University Congregational Church
Oct. 21, 2018
“The Common Good”
Isaiah 56:1-2 and Luke 4:18-19
Sometimes a slice of pizza is more than it appears to be! This week, one of my long term friends, Julie Morgan, whose husband Rich is in his final days of life, shared this story… 25 years ago we lived in Battle Creek, MI. We were young and money was tight but every pay day, Rich would pick up Steve’s Pizza for dinner. I can’t possibly describe how delicious this pizza is – but several moves and all these years later, it is still the gold standard and we’ve never found a better pizza yet. Rich has frequently critiqued other pizza as “good but, it’s no Steve’s.”
Rich and I recently planned a weekend getaway to Michigan to celebrate my birthday. We talked about seeing the leaves and the lakeshore, but that was secondary to our planned visit to Steve’s Pizza. Instead, I took Rich to the ER where he landed in ICU for five days, and where we learned the news that his valiant cancer battle was coming to an end.
Rich is home under hospice care and we are enjoying every minute reminiscing and visiting with family and friends. Unbeknownst to us, my dad contacted Steve’s Pizza and spoke to Dalton, a manager there. He told Dalton a little bit about our situation and asked if the shop might send a friendly text or card to us.
Without hesitation Dalton asked what kind of pizza we wanted, and told my father he would bring it to us (by the way, Steve’s doesn’t deliver). My dad clarified that we were in Indianapolis, at least three and a half hours away from Battle Creek. Dalton said he understood that, and would leave after he closed the store. And so, while Rich and I slept, at 2:30 AM, Dalton rolled into our driveway, left the car running and delivered two extra special pizzas to my waiting family. He told them we were in his prayers, and offered to help in any way he could. My dad offered to put him up in a hotel, but he refused and immediately left for the return trip home because he had to work the next day.
I am beyond overwhelmed and humbled by this act of genuine kindness. Dalton brought our family so much joy – and the best pizza in the world – at a really difficult time. While “thank you” hardly seems adequate – from the bottom of my heart, thank you, Dalton from Steve’s Pizza in Battle Creek, MI for making your epic middle of the night pizza delivery!
Last week, Paul spoke about the Common Good – a principle about what is shared and beneficial for the community. This ethical principle was set out by ancient Greek philosophers, including Aristotle and Plato. Moral philosophers and public economists such as Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, and James Madison expanded the idea. In our own faith tradition, Jesus taught about the common good on a regular basis.
Our first reading is from Isaiah 56:1-2. “Guard my common good: Do what’s right and do it in the right way, for salvation is just around the corner, my setting-things-right is about to go into action. How blessed are you who enter into these things, you men and women who embrace them…”
The Hebrew word for justice used here is mispat, which occurs more than 200 times in the Hebrew Bible. It means:
• Treating people equitably
• Giving people their due (including punishment, protection or care)
• Caring for and defending orphans, widow, the poor and immigrants
This is what justice looks like in the common good.
The justice ethic of Jesus was profoundly influenced by texts like Isaiah. In the synagogue at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spoke these words:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
To proclaim release to the prisoners
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To liberate the oppressed,
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19
I want to be honest with you. I have received some complaints that we are talking about social justice at UCC. Some think it is too political. Others think it is not uplifting.
As a doctor of parish ministry and a theologian, I must preach about justice. It is the essence of our faith tradition. The Bible is profoundly justice-centered. Over and over again it tells us that God’s full and complete redemption of humanity is contingent upon the display of justice we advocate and put into practice. In fact, the word mizpat is so intertwined with the word for righteousness, that they often appear in inseparable tandem.
The best definition I’ve heard for justice is by a preacher named Bill Haley: “justice happens when all people may experience ‘life to the full’ because individuals and systems ensure that everyone has unhindered access to the required basic necessities of the life that God intends for humans – including food, water, emotional and physical health, shelter, education, protection and access to truth.” In other words, the common good.
I shared the story of Julie and Rich Morgan because it is an example of bringing justice (in the form of pizza) to a dying man and his grieving family. It is a personal example of “making justice happen”, as Paul encouraged us to do last week. It brought food – but most importantly, emotional support – to a family who is experiencing the unjust death of their young father from cancer.
Justice making can be personal. It can also be systemic. Tim Keller’s definition of justice is: We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Doing justice includes not only the rightings of wrongs, but generosity and social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable. This kind of life reflects the character of God. It consists of a broad range of activities, from simple fair and honest dealing with people, to regular, radically generous giving of your time and resources, to activism that seeks to end particular forms of injustice, violence and oppression.”
