This was a week when I wished we had that sign board out front for sermon titles, like some churches do, because I actually had a title before I had anything else: How We Know the Good. How We Know the Good – how we recognize good things, good thoughts, good choices, good paths. It’s a fundamental issue in religion and ethics – we can have the best intentions in the world to act rightly, but if we can’t somehow identify or discern what is right and good, we can’t follow through on our intentions.
Today’s lectionary texts point us at two ways that we can know the good. The first is the human conscience. Conscience is the word we give to our God-given capacity to know the good. Like a compass pointing to north, our conscience points to the right path, to what is true, and just, and good. It guides us in uncertainty, goads us when we are wrongly comfortable, and reminds us when something in our lives is amiss, in need of amendment, change, or healing. In our text from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks through the prophet to tell the people: No longer will the law of holiness, your way of living as God’s people, exist outside of you, a Law that must be written and taught. Instead I will put my law inside of you; I will engrave it on your hearts; and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. No longer shall the people have to teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.
Jeremiah’s image of God’s law of goodness written on the hearts of God’s people, so that we simply know God’s ways without being taught – that idea becomes a central concept in Anglican theological anthropology. Theological anthropology just means, how we think about humans in light of how we think about God. And Christian traditions vary widely in their theological anthropology. For instance, it’s one of our areas of difference from our Lutheran brothers and sisters, with whom we otherwise share a great deal. Among Christian traditions, Anglicans and Episcopalians have a relatively positive view of humanity. For Anglicans, knowing good from evil is a fundamental part of human nature, one of the ways in which we were created in God’s likeness, revealed and redeemed in Jesus Christ’s incarnation as a human being. While other Reformation theologians stressed human sinfulness, the Anglican reformers saw humans as possessing reason and conscience, God-given capacities for moral knowing, which make it possible to see and choose the good. True, we see wrongly and choose badly, often; but in spite of our failings, humans are capable of acting rightly. The 16th-century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker wrote, “Reason… may rightly discerne the thing which is good.” And the 20th-century Anglican theologian Kenneth Kirk wrote, ‘”The Soul, however tainted or corrupted by sin, retains an innate power both of perceiving what is good and right, and of aspiring to it.”
Listen, talking Anglican moral theology may seem scholarly and abstruse. But I think that sense of a human capacity to know the good is in the DNA of our faith in a way that you’ll recognize once you start to look for it. Our shared conviction that the human heart is not a traitor leading us to damnation, but can actually be a faithful compass pointing us towards God’s desires, that conviction is what’s made it possible for us to re-examine and revise the the church’s historic teachings on ordaining women and gay people, for example.
So, we Episcopalians, Christians in the Anglican tradition, believe that conscience is inborn, a birthright. But conscience is also formed and nurtured by community. You might think of it like our capacity for language – we are hard-wired for it, it’s fundamental to our nature, but we still need a linguistic community to activate it. Our conscience is shaped and developed in the context of our moral communities – family, church, and society. Of course, as people of faith, we see the church as a primary site of moral formation; and of course as liturgical Christians, we see regular participation in our rites of word and sacrament as the key to our ongoing growth as moral agents.
The liturgy we’re using right now, for example, teaches us to notice and celebrate the small blessings of life – those loud-boiling test tubes! – and give thanks for them. To look to God as the Source of all things. To pray and strive for the welfare of others, near and far, and to work and pray for the good of the city where we dwell. To be mindful of our failures of love, and to seek healing and amendment of life. To be people of peace. To be people of generosity, who offer back a portion of what we are given. To hold before ourselves Jesus’ example of courageous self-giving love, and his passion for the redemption of the world. To be people of forgiveness. To trust God for what we truly need. To recognize and treasure our unity, even in our differences. And to serve God in the world with strength, courage, gladness, and singleness of heart. And that’s just the words of the liturgy, apart from the Scriptures and the sermon of the day, which occasionally makes a worthwhile point.
