For Good

Sermon preached May 29, 2011

Text: I Peter 3:13-22

There is an old story and my apologies if you have heard this one before. A chicken and a pig were grateful for the home given them by a local farmer and they decided they wanted to do something nice for him. They thought about it for awhile and the chicken suggested fixing him a nice breakfast. “How about bacon and eggs?” The pig replied, “For you, that’s a gift, for me that’s the ultimate sacrifice.”
This is Memorial Day weekend here in the United States. Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, a time to remember those who had died during the Civil War. Graves of fallen soldiers were decorated with flowers. The holiday evolved into Memorial Day after World War I – a time to remember any who had given their lives in service to the country. As the holiday has further evolved, it has come to be a time to remember all those whose lives have touched ours but who are no longer with us. As a child I remember going with my family to Park Hill cemetery where my mother’s parent’s graves are located.
So Memorial Day is a day to remember. It is a day to give thanks, thanks to all whose lives have enriched ours but who are no longer with us. Especially, it is a day to give thanks to those who have given their lives in service or who lost their lives in war – those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. It is a time when we think about suffering and sacrifice and war. As Christians, we begin with an understanding that peace is God’s hope for the human community and that war always represents a failure of some kind. Yet many Christians believe that while war is always tragic, is can sometimes be necessary in order to prevent even greater suffering. Justifiable wars in the Christian tradition are those that seek to prevent greater harm and suffering, for instance, World War II seeking to prevent the spread of the murderous regime of Adolph Hitler.
Trying to alleviate suffering, that is a Christian concern and mandate. James 1:27 reads: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God… is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Theologian Dorothee Soelle in her book Suffering writes: As long as Christ lives and is remembered his friends will be with those who suffer (177). One way we are with the suffering is to work to alleviate their suffering.
We also know that not all human suffering can be alleviated. We suffer when those close to us die, and we will all experience the death of people we love. It is part of the poignancy of this weekend. There are smaller hurts and traumas along life’s way that will never be eliminated. With growth and change come beginnings and endings, and they can be hard. As parents, we hurt when our children hurt. When suffering cannot be changed, we are with those who suffer as friends who offer comfort. A Russian Christian liturgy reads, “everyone who comforts another is the mouth of Christ” (Soelle, Suffering, 177).
As Christians we work to prevent preventable suffering. When suffering has occurred or when it cannot be alleviated, we stand with those who suffer. I Peter 3, offers yet another perspective on suffering for we followers of Jesus. It suggests that there are times when we embrace suffering for a greater good. If you suffer for doing right, you are blessed…. It is better to suffer for doing good than for doing wrong. The text provides Jesus as an example. Jesus suffered in doing good. We might also suffer in doing good. There are times when we may willingly embrace suffering for a greater good. Challenging words, but fitting for this Memorial Day weekend.
Suffering for good. There are times when doing good brings some inevitable discomfort with it. Rabbi Edwin Friedman, and influential leadership theorist in religious communities is fond of saying, “no good deed goes unpunished” (A Failure of Nerve Seabury edition, 189). I think his point is well-taken, especially in the charged atmosphere of society today. If a Democrat does something – almost no matter how good, Republicans will find fault. If Republicans do something – almost no matter how good, Democrats will find fault. If you do good for someone, others may suspect your motives. There are all kinds of instances when doing something for good brings with it negative consequences, suffering of a kind. Yet the encouragement of I Peter is to do good anyway.
Beyond even that, we recognize the need not only to endure suffering that may come when we do good, but also the need, on occasion, to willingly suffer in order that good might be done. Sometimes the good requires that we sacrifice something, that we give of ourselves even when it is uncomfortable.
I think about the church. For the church to be the community of Jesus there are times when we all have to give a little. There are times when the way forward may not be our preferred way, but it is for good. Last Sunday night a few of us gathered to watch Toy Story 3. There is a parable for the church there. The toys in Toy Story 3 are confronted with the crisis of their boy, Andy, going off to college. What will be their fate – the attic, the trash? Woody, the first of Andy’s favorite toys could go off to college with him, but in the end, he works to make sure all the toys find a new home, and he with them.
O.K. – it is just a movie, but it is also a lesson about being the church and working for good, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient. I am grateful for the ways I have seen that kind of work for good here. When we made a challenging decision about worship two years ago, it could have been very difficult. Being together for one service means no one’s style of music prevails all the time. It means we may all be uncomfortable sometime. While things are not perfect, things seem to have worked for good, at least for this season in our life together. When the cold winter months came, we figured that we would need to keep people coming for Ruby’s Pantry warm. The sanctuary was the only place where this would work. Given my experiences in other places, I thought I would surely hear some concern about using the sanctuary as a waiting space for Ruby’s Pantry. No one has said a negative word about this. It is a little inconvenient sometimes. It requires a little more work on our part, but no one has said to me we should not be doing this. And frankly, I kinda brag about this with other clergy!
Sometimes the good requires that we sacrifice something, that we give of ourselves even when it is uncomfortable. It is true for the church and true for our society. Memorial Day seems an appropriate time to think together about our country. One of the things about us today that concerns me is the difficulty we seem to have as a society in thinking about giving of ourselves, of sacrificing for the common good. Some of the roots of this might be found in the excesses of the self-help movement of the 1970s which sometimes devolved from a legitimate concern for a healthy self-esteem to looking out for number 1. Some of the roots are found in the current fascination with Ayn Rand, whose essays include “The virtue of selfishness” and whose novel Atlas Shrugged has its hero John Galt say, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Rand may have insights to offer, but such thoughts easily lend themselves to a feeling that giving for good, suffering for good, sacrificing for good are not valuable. At its most extreme, taxation becomes a form of theft rather than something we contribute to a common good from which we also benefit; and making changes in order to respond to climate change becomes only an economic inconvenience that we cannot currently afford.
Let me make this personal. Perhaps resolving issues with the long-term solvency of Social Security might require considering raising my retirement age. Perhaps resolving the long-term debt of our government will mean putting the mortgage deduction tax credit on the table. These will hurt me, but I need to be open to these possibilities if they help promote the common good.
So what if Christians in the United States began to lead in our willingness to give of ourselves for the common good? What if we began to ask more consistently about the common good and shared sacrifice and shared benefit? Could we help move our country forward in some new ways?
Such thinking will lead to different policy ideas. There is no single way to balance taxation and economic incentive. We need to remember that policy ideas are not the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. The good news is that God continues to work in the world for good, and we are invited to join God’s work for good. The great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it powerfully. God is now in need of [the human person], because [God] made [the human] a partner in [God’s] enterprise, “a partner in the work of creation (Man is Not Alone, 243). We are partners in God’s work of love, partners in God’s work of justice, partners in God’s work of peace, partners in God’s work of reconciliation, partners in God’s work of creation-care. Sometimes there is suffering along the way. Sometimes the work is difficult. Sometimes we need to give of ourselves for good. The good news is that we are partners with God. The good news is that if you suffer for doing right, you are blessed. The good news is that we are loved by God and invited to shine with the light of God’s love in the world. Let us shine. Amen.