Feasting on Wisdom

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
September 23, 2012 James 3:13 – 18

Think back in your life when you faced a difficult decision. It might have been about a job, or your education, or a relationship. It might have been about a loved one, or money. It might have been about politics – what to think or not to think. It might even have been about faith.

Think back in your life when you faced a difficult decision. How did you make it? Who did you talk to? What resources did you rely on?

We make dozens and dozens of decisions each day. Most we don’t even think about – what to eat, what to wear. Some take a bit longer, but not much – what to watch, what movie or book or restaurant to choose. Some decisions that we make every day are based on decisions we made long ago – our work, our parenting for those of us who parent, our living habits.

But then there are those moments when a decision we face is big, or hard, or complex, perhaps even life-altering, with significant ethical consequences. It may be a decision that is the accumulation of countless others ones, a decision you have been preparing for for a lifetime. Or it may come to you quite unexpectedly, spur of the moment. When it does, what resources did you rely on?

Allow me two examples. I am many things, including a big-time sports fan and a creature of habit. So I became concerned several years ago when the Big Ten, my conference, decided to add another team. I was concerned on one hand because the Big Ten would become the Big Eleven, but still would call itself the Big Ten, which still doesn’t seem quite right even though now there are twelve teams in the Big Ten.

I was also concerned because the eleventh school would be Penn State, a clear football threat to my beloved Buckeyes. I had admired Penn State and their coach, but now that they were in my conference, my admiration turned into anxiety.

We know what has happened more recently. And my ethical qualms have nothing to do with those events themselves – the atrocious acts, the failure to report, the failure to follow up, the appropriate loss of jobs, even for a respected and beloved coach. In fact, my own feelings about collegiate athletics have been shaken a bit by all of this. But no qualms about doing the right thing.

My ethical dilemma came later, and was not a decision I had to make personally. It had to do with a statue, the statue of Joe Paterno, located in front of the football stadium as a testimony to his success and leadership. Over the summer the statue itself became a lightning rod for controversy. To leave it up, some said, would serve as a constant reminder of the horrific acts committed – not by Paterno, but by a former assistant coach under Paterno’s watch. To leave it up, others said, would not do so, but rather testify to Paterno’s long-term success and leadership, while serving as a cautionary reminder of the potential misuse of power.

In the end, the ethical criteria for me became one of healing. Would leaving the statue up promote healing, for the community, many of whom still revered the then winningest coach in college football, but primarily for those young men who had been victimized.

Healing, or an ongoing, open wound. How would I have decided, as the university president, or a board member, or a football fan? How would you have decided? In the end, the statue came down. It was the president’s decision, not popular in every circle, but, in my mind, the wise thing to do.

A second example of a difficult decision. To call the situation in the Middle East complex is an understatement. To call the Presbyterian Church’s relationship to conflict in the Middle East complex is almost as big of an understatement. Because the Middle East is the birthplace and cradle of our faith, and because we have missionary history more than a century old, we have been involved and care about what happens a great deal. We care a great deal about what happens to Middle Eastern Arabs, including many, many Arab Christians. We also care a great deal about the Jewish community, in Israel and the U.S.

So we faced a dilemma at this July’s General Assembly. We have a fairly rigorous investment policy, criteria for how we invest the Presbyterian Church’s money. Some of the choices are easy – no tobacco, alcohol, gambling, firearms. Other choices are less straightforward.

Because we are committed to peace and justice and reconciliation, our denominational investment committee recommended that we “uninvest,” divest, of three companies doing business in the West Bank, business that was seen to be harmful to the peace process and to the wellbeing of Palestinians. Three companies, the most well-known being Caterpillar, who we determined made equipment that was used to tear down Palestinian homes in order to build settlements.

It is much more complex, of course. But ethical complexity is what life is about. Was it Caterpillar’s fault that their products were used in this unintended way? What is a company’s moral responsibility? What is our responsibility when we invest in a company?

Is divestment an effective process to lead companies to change their practices? Many smart economists and investment experts say no. For every Nestle baby formula boycott or boycott of companies doing business in South Africa, there are countless efforts, experts say, where shareholder protest has not worked.

And, if we divest, what would it do to our relationships in the region, let alone our relationships with our American Jewish friends. And would such an action, symbolic at best because of our relatively modest stock holdings, promote the message we wanted it to promote, or send the wrong message?

