Editor’s note: Every once in awhile, I have a sermon that expresses an important (to me) theological point. This is one of those. The beginning piece is from the morning’s news about Tamir Rice.
Sermon given at Center Congregational Church, Torrington, CT 10/11/2015
“How To Figure Out Anything (About Ethics)”
Ask my friends. I’m generally a very loving guy, generally calm, generally peaceful, opinionated, but kind, for the most part. But I have my pet peeves, things that just set me off. Dead kids is one of them. Racism is another. Unhealthy systems is another, which is why I do the work I do — whether for families or churches. This morning I was awoken to the news that all my buttons were set off at the same time. I am so upset, I could spit. Tamir Rice and his family were hurt again this morning. According to the New York Times this morning, “2 Outside Reviews Say Cleveland Officer Acted Reasonably in Shooting Tamir Rice, 12”
One of the reviewers said “The question is not whether every officer would have reacted the same way,” Kimberly A. Crawford, the retired F.B.I. agent, which noted that Officer Loehmann had no way of knowing Tamir’s gun was fake. “Rather, the relevant inquiry is whether a reasonable officer, confronting the exact same scenario under identical conditions could have concluded that deadly force was necessary.” What she is saying is that the police system has policies that, under the same circumstances, with the same report/ call to the police, would have left open the door to using deadly force.
A 10 year old Black child is dead at the hands of a white police officer, without discussion, without attempts at de-escalation, because the officer shot “was in fear for his life” from a 10 year old sitting openly in a gazebo, while he was inside a metal automobile? Really? Under those circumstances, deadly force is “reasonable”? If that’s the view of the wider law enforcement community, there is a problem with the law enforcement community’s system. From a Christian perspective, it is wrong.
Now, there are some you who will point out that racism isn’t an issue here, and that the dispatcher didn’t mention that the child was African-American. The fact of the matter, though, is the officers responded quickly to the situation and had to rely on their “intuition” or “instincts” and their instincts told them that that 12 year old was dangerous when any child of 12 like the ones who were just in the children’s time probably wouldn’t. It’s society’s racism that poses for the cop’s “instinct” or “intuition” that led to this shooting.
Last Week, at the beginning of the sermon, I talked about the recent shooting at a community college in Oregon. This past week, in my “other life” as a therapist, I had a client who was — with her brothers and her mother — smacked across the knuckles by her drunken father and told not to cry because he was trying to toughen up the kids. In the next few weeks, members of the Connecticut Conference will make decisions about various things. All of these things, though quite different, have something in common — they each require an ethical response, and — for us as Christians — they require a Christian ethical response.
There are those who would offer a Republican ethical response or a Democratic ethical response or a capitalist ethical response or a socialist ethical response. There are those who would offer a philosophical ethical response and those who would offer a military response, or an American response. None of those are the same as a Christian ethical response. There are lots of competing ideas and choices out there on which to make our ethical decisions, and it’s easy to find some idea to hang our hat on and be loyal to.
As Christians, though, we can’t be Americans, or Republicans or Democrats first. We are not socialists or survivalists before anything else. We are Christians — who live in this country, who belong to a party or like a philosophy or whatever, but we are Christians first, because as Christians, we know that if we go mixing loyalty to the country with Christianity, you get “Deutschland Uber Alles” — Germany above everything — being preached from the pulpits, and that doesn’t work. God doesn’t like it when we split our loyalties or worship things that aren’t God, because they inevitable lead to… well, unholy results.
So how do we make difficult decisions — or easy ones — in life? How do we live? How do we know what’s good and what’s bad? And how can we trust others to make good decisions that resemble our goals?
Let me start with an odd source. …Years ago, in private practice, I had a client who was a recovering alcoholic and cocaine user and, well, she had been messed up by every drug she had tried and she had tried a lot of drugs. Early in her recovery, though, she had learned something I had never heard of before: “Do the next right thing”. If you want to live life and you’re not sure what to do, do the next right thing”. It’s as simple as that.
In therapy, we do a thing called “treatment planning”. If a client comes in, and they want my help, I first listen to who they are and what they think is the problem. Then I ask where they want to go with their lives. Between point A (where they are) and point B (where they want to be) are all of these dots that need to be filled in, all of these days to be lived before they get “there”, wherever “there” is for them.
Christians and Christian churches can be like my former client — spun around so many times mentally by all of the different choices and temptations out there that they no longer know what they think or what they feel. Treatment planning in that case looks a lot like interim work. While they first recover, I focus them back on listening to themselves, and feeling what they feel, just to get their bearings.
What do we do in the meantime? I point them in a healthy direction and — using their own senses and intuition — they do the next right thing. Then the next right thing, and the next, then they’re on the yellow brick road until they can click their heels and get “there”. As I like to say, “if you put your ducks in a row, one day they’ll start walking”.
But here’s the real question: How do we know what the right direction is? The early church talked, as I said last week, about “the way of life and the way of death”. We can start by taking Jesus at his word, “I am the resurrection and the life”. If we want to follow the way of life, we could do worse than ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?”. Along with that, what did God do? What does “of God” mean?
In this morning’s texts we see what it means to act in a Godly way. It’s “godly” because, by definition, it’s like God.
