simple principles—that followed correctly—can further the commonwealth of all peoples. 

I want to conclude with the all important question, “but how?”  How do you develop a moral character when the world is drawing us toward tribalism and self-interest and the abiding sense that fewer and fewer things are our responsibility.  We can do our best, of course, but we still live in the world and we still internalise these pervasive messages.  So, to suggest a way forward, I might seek some input from Thomas Merton, or rather his early mentor, Mark Van Doran.  

Professor Van Doran, when teaching Don Quixote, would say to his students: “One of the lessons of this book is that the way to become a knight is to act like a knight.”  To a young Thomas Merton it became a lesson about sainthood and the contemplative life: to become a saint, you need to act like a saint.  Or put another way, if you want to become virtuous (or show heroic virtue, the definition of a saint), you need to act as someone with virtue.  Put still another way, we have our quote from Barbara Brown Taylor: “You are loved; act like it. You are redeemed; act like it. You are a saint; act like it. Become what you already are and you will be blessed.”

Jesus said ‘provide for yourselves treasure in heaven that will never fail, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  To understand resurrection, we must live as resurrected people.  For we know that wherever people are learning to do good, God is there.  Wherever people are trying to develop a moral character, God is there.  Wherever people seek equity, fairness, compassion, God is already there.  We don’t need to reinvent the commonwealth, the common good of society, we need to look for it in the people we meet.  Amen.