Ethics and Ambiguity
By Charles Rush
July 26, 2009[i]
Matthew 13: 24-30
is not easy to teach our kids morals is it? Each of us have our own challenges and being a Minister has a special set believe it or not. I can’t always be direct with the kids because if I did, I’m afraid they would think I was just a moralist and not simply moral, self-righteous and a prig.
With all my
kids, maybe even more so with the girls, when they are young, I had a pep talk
that I gave them on the way to the soccer games. “Okay sweetie, let’s review
the rules #1 Never pass the ball when you might be able to score and look good
#2 It’s not important how you play the game, win at all costs #3 If the ref is
looking the other way, kick your opponent as hard as you can. If she falls
down, kick her again.”
The response is
always the same. The kids will say “Dad… hello… did you get that from the
bible?… I don’t think so. Dad… you’re a Minister.”
It was one year ago, this Sunday that
our church voted to be accepting of gay people and to bless gay unions. I
promised, at the request of many of you, that I would not say anything on the
subject for the next year. Just for the record, I haven’t. I’m not going to
talk about it this morning, except for one thing about that discussion and vote
that I was proud of our Church. A goodly number of you said last year that this
was no big deal, that we should just pass it, be done with it, next subject.
This sermon is not for you. Another very small group, said that they could not
accept homosexuals under any circumstances, and most of them were gone before
we ever even came to a vote. This sermon is not for them either, obviously.
impressed me was watching those of you in the middle struggle with an issue
that you were not all that clear about. You wished you had more information
about homosexual development. You wish you understood better the issues that
surrounded gay families. You were not clear about what the future would hold
for the next generation if we bless gay unions because the evidence is not in
yet, obviously. You found yourself caught between competing values- maybe the
value of tolerance and genuine concern about upholding the sanctity of marriage
and the family. During the discussion, perhaps you found your head and your gut
wrestling with one another, your head telling you to be accepting and open but
your gut not going along. In other words, the situation was ambiguous and you
weren’t altogether clear, but you voted anyway, hoping for more light in the
future- but you went with your convictions and that is the point. Most voted
yes, some voted no- how you voted is not the point. I was asked to talk to most
of the families that were on the fence and most of the conversations Julie and
I had with folks in the congregation, just before the vote, were those folks
that were genuinely on the fence and were struggling. And the struggle of this
middle group is what I found impressive and inspiring.
challenging ethical decisions that we make are the ones we have to make when
things are not so clear, when we find ourselves with a mix of competing values,
when we don’t have as much information was we wished we had. There is that
moment of real personal vulnerability just before you decide. You are about to
expose your character. As it turns out, and who would have thought, we are more
embarrassed about revealing our character than we are our nudity. It is easier
to streak than to speak.
The majority of
us are likely to face just such a situation when we have to determine how to
honor our parents in the midst of their dying. I got a call from a good friend,
a pulmonologist in North Carolina just this week. He was treating a patient
that was 80 years old. He had worked in the coal mines all his life and had a
weakened heart and weakened lungs as a result.
One of his
daughters had been attending him for the last 7 years, another lived near by.
The man distrusted physicians and probably had only seen a doctor once or twice
in his life. He had emphezyma as a treating problem and was having difficulty
with his breath. He had made it clear that he didn’t want to “be hooked up to
no machine” in his words. After being checked into the hospital, it was
determined that he was also having some failure in his major organs, the liver
and kidney, in particular. The doctors met with the girls to explain his
They asked a lot
of questions about their father’s long term prospects for health which could
not be answered unless his condition stabilized and the team could run more
tests. The problem was that his condition would not stabilize unless they
intubated him for a few days to relieve the stress on his deteriorating lungs.
After consultation, the daughters decided to over ride their father’s express
wishes and have him hooked up to a ventilator for 48 hours to see if his
situation would stabilize. He continued to deteriorate. Meanwhile, they called
their other sister in Washington state, who had been on the West coast for the
past 10 years and she made plans to fly home. The two daughters decided to have
their father removed from the ventilator, honoring his wishes. The other
daughter shows up and is irate that the most aggressive treatment is not being
pursued. She galvanizes the extended family. The doctor agreed to meet with the
whole family to discuss the situation, some 25 of them, and he was calling me
for a little feed back and reminder of what to think about.
If you have not
faced a situation like this, you will. It is the most challenging moral dilemma
because there is no clear cut answer to the situation. It is not only moral, it
is also spiritual and emotional. You can abstract one of them out. God, the
family, your conscience, your father’s wishes- all of them are woven into one
fabric. There are only competing values and unresolved issues from the past.
Hold that image for just a minute.