1) God creates and likes what God sees. God rests and sits in awe.
2) God creates new things.
2) God, in Jesus, resurrects people.
So, this is the basic character of God: give life to things. Angry people with guns — or mentally ill people with guns or however you understand that whole thing — take life from things. That’s not Good, and that’s not God’s will. What gives life is “of God”, what doesn’t…isn’t.
The woman who was abused as a child? Her father deadened her soul. That’s not God’s will. His acts didn’t inspire her, he didn’t make her more alive. They didn’t make her be in awe of the universe. They didn’t help her to rest and appreciate life. They didn’t resurrect her spirit. That’s how we know they are wrong. God is the founder, and fountain of, what some theologians call “life-givingness”. Anything that doesn’t make you feel more alive, or doesn’t leave the person you’re trying to help feeling more alive isn’t “of God”. It is as simple as that. Anything that does — anything that makes you more hopeful, more alive, more creative, more forgiving, is “of God”. “God” does not equal “hurt”, and if somebody tells you it does, they’re lying. OK, I know I said “it’s as simple as that” and — generally , it’s true. As a starting point, if you ask yourself, “will I feel more alive?” when thinking about your choices, you’re generally going to be on the right track. If you ask yourself “at the end of this, will the other person feel more alive or less alive?” you can figure out the “next right thing” and go that way, building strength on top of strength.
In a few weeks, the CT Conference will vote on some things. In this church, on every committee, people will vote on things. Each of us — individually and together — will make decisions. If you start with the right question, and listen honestly for the answer, you’ll be doing the next right thing.
Having worked with addicts, though, I have to tell you it’s not that clear in the short term. It’s still very clear in the long term, but right now, at this moment, feeling “good” will hurt and feeling “bad” will lead toward healing. This is why addiction is a lie. People who use cocaine, for instance, I understand, feel better-than-great for some period of time — perhaps 20 minutes or so — but — and this is a big “but” — then they feel horrible and broke and mad at themselves for days, weeks, even years.
But what happens when we non-addicts — do a version of this ourselves? What happens when we — trying to do the right thing — do something with unforeseen consequences? What if — while trying to do the right thing, we do the wrong thing? What if our lives have been turned so upside-down that we don’t know what feeling good looks like anymore and we act out of the lies which have led us there?
Nothing is over til God says it’s over. Richard Bach, in his book “Illusions” says “here’s a test to see if your mission in life is over. If you’re alive, it isn’t”. As long as we’re alive, we can resurrect our souls, and regain our sense of truth and reality. After we’re dead, God does it because only God can. During life, as Robert MacAfee Brown noted in our Bible Study last week, people can feel resurrected (alive again) when they bring their mistakes to God and repent.
Now, by “repent”, I don’t mean say “I’m sorry”. The Biblical Hebrew word for what we would now call “repent”, is the word “shoov”. It means “turn around”, “go back”, do the opposite of what you were doing and return… to yourself — to the truth and the way that leads to life. In the story of the “Prodigal Son”, it says “he came to himself” and returned home. God wants that for you. So again, the goal for our decisions, if they are to be godly, is fuller life for everyone involved.
If you, or your corporation, or your denomination, or your church, is planning something that will hurt someone — take over their land, destroy the earth, shoot them, whatever — if, at the end of your actions, you will see sad faces, or people in pain — it’s not the right thing to do. Don’t do it.
If people will, or do, have new hope, then it is the right thing. If it allows for forgiveness with repentance, it’s holy. If it doesn’t, there is no hope, there is no resurrection, and God is not there.
To illustrate “the way of life vs. the way of death” My friend Dave used to tell a story of a man with a peaceful lion and an angry one in front of him. When he asks a wise man, “which one will live?”, the man answers “whichever one you feed“.
We need, as Christians, to be about the feeding of the good things in life and starving those things which would feed into evil. Which brings me to my final point. This is the first of four sermons with a stewardship theme in them.
If you believe that this church has enriched your life, and fed your soul, brought you closer to God’s creation and awe or helped you turn your life around, then you want to feed it. If you have hope for it, then it’s doing the right things, and you should feed it.
If, on the other hand, you feel abused by this church or by its members, don’t feed it. You know what your experience is. I don’t. We should never expect you to feed our coffers if we don’t feed your soul or bring joy into your life.
If you’re one of those people that hurts others, and you want this church to succeed, then you want to stop hurting others, you want to repent — both by saying you’re sorry and by not doing those things again. You can get more bees with honey than vinegar. If all you’re putting out is vinegar, then you need to stop. Or if you think that honey must always be “flavored” with vinegar, you need to re-think your plans. We are each responsible for our actions and God offers us new choices and new lives if we do — the way of life and the way of death. This church should be about “life”.
But back to the larger picture: as long as I am here as your pastor, I will do everything I can to feed and protect the best parts of who you are. If you see that happening in this church, feed this church. If you see it elsewhere, then feed that other one. If you feel hopeful about this church and enjoy the people you meet here, if you feel renewed by the sermons or the music or the children or whatever, then support it. We’re doing good things for the world. And if this past week has shown us anything, it is that the world needs more good things — things on the way of life, not the things which lead to death.