LESSONS IN LIVING
Eight Essential Tenets of the Reformation:
Honoring conscience isn’t just a right, it’s a duty
A St. Andrew’s Sermon
Delivered by Dr. Jim Rigby
October 21, 2012
Scripture Reading: Acts 4: 13-22
We’re in Part 3 of our series on the Reformation; the Great Tenets of the Reformation. That may not sound like a lot of fun, but what we’re talking in theology is a kind of architecture for our lives. I’ve mentioned several times that over the years, the question that I get asked the most is, “Why are you still Presbyterian?” This series is about the answer to that question. It’s not saying that the Presbyterian way is better than someone else’s way, but these great tenets – when you meet a nice person who has stayed Presbyterian – they are the reason why. This is why I’ve stayed. It’s not that we’re afraid of the Methodists . . .some of my best friends . . .(laughter) Those are great systems too, but we’re looking at those aspects of the Reformation that we call the Essential Tenets, ones that we feel are really gifts to organize a community around.
Today we’re looking at the right of conscience, which is a real lynch-pin that has, in many ways, been left behind by the church. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, it essentially says that we have a duty to honor the right of conscience, and not to give that responsibility over to any human agency, which would include the church. In other words, the reformers felt that conscience and taking responsibility for our lives was so important that a person should study Scripture for guidance, then refuse to be coerced by any human agency, and to speak prophetically what their conscience feels to be true.
When people are elected to be an officer in the Presbyterian Church, they are told to vote their conscience, not just what’s popular. When you vote for members to be Elders in the Presbyterian Church for three years, they are to struggle and express not what we want them to do, but what their conscience feels is right. And then the different viewpoints are balanced by the will of the majority, but never at the cost of conscience.
There’s a great hymn that I want at my funeral – hopefully not soon. I want to start with “Ode to Joy”, and I want to conclude with “Once to Every Soul and Nation”, which we have as our last hymn today. “Once To Every Soul and Nation” .is a little bit melodramatic:
Once To Every Soul and Nation comes the moment to decide…
And then the idea of the hymn is that we must act prophetically or else, time goes on and we’ve lost our chance forever. But it isn’t that simple, is it? Deciding between right or wrong can be a very hard thing to do; we sometimes can’t be 100% sure. And it’s not just one shot. We have thousands of little decisions we make every day. But the point the hymn is trying to get across is that we shape the world with our thoughts, with our speech, with our actions.
In such times of confusion, coming back to the right of conscience is a real anchor in the storm – to realize that you may not feel you’re that important, but you’re forging the future, especially you young people that are here. If you tune everything else out in the service, as I did when I was listening at your age, hear this: you are a gift to the world. You will shape the future in a way that none of us older people are going to. We’re not going to have anywhere near the kind of impact that you will have.
The Scripture that we’re looking at today is one where Peter and John get in trouble…again. It’s funny how a religion of love could get you into so much trouble, but it does. And so they’re told not to heal people in the name of Jesus anymore. We’ll set aside the miraculous claims of the story, to listen to listen to what it is teaching us. Peter and John, who have been healing people, are being asked not to do that because it’s not good religion. Every working chaplain who is a member of this church has had that experience before, where there’s been pressure not to be a healing agent because it’s not always good theology.
Peter of course speaks up on behalf of everybody as he was wont to do. He says, “Well, you decide for yourself whether it’s better for us to obey you or God.” He’s saying to go ahead and make that decision as religious authorities (see, he could be as manipulative as Paul) but the second part of that phrase is what we want to focus on; “but as for us, we cannot help but speak.”
This is something that we face on a regular basis, you and I both, in those situations where we know we have a message we need to express – that the world needs to hear – but it scares us. It costs us. And so we learn to put that light under a basket, just to keep everything smooth.
Our passage today is asking us to reconsider if this message we think we need to express represents the love we want to give the world. Coming back to the right of conscience, we’ll realize that we’re responsible before God for how we treat every human being. And to surrender this responsibility and mistreat another person so that the church doesn’t get mad at us, or our job doesn’t get mad at us, or our family doesn’t get mad at us, doesn’t feel good inside. It doesn’t.
The background subtext for this sermon, although it didn’t start that way, is that Thursday night I was asked to come to a meeting at the Pflugerville Independent School District where the trustees were talking about domestic partnership benefits. Some of the churches didn’t like it, because Pflugerville ISD became the first school district in Texas to treat all of its workers alike, and give all of them the same benefits. Well of course the bushes began to shake, the Bibles began to rustle, you could hear the pages . . . and people came up and they said things – we’ve heard this one thousands and thousands of times – “I don’t hate anybody. I don’t judge anybody. But . . .”