There is indeed some rich moral teaching in our liturgies, to be absorbed week by week, year by year, decade by decade. But it’s all rather broad-brush, isn’t it? Not a lot of specifics about how to apply these principles. Those of you who have come to the Episcopal Church from other branches of the noble tree of Christianity may have noticed that we are not real heavy on teaching particular moral rules. That’s not just 21st century Episcopal wishy-washiness. It’s actually part and parcel of that basic Anglican theological anthropology. Instead of teaching moral rules, what you ought to do in such and such a situation, we focus on forming a moral community, in which individuals develop their capacity to recognize the good and do what is right. We proclaim a few bedrock commitments, but when it comes to how we live them out in given cases, we tend to trust reason informed by conscience. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury once wrote, “Only I can answer the question, ‘What ought I to do?'” (Rowan Williams, p. 296).
Listening to your conscience takes effort. Otherwise we’d never do anything wrong. It takes mindfulness and self-knowledge. It’s easier when we’re not stressed or angry or exhausted – though sometimes clarity can strike like a lighting bolt in those moments, too. We’re apt to ignore that still small voice inside us because we’re comfortable, or busy, or anxious, or prideful, or because we feel too responsible … But if we look inside ourselves, the compass is there, needle faithfully pointing the way even as we cast about for a path.
Let’s look at this Gospel parable. Jesus says, In a certain city there was a judge, who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” Luke, our Gospel writer, sees this as a story about our call to be persistent. He introduces it as “a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And he adds a coda to the story itself – a couple of sayings of Jesus: God will grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to God day and night; yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
This whole section of Luke, these parables and sayings, is unique to Luke’s Gospel. Bible scholars think that he had access to a collection of Jesus’ sayings and teachings that the other Gospel writers didn’t have. He had to figure out how drop them into his account of Jesus’ life, which he does, in part, by just stringing a bunch of them together here in chapters 17 and 18. It’s possible – and in some cases seems likely – that he was trying to match up parables and sayings, so that it all made sense to him and to his audience. I visualize him with a bunch of index cards on his desk…
So. Maybe this is a parable about being faithful in prayer, even when it seems like you’re not getting results. Sure. That call to holy persistence would be in keeping with the message of this portion of the second letter to Timothy: Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. Read from that angle, the story invites us to identify with the widow. Keep making noise. Be the squeaky wheel. Don’t give up. You will be heard, and answered.
But. Part of how the parables work is that they can be read from multiple angles. I fully believe that was Jesus’ intention, and that a lot of the time, in the Gospels, when a parable comes with a little explanation about what it means, that explanation comes from the Gospel writer. I suspect Jesus mostly just told the stories and left people to puzzle over them.
So in that light, think on this story again, and ask yourself, what if I’m the judge? …
Jesus points us towards the question of conscience in the way he describes the judge: he neither feared God nor had respect for people. So in contrast with the developed conscience of a practicing Jew or Christian, this guy doesn’t care what God thinks about his actions, and he doesn’t care about what happens to other people. And he’s a person in authority; his decisions influence the lives of others on a daily basis. And he has walled up his inner moral compass. He just doesn’t care.
But the widow makes him care. Because she won’t shut up. She keeps pressing her case, insisting that there’s an injustice that needs attention, until she wears him down. He finally hears her, and responds to her call, because she is so persistent – or to put it another way, because she is so annoying.
What if I’m the judge? What if I’m the one whose ears and mind and heart are closed, until someone’s persistence wears me down so that I finally, finally listen?
We are formed and nurtured by moral communities – our families, schools, churches. They train and calibrate our consciences for compassion, understanding, empathy.
But the human world is bigger than our moral communities. There are people whose lives we don’t easily understand. The constraints that bind them, the struggles that bear down on them, the griefs and needs that exhaust and frustrate them. Sometimes we look at others’ lives and find it hard to their motives and choices. Sometimes we look at others’ lives and know we should feel pity, but instead, feel judgment. We think, in our inmost hearts, I wouldn’t have let that happen to me. Why didn’t they make better choices? He brought it on himself. She should have known better.
