Following the Way

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on May 22, 2012, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

St. John 14:6 – Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

What would you have done?

A few years ago and a few miles away, a member of the congregation I was serving went to the home of a dying friend to see how he could help and his friend asked him to get his gun, and clean it, and give it to him.  Suppose you had been the one to show up that day to be of assistance to a dying friend and found yourself being asked to get his gun so he could kill himself: what would you have done? Over the next few months we found ourselves in the middle of a long and complicated legal and legislative process with the state trying to do its duty under laws that were framed without this specific situation in mind, trying to apply a general law to a specific situation.  And meanwhile most of us, probably all of us, reacted primarily in terms of the specific situation and the specific people known to us.

I say “reacted” because I’m not sure there was much pondering of principles, thinking through of the theological dimension, attempting to step back from the specific situation and think about basic commitments and what we might learn from this event that might be useful to us in some future time. Christianity is, of course, a commitment that involves conduct.  But conduct is not the primary thing.  Some people think it is.  For some people religion is conduct: it’s a list of “Thou shalt nots.”  But there’s nothing about that in the Creed. The Creed is not commandments; the Creed is about faith, it’s about a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and, yes, followers of Jesus ought to find their lives being changed, but that’s not what comes first.

The old question, “What would Jesus do?” has the priorities right.  It isn’t a question of  “What do the commandments say”, but “What would Jesus do?” What would you do if you belong to Jesus, if you live in him? In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Not “this is” but “I am.” Not “do this,” but “live in me.”

Christianity is not about laws.  Laws have their place, but laws are guidelines for the future based on past experience and past experience isn’t always an adequate guide to the new and difficult present.  Law is a blunt instrument to deal with delicate issues, it’s a cleaver when you need a scalpel.

Jesus often condemned the people who put law first. If someone needs to be healed and it’s the Sabbath, it’s the need for healing that matters more than the law.  Laws may fit most cases but they aren’t likely to fit all cases.  The easy answer isn’t always the right answer. The world is technicolor, not black and white. There are all too many people who jump for the easy answer and the quick solution, who are quick to condemn or to judge, slow to forgive.  And it certainly makes life easier to approach it that way, but easier isn’t always better. There are churches that offer easy answers and lots of people find that appealing. I wish it were that simple.

Suppose you had been there at the bedside of a dying friend. Of course, the problem is that the really tough situations in life don’t usually come to us with time to consider. Right now, right now, what will you do? You can’t ask for time to go call the Vicar or to check out some theological reference works.  That’s not usually an option. You need to have done that already.  There are whole libraries of reference works and you should have read them already so that you can act the way a properly informed Christian would act. Christians have thought deeply about such issues over the centuries and there are mountains of material to guide us. Why haven’t you read them?

Some of the best moral guidance was written centuries ago when people apparently had time to ponder the fine points of moral theology. I went to seminary and had years to study these things, so I know that there was a school of thought called “probabalism.”  Faced with an ethical issue, the probabalist will be justified to act in a way that he or she has grounds for believing is probably right – though they can’t be certain. There was also “probabiliorism” which suggested you should only follow the course that was more probably right.  But the problem with probabilism and probabiliorism is that the decision on the relative degrees of probability would probably require more time and skill than would probably be available when you needed to act.

But you have to act. And you can’t go read a book and you don’t have time to think things through, so your action is going to be the result of who you are.  All the forces that have shaped you over the whole course of your life make you who you are: the kind of person who will be likely to act in a particular way in a particular circumstance.  So the first thing you need to do if a friend is likely to ask you to assist them in committing suicide is to form a Christian character. Read your Bible, come to church, say your prayers, receive the sacrament.  Yes, and maybe even read some of that mountain of material.  St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Donne – people like that had very good minds and a very deep faith and have excellent advice to offer. And so do many modern Christians.  You might also learn something from a sermon, and I should have preached this one long before that parishioner faced his moment of truth.

But even if I had, it would still have been only one element in the constellation of factors that came together that late spring morning and it might not have changed a thing. I remember years ago coming across a mantra offered by a Roman Catholic priest to people recently bereaved.  So often, he said, we find ourselves wishing we had done things better before someone died.  If only I had done this or said that. But “Under the circumstances,” he would say, “and with no opportunity for rehearsal, you did the best you could.”  And that’s almost always the case.