Similarly, if you had been a Penn State board member, how would you have voted had you been a commissioner to this General Assembly, with pressure from all sides, with smart people making cogent arguments from every position, with the stereotypical left-right dynamics of the Presbyterian Church out the window as friends and colleagues disagreed with people with whom they typically held common cause. What ethical criteria would you have used? What ethical principles and values would have guided your decision?

I didn’t have a vote. In the end, my criteria would have sought to pursue things that would have made for justice. Certainly, the Palestinian Authority has not always led well. And certainly, the Israeli government is not monolithic, nor is its people. Even so, settlements destroy lives and the separation barrier breaks down rather than builds up, so any action, even symbolic, that would have protested injustice and discrimination, is worth pursuing.

In the end, though conflicted, I would have voted to divest. The General Assembly voted not to divest, by the slimmest of votes, 333-331. Hardly a landslide.

There are countless examples, of course, some that make it onto the front page, and some that only make the highlight reel of our own lives. We live in an ethically complex, morally conflicted world. We face ethical decisions all the time. What criteria guide us? What values compel us? What principles form us, so that when we face tough decisions, we are confident, even if not always comfortable, that we can do the right thing?

And how does our faith matter in all of this? To say it doesn’t matter is to sense that something is missing. That is to say, this faith stuff, this religious stuff, will only matter if the time we invest here makes a difference in the ways we live in the world. How we spend our money, how we raise our children, how we work, how we play, how we vote, and yes, perhaps most importantly of all, how we make decisions of ethical importance in a world divided by cynicism and division and incivility and apathy and greed.

We face big issues. Think of any topic and you can think about it ethically – legal ethics, business ethics, environmental ethics, medical ethics. Some decisions are murky and nuanced. Some less so. Our task is to wade in whatever the difficulty and complexity, and potential risk, and apply the faith that forms us so that it can be reflected in the life of the world.

I am grateful to be a Presbyterian for many reasons. Our denomination takes stands on many things. Those stands are important to consider. But a more fundamental stand for us is found in our Presbyterian constitution – that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” That is to say, I believe what I believe, as a citizen and person of faith. I typically shy away from using this piece of furniture as a bully pulpit. You know what I believe about marriage equality, for example, and gun control. But unlike other traditions, where ministers inform members what to believe and even at times how to vote, I believe and we believe that the life of faith guides ethical decision-making for all of us, each of us. Our communal job, our mutual task of teaching and learning, provides the framework.

How do we decide? Where is wisdom found to guide us?

Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Christian ethicist of the 20th century, insisted that Christian ethics needed to be independent of the culture in which it found itself. We are not to be formed by the culture, but the other way around. We are to live in the world, but not be of it, not be consumed by it or co-opted into it. We are, Niebuhr wrote, “to trace every force with which (we) deal to some ultimate origin and to relate every purpose to some ultimate end.” (An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, page 5) Origins and ends. From where do we come and to where are we headed?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you will remember, was a pastor in Nazi Germany. He could have escaped Germany many times to teach in Europe or the U.S.; instead, he remained to protest and lead, and eventually he joined a plot to kill Hitler. He was executed for that decision.

Bonhoeffer wrote that it is Christ himself who forms our values, his persecution and death, and the justice, truth and freedom we find in him. (Ethics, page 59)

For us, faith forms our values, and to take that invitation seriously leads us to understand that the wisdom we seek can lead us to difficult and risky places. It would be easier to focus on the action on the college football field and ignore the underlying issues of human suffering. It would be easier to say that the situation in the Middle East is too complicated and controversial and “over there,” so I will focus my energy and efforts elsewhere. Yet standing on the sideline watching the parade go by is not an option for we who are followers of Jesus.

The letter of James says this: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”

Show by your good life! Live your faith! How? Gentleness born of wisdom, peaceable, merciful. Those are the criteria.

We live in a world that is anything but gentle. It is a complex question to ask what gentleness would look like in State College, Pennsylvania, or in Jerusalem or Gaza or the West Bank. What does gentleness look like as we march toward November 6, when sound bites and negative ads rule the day? What does gentleness look like as we parent, or do our jobs, or spend our money? It is so counter-cultural, and yet there it is.

Most decisions we make aren’t epic; they won’t be reported in papers or websites. But they matter. Many won’t be clear or easy. But they will count. There will be times when we get it wrong; we are only human, after all. But if they are made in faith, with faith, with Christ-like integrity, seeking a vision of peace, undergirded by a vision of gentleness, our decisions will be blessed, and we will make a difference – for the healing of the world, in the name of Christ Jesus, the Prince of peace. Amen.



Return to Third Presbyterian Church