Working for the public good

Ever so often in the lectionary a text comes to us, a text that I find particularly relevant for us today in the Christian church. On this Second Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C (Revised Common Lectionary) the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians shines a bright light on the church. And specifically on how we use our ‘gifts’ (1 Corinthians 12:1-11). 

This is the first Sunday in the calendar year that is ‘ordinary’ and liturgically coloured green — as during the long season after Pentecost in the summer when the focus is on the Holy Spirit’s activity in the lives of the faithful. During that time we read and reflect on how believers grow in the Spirit and expand the mission of God across the globe. 

It is fitting, at this start, to read those words of St Paul: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:4-6)

In George R.R Martin’s epic “A Game of Thrones” story, we witness the power struggles of several families vying for the throne in the fantasy kingdom of Westeros. The Lannister family is by far the current play-maker and leader of the pack. They have placed their caliph on the throne and fight tooth-and-nail to defend his reign.

In a scene early in the story when we first meet the father Lannister, Tywin, he speaks to his son Jaime who killed the former king according to their nefarious plans, and consequently now carries the reputation in the land as the ‘kingslayer’. Jaime has an inflated ego and often brandishes his glorious abilities with the sword and swagger.

But Tywin puts him in his place. The father, not incapable and unwilling himself to acts of betrayal and murder to achieve his ends, places their actions in a much larger context:

He says there were Lannisters that came before us, and there will be Lannisters that come after us. He brings Jaime down a notch or two not to dissuade him from ruthless means, but only to remind him that what they do is not merely to satisfy personal ego needs and compulsions. What they do is not just for the sake of private glory or personal gain. They have to keep the long view in mind to ensure the Lannister name lives on successfully beyond the confines of any individual Lannister’s life span.

This is a grim story that reveals the dark underside of human nature and enterprise. To flip it, however, would be to suggest something for the benefit of any human organization, including — and especially — the church.  

The current Pope Francis is known to have critiqued his own church for being far too ‘self-referential’ in matters of faith and practice. That is to say, the problem exists whenever we rely solely on ourselves; and, whenever we express our gifts, our opinions, our actions and decisions solely from the perspective of our own needs. That is, we act and speak out of our own, limited, life experiences without first thinking of what may exist beyond the boundaries of our own life. We can be so wrapped up in our private lives that we lose the value of the public good. We do things first to meet our own needs, rather than consider the needs of those we don’t yet know.

To a degree, admittedly, being self-referential is impossible to avoid completely. We cannot deny ourselves. Nevertheless, in our individualistic, narcissistic culture that is so rooted in me-first and what’s-in-it-for me economics and social order, we are particularly prone to this disease of the heart.  

Christianity is not a religion of Lone Rangers. Rather than nurturing a purely private ecstasy, the gifts of God are given in order to build up the church — not merely for our own pleasure and use, and for the span of our lives. The gifts of God are intended to be “publicly communicable, publicly shared, and publicly enjoyed” (1)  beyond our individual lives. In other words, we know and believe “the end” is beyond us. 

What would it look like if we started by trying to be ‘other-referential’? If we started by considering the other, first, what the Goal is, and work backwards from there — from the outside-in, from the future-vision to the present reality? 

In the introduction to Paul’s famous credal words from Philippians 2, he writes: “Let each of us look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …” (4-5)
A pastor in today’s world, I see myself more and more as working for the public good in everything I do. Meaning, I surround whatever ministry activity I do with awareness and prayer for God’s Spirit in and around me and in others in and beyond the walls of the church, and for the sake of God’s mission (not mine own!) on earth. I try to appreciate the diversity of people in the variety of gifts expressed as valuable in some way to this overall, expanding mission of God.

All of us here receive gifts from God, not just an elite few. The Christian life and ministry are not the private, personal property of an exclusive class of spiritual superheroes. The Spirit is part of the life of every person who is in Christ. It is therefore incumbent on us to encourage each other to work together to find out what those gifts are, and how we can use them for the common, public good.

(1) Lee C. Barrett in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word” Year C Volume 1, WJK Press Kentucky, 2009, p.258

A public journey

In the opening scenes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on the big screen, Bilbo Baggins is faced with a momentous choice: Will he respond to the wizard Gandalf’s invitation to join the company of dwarves on an adventure? Or, will he remain safe and sound in the Shire and the comforts of his burrow?

