Transcribed from the sermon preached Feb 28, 2016
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 55:1-13, 1 Corinthians 10:1-17, Luke 13:1-9
Why do you work hard to do well at your job?
There are many possible motivations for why we do what we do. We may seek the approval of others. We may seek to win, to beat out others for business or just to show we are better. Maybe we just enjoy competition. We may worry about the judgments of others, and be afraid we will not be included or loved. Maybe we seek to be obedient. Maybe we are motivated to support those close to us, a husband or wife and children for instance. Maybe we simply work hard because we want to survive, or we simply want to make enough money to be comfortable. Maybe we enjoy luxury and having a little cushion from hardship. Maybe we enjoy helping other people or doing a good job for its own sake.
Most of us likely share a greater or lesser degree of each of these motivations for doing what we do. None of them is necessarily bad in and of itself. Usually our motivations fall into the bad column when they become preeminent and lead us to exclude other good motivations, especially the honoring our covenant with God. In other words, they become idolatrous
Isaiah speaks of a covenant which bonds a people to a way of life and to God. It is an understanding that who we are as individuals is tied up with the community and vice versa. We need strong and righteous individuals so that we can have a strong and just community; and we need a strong and just community so that we can have strong and righteous individuals. The strength of that faith means that sometimes we will be willing to sacrifice short term or individual gain in order to affirm our long term individual and collective values, which allow many to prosper over time.
Why are you honest? Why do we show up at work and do what we are being paid to do? Why do you seek a just result not just for you and yours, but for all? Why do we seek to recognize and eliminate bias and prejudice from our own perspective, and treat all as we would like to be treated? Isaiah and Paul would say we are answering the call of God by the power of the Holy Spirit and honoring the covenant.
Lying and manipulation may get us what we want in the short run, it may even get us wealth or power. But think of people you like to do business with. Sometimes we are tempted to do business with people because they have power and by dealing and compromising with them we get a piece of their pie. But generally we like to do business with people we trust, people who are honest and will honor the basic agreements of law, politics and business. In general, relative to many nations in the world, the United States tends to be a place where hard work and an honest agreement are honored and rewarded. There is competition but often there is a relatively sufficient degree of freedom so that we are free to offer and free to buy what we want.
One of my favorite businessman stories is of Dick Hall, successful engineer and long time member of St. John’s. He and his son, huge Cal fans, were on their way to a Cal football game and drove past a construction site that had been vandalized. Dick pulled over his car and asked his son to help him straighten things up. After they finished and got back in the car to continue on, late to the game, his son asked, dad, why did you stop to help them. You didn’t have to and besides, they are your competition. Dick said, “They are only our competition while bids are being reviewed. Once the contract is signed, they are just our colleagues.”
I believe that because we as a culture and nation have had the luck and blessing of experiencing the benefit of honest and free interactions, we want to strive for an even better, more balanced and free community. It is not a coincidence that the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, followed the economic boom after WWII. As soldiers and laborers, women and African Americans fought for “freedom and democracy,” and were needed enough that production mattered more than old cultural prejudice, it would not be so easy to just flip the switch and go back to the old ways. We would be called to live up to the true meaning of our creed, that all men and women are created equal.
If you live in a country where a very few are wealthy and own most everything, and control politics to exploit and control business, where the average person who works hard to get ahead is under threat of sticking out and drawing attention of exploiters who take land, money and life to get more, then you are not likely to develop this kind of mutual trust by which there is mutual profit and benefit. Everyone is out to get or keep their own. Government, police and military are bought and sold to the highest bidder, and the poor just try to survive by not drawing attention. Education is not valued because the poor do not trust that their investment in education will pay off. Government officials get ahead by taking bribes rather than by succeeding in serving the people. So graft siphons money meant for roads or schools or health clinics and medicine and government contracts go to friends of politicians. As nobody trusts the government, neither the rich nor the poor want much of it, so it fails to be entrusted with the revenue to provide those basic services necessary for a nation to thrive. As the poor suffer from injustice there is danger of revolt, so most of the government money goes to the military to maintain the status quo. The country suffers together even as everyone is out for themselves. Everyone is thirsty.
There is always the danger that the rich will separate themselves so far ahead of the pack that they will gain the ability to monopolize business and control politics so that laws go further and further towards only serving them. Justice and equal opportunity suffer and we are in danger of slipping backward and degenerating.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
We see in this morning’s Isaiah passage that God is setting up a centralized government with the house of David. The house of David is a kingdom, not a democracy, but relative to other kings, David is entrusted with being trustworthy enough to lead a group in mutual trust. They are to seek ways of dealing with each other which are not the usual dog eat dog ways, but mutually beneficial.
6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Pilate, puppet ruler of Herod, puppet ruler for Caesar, is that violent exploitative kind who leads by intimidation rather than trust. Seeking to terrify the people into submission, he executes some Galileans and spreads their blood with their sacrifices, defiling one and all. Some think such a horrible demise must mean that those who were executed had been punished by God. But Jesus says “No,” they are not worse than anyone else. God is not using evil men to punish others. But, Jesus says, that doesn’t mean that we have no reason to repent.
There are things that happen to us that we cannot change, there are events, in nature, in our family and relationships, in the economy and politics that are beyond our control. We do not choose to be born to loving parents, whether they will get a divorce, whether they will be rich or poor, on one side of a border or another, American, Guatemalan, Syrian or Ethiopian. God does not send a hurricane or tsunami, a fire or an earthquake, disease, a fascist dictator to enact a holocaust, or a drug lord to rape and exploit. And we may not be able to prevent those things. Life is not fair. But we do have a life to live and we can choose to live it in a way that is moving toward God and others, or away. We do have a choice about many many things that will have a big impact on how our lives evolve. Almost always, no matter where we live or who our parents or government is, nobody has as much influence on our lives as we ourselves. And when we find ourselves losing faith and choosing to be a part of the problem rather than the solution, we can stop, repent, and return to God. We can trim our branches that do not produce fruit. Wherever we are, whatever we have gone through, God is there with us, cheering us on, calling us forward, empowering us as individuals and as a people, to honor the covenant and quench that thirst for righteousness. There are many things we can criticize, protest and moan about, there are many others who need and should do many things to assure our mutual blessing. But for sure, we can start with us, me and the Church: let that repentance, trust, equal justice, hard work and sacrificial love begin with you and me.