Mahatma Gandhi is universally accepted as an exemplary model of ethical and moral life. He was able to blend his personal and public life into a beautiful moral and spiritual example. To Gandhi the spirit of service and sacrifice was the key to leadership. He illustrated it through the example of “concentric circles”: one starts with the service of those nearest to one and expands the circle of service until it covers the universe, no circle thriving at the cost of the circles beyond. This circle is in your bulletin.
To Gandhi, service implied self-sacrifice. He said: “Sacrifice is the law of life. It runs through and governs every walk of life. We can do nothing or get nothing without paying a price for it…”
Take a moment with the circles of Gandhi’s spirit of service and sacrifice. Dalton (in my first story), sacrificed a night of sleep and some gasoline money to serve a stranger from his heart. I know we have people in our congregation who would jump at the chance to do something similar. With his heart, Dalton moved outward in the circle to serve a stranger. What could each of us do to serve someone in the inner circles?
And then we progress to the next circle. Service to state and nation. Some of you may know Balbir Mathur, a native of India, who came to the United States with little money at the age of 23. His initial search began where many of us start – looking for power. Mathur connected with William Graham, a Wichita oil and real estate investor who was on business in India. Being bold in developing connections would become a hallmark of his work. He wanted to learn how to market steel. More specifically, he said, “I wanted to find out why so many people in India were poor and others were so powerful.
“I came to the U.S. to find out what is the formula for power, why are some nations so powerful. I wanted to take that formula back to India.” He had grown up in a middle-class family that valued education. He had earned a master’s degree in India and planned to go to Harvard University, then use some of his contacts with Graham to gain a foothold in the business world. Something went awry in getting his transcript to Harvard, so the Ivy League school asked him to push his application back a year. Meanwhile, he had been accepted at Wichita State University.
Balbir arrived in Wichita with $6 and spent that on lodging on his first night.
Graham put him to work for 75 cents per lawn mowing grass. At the same time, Balbir convinced the general manager at Innes to let him have a small space at the downtown department store so he could sell items from India. After quickly writing letters home asking people to send him merchandise, He soon had his first international business.
He eventually landed a job with Genesco, a major player at the time in the nation’s apparel industry. He was traveling the world, making good money and raising a family in Wichita. One day, he was flying over the Mediterranean in the late 1970s when a thought came over him. “It looks so small,” he thought to himself. “I wonder what it looks like from a divine point of view.”
In the fall of 1983, Balbir spoke to an eighth-grade class at Wilbur about world hunger. The students were so moved that they raised $303 from a car wash to plant fruit trees. That was the start of Trees for Life. He and an Indian friend returned to India to deliver trees.
200 million trees have been planted through the group’s efforts. Most of those have been moringa trees, whose leaves provide seven times the amount of vitamin C that oranges do, four times the amount of vitamin A compared with carrots, and four times as much calcium as milk. Every part of the tree is edible. The leaves have medicinal uses, and the seeds can be used to purify water.
You don’t have to quit your job or come out of retirement to serve others. You just consider the common good. You make a difference one person at a time… and then you grow outward on Gandhi’s circle.
But you will notice that one of the arrows on the circle also points inward. It echoes the reading from Isaiah today: How blessed are you who enter into these things, you men and women who embrace them. As we give ourselves, we end up receiving blessings too! It is a universal truth from Plato – Isaiah – Jesus – Gandhi – Balbir Mathur – Dalton in Battle Creek Michigan!
www.mkgandhi.org/articles/sept081.htm “Mahatma Gandhi’s Leadership – Moral and Spiritual Foundations” by Y. P. Anand
www.mkgandhi.org/articles/politics1.htm “Gandhian Political Decentralizations – A contribution to democratic development” by Dr. S. Indira, Associate Professor & M. Balaji, Research Scholar, Dept. of Philosophy Pondicherry University
www.preachingtoday.com/sermons/sermons/2013/june/blessing-world-and -ourselves-too.html “Blessing the World and Ourselves, Too” by Bill Haley
www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/7906/a-passion-for-justice “A Passion For Justice”, by Jeanne Torrence Finley December 19, 2016
“How to Preach A Justice Sermon: What Works and Doesn’t Work for Clergy and Congregations on Long Island” by Richard Koubek, PhD January 2016