(Part IV of VI in the sermon series: "We Believe: God in American Life")
Paul, in this letter to the church at Corinth, tells of how he has learned to work with people in order to spread the Gospel. "To the Jews," he says, "I became as a Jew… to those outside the Law, I became as one outside the Law… to the weak, I became weak, so that I might win the weak." No doubt he could have gone on to give more examples of his adaptive approach in sharing the blessings of faith that he had come to know.
Basically, what he says is that he meets people where they are. He comes to them in such a way that he is able to identify with them, and they with him. In this manner the gap is reduced between him and others. Paul didn't regard such accommodation as a loss of his identity; rather, it was a bending of who he was to the person in front of him. All of this so that the power of God could be at work in the life of a particular man or woman, bringing them to a spiritual fulfillment not known before.
When like reaches out to like, the conditions are set for great things to happen. To illustrate, if we were to become convinced, as a church, that God was calling us to a special ministry to those newly arrived from Mexico and Central America, we would be naïve and unsuccessful if we didn't reach out to them in their own language. Spanish would have to be the bridge upon which we would meet and greet our new neighbors. The common element between us and them would be language.
A parallel approach is required when you bring two differing persons or circumstances together in order for something to happen; hence, our title of today's sermon in the current series called We Believe: God in American Life.
If there is a moral dilemma we have to deal with, then its solution has to involve a moral response. Solutions can be imposed by force, but they are rarely final resolutions if they don't address the underlying causes and concerns that raised them up in the first place. What's ultimately a moral problem will only find its answer when its remedy is discovered in the same context.
I recall an editorial cartoon in a church publication many years ago. It showed a group of people at the bottom of a cliff all bruised and bloodied. Attending them were people with bandages, and these persons were identified as the "Faith Community." It's a natural place to find ourselves as we respond to the hurts of society. No one would deny that we are called upon to help in whatever ways we can. That's why we have a Good Samaritan Fund at the church. We do whatever we can to make things better when people are wounded.
There was more to the cartoon, though. It also showed a whole line of persons on top of the cliff who were moving toward its edge. There, at the very rim, were other figures who were pushing the people over the edge, and these figures were labeled "Health Care Policy." The intent of the cartoon was to point out that it was not by chance that all those unfortunates were down there; rather, the situation was directly related to what was happening at the top of the cliff. It served also as a reminder that no matter how diligently people of good will might tackle the end result, nothing would change until the cause of the suffering was alleviated.
Another minister of our congregation lifted up this same truth by saying: "Suffering is a consequence, and not a cause; and we often make a great mistake in trying to remove the consequence without touching the cause— leaving the cause, indeed, actively at work to produce more suffering." That pastor was Washington Gladden, and the year was 1895.
The action at the bottom of the cliff is compassion and charity. Action that we might take at the top of the hill is advocacy and prevention.
My understanding of the Christian faith is that we are called upon to help those in need, but we are equally required to do whatever we can with problems before they become crises. To bandage the hurt is compassion, but to allow it to continue unnecessarily is neglect. You can't truly care about a person and limit your response to what happens only after the injury; you also have to ask yourself, "Is there anything I can do to stop it in the first place?"
If a community knows that there is a dangerous railroad crossing where accidents continue to occur, and that a gate and lights can eliminate the problem, then isn't there some obligation to act on what is needed? How can we be satisfied with attending to pain and suffering afterward, when it could have been prevented from occurring at all?
Some will advocate that is not the role of the church to enter into the functions of government. I do not agree. Who is the government? In a democracy we are the government. This is the way that we organize ourselves as a society to deal with issues that require collective decision because they are beyond individual action.
I realize that at times it may feel that those who hold office are not responsive to how we look at things, but they are still us. If we lived under Stalin in Russia of the 30's and 40's, then it may have been accurate for the average person to feel that there wasn't much he or she could do to initiate change. That is not our situation as Americans and, in particular, as people of faith who live in America today.
Again Dr. Gladden predates this same concern, saying, "The references of our Lord to political affairs are few… [and] is often cited as a reason why ministers of our day should let political subjects alone. But the condition of the people among whom Jesus was living differed radically from those of our own country. The Jews in the time of Christ, were a subject people; they were not, in any important sense, a self-governing people. They had no share in the administration of their own affairs. They had really two political duties—to submit to the Roman government and to pay their taxes."
He continues, "If the Jews had had the government of their country in their own hands, is it probable that [Christ] would have had nothing to say about they way they administered it?…And if he were speaking, in these days, to the audiences in our churches…I cannot have any doubt as to what would be the tenor of his message. That he would preach politics, in the narrow acceptation of that term; that he would advocate the platform of any political party, or signify his preference among candidates…no one for a moment supposes. But that he would impress upon all those listening to him…the responsibilities resting upon them…is not, I think, an open question.
"The pulpit is not the place for partisan politics. But the pulpit is the place for enforcing upon the consciences of citizens the solemnity and sacredness of the obligations which rest upon them, and their duty to discharge these obligations…."
What is a moral issue? It's our elderly having to choose between medical care and living expenses. It's young people with promise being shut out of higher education because of rising tuition and reduced assistance. It's discrimination in the full rights and benefits of society because of one's gender or gender orientation. It's money buying access and influence that average citizens do not have.
Should we become involved in these and similar issues as persons of faith? Of course we should. Moral issues are what we in the church should be involved with. The Ohio Legislature can well debate the question of what should be the state insect, but that's not a crucial issue for our congregations to consider. Every bill is not worthy of our time or effort.
Part of our job as a church is to prepare our young people for their rightful role as members of society. We must insist that just because life treats us well, we cannot conclude that we have no responsibility toward others. We are our brothers' keepers, and our sisters' too. We cannot live in social isolation from others. We cannot abide a march toward militarism without raising our voices and advocating peaceful co-existence. We cannot stand by and let the delicate balance of God's creation be exploited by short-sighted and selfish energy policies.
It is not wrong to identify the major issues of our times and bring our faith and understanding to bear upon them. This is one of the reasons we are using ex-President Carter's new book, Our Endangered Values, as an all-church study. Carter, a self-described evangelical Christian, looks at the intersection of life and faith and says they are intrinsically linked together. He identifies and clarifies what is at issue, then lifts up what is at stake if we fail to bring our best to the dilemmas of our 21st Century world.
Carter's book is a tool and not a blueprint. You don't have to agree with all of his conclusions. I don't, though I resonate with the vast majority of what he says. We can have a dozen people in a discussion group and we don't have to leave the room in complete agreement. Uniformity of thought is not our goal, but unity of concern is a beginning point for redress.
Again, Gladden's words return to us: "When public opinion is sound and wholesome, social evils go down before it…[but] when public opinion is feeble and ineffectual, all manners of abuses come forth and intrench themselves in society and government."
Our morning psalm declares, "The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds…The Lord lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground…His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love."
Faith begins by recognizing whose world it is and whose disciple we have become. Major problems don't have easy answers. Solutions rarely fit into soundbites. There's a great deal to be done. The challenges are many. With God's help, however, and our human ingenuity, we can face the moral dilemmas of our time outfitted with the moral resources we have been given.
Hands linked together in commitment and love are a force to be reckoned with and a power that can truly transform the world.
(Quotations from Dr. Gladden are from Ruling Ideas of the Present Age. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1895.)
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church