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Sermon – “Compromise is Good” – October 7, 2012

Compromise Is Good

Psalm 40;  Acts 15:  1-5, 12-14, 19-20;  Luke 20:  20-26


In the early 1960’s the Belgian Congo, once one of Europe’s most repressive overseas colonies, erupted in violence.  Belgium first had reluctantly and then precipitously granted independence, and the resulting turmoil between factions eventually included attacks on white residents.  Chet and Margaret Jump had, at that time, been serving as missionaries in the Congo since the 1940’s.  At the time of the crisis, Chet oversaw American Baptist missions in all of Africa.  The Jumps, along with the other foreign missionaries, were evacuated as the conflict escalated, and being taken to safety while leaving behind the family of faith they had nurtured was not easy for them.  Chet was directly involved with the U.S. government in handling the evacuation, and acknowledged that the missionaries’ continued presence would have endangered the indigenous church people loyal to them, but Margaret always was troubled by the thought that first-century Christian workers, and others in centuries since, had refused to discontinue their work even though it meant martyrdom, and she had been ready to remain in the Congo at the risk of her life.

Not many face situations like that, and  those that do never can without ambivalence, but all of us who know the Jumps are glad they returned here to continue their work for people around the world.  Too, though perhaps not evident to the religious community at the time, the State Department had its own agenda.  Whatever posture Washington was trying to find with regard to Belgium and to peoples seeking independence from foreign control would have been complicated by the deaths of U.S. nationals.

Regardless of what we might recognize as the necessity for things to have turned out as they did, Margaret always felt compromised by the dictates of her sponsoring denomination and her nation.  When the time came for her to be hurried away, she identified more closely with her faith than with its institutional organization, and more closely with the Congolese converts and their crisis than with people here.

I begin with this example of compromise– of weighing the claims of conscience on individuals with the best interests of others, and making a choice as responsible as possible to both, because at least some of us here know the Jumps, and some of you have heard Margaret talk about this.  More important, though, is how it illustrates how compromise naturally arises in the real world.  In some possible world you might imagine a refusal to accept compromise as principled and even positive, but in the real interactions of real human interests, there are not only going to be two sides in conflict about every question, but there always is the chance, and since I think compromise is a good thing, the hope that there is another source of values at least slightly independent from the conflicting positions, which can, provided it has enough power, relativize their antagonistic stances and impose on them another way which permits both to continue without either having entirely dominated the other, or entirely submitted to the other.

When I was asked to devise a series of sermons to offer, from this pulpit, on perspectives which might not fit common stereotypes of who Baptists are, I think arguing for compromise may have struck some as an odd topic.  Don’t get me wrong.  There  are plenty of Baptists who will make a virtue of refusing to accept any way except their own, and we are prone to that, since we believe God encourages and enables us to work out the sense of scripture and God’s call upon us as individuals, and not easily to accommodate any human authority.  This is not just because we can be stubborn and sometimes stupid, but because historically we began as sincere seekers after God whose independent approach was persecuted by the established church and the courts, armed enforcers, and prisons of the state.

Baptists, however much we might like to think of ourselves as uncompromising–and Baptists do like to see themselves as heroically sticking up for God, no matter how large a majority they may belong to–there are other parts of our tradition which encourage us to recognize the need to balance interests, and seek solutions acceptable to all.  The big thing is that we decide who we are and how we serve God democratically.  Though it is possible to dominate weaker positions politically, and ignore the hopes of opponents, at least sometimes Baptists see that as a poor way to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and other times Baptists realize that a culture of cooperation may be an easier place to serve the Prince of Peace than a culture of contention.  Too, once in a while, conscious of our personal faults and cognizant of how God has enabled us to evolve in our thinking over time, we may suspect that we are not always going to be right about everything, and that it might make sense to listen to what someone else says.

