by The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley
Philippians 2:1-13; Psalm 25:1-9; Matthew 21:23-32
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Matthew 21:23
“Father Walmsley, when are you going to get your damn clergy out of my office?” The speaker was a leader in the United States Senate, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, a man whose prominent place in the Congress and whose vote would make all the difference in the cause for which we were there. He knew the answer to his question. We would stop our lobbying and celebrate his change of heart when the Congress finally passed the civil rights bill of 1965, one which established voting rights for African American citizens in those southern states where they were disenfranchised. I remembered the occasion when I read today’s Gospel and the dispute between Jesus and the chief priests and elders in the Temple. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? And I tell you the story because it is important to realize how impassioned controversy often is when it comes to those subjects on which people make choices, and the moral grounds for their decisions. My point is not to try to make political activists out of any of us, but to explore where we find the moral authority to make decisions in our lives.
It is clear in the passage that Jesus’s questioners are trying to trap him. He turns the table on them, promises to answer if they respond to his question, Where does John the Baptist get his authority to baptize and preach? They are befuddled: If John’s authority is from heaven, then why don’t they believe him? If they say John has only human authority, they are in trouble because the crowd sees John as a prophet. So as people often do, the authorities take a fall: We don’t know.
Jesus then challenges his questioners by telling a simple parable about a man who has two sons. The first fails to honor his father’s expectation that he work in the family vineyard, but later has a change of heart and goes. The second is full of promises, he’s a good boy, but in the end he doesn’t go. Which of the two does the will of the Father? It is a pretty straightforward situation, and the answer Jesus expects is pretty clear: people who seek to do the will of their heavenly father and follow through on it will enter the kingdom of God, that is, will find continuing favor with God. The Psalm we just sang builds on that theme. Listen again:
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me. . .
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
According to your steadfast love remember me.
Jesus in his parable is stating a pretty clear and obvious moral principle. Let your behavior reflect your real values; it’s what you do, not what you say.. The challenge to us is how do we discern what those values will be¸ how we grow in moral sensitivity and practical wisdom in the complex issues of daily life. We need help in our discernment, principles and procedures which help us decide the practical decisions of personal and family life, but always those questions are complicated by the impact of the larger world around us. In the episode with which I began, some of us had been so moved by the injustice against black and Native-American people in this country that we demonstrated for change. It took years for the nation — and thus the Congress — to reach a consensus to change the law and the behavior to which the law spoke.
In my prayer life, I sometimes find myself having a quarrel with God. “God,” I complain, “just how much change do you demand in one lifetime?” God’s answer invariably is, just as in Jesus’s parable about the two sons, “I expect nothing less than all of you.” Over my now many years, that has meant coming to grips with the realities of race, sexuality, gender, extreme poverty, the reality of being an American, well-educated and rich by contrast in a world of six billion people, most of whom live in poverty unimagined even by my grandparents who came as poor immigrants to this country a hundred and more years ago. Not to mention living through the ordinary life issues, like growing old.
During our early married years, Roberta and I and our young children lived in New York City. In the pre-dawn hours of a day in March, 1964, a young woman, Kitty Genovese , was assaulted outside her apartment in a residential neighborhood of the city. Her screams awakened at least thirty-eight neighbors in nearby apartments who heard or watched how, for another half hour, her assailant stalked, stabbed, raped and finally killed her. No one wanted to get involved or even chose to call the police. The story attracted international attention. It was not that many did not identify with the victim; something like this could easily happen to them. Killings happen all the time. Many who have studied the case in the ensuing years attribute the fascination with it to people’s deep-seated fear that, had they been there, they might have been the thirty-ninth silent witness¸ a guilty bystander in a cruel world. There is no neutral ground in the struggle between good and evil. All that is needed for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing. Martin Luther King observed in one of his books that the silence of people standing on the sidelines during the struggle for civil rights was more troubling than the stones thrown by the racists.
What led me to this point was a recent book which discusses young people’s moral lives, the results of which paint a gloomy prospect, a picture of society which almost makes the Genovese case predictable in our time. The book, titled Lost in Transition, is the outcome of a large study by an eminent sociologist at Notre Dame, Christian Smith, and his colleagues on the state of American youth. Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives. The results are depressing. Let me quote from a brief review of the book:
It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18-to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues. The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers. . .you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so. . . .
Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often” is how one interviewee put it. The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”. . . As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”
Smith and company are surprised by the degree of moral individualism they found. This doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families (and too often the church–AW addition) to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.
I have a good reason for bringing this subject to our attention this morning, and it is one which I believe should move us to hope, not discouragement. Today is the first day of our program of Christian education of the children served by Holy Cross Church. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is an approach to the religious formation of children based on the conviction that God and child are in a relationship which it is our duty to protect and nurture. The Montessori-based program we use seeks to give children both guidance and a vocabulary based in the Bible and the liturgy which enables them to grow in awareness of their relationship to God and give expression to it. In short, the program is a hands-on way to help each child fall in love with God at the same time they are discovering community among their peers. You might call it an age-level introduction to finding and living a Bible-based authority for their lives — the same agenda we all have. I hope we will explore in our adult forums this Fall what the Catechesis attempts to accomplish with the young. We have no reason to doubt the future of the church if we take seriously the calling to be what the founder of Benedictine monasticism described for his little communities of followers, that is, a school for the Lord’s service, or in the words I have been setting before you, a place to grow in understanding the source of our authority, the life and teaching of Jesus.