Sunday, August 25, 2013

Right and Wrong

Right and Wrong
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 25, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 13: 10-17 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. [1]


Sometimes things just make sense. This week we started our meetings at school. On Wednesday we had a special expert in the field of Character Education come to talk to us. She was a representative from the Character Education in Schools Coalition, from Washington D.C. We had been for sometime seeking ways to improve the way we intentionally teach our students to be young men of character, so we had high hopes from what this lady might say. We did a number of typical small group brainstorming exercises, talking about what we are already doing, and what we can begin to do better, all typical stuff. But then after lunch we got to a point where she started talking about the things that they do at their sponsored schools, and the ways in which they assess the character of their students and the effectiveness of their programs. This is where I lost it. She asked us to find ways that we can assess the character of our students. That we needed to place benchmarks for character, and then make sure that all of the students could reach those benchmarks. And here is the problem, and it will always be a problem, in order to get everyone to reach those benchmarks, they have got to be super super low, and then you have dissolved character so low, that it is completely unrecognizable as such. Of course I spoke up, and challenged her, that perhaps character isn't about assessing, getting to a point where you can reach the end of the day and claim to be a good person, but instead virtues to which we can aspire, constantly reaching upwards and upwards, a mixture of effort and grace. She told me that you can't build a house without a strong foundation, and I wish I was quick enough to tell back to her, that you try to sell a foundation as a house, but I didn't. The reason I say that things make sense is, that I had looked at the lectionary passage and found this one. Jesus healing on the Sabbath, and the backlash from the Pharisees.

