“Paths and valleys”
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Isaiah 53: 6-9
It is my theory that very few of us decide that a certain action would be clearly wrong but that we are going to go ahead and do it anyway. Very few of us, very infrequently, know something is absolutely wrong but flat out just decide to do it anyway.
An example: Very few of us say to ourselves: “I know it is wrong to use loopholes to avoid paying my fair share of income tax but I am going to go ahead and do it anyway.”
No, we say: “The loopholes are there; to use them is perfectly legal; it would be stupid not to use them; actually it would be wrong for me not to take advantage of the loopholes.” (There have been some great loopholes in income tax law for clergy by the way, so this is not a theoretical example for me.)
Ethical decision-making is a very difficult thing. Phil Wogaman who was the pastor here for 10 years recently published a new book entitled Moral Dilemmas: An Introduction to Christian Ethics. He starts the book by saying some ethical decisions are easy. Most parents know we have a serious moral responsibility to feed, clothe, and shelter our children. Most of us know that if we see someone hit by a car on the street, we have an obligation to call an ambulance.
Phil says, other ethical issues are more difficult. The examples he mentions
include abortion, divorce, homosexuality, affirmative action, economic
justice, environmental issues, and the uses of military power.[i]
(This is Peace with Justice Sunday in the
How do we know what is right and what is wrong? How do we manage not to rationalize or justify things that are wrong just because we want to do them? On the other hand, how do we manage not to be oppressed by false shame and guilt about things that are perfectly natural and ordinary, but we’ve been taught they are wrong?
People don’t usually turn to the 23rd Psalm for ethical guidance, but it is there.
I’d like us to focus most of our time this morning on the line of the 23rd Psalm that says the Lord, who is my shepherd, “leads me in right paths for his Name’s sake.”
Right paths can also be translated paths or tracks of righteousness, paths or tracks of justice.
Here’s what I think this line of the psalm is suggesting about ethical decision-making:
First, we tend to think of right and wrong as individual decisions we make about individual issues or dilemmas in our lives; but, really, right and wrong are paths or tracks or ways that our lives follow.
Bruce Birch and Larry Rassmussen wrote a book that was originally published in 1976. It has been continually in print for 33 years. Bruce told me he thinks it has stayed in print because it talks about a question almost nobody is wrestling with very clearly. The question is: if we are not going to proof text the Bible to help us make ethical decisions, what is the role of the Bible in ethical decision-making?
In Mark 10: 12, for one example, Jesus is quoted as saying: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
But the United Methodist Social Principles say: “Divorce does not preclude a new marriage.”[ii]
I Corinthians 14: 34 “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.” Obviously we don’t proof text that verse. Methodism never has.
So Larry and Bruce in their book wrestled the question of – if we don’t proof text – what is the relationship between the Bible and ethics? Their answer is this (in my summary): Studying the Bible in Sunday school as children and youth and then as adults shapes our character and our ethical decisions are largely determined by our character.[iii]
A person of strong moral character will usually do the right thing, and a person of weak moral character will figure out how to do the wrong thing no matter what the rules say.
Right is a path. The specific actions of our lives are shaped by the path, the way, and the tracks we have chosen to travel in. If our path is selfishness, we can follow all the rules and still be cruel and hate-filled. If our path is caring, we can break the rules and still be loving and good.
This is what Jesus taught in Matthew and Mark. Jesus said: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." (Matt 15: 11) The disciples asked him latter what he meant by this and he said: “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matt. 15: 18-19)
In other words, following kosher dietary laws doesn’t make your heart kosher. Following rules doesn’t make you good.
The Apostle Paul taught that the law, the rules, were our Paidagogos [pahee-dag-o-gos' ] – our disciplinarian until Christ came. (Gal. 3: 24) A child growing up in an affluent home in Paul’s time would have a servant whose job it was to discipline the child and train them in proper behavior and etiquette. But when the child grew up, it no longer had a Paidagogos. By that time the child’s character should have been formed.
William Sloane Coffin said that when you plant a young sapling – a young tree – you use stakes to help it grow straight and not be injured, but if you have a grown tree and you still need to stake it to keep it standing upright, you’ve got a problem.
Right is a path, a way, a tao, our Taoist friends would say. It is a matter of character.
I don’t want any one of us to make the mistake of thinking that because we obey the rules that makes us good. We can obey the rules and be a stinky pot of vile stuff inside. I don’t want any of us to think that somebody who breaks the rules is evil inside.
