This morning’s guest preacher is our friend Rev. Al Sharp, President of Protestants for the Common Good. PCG at its best strives to apply what our religious tradition teaches about our obligations to one another, and how to organize our society politically and economically.
From the outset of human history people have lived in groups. And if the world’s great religions have anything to contribute to how we function in these groups, it is not just holding us to high personal standards. Religions must offer some principles on which to shape social policy. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Mathew 25:40.)
This is a time of uncertainty and anguish in our world. Consider: Ten years ago, Steve Jobs was alive, Johnny Cash was alive, Bob Hope was alive. Now we’re out of jobs, out of cash, and out of hope!
As we know, just because people are religiously-motivated, and sincere and well-intentioned, does not mean that they know what is best politically or economically. Our former pastor David Owens used to remind us, quoting Jesus’ instruction to his disciples: “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mathew 10:6).
But even “wisdom” has limits. The Preacher Koheleth—perhaps King Solomon—in Ecclesiastes warns (1:16-18):
“I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
Yet we believe in progress and improvement and hope. We are Americans whose culture is born of the Enlightenment and a New World and the Frontier. We are Protestants whose denominational forbearers rejected the dogmas and corrupted intermediaries of the established church, freeing believers from doctrinal chains and calling them to commune directly with God.
So what do we do with this freedom? In a democracy, we can “reason together” to work towards solutions to our common problems. (Isaiah 1: 18.) In this morning’s lectionary reading from Matthew the Pharisees try to trap Jesus with questions about payment of the imperial tax. This is not just wordplay. The stakes were deadly; the Pharisees were probing for an excuse to kill Jesus. Wise as a serpent, he asks them whose image and inscription is on the denarius. When they answer, “Caesar’s,” he confounds them with the rejoinder, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Mathew 22:21.)
Jesus is not endorsing a tax increase. Nor does he state what God’s claim may be on our resources. He was not campaigning to be Governor of Galilee. But the broader point is that in answering difficult questions about our common good, we need to have an honest dialog, rather than to try to trick one another or score victories against presumed adversaries.
Please join me in a Prayer of Reflection:
Dear God, too often we close our ears and hearts to one another and fail to listen for the insights others bring to our discussion of public issues. We know the vanity of our pretensions to wisdom. Yet we also know that what actions we take or don’t take can significantly affect how we live together. So help us to be thoughtful participants in our public decision-making, open to the perspectives of others, just as we are resolute in our commitment to work toward what we understand to be the common good. Amen.
This morning—in this place among people we care for and respect—we have yet one more opportunity to hear God’s word in the scripture, to know His word in our meditations and discussions, and then to show that word in the faithfulness of our lives. This is a blessing and a responsibility we all share.
Peter V. Baugher
First Congregational Church of Wilmette
October 16, 2011