The moral dilemmas that come at us are compounded of such a mixture of good and evil that there are seldom clear and obvious answers.  We have a two party system, not because half the population is right and half of it is wrong, but because we ourselves are formed by such a variety of pressures and circumstances and face situations compounded of such a mixture of good and evil, that the choices are seldom simple.  I don’t see things the same way that George Bush did nor Barack Obama either, nor do I see them the way Rush Limbaugh does, nor exactly the way the Archbishop of`Canterbury does.  We might all agree that Jesus Christ is Lord and that life is sacred but we will come to a particular situation nonetheless with different eyes and different judgment. Which is not to say that all decisions are equally good or equally bad. It is possible to believe in God and the sacredness of life, but still act out of very selfish motives, and then to blind ourselves to the selfishness of our motives.

So once we have recognized the complexity of moral judgments and the need we have to live in Christ and shape an informed Christian conscience, there is still and always a need for humility and forgiveness.  I need to recognize first of all that I might be wrong.  There’s no room for arrogance, no excuse for assuming that we are right and the other person is evil. We might be wrong. We need to bear that in mind day by day and moment by moment. When I look at certain other Christians I see what looks like arrogance and pride but maybe that’s how they look at me.  Humility is always in order. So is forgiveness. Even the best things we do are often so mixed with evil that to help some one person we hurt someone else.  A cell tower is a blot on the landscape but it enables emergency workers to get help to people quickly.  If I go out to dinner with family or friends even to get there means using gasoline that pollutes the atmosphere and depletes scarce resources and costs money that might have been given to charity, but how else are we to build relationships and express our love for each other?

Sometimes we make choices with enormous consequences without even realizing it.  Handing John Wells a gun to shoot himself changed nothing. He would have died shortly anyway. Yet it was front page news all over the state and beyond. That act made no difference.  But the size of the pledge I make to the church can make a great difference. It can determine whether this church is here to serve this community and it can determine whether an orphan in Haiti lives or dies. And all the budgetary decisions we make – the kind of car and clothes we buy, the junk food with which we indulge ourselves, impulse buying of all sorts – these are life and death decisions that prevent us or enable us to share with others the material goods that God has given us to share. So finally, there’s a need for forgiveness.

Under the circumstances and with no opportunity for rehearsal we do the best we can. But no action we take is a perfect and unmitigated good. The ancient oath the doctor takes says “Do no harm.” But even that’s not possible. In a world so mixed with evil, it’s not possible to do good always, everywhere, and never do any harm. Nor can we ever draw a perfect line between a proper concern for ourselves and the self-indulgence that prevents us from helping others. We do the best we can, but we need to be forgiven. The lack of definitive laws is not a blank check to do what you want.  Laws are easier; life in Christ is harder.  We know we can never measure up; always we will need forgiveness.

And that’s what the gospel’s about.  It’s about forgiveness. The good news is that God knows how flawed our judgments are and offers free and full forgiveness for all our faults and failures. The judge who made the final decision in the case I talked about said, “I’m glad I wasn’t faced with that choice.” I’m glad I wasn’t also. But more to the point is the realization that we are all of us daily faced with choices that shape the kind of people we are and that impact friends and neighbors and people around the world we have never heard of or thought of.

They say that the weather in the United States is influenced by a butterfly moving its wings in China. The war in Afghanistan, war and peace in the Middle East, the decision to intervene or not intervene when others are dying is influenced not just by the choices we make on election day but by the words we say in the checkout line and the time we spend in prayer. You and I are the children of God, members of Christ, and are called to make known God’s love and forgiveness.

Praise God for giving us such a life and dignifying us with such responsibility. Praise God for making available the tools we need to shape our lives toward God’s purpose for us. Praise God also for offering us forgiveness when we ask for the forgiveness we always need because the choices we make are mixed with unintended and unrecognized evils. Praise God for using even the tragedies of life to bring us together and to make us aware of what a gift life is and how much compassion there is in other human beings and how much more is needed.

1 Comment

Clark HendleyMay 29th, 2011 at 3:28 am

Thanks for this thoughtful homily–well argued and wonderfully articulated.

One year later, the peaches on my tree are ripening, becoming a deeper yellowish-orange, streaked with red. They will not be plump this year because of our persistent drought in Central Texas. I have taken your advice, and the trunk is encased in a galvanized piece of ducting. It remains to be seen in the coming days if, in fact, it will foil the local raccoon population!

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