Now, I want to talk a little about what Pharisees were at the time of Christ. Now since the Exile, when Jews were spread across God's creation, they could no longer base their national identity on the things that they had in the past, nor in the things that nations of the world had always previously based their identities upon. The temple of Solomon was no more, the monarchy had fallen, and the nation had collapsed. The people were forced to leave the land. Some exiled to Babylon and some spread to other parts of the world. Over the next hundreds of years Jews struggled against a series of occupying empires. First there was the Babylonians, who made  them leave Jerusalem, then the Persians, who let them return, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, recount the return to Jerusalem. If you read those two books you will find many specific parts referring to the need to keep the Jew's identity as a people intact, to keep them identifiable in a world that was constantly changing, and a world that seemed powered by the powerful, so the purpose of the laws was twofold. One reason was to keep God's favor, and the other was to show distinctions between them and the other nations of the world. After the Persians were the Greeks, and after the Greeks the Romans, which brings us to the time of Christ. Under the Greeks, many feared the Hellenizaton of  the Jewish people. Under the Romans there was more and more chances to modernize and become a part of the occupying culture. The Pharisees were a group of teachers who were trying their best to help their nation remain loyal to the traditions, to not dissolve within the rest of the Roman Empire, to be different, and to be the people of God. It is this mission that is happening when Jesus enters the scene and challenges them, their mission, and often, as he does here, calls them hypocrites, for trying to uphold the law for the people. It is easy for us to look back at this story and say to ourselves, how out of line the Pharisees in this story were, but with the historical point of view of the Pharisees in mind, you can see where they are coming from. I'm not sure that it completely exonerates them, but at least we can sympathize with them to some extent.
To me both the lady from the Character Association and the Pharisees are so similar. And much can be learned from their similarity. Both seem to be concerned with outward, visible forms of behavior. The Pharisees want to keep their people identifiably Jews, to set them apart, to distinguish them from others. The Character Association lady's motivation is similar. She wanted her schools to be able to set achievable standards, so they could declare to the world and to the students of the school, to concerned parents, to interested bureaucrats, to worried constituents that their school was better, distinguished from others, and an official school of character, and a solid rock in a changing world.  The question for both is, is there a difference between real character and assessable character? Is there a difference between being a real child of God, and one who can be visibly distinguished as such? Jesus seems to point out, as I did this week, that there must be more, there must be a difference because the demand of real character always is higher, the law of love is at stake and it cannot be assessed with a simple test and a checklist approach, for there are situations that arise that challenge the letter of the law with a real need within our call as human beings, and a tendency among humans to aspire to the image of goodness rather than actual goodness, we call this hypocrisy, and so did Jesus.
Jesus challenges the Pharisees, heals the woman, on the Sabbath, leaving the people rejoicing on one hand, but secretly wondering on the other hand, what it all means, and how we are to now, in light of Jesus' actions and justification, just how it is that we can determine right and wrong. And it is a question that haunts our world, especially as the Bureaucratic Pharisees are entering our schools and selling Goodness and Character, at seriously low standards, measuring goodness together with inclusivity, and group measures. Now this is the first issue. Laws and standards are created to divide people. Just like they divided the Jews from their occupiers, but they are dividing lines of minimums. If you achieve those minimums you are good, and if you do not you are bad, or you can insert your own adjective, a popular often used one is "in or out." Think about College acceptance, that's a good example, if you get good enough grades, then you get accepted, now if you don't make the minimums you get rejected. Now you pair with this notion, the idea of inclusivity, and the standards get lowered and lowered in order to keep the most people in. Now I agree with the inclusivity, what I have a problem with is the standards, at least as apply them to groups because they are based on minimums, teaching us to stoop rather than reach. I would prefer a messier system of reaching, failing, and grace.
Ok then, but how do we determine right from wrong, to what do we reach? I've been thinking about it for a while how we come up with our concept of right and wrong on an individual basis, how we determine which is which. How do you know? And not just how do I determine right from wrong, but how do all people. The way it seems to me is that there are internal and external forces that help us to determine right from wrong, and they create a tangled web around our minds, and even sometimes combine together. If we think about external forces, the first are traditions, which includes things like religion, philosophy, mores, education, what we are taught by parents and friends, stuff like that. They typically come from wise or religious people from the past. Then also there is the standard of popular opinion. This is a big one today. What does the majority of people think is right and wrong? How does that affect the way we think? Let's take a vote, or a poll, see what's trending on twitter. The last big external source would be divine revelation, which suggests that God personally speaks to us telling us the difference in our own lives, apart from traditions. All possible, are you following me so far?
 The next set is internal, based around what we think. Now what determines what we think, much of it may be from those external sources, but there may be factors about the way we each are wired from birth, being a parent has shown me some truth to this, since Coralee and Clara were so different, even on day 1 of their lives. Another internal could be a concept of conscience. Now is conscience just wiring, is it just an internalization of a divine source, like the Holy Spirit, or is it not real? All possibilities. The last way we may determine right from wrong is the practical experiential way. The idea that we've seen the results of certain types of behavior and if we don't like the consequences then we call the behavior bad, and if we do like the rewards we call the behavior good. Did I miss any? I did, but I want to wait a minute for it.
Now which of these do you use? Do you in some ways use all of them to determine right from wrong? Do you find that in some situations they work together, and in others they do not. Is it possible that a practical experiential version of right and wrong, is against the tradition, or the popular opinion. Is it possible that one says one thing and another something else. Traditions even have differences between them, over thousands of years, and popular opinion is constantly changing and shifting. An example of the practical being possibly wrong, at least in Jesus' example is the cross, certainly, at least in the short term, materialistic sense, a very bad outcome, but we'd all probably say that the sacrifice of the cross is a good thing. Many of us would also think that sacrifice for others in general is a good thing, though it may break the experiential definitions of reward and punishment.
Think about this now for our Bible scene. The Pharisees claim one tradition, claim it comes from God, and Jesus claims another, and claims his is God's. Obviously for us Jesus has a higher authority, but he does challenge an important traditional pillar, of work on the Sabbath. It goes even further when Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Ok, now how do we go forward with this? How do we live? How do we choose right from wrong, how can we assess the goodness of our character? It's not so easy is it? Blindly following the tradition would be easier. . . but Jesus challenges that here. It appears that there are situations where the tradition is limited. Many people have found that traditions are limited, and so they have replaced them, but is that for the better? There are many who replaced tradition with popular opinion, blindly following the herd, obviously it has its limitations. Other's try to base everything on their own perspective and experience, but this can lead to a very narrow view of the world, and doesn't lend itself well to things like sacrifice and empathy.
Jesus seems to suggest to us that we need more, that it is harder, more difficult to choose. There needs to be some kind of a mixture, where all parts of decision making faculties are important. Notice  how Jesus answers their questions. He doesn't tell them exactly what to do, but instead asks them a question, asks them to consider a parallel situation and deduce the proper behavior. Jesus seems to respect us and expect us to be able to make moral decisions like this on our own, as if we know right from wrong ourselves.
This leads me to the last idea that I said I would get to, and that is actual truth. Jesus seems to be pointing to the presence of their being an actual truth in the world, and it is this we should seek, and it transcends all of the other categories. In some ways they should all if true point towards the actual truth, and they all can and do, but perhaps not completely, and thus their limitations. But even though the tradition may not be 100% true, doesn't mean there aren't glimpses of truth within it. The same for popular opinion, the same for our wiring, the same for experiential. The truth would then be a real mixture of the true parts of all of these internal and external forces. We just need to find out what that mixture is. Jesus seems to point us in that direction, suggesting that we may just have the ability and knowledge to do so, or at least the potential. But at the same time offers us grace and forgiveness.

You see this is why our standards and minimums just never work, and are never high enough, because they only represent a small piece of the truth, a finite piece of an infinite truth for God is included in truth and God is infinite. Anything less sells us way short of the image of God in which we were created, and sells short the amazing creation that is human beings. Instead of dividing us by standards, we are given the chance through grace to reach to amazing possibilities of truth. It's harder because it has to be real, it's more difficult because it doesn't allow us to stop and rest, it's a challenge because it constantly has us reaching for more, but as we reach we are approaching God and God's truth. What an amazing goal, something that seems to be constantly evading us and is just out of our grasp, we also find at rest loving us in our hearts. May we be both inspired to greatness and filled with loving inclusion because it is our lot as children of God, human beings, made in God's holy image.
I'd like to close by reading you a poem. I included a part of this poem in the bulletin. It is called, "Law, Like Love" by W.H. Auden. Listen for my categories in the images Auden includes in describing love.

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I've told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,

No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.
Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.

Like love we don't know where or why,
Like love we can't compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.

And therefore we truly and desparately need grace!

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 13:10-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.