We meet Bilbo as someone who cherishes his home. And we sympathize. We see how much he values the simple and predictable routines that give him security and peace: his regular meal times, his books, and pleasant sits on his front patio smoking a pipe looking upon the passersby. This is when Gandalf first encounters Bilbo with the invitation to join him on an important mission. Nothing comes of it, and Gandalf leaves.

Leading a rather solitary life, Bilbo is disturbed out of his comfort zone one evening soon thereafter when a company of dwarves invades his home, his cupboards and his routines in a boisterous celebration. Initially unawares of the purpose of this offensive invasion of privacy, Bilbo resents the dwarves and all their carousing, indulgence, eating and singing.

Then Gandalf appears again to put to Bilbo their need for a ‘thief’ to join their troupe in an attempt to recover the treasures of the dwarves’ lost kingdom. To comply, Bilbo must sign a contract, promising no guarantee of success or safety on this journey.

Bilbo resists this offer, turning it down flatly.  Too much risk. No guarantees of success. Too much to lose. Early in the morning, Bilbo wakes from his ‘nightmare’ to an empty house. The party is over. The lively group has just left on their journey, without him. All has returned to peace and quiet.

We watch Bilbo as he pauses amidst his seeming peace. We can only guess at the churning of his mind over the experience and invitation of the previous evening. Then, without warning, he erupts with speed and diligence, gathering only a few belongings in a bag. And runs out the door.

What finally convinced Bilbo to join in on this unexpected journey? How did Bilbo embark on this journey that would transform him from a unassuming, small hobbit into the hero of the story? What tipped the scales?

Was it Gandalf’s gentle yet persistent invitations and promptings? Was it meeting people who were real, genuine, authentic, people who would be forming his community on this journey, friends that would stand by him through thick and thin? Did he realize that in all his comfort and isolation and privacy in the Shire, he was missing something essential in life?

The Gospel from Matthew (4:12-23) reads like a grand opening of the start of Jesus’ journey, his ministry. The reading makes a broad sweep across time and scriptures to land at the disciples feet with invitation, and locate Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue at Capernaum. And there, in the synagogue the crowds came to listen to Jesus’ announce the coming kingdom of God.

Last week, from the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first question to his disciples was: “What do you seek? What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) In the Psalm for today (27:4), we read that the Psalmist seeks the Lord in his temple. Indeed, the people come to a public place for worship, to encounter truth, find peace and hear the message of love from God.

If the image of the temple, or synagogue, or church means anything to us today, it is the public gathering place for worship. Our deepest desires are met, not in isolation, but in community. Our deepest longing are satisfied not in the privacy of our individual lives, but in the public realm. It’s a bit counter-intuitive for some personalities — like it was for Bilbo who thought that his life would be complete in the safety, security and solitude of his home and hearth.

But deep down, he must have realized that there was something missing in his self-serving program for life. That his true self, his true calling and his growth as a person lay not in being by himself, but with his friends, in community, together on the ‘unexpected’ adventure of life.

I think this is part of the reason how those first disciples of Jesus were able to drop their fishing nets and follow Jesus, immediately. They knew that following Jesus would enrich their lives in ways no other self-seeking, self-centred, individualistic approach to life could do. Growth in faith is not a private enterprise, but a public expression. Faith is done together, not apart. In this way, we are assured of the eternal support and love from God through all the difficulties of life. And we grow and mature.

In the Psalm, God’s protection and support also includes being placed high upon a rock (27:5) — a vulnerable place to be, where the whole world can see you. Being a Christian and following Jesus is not just about seeking comfort nor is it about keeping things the same. Following God assumes some personal risk, no guarantees, and losing things. But the growth and transformation come about by this journey with others may very well be what we need to get through the dark times.

I was moved reading the story of “a beloved, longtime church member who was wracked with worry about his son. Sunday after Sunday the man returned to the sanctuary. When the congregation sang its hymns, he stood without a hymnal. He listened to the familiar tunes, but he had lost his voice for singing. The congregation’s alleluias felt far off.

“One Sunday he rose during the time of congregational prayer. He offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the people in those pews. He thanked his fellow churchgoers for keeping the faith when he could not, for singing hymns when he could not, for seeing the goodness of God when his eyes were too cloudy to see it.

“To be sure, his concern for his son continued. But he had begun to recognize again the source of his strength. His words were his own, but they echoed an ancient faith: God is my light and my salvation. God is the stronghold of my life. I will sing to the Lord.” (Andrew Nagy-Benson, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 1, p.277)