So the question always is what path we are on. Is it a path of integrity, honest, openness, curiosity, self-reflection and caring? If that is our path, our ethical decisions will be shaped by that path. We may make mistakes but our ethics will be fundamentally sound. If our path is selfish, or judgmental or mean or self-seeking, we can follow the rules but our ethics will still be corrupt.
to say just a quick word in passing about Judge Sonia Sotomayor and Newt
Gingrich. Just in passing. The Brazilian liberation theologian Hugo Assmann who
was a Catholic but who taught at a
course, the path you travel in life is going to help to shape your ability to
see, especially in civil rights cases, and “a wise
The Lord our shepherd “leads us in right paths.”
The other word in this line from the 23rd Psalm I want to focus on is the word “lead.”
This is a very important word when the 23rd Psalm is talking about right and wrong. The shepherd leads us in right paths.
Theresa Parker moved from
They told Keillor: “At first we tried to drive the sheep…running at them and clapping our hands and barking like we imagined sheepdogs bark – and we just about ran ourselves silly. The sheep would move a little ways, turn around and stare at us. Finally we discovered that sheep can be led. They are out there wandering around looking for a leader.”[vii]
The shepherd leads us in right paths. If there is someone behind you running at you, clapping their hands and barking like a dog, it is not the shepherd of the Psalm 23.
God is always invitational, never coercive. Life can be coercive, but God isn’t. God always invites us to follow.
Sheep really do learn to recognize the voice of their shepherd, and they can distinguish between the voice of their shepherd and the voice of a stranger. “Flocks that have intermingled during the night will separate in the morning as each sheep follows the call of its own shepherd,” say Blaine McCormack and David Davenport. Research indicates that sheep can come to recognize and remember as many as fifty different faces, primarily of other sheep but also of people.[viii]
I don’t know who funds this research or how they conduct it, but the point is the voice of the shepherd calls us, invited us.
If there is a voice in your life that is driving you from behind – guilting you, coercing you, driving you, shaming you – it isn’t the voice of the Good Shepherd. It may be the voice of your superego or a false consciousness, but it is not the voice of Christ.
You will know the Good Shepherd’s voice because it will be compassionate, it will be caring, it will want the best for you, it will know who you as the uniquely created person are.
At annual conference during the discussion about the resolution from Foundry and other churches concerning human sexuality, a large man waving a Bible stood at the microphone and said some awful things, some ignorant and offensive things. Condemnatory. Crude. Fear-filled. Insulting. Nasty. He waved his Bible and barked. The bishop finally told him he was out of time and made him sit down.
Ralph Williams’ turn to speak came. Ralph got up to the microphone, and I am
going to repeat the exact words he started out with, Ralph said: “I am the
most blessed homosexual in the
Ralph talked about wandering into a local Methodist congregation 30 years ago. It was a place, a community, he said, where he was accepted, listened to, affirmed, where he was supported in his personal and spiritual growth, and where he could support others.
He told the annual conference that if he had heard things 30 years ago like he was hearing some people saying at annual conference, he would not have come back and he would have missed out on a rich part of his life. He invited the annual conference to a better place.
the most blessed homosexual in the
Through which of the two speakers do you think the Good Shepherd was speaking?
If there is a condemnatory voice barking at you from behind you, it is not the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd always leads, always invited, always speaks in a voice that knows you and loves you.
After annual conference, I thought about all the people through the years who had experienced someone waving a Bible at them and barking at them, telling them there was something wrong with them. Women who were told there was something wrong with them if they were not subservient. Deaf people who were told they were defective. Africans who were told by missionaries that their beautiful music was demonic. People in wheel chairs who were told their faith was defective because they did not get up and walk. Creative people who were burned at the stake. Scientists who were excommunicated. Thinking, bright people who were called heretics. Poor people who were told they were predestined for poverty.
There is always somebody waving a Bible and barking at somebody else. But still they managed – all these people throughout the ages – to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Maybe some of us here today are still wrestling with an angry voice from our past, a demeaning voice. It is not the voice of the Good Shepherd. If we listen we can re cognize the voice of the one who leads us in right paths and who is with us in dark valleys.
[i] Phil Wogaman, Moral
Dilemmas: An Introduction to Christian Ethics (
[ii] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2008 (The United Methodist Publishing House), 102.
[iii] Bruce Birch and Larry Rassmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian (
[iv] David J. Bosch, Transforming
[v] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Macmilan Publishing), 17.
[viii] McCormack and