Many Gifts, Common Good

The more things change, the more they stay the same – or so goes the clichéd formula.

But you’d think followers of Jesus, empowered as we are by the promise of God’s Holy Spirit in Christ, would enjoy immunity from such apathy and inaction. After all, the flagship of Presbyterian faith anchors deep in long-held Protestant belief that the Church and its people are reformed and always reforming, as inspired by the Holy Spirit. 

Yet, as we’ll hear shortly in our Scripture lesson, if you compare what the apostle Paul writes to early Church to what he might write to us some 2,000-odd years later, the similarity of message is stunning. To the Corinthians and to us, Paul suggests a kind of stagnancy within the Body of Christ – as if we, like the rest of our broken and fearful world, remain trapped in the doldrums of the same ol’, same ol’ – with no end in sight.

Assessing the many social problems confronting our country, Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson writes: “We face a choice between a society where people accept modest sacrifices for a common good or a more contentious society where groups selfishly protect their own benefits.” Sound familiar?

The “common good” has long been an important ethical and biblical concept, and prioritizing the common good always challenges societies and cultures that encourage “looking out for No. 1.”  Everywhere, it seems, observers are maintaining that our most fundamental community problems sprout and erupt from widespread pursuit of individual interests. Which is exactly the same critique that Paul levels, indicting both the Corinthians of their day us in ours.

This morning’s lesson stares us down with declaration of our dereliction in serving the common good. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, listen, now, for heaven’s encouragement to something more fruitful.

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.

You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. (1 Corinthians 12:1-11)

Seeing a well-honed gift in action is a marvel to behold and a sight for sore eyes.

Think, for instance, about the gifts of coordination and administration. For me several people come to mind – including Irene, an executive administrative assistant with whom I once worked.

For more than a quarter century, Irene juggled multiple balls in the air, maintained irons in many fires, and just generally kept in good order long strings of details for executives and directors overseeing five daily newspapers, a handful of weeklies, and eight radio stations.

Irene kept everything straight and everyone on task. She knew precisely which file drawer contained the needed paperwork, and she knew exactly whom to call when publishing or broadcasting operations flew off the rails. Irene knew where all the bodies were buried – figuratively, of course, because she’s the one who ordered the shovels.

On top of that, Irene kept a sharp lookout for emerging needs requiring immediate attention. If you scheduled a catered business lunch, and one person in a group of 25 was a vegetarian, rest assured there’d be a meatless entrée available. If Irene learned that an employee was having wrist problems from working too long on the computer, before too long arrived the delivery of wrist-rests designed to reduce the risk of carpal-tunnel syndrome – for everyone!

Once on a business trip to Norfolk, Virginia, the remnants of Hurricane Andrew skirted up the eastern seaboard and forced cancelation of my scheduled flight home. It was the mid-’90s, long before the empowerment of smart phones, so I called Irene and explained my travel predicament. In no more than 10 minutes, she had me rebooked onto a next-day flight home, and she’d also made a new hotel reservation, so I had a place to lay my head for the extra night.

Like I said, seeing a well-honed gift in action is a marvel to behold.

Some people are “big-picture” folks; others, like Irene, are “detail-oriented.” Some inspire with majestic visions of the future; others transform vision into reality by sweating the small stuff and micromanaging the nitty-gritty. Thankfully, God is both types in one, and the Holy Spirit embodies every gift and distributes each one accordingly – as she sees fit and as God’s desires demand. Few passages lay out that spiritual truth as swiftly and concisely as Paul’s call to serving the common good.

The notion of “common good” has floated about for at least a couple millennia.

Its definition describes certain overall conditions that advantage and benefit everyone equally. Or simply, “common good” is the rising tide that floats all boats.

The common good, then, consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend working in harmony to benefit everyone – infrastructure that enjoys a well-maintained transportation network, an accessible and affordable health care system and food network, an effective organization of public safety and security, an honest governmental climate and a just legal system, a pollution-free natural environment, and a flourishing economic system.

The common good doesn’t just happen on its own. Establishing and maintaining the common good require the cooperative efforts of often many people. Just as keeping a park free of litter depends on each user picking up after himself, so also maintaining the social conditions from which we all benefit requires the cooperative efforts of each and every man, woman, and child.

Since everyone benefits from the common good, it surely seems like we’d all be more than willing to respond enthusiastically – or at least with only a modicum of grumbling – to urgings that we all cooperate to establish and maintain the common good.

But numerous observers have identified a number of obstacles that hinder communities from successfully doing so.

First, experts say, the very idea of a common good clashes with a diverse society like ours. Different people, from different backgrounds and experiences, have different ideas and visions, about what is worthwhile or what constitutes the good of all. Those differences are growing more pronounced, as the voices of more and more previously silenced groups, like women and minorities, are now finally being heard. Given these differences, some people believe it will be impossible for us to agree on what particular kinds of social systems, institutions, and environments we’ll all pitch in and step up to support.

Such disagreements are bound to undercut our ability to evoke a sustained and widespread commitment to the common good. Which leads some to argue working for the common good is an unachievable goal wrapped in a pipe dream!

A second problem that hinders those laboring for the common good is the “free-rider problem” – the challenge of individuals who reap the benefits of the common good while steadfastly refusing to do their part in support of the common good.

