Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Remember: a good word that for our nation has been followed by an often catastrophic event: “Remember the Alamo!,” “Remember the Maine!,” “Remember Pearl Harbor!,” and now “Remember 9/11!.” It’s hard to believe that fifteen years have passed since our television sets, radios, and newspapers were filled with images that we once thought only possible in Hollywood special effects studios. Then we tried to get on with the everyday tasks of life while we considered the immanence of war against an enemy we couldn’t find, much less see. We tried to look at family and friends as we had been used to doing, but we knew deep inside ourselves that we were forever changed and so were our relationships. Just as we’d heard that air travel or the doing of business will never be the same again, life itself can never be the same again – and as we’ve entered that “war on terrorism,” it’s become fact.
Back in 1941, 75 years ago, this country faced its “date that will live in infamy,” but the enemy on that date had a face and the world was a very different place. Still, the events of that day took a country slowly rising from the effects of an economic depression and indifferent to the world around it and made it a player on the world stage. Historians have talked about America “losing its innocence” at that time. I remember opining that September 11 would be remembered as the day when indifference was lost and the common good, perhaps even an uncommon good, was found. I fear that I was not entirely correct, because we’re not where we should be, are we?
What we heard from Exodus might well-fit where we are as a nation. We must not, however, try to read our situation into this text, or any other text of Scripture. Quite frankly, I fear that too many of my colleagues in ministry have been guilty of misreading the Scriptures trying to get them to say something that isn’t there. We cannot look at what happened in New York City, or the nation’s capital, or in a farm field in Pennsylvania, or the rigid ideology that has paralyzed our civil government, or the racial tensions that wound our cities and simply say it’s a pay-back from God because we “are a stiff-necked people.” We would be better served to think of it in terms of God’s care for what God has created and God’s concern, even God’s sorrow, when evil is visited upon it. Remember if anything, the events of fifteen years ago, and that continue to plague us, move us beyond indifference to the suffering of others and toward the common good.
“How difficult and elusive is the common good!” Ethicist Karen Lebacqz’ exclamation catches both the challenge and the frustration of the search for the common good. The ever-expanding possibilities offered us by science and technology seems more than equally matched by the challenges of an ever-shrinking world. That the world has shrunk considerably should be patently obvious. Both render the concept of the common good ever more difficult, ever more elusive.
Long ago Aristotle defined the common good in the Ethics. He wrote:
For even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of a community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.
The common good, then, is what occurs when individuals learn to move beyond individualism. It is the governing principle of a society that seeks more than mere freedom. The common good is one of the foundational principles underpinning the American governmental experiment. I would suggest, however, that there is a greater foundation principle, an uncommon good if you will, which appears even more elusive and difficult, but is far more necessary.
The uncommon good is found in Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, recorded in Luke’s Gospel. There we learn of God’s care for all of humanity. It’s not enough, we hear, to fold ninety-nine sheep; all one hundred must be brought to safety. It’s not enough to head to the bank with nine coins in hand when there are ten. We are told that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who have no need of repentance.” This doesn’t imply that there hasn’t been joy over the ninety-nine or the nine, however. Their care is certainly not neglected, because God’s care is for the ultimate wholeness of all that God has made.
This is the uncommon good: the search for the one and the care for the many. Here we find something that goes far beyond mere cost-benefit in the service of the majority. In these simple stories of Jesus we see something finer and more sublime than anything Aristotle ever conceived. Here we see the all-embracing love of God, a love that is willing to risk everything to bring us all into relationship.
Fifteen years ago I had hoped that we were seeing an awakening of our nation to its uncommon good. All of us have heard the stories, small and great, of kindness and sometimes of absolute heroism. My reading of Luke will be forever stamped with the televised image of a New York City police officer again putting on his ‘turn-out’ coat to go back into the rubble. When the reporter asked if he was going back into the smoking ruins, he answered, “It’s my job. There are people in there.” Even as days pass and reason tells us we should think otherwise, there are signs of hope and a concern for those who were lost.
At the time I believed that what we saw in people rallying and reaching out was more than mere patriotism. Rather it was an expression of true human communion, a communion reflective of the one we’re to have with God. Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century theologian, wrote that God’s own happiness consists in communion, as well as the creatures’. God’s uncommon good is in God’s desire to share life with us and the ordering of all of creation toward mutual happiness. For this happiness to be achieved means that all of creation should be brought into God’s loving embrace. Even when faced with tragedy or a seemingly overwhelming task, we’re to be about that task of bringing the world into God’s embrace.
These words of Jesus, then, speak both to those who are with God and those who have rendered themselves lost to God by turning to their own agendas and goals. The common good would say look to the majority, look to the ones you have in hand. The uncommon good says search until the lost sheep is found, not just until dark. The uncommon good says sweep until the coin is found, not just until the broom wears out. The uncommon good says keep searching the rubble, even if it seems unlikely one more is alive. The uncommon good is grace in action; it is a willingness to be extended so that wholeness may be achieved.
The uncommon good is what Paul tells Timothy when he recounts God’s mercy in his own life. He was lost, he was a man of violence, one who persecuted God’s very people and yet God didn’t give up on Paul. Here we’re reminded that we can’t give up on the world, can’t give up the hope that it can be a better place, a place of peace and justice for all people everywhere. After all, hasn’t that been at the core of the American project? Our forebears saw this new land, this experiment in democracy as a city set on a hill for all the world to see. Now, how we react to the violence done against us, how we react to the attitudes displayed toward us, how we conduct our affairs in the future will tell the world what kind of people and nation we really are. On a sad, sad day fifteen years ago and on the days following it, as more than one writer said, they began to see. Now the task remains for us to continue to demonstrate the commitment to the common good and to continue the pursuit of the uncommon good.
What we have been through fifteen years ago and what faces us in the days, weeks, and months ahead reminds us of the difficult and elusive task we undertake. We can achieve the goal only if we see the oneness we have as a people, regardless of religious faith. One of the things I’ve so appreciated about St. Paul’s was your reaching out to the Sikh community following the attack on them, and that you’ve continued the relationship. We can achieve the goal of the uncommon good only if we work together as communities in true mutuality and affection.
The search for the uncommon good may appear difficult and elusive to us, but the truth is that it is really discovering that which already exists. For you see the uncommon good, love, is God’s very nature and God is here among us – if we see with the eyes of faith. We saw it fifteen years ago in story after story of love, concern, and personal risk taking in the face of disaster and danger. We see it again this week in the concern for memory. Perhaps we did lose our innocence again, in a dramatic and a painful manner, on 9/11, but if it leads us to lose our indifference, then the deaths and the heroic acts will not have been in vain. Something happened in those days following that tragedy that made a huge difference, now, fifteen years later, we need to ask ourselves yet again what we can do to sustain the difference?
In the days and weeks following 9/11 we rediscovered the primacy of the common good. The renewed concern for volunteerism here and there is a spark, a hope that we can indeed reinvigorate the search for the common good and sustain it as we find it. Ben Franklin was right when he said that we had ourselves a republic “if you can keep it.” The only way we can keep it is by continuing to search, to work, and to strive for the common good. Please God, may it begin with us in a renewed dedication to our faith life, and across the nation. May it begin with the way we care for each other and seek to give of ourselves to make our Church and community better places. May it begin here with us so that we might remember that God is behind it all. We may continue the search, but it is the uncommon good which has found us, if only we open our minds and hearts to remember.