“But now we come
to the New Testament lesson, the puzzling lesson of the parable of the wheat
and the tares. The man sowed a field of wheat and the enemy sowed tares among
the wheat. And the servants, following the impulse of each one of us, asked if
they should root out the tares so that the wheat could grow. This is a parable
taken from agriculture to illustrate a point of morals, and it violates every
principle of agriculture and of morals. After all, every farmer and every
gardener makes ceaseless war against the tares. How else could the flowers and
the wheat grow? And we have to make ceaseless war against evil within ourselves
and in our neighbors, or how could there be any kind of decency in the world?
Against all moral impulse we have this eschatological parable.
“’Nay,’ said the
householder. ‘Lest while you gather up the tares you root up also the wheat.’
This suggestion is that a great deal of evil may come from the evil that evil
people do, but certainly others comes from the premature judgments that we make
about ourselves and about each other. ‘Let them grow together until the
harvest.’ These wonderful words suggest that while we have to judge, there is a
judgment beyond our judgments, and there are fulfillments beyond our
fulfillments (Reinhold Niebuhr).
love and self-love are mixed up in the world we live day in and day out. Consider the example that I used earlier
about the child coming into the decision mix about what to do with Papa at the
last minute, making judgments quite at odds with the rest of the family. How
often, something like that happens in these situations.
We live our
lives as adults, grow independent from our brothers and sisters but when our
parents get gravely ill, part of us reverts back to children again. All these
old issues from decades ago that have never really been resolved but just
tabled for years, come back with a freshness we didn’t think they could have.
Nobody notices it directly, of course. What you notice is that your brother is
really, really mad that he just found out that your Father appointed you the
Executor of the estate. What you notice is that your sister is second-guessing
decision that has been made while she was living in Washington State. What you
notice is that she describes your decisions to another sibling by saying “He’s
always been like that”. We are not even fully aware of what is going on. We
couldn’t articulate it if we had to.
Part of it can
be that we have unresolved guilt about living apart from our parents and really
not having invested enough time with them heretofore. When they are on their
dying bed, some subteranean emotions well up and we think, however irrational
it might be, that if we can get them stabilized then spending some quality time
now is going to make up for what we have been lacking in an important way.
Part of it can be that we have never
really gotten what we needed from our parents and we have coped with that for
many years, and found surrogate parents that have taken their place. But when
our birth parents get seriously ill, we think, however irrational it might be
in the situation, that if they can get stabilized, then they might bless us on
their death bed, and the emptiness we have carried around for years might be
Part of it can be that we have
managed for years to insulate ourselves from the reality of death and our own
mortality and in a way that we would be mortally embarrassed to articulate, our
parent’s grave illness fills us with a dread not only for their death but our
impending death, and we find ourselves projecting, however irrational that
might be, not what they want to have happen at the end of their life, but what
we would want to happen to us if we were in their situation because somehow
the real reality of death just never hit us in this way until it is our parents
going through it. And part of what we are actually doing is tending for our
projected selves, dealing with our fears about dying.
Part of it can be that we have been
genuinely loved, we have been made to feel secure and good about ourselves, and
all that solidity is caving way right in front of us, and we find ourselves not
wanting to let go. We know that we should be mature and that real love let’s
people go. We know that we have been building our whole lives up to that
moment, when can let people go, but when we actually get there, however
irrational it might be, we don’t want to let them go and we would just do
anything to bring them back again.
Now, none of us
can will these multiple layers away. None of us is exempt from them. We can’t
ever really separate out our stuff, from their stuff, from our sister’s stuff,
from the genuine stuff that just comes from going through the portals of death.
We don’t get to escape the ambiguity of these situations.
In fact, the
most interesting parts of “human history are a mixture of wheat and tares. We
must make provisional distinctions, but we must know that there are no final
distinctions. “Let both grow together until the harvest.” From the point of
view of biblical faith, we do not have to despair about this because we know
that there is a mystery and meaning in God beyond our smallness and greatness,
and a justice and love which completes our incompletions, which corrects our
judgments, and which brings the whole story to a fulfillment beyond our power
to fulfill any story” (Niebuhr).
I got a few
phone calls after that vote from clergy in the area, who wanted to say that
they were glad we finally raised the issue. They wanted to but they felt that
they couldn’t do it. Almost all of them all but said, Christ Church is
different than our church. You guys can talk about this stuff, we can’t talk
about it. Of course, I understand that but part of me wants to say ‘what is the
point of being safe… and boring?’
important thing that came out of that vote for me came from our teenagers. I
was talking to a group of them about the vote. They all came. They listened.
Some of them wanted to speak but they didn’t. I was asking them what they
thought about the subject. Some of them were still thinking it through, not
entirely sure. Some of them thought the issue itself was no big deal but it was
important in our town. Finally, one of them said, “we will never say that
Christ Church didn’t stand for anything.” You know what? That is a very good
thing. Quite in spite of ourselves, quite in spite of our limited knowledge, we
showed them that it is possible to take a stand, not knowing all the answers.
If we keep this up as a congregation, we may get there yet. Amen.
version of this sermon was preached by Rev. Rush on May 21, 2000
All rights reserved.