A clean, adequate water supply, for example, is a common good from which all people benefit. But to maintain an adequate supply of water during a drought, people must conserve water, which entails sacrifices. Some individuals are reluctant to do their part, however, since they know that, so long as enough others conserve, “free-riders” like themselves enjoy benefit access without reducing their own consumption.

Having too many free-riders destroys the common good. That’s exactly what’s happening to many of our common goods, such as the environment or education, where the reluctance of all persons to support efforts to maintain the health of these systems is leading to their virtual collapse.

That rugged sense of individualism drives a third problem encountered in the pursuit of common good.

Our historical traditions place a high value on individual freedom, on personal liberty and rights, and on allowing each person to “do her own thing.” Our culture organizes itself around separate, independent individuals who are free to pursue their own individual goals and interests without interference from others.

Not necessarily a bad thing, but in such individualistic cultures, it makes for a tough argument: Convincing folks that they should sacrifice some of their freedom, some of their personal goals, some of their self-interest, for the sake of the common good. American tradition reinforces the individual who thinks that he shouldn’t have to contribute to the community’s common good but should be left free to pursue his own personal ends.

Finally, appeals to the common good are confronted by the problem of an unequal sharing of burdens. Maintaining the common good often requires particular individuals or groups to bear costs that are much greater than those borne by others.

Maintaining an unpolluted environment, for example, might require that particularly polluting firms install costly pollution control devices, undercutting profits and expected return on investment.

Making employment opportunities more equal might require that some groups – white males come to mind – limit for a time their own employment chances.

Making the health system affordable and accessible to all might require that insurers accept lower premiums and abandon hopes for windfall profits, that physicians accept lower salaries, or that those with particularly costly diseases or conditions forego the medical treatment on which their lives depend.

Forcing particular groups or individuals to carry such unequal burdens “for the sake of the common good” is, at least arguably, unjust. Moreover, the prospect of having to carry such heavy and unequal burdens leads such groups and individuals to resist any attempts to secure common goods.

Yet the drumbeat of Scripture reverberates deep with the promise of the Spirit in service of the common good. And we keep trying – hopefully, improving – even if only by baby steps!

In his moving book, Father Joe, Tony Hendra shares the story of how a simple Benedictine monk living on a tiny island off the coast of England saved Hendra’s soul. Mr. Hendra makes his living as a satirist. He was editor in chief of Spy magazine and the original editor of The National Lampoon.

As a teenager, Mr. Hendra was sent to Father Joe’s monastic retreat after being caught in an affair with a married woman. For the next several decades, Father Joe was the primary source of friendship, family, and faith for the cynical Hendra. He was so touched by Father Joe that he even considered joining the monastery himself, but Mr. Hendra eventually moved away to Hollywood, where he adopted a much faster-paced celebrity lifestyle. Even so, the influence of Father Joe remained with Hendra, a constant light in the darkness. Mr. Hendra writes:

“Far away across the Rockies, across drowsy, sleeping states, across the jagged teeth of my hometown, across that other eternal night of an ocean – thousands and thousands of miles away – was the man who had once been the center of my world, my calm harbor, my sheltering wing. A tiny lighthouse on a tiny island, blinking his faith into the night. Here comes the beam again, sweeping round, a pinprick in the darkness, sending out its simple message. ‘Love. Love. Nothing but love.’ There, now it’s gone again.”

That well describes every follower of Jesus who uses those Spirit-given gifts for the common good. You and I are blazing pinpricks of light in a dark world, tiny revelations of the splendor of Christ’s love for a hurting world. Let us together be such magnificent beacons of hope, grace, and peace, reflecting the Light of the world into every dark and distant corner.

Such dazzling dreams are the particular stuff of May and June, as graduates walk across stages to receive diplomas – backpacks and suitcases, hearts and minds, chock full of big dreams and grand ideas that’ll surely change the world.

And some of them will do just that – change the world by rewriting the rules, leveling the playing fields, and making crooked places plain.

But most of them won’t. That’s just reality.

After graduation, most of us go on to lead normal, average lives absent of accomplishments worthy of lasting note. And that’s OK. Because whatever you do, if it serves the common good, then your life offers blessing, rich and full, surely powered by the Spirit in quiet-but-meaningful ways.

And thus, with all due pomp and circumstance, we move closer to Sunday, June 4, and our annual celebration of Pentecost: Heaven’s breezy, fiery celebration of the full array of gifts that any and all communities need to function day in and day out. Everyone counts. Everyone contributes.  Some in flashy, up-front ways; others in quiet, behind-the-scenes ways.

But take away any one of them, and our communities cannot function. Nor will we find ourselves walking upright and down the path of discipleship with Jesus.

So, you’ve got a couple weeks to answer the question for yourself: How will you celebrate Pentecost this year? In what ways might God in Christ want your Spirit-given gifts be used in service of the common good?

Heavy-duty questions to be sure. But as it should be! Because listening for new ways of sharing your time, talent, and treasure to serve the common good is not a task for the faint of heart. It is reserved only for those in whom God’s promise of the Holy Spirit has been baptized.

Ancient words, ever true! Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden preached this sermon on Sunday, May 21, 2023, the seventh Sunday of Easter at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the sixth of his Easter-season series on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Doug Bratt, Tony Hendra, Stan Mast, and John Rawls inform the message.

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