Common Good

(This is my sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.  It draws significantly on material by Walter Brueggemann, found in his book “Journey to the Common Good,” which is based on lectures he delivered in October, 2008.)

You may have heard politicians speak about public versus private service-providers.  It is incumbent upon us, as people of faith, to call on our elected representatives to take responsibility for services that all need access to – to keep things like health care and education public, and to work for things like housing for all.

Theologian, Walter Brueggemann, frames scripture, and our role as modern interpreters in it, in a few ways.  Among those is the image of the neighbourhood – we all have a role to play in society, and with the environment. How we treat our fellow creatures and creation reflects the kind of neighbours we are – the kind of people we are in relation to others.  Brueggemann also frames Hebrew Scripture from the story of the exodus.  In short, all of Hebrew Scripture is a lament on the loss of Jerusalem, and the oral tradition was put to paper during the time of the exile – so that permeates the narrative that has survived for our reading, today.  Part of that exodus story involves the move away from Pharaoh’s slave-supported production-consumption society to a wilderness where people trusted in God’s providing – where all have enough. Here are some reflections and scholarly remarks about how Jesus would have connected with Hebrew Scripture and conveyed it to his followers, as in the gospel text we hear for this day.

The great crisis among us is the crisis of “the common good,” the sense of community solidarity that binds all in a common destiny – haves and have-nots, the rich and the poor. We face a crisis about the common good because there are powerful forces at work among us to resist the common good, to violate community solidarity, and to deny a common destiny. Mature people, at their best, are people who are committed to the common good that reaches beyond private interest, transcends sectarian commitments, and offers human solidarity. (Brueggemann, p.1)

The ideology of scarcity has been broken, overwhelmed by the divine gift of abundance.

It is our propensity, in society and in church, to trust the narrative of scarcity. That is what makes us greedy, and exclusive, and selfish, and coercive. Even the Eucharist can be made into an occasion of scarcity, as though there were not enough for all. Such scarcity leads to exclusion at the table, even as scarcity leads to exclusion from economic life.

But the narrative of abundance persists among us. Those who sign on and depart the system of anxious scarcity become the historymakers in the neighbourhood. These are the ones not exhausted by Sabbath-less production who have enough energy to dream and hope. From dreams and hopes come such neighbourly miracles as good health care, good schools, good housing, good care for the earth, and disarmament. The dream subverts Pharaoh’s nightmare, Jesus laid it out, having read the exodus narrative:

“Do not be anxious” – do not trust Pharaoh; “Your heavenly father knows what you need” – then provides abundantly; “Seek the kingdom” – care for the neighbourhood, and all will be well. (Matt 6:25-33)

The ones who receive the gift have energy beyond themselves for the sake of the world. And we, if we receive well, may be among those who push beyond ourselves. (pp.34-35)

Brueggemann shows that God is not a passive actor in the unfolding story of Israel – which includes us.  God is an active participant.  In reflections on the prophet Jeremiah, Brueggemann states that YHWH is the one with active verbs; the one with remarkable adjectives!

Here is YHWH’s triad, which we might first state in Hebrew: hesed, mispat, sedequah.

Steadfast love (hesed) is to stand in solidarity, to honour commitments, to be reliable toward all the partners.

–  Justice (mispat) in [Hebrew Scripture] concerns distribution in order to make sure that all members of the community have access to resources and goods for the sake of a viable life of dignity. […]

Righteousness (sedequah) concerns active intervention in social affairs, taking an initiative to intervene effectively in order to rehabilitate society, to respond to social grievance, and to correct every humanity-diminishing activity

This triad, hesed, mispat, sedequah, is everywhere present in [Hebrew Scripture] talk about divine purpose and about Israel’s covenantal life in the world. (pp.62-63)

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matt 6:24-25)

Jesus understands that his disciples were a lot like the world in their several anxieties. He urges them to be different, to be more like trustful creatures (lilies and birds) and less like acquisitive operators. He observes the easy trust and the daily responsiveness of lilies and birds and then he says, in one of his most remarkable utterances:

Yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. (Matt 6:29)

Solomon!  Solomon of the great triad of wisdom, might, and wealth! Be unlike Solomon in pursuit of control and domination and safety. Be unlike the triad of Pharaoh, unlike the triad of the national security state, unlike the triad of old certitudes:

For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (32-33)

The cadences of hesed, mispat, and sedequah continue to sound. They are a minority voice of subversion and alternative, and they have been entrusted to such as us. (Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, pp. 71-72)

Steadfast love, justice, and righteousness – honour commitments, ensure that all have access to what they need in life, actively intervene when humanity-diminishing activity is taking place!  We are called into this living out of steadfast love, justice, and righteousness which has been modeled first for us by a gracious and loving God.

We have all that we need around us – the world has resources of food, of shelter, of clothing, and all that we need – and we are called to work at the equitable distribution of those things so all have enough.  Strive first for this kind of just living, and you will not need to worry about your needs in the future.


Posted on February 27, 2011, in Tyler's occasional web log. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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