Jesus Christ may be the same yesterday, today, and forever– Jesus being eternal, and a living Lord, and an expression of a deity transcending space and time, and therefore not susceptible to its entropy–but a disciple shouldn’t be the same no matter when and no matter what.  We do live through new realities, and we must prayerfully be learning what discipleship is in each new place life takes us.  I’m not going to disparage a childlike faith, if that’s what we bring from our past.  It may give us the right trust to possess and the proper simplicity to have when we meet the challenges of growing up and aging, but how are we to “grow up in every way into Christ” if we don’t augment the best parts of a child’s faith with the humility and wisdom of a mature believer?

Most important, compromise is modeled for us in Christ’s choices and in the Spirit-led development of the early church.  Jesus gets to the place where the only sense he can make of his service to God is to say “not my will, but thine be done.”  At that point there is no middle path, although Jesus notably is hoping for one.  Up to that point he, without ever renouncing the principles which have made him enemies, finds a way to combine teaching them with ways of escaping his enemies’ efforts to kill him.  It is important to him, as he states once when slipping out of their grip, that a “prophet not die away from Jerusalem,” and so he makes sure, at that point, that a way is found for both self-preservation and the spirit of self-sacrifice which drives him.  Today’s verbal sparring with the agents of his opponents about paying taxes to Caesar is a good illustration both of Jesus’ intentional finding of a third way and the sort of bind into which persons get when they aren’t alert to the possibility or the need for an approach which refuses to completely endorse one of two possibilities.

The gospel writer tells us this is a trap.  The way the trap is supposed to work is this:  Jesus is going to be asked, publicly, about a problem which will force him either to deny the legitimacy of paying taxes to the Emperor, which will trigger his arrest as an insurrectionist, or to deny God’s sovereignty over the Jewish people, which will discredit him as a holy teacher.  He is presented the problem about paying taxes to Caesar as if those are the only two responses.  That’s the very reason his enemies put it to him.

Jesus doesn’t answer either of the two ways they have set up for him.  As he often does, he questions the question, and finds something there that introduces the chance to change the terms.  Whose picture is on the coin?  Give the guy whose coin it evidently is the coin, and give God those things which evidently are God’s.

Here’s a lesson for us.  When life seems to be asking us to choose between two things, and we have a good reason to resist choosing between them– perhaps preserving relationships, or retaining something else of value–question the question.  What’s going on?  Is there a different angle from which to consider it?  Are all the possible outcomes understood?  Is there an assumption being made that we can be manipulated because we’ll be afraid of seeming to betray something we stand for, and can we bring our highest values into recasting the problem?

We’ve read bits and pieces about a major crisis in the early church from the fifteenth chapter of Acts.  What we think of as Christianity began as a movement within Judaism, and at least some of the early Jewish disciples regarded Judaism as a prerequisite for following Jesus.  Paul’s great success getting non Jews to seek baptism and life within Christian fellowships suggested to those emphasizing Jewish identity as crucial that Paul wasn’t getting the message right and the new converts weren’t really yet what God intended.  This controversy shows up in several of Paul’s letters, notably Galatians.

What we have in Acts 15 is a political meeting to investigate and act upon a problem shared by all of Jesus’ disciples.  Presiding is Jesus’ brother James, who is head of the church at Jerusalem and final authority.  What does he do?  He hears both sides, speaks up for the evidence in favor of accommodation of Paul’s approach, and then finds a compromise.  A few Jewish dietary scruples and moral imperatives must be observed.  That probably didn’t satisfy either Paul’s supporters or his opponents, but it kept the servants of Jesus together, and preaching, and teaching, practicing table fellowship, and caring for the needy.  I’m sure there were purists then who hated it, and on principle went some rival way.  God, however, wasn’t with them.  That cause, and its champions, fade from view.

Purists to this day might regret finding a middle way, but the first disciples believed that God required it, and the New Testament reports it as the result of appropriate authority responding to the witness of the Spirit.  That’s something every Christian fellowship should remember any time some issue arises in its midst which seems to require one side to win and one side to lose.  The Holy Spirit may prefer to preserve the Church than to favor the parties or passions of mortals.




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