Those thoughts are a sign that our conscience is overwhelmed, swamped by a situation that’s outside our moral universe. The communities and experiences that formed us didn’t prepare us to understand and respond to the full scope of human lives, needs, wrongs and injustices.
This is the second way we can know the good: by listening, when a person or community is persistently telling us that something is deeply wrong. What’s banging on the door of your conscience? Coming around every day to remind you that some situation you haven’t yet begun to care about still hasn’t gone away?
Here’s something that’s been nagging at my conscience. On September 21st, five days after police in Tulsa shot Terence Crutcher, one day after police in Charlotte shot Keith Scott, a new hashtag showed up on Twitter. A hashtag is a way to link people’s comments and posts, to have a broad conversation about the same issue or event. This hashtag was, WhiteChurchQuiet. The conversation it defined was a conversation among African-American Christians about feeling unheard and uncared-about. And it felt like a punch in the gut to me, and to many other white Christians.
Here are a few of the tweets, “Do you all really want social justice, or do you just want to talk about diversity so the good Lord knows you mean well? #WhiteChurchQuiet” “We ask, How long, O Lord? Maybe God is asking us the same question. #WhiteChurchQuiet” A quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. #WhiteChurchQuiet” A quotation from the Epistles, from 1 John: “If you don’t love the person you can see, how can you love the God you can’t see? #WhiteChurchQuiet”
The #WhiteChurchQuiet hashtag is a persistent widow for me. I’m not like the Unjust Judge; I might be worse. I do fear God and respect other people, but I’m still ignoring my brothers and sisters who are shouting for change, shouting for justice. I believe that, among the forces that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, systemic racism is among the most vicious and powerful. My brothers and sisters, for whom Christ died, live in a very different Madison and a very different America than I do as a white person. My kids’ Black friends are growing up in the shadow of statistics about massive disparities in educational outcomes, future employment, and involvement with the criminal justice system. It’s not just and it’s not right. But talking about systemic racism has become so polarized that it’s scary to talk about it in church. I’m worried right now about who I’m upsetting. And so I become a poster child for WhiteChurchQuiet. Because I’m fearful, and because I don’t know what to say. I don’t have this figured out yet. Far from it. But I hear #WhiteChurchQuiet as the holy botheration of the indignant widow, for me. There’s something here that’s calling my conscience to re-calibrate, so that it can guide me in right response to the divisions and disparaties of our common life.
But there are plenty of persistent widows to go around. This past week a lot of American men have had a rude awakening to the commonplace realities of life as a girl and woman. Our political conversation has gone some places nobody expected or wanted it to go. And that’s uncorked the bottle of women’s stories of having their space invaded and their bodily autonomy violated. Author Kelly Oxford tweeted about her own experience of sexual assault, and invited other women to share theirs. She got millions of responses. At the peak she was receiving fifty per minute. I think women knew that these experiences are commonplace, though maybe we didn’t know just how commonplace, or how egregious they could be, or how young we are when it begins.
But a lot of men didn’t know. Most men don’t do stuff like that. And they had no idea that most women experience stuff like that. And it’s been genuinely heartening to see America’s men responding to this particular persistent widow – taking on board realities that were invisible to them before, and saying, That’s not okay. We all need to do better. We need to teach our daughters to yell, and our sons to ask, and we need to convince, rebuke, and encourage one another to treat every child of God with respect and care.
We know what’s good, what’s true, what’s just, first because God gives us the gift – and burden – of a conscience, born inside us, nestled against our beating hearts, nurtured by the people and communities around us. And when we run up against the limits of our moral knowing, of what our conscience has encountered, we can come to know the good by a second path: through the persistence of another’s voice, from outside the walls of our zone of comfort and familiarity, that breaks through the limits of our capacity for concern and compassion, and bother us into a broader view of the goodness God wants for all God’s children.