Have you ever noticed that preachers have big “buts”? (laughter) “I love everybody but . . .I don’t want them to get insurance. I don’t want them to feel respected. I don’t want them to fit in. I don’t want them to feel safe, I don’t want them to know that their children won’t be taken from them, I don’t want their children to hear that their relationship is healthy . . .but I don’t hate them!”
I had a much nicer text that I brought to the meeting than the one I gave. I’ll share some of that in a moment. But the issue could be any issue of justice; it simply doesn’t matter, you hear the same rhetoric. You hear the exact same rhetoric all the way across the board when somebody has privilege and they don’t want to share it. They have rights and they don’t want somebody else outside their group to have the same rights that they have.
I want to tell you that there’s something basic and pivotal about not cooperating with that. There’s something really pivotal about leaving your place of comfort and safety and respect and privilege, and standing by the targeted people of the world, whoever they are. There’s something that feels wonderful about that; it’s very scary on the outside and you don’t start off with the things in that hymn text I quoted. That hymn text is really scary, talking about ‘by the light of burning martyrs’ or ‘The scaffold sways the future.’ That’s scary! You can’t start there. You start with the little bitty options that are available to you this week, expressing the courage that you do have. Because when you stop letting fear make your decisions for you, that’s how you get out of the fear. As long as you let fear govern your choices, fear will live in your heart.
So we’re going to talk about conscience today and that’s not an easy word to define – some people, by conscience, mean guilt. That’s not what we’re talking about. Some people, by conscience, they mean social manipulation and conditioning. Obviously I gave such a prejudiced example of that, that’s not where I’m going to go. I want to talk about three elements of conscience, and it shouldn’t surprise you that the number would be three. I want to talk about empathy, reason, and courage. Three elements of conscience: empathy, reason, and courage.
All justice work begins with compassion. It doesn’t begin with the question, “What should I do?” it begins with feeling another person’s pain. They don’t have to be like you, but you can still feel what somebody else is feeling and what it must be like for them to be in their situation.
Do you remember the statue, “Justice?” You see the scales, the blindfold, the sword. We’re going to look at all of those because that will help you remember our outline today. But one of the very important parts of the statue that often gets left off, is the breast. Remember John Ashcroft wanted to cover up the breast? The breast symbolizes nurture. Justice begins with compassion, If it begins anywhere else there’s a problem.
The Romans used to talk about justice, and by that they meant they crushed their opposition. They called that ‘peace.’ They could call their bullying “peace” because there was nobody to stand up against them. Our nation calls our bullying ‘peace,’ as well. You ask the people that have drones flying overhead if they’re at peace; you’re going to get a very different answer. You interview people that work in our slave factories for Wal-mart and Target and these sorts of places, and you ask, “is this ‘peace’?” You’re going to get a very different answer. Rome crushed everybody and called that ‘peace.’
We can make that same mistake with our conscience. We can crush down that feeling of empathy for other people. You see the newspaper and it hurts, and you just stop feeling, you go numb. Or there’s something that frightens you, which is very human and that’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Fear is a very healthy beginning and you pace yourself with that. But fear can also numb us, and when we let fear numb us it never goes away. It haunts us from the inside. I forget who called it “the worm of conscience,” I think it was Shakespeare. Peter and John say, “You decide for yourself what justice means, but as for us we cannot help but speak, because that is a requirement of being compassionate to the people that don’t count in this culture.”
The second factor is Reason. And by Reason I mean that capacity to take your empathy, your feelings, and think about what that means to somebody completely different. A couple of weeks ago in one of our classes, I shared Gandhi’s talisman and it made me realize I hadn’t mentioned this in a couple of years. One of Gandhi’s last writings was an answer to the questions, “How do you know you’re doing the right thing? How do you know it matters?” This is his little formula, called the talisman, which means sort of a litmus test.
I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him or her. Will he or she gain anything by it? Will it restore him or her to a control over their own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self will melt away.”
Within us is that capacity to care about other people. But what we have to learn is how to apply that to people who don’t look anything like us. To not be fooled by the external forms of another person and to realize that whoever they are, they are deserving of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness – whoever they are. The symbol of this balance in the statue is the scale. And it means stepping out of your own context, through reason, extending what that might look like in a larger perspective.
Have you ever thought about how brutal and how ignorant it is to talk about America being a Christian nation? About half of the speakers at the Pflugerville ISD meeting were saying, “We came up here for Christian culture.” Do you have any idea how that feels to somebody outside your group? It may start with saying we don’t approve of same sex couples, but it ends with “Did you know there were some Jews in the Dairy Queen?” That’s what you are really saying when you refer to a Christian culture! You don’t want people who are different to have a place of honor. This is very dangerous and deadly stuff. It may not be dangerous and deadly yet, but it will get there if not enough people speak their conscience and step forward.
The third aspect of conscience that I would suggest you think about is Courage. It’s symbolized in the “Justice” statue by a sword, but that’s not the sword of violence. It’s the sword of courage, the courage you need to realize that you have to do something. – you have to say something. And even if you don’t have the courage yet to do what you know you need to do, or say what you need to say, start moving that direction, start it today, start it right now. Because when we don’t, it’s a living death.
At this PISD meeting Thursday night, people kept saying “We love you, we love the trustees, we love the school board, but elections are coming around.” (laughter) Isn’t it strange when some people’s love feels like a threat? So you and I need to stand side by side with the people in Pflugerville who are doing the right thing. They need to not feel alone. They need to feel another human shoulder next to theirs because they did the right thing, and somebody’s going to punish them if we don’t.
One of the things that I often hear – and this is what drives me crazy about liberals; conservatives drive me crazy a different way – but I often hear that such struggles for human rights are just a kind of discussion. Human rights are just a conversational topic, and you’re being just as intolerant when you confront somebody’s prejudice as the ones who would deny another their human rights. I don’t care what a person believes in their own heart; I don’t care, maybe I should, but I don’t. That’s their business. But when you step into another person’s life and you get in their way, and you keep them from having what you have, you’re doing something else. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about when he said,
“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?
There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”
I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come together with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t gonna study war no more.” This is the challenge facing modern humankind.
The name of King’s sermon was, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Dr. King got more and more radical as he got older.
Well, let me share with you my comments at the Pflugerville School Board meeting:
To the members of the Pflugerville ISD, my name is Jim Rigby. I am pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Wells Branch Parkway (we didn’t have any broken windows). I’ve come here tonight to thank you for your recent decision to offer domestic partnership rights to all the people who serve schools in our community. I understand there are clergy in our area who oppose your decision. I respect my Christian brothers and sisters and affirm their religious liberty to say publicly what they believe to be true. Where I disagree with them is when they believe they have a right to force their religious interpretation into the public sphere and to deny others the same rights they would claim for themselves.
My understanding of Christianity is fundamentally different from my brothers and sisters who believe homosexuality is a sin. I’ve never found any teaching of Jesus that prohibits homosexuality (at this point their were some hisses and booing). But I have found plenty that tell me not to judge my neighbor. I have a direct commandment from my Savior to treat my neighbors the way I want to be treated, and when my neighbors are attacked unjustly I feel I have a duty to rise to their side. When my Christian brothers and sisters attack my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, when they constantly criticize their families, when they demean the faithful love these people have for one another, when they come into this public sphere to deny domestic partnership benefits because they don’t approve of how my brothers and sisters live, they are not exercising their own religious liberty, they are infringing on the liberty of others.
Earlier today the Defense of Marriage Act prohibiting same sex marriage was struck down as unconstitutional in a federal appeals court. This was inevitable. One indispensable element of our American democracy is inalienable rights. Inalienable means they can’t be put up for a vote. Our Declaration of Independence says, every person was born with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Every person in this room has rights that cannot be overridden no matter what the majority says. So we are not discriminating against the majority when we insist that the unpopular minority receive the same rights as everyone else.
I wish the church would stand up for persecuted minorities. But because we often don’t, and since we sometimes are even the source of persecution, I’m glad there are those of you here who stand up for all the people who live and work in our community. Jesus once summarized his entire teaching as being a good neighbor. I’ve come here tonight because, by offering the same rights to all the people who work in our schools, you have been a good neighbor. And as one who attempts to follow Jesus, I wanted to say thank you. (congregational applause)
But obviously we’re not here to talk about me, that’s never the point. The point is how you’re going to live this week. When we take up the scripture it’s never to learn about dead people, people that lived someplace else. How you live this week will put you in touch with your heart or shut it down. Will you come into this week willing to feel the pain of another? Will you come into this week with your reason fully intact, to figure out what your decisions would mean to the weakest and most wretched on the face of this earth? And will you find the courage to do what is possible for you, not more, but beginning to move away from flight and into your prophetic heart.
I mentioned before that there’s a way in which this hymn is melodramatic, “Once to Every Soul and Nation.” It’s not usually that apocalyptic, not usually that clear, but please know this – a day will come when it will be too late for you to speak. A day will come when it will be too late for you to express the cause you hold most dear. And so as you hear these words, do not hear them as a criticism, hear them as an invitation back into your own heart.
Once to every soul and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes on forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
It may not be that simple for you, it probably won’t be. I don’t know what other people would consider justice to be, but I’m inviting you to say in your own heart that when other people struggle to be treated fairly, you will say in your own heart. “I cannot help but speak.”