…….Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or
sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?......
Once upon a time in the long-ago 1970’s one of the most controversial and hotly debated issues was
an ethical system called Situation Ethics, the premise of which was that if love was to be best served,
sometimes other moral principles and codes could be put aside. This ethical system was grounded in
unconditional agape love, the absolute law of love. Situation Ethics argued that if
other laws needed to be broken in order for universal agape love to be fully realized, the very love
that Jesus taught in the two great commandments of the Gospels, then so be it. In Situation
Ethics, the ends can justify the means, assuming, of course, that the “situation” is not intrinsically bad
or evil. Situation Ethics is among the purest systems of moral ambiguity but when we consider the
horrors of the sexual abuse of children and the silence of those institutions in which it occurs, moral
ambiguity is useless as a denominator.
On this last Sunday of the Church Year, the Sunday of Christ the King, the Church reveals its wisdom in
maintaining the rhythm of the Christian life of worship and preserving joyful anticipation and
expectations, very much in stark contrast to Situation Ethics. There is certainty and clarity, all part
of the Good News, as are today’s readings in which, once again, we are shown how to see ourselves and
our world in a deliberate and mindful way. Matthew’s Gospel lets us ask the Lord, “when did
we see you? “If we missed you, we didn’t mean to and if we encountered you and responded
accordingly, we are blessed.” How remarkable it is that God allows those of us who are mindful as well
as those of us not mindful to ask the same question. And because the Gospel is a living conversation ,
we can chose the Grace that comes with our affirmation of Christ in those we welcome, feed, clothe,
take care of, heal, protect and cherish, or we can remain unaware that we have done anything wrong
and in our pretend ignorance hope for God’s mercy.
The Gospel with its challenges was with us in the time of Situation Ethics just as it is
with us now. But oh, how different the times are: what was “situational” and morally ambiguous
in the 1970’s is not “situational” or morally ambiguous now. This is not to say that in our time we are
free from the hubris that comes from spiritual aridity or that we are not living in what Jean Vanier calls
a “mixture of light and darkness, of love and hate, of trust and of fear.” It is, though, to say that we are
clear and unambiguous about one thing--the perversity of the sexual abuse of children, especially when
it occurs in the protected confines of a religious or academic institution. We are quick to condemn the
unconscionable acts perpetrated by people who have every reason to know the evil of these acts, just as
we are quick to judge the corporate institutions as hypocritical, cruel, profoundly dishonest and
deceitful, arrogant, and even dysfunctional and toxic. If you’ve been reading the papers and listening to
the commentators about the human tragedy that has come to our Penn State University, the words I’ve
used to describe the circumstances and conditions of what has transpired there will seem familiar. We
know that the adults involved in the sexual abuse of children, directly or indirectly, are moral cowards
who seek to protect themselves in the safe confines of their respective institution instead of asking
whether what they have done is right and just and not morally reprehensible. They are neither clever
nor wise, nor do they often practice what they say they believe.
So here we are standing firm in our righteous anger, knowing that we are justified in the integrity of our
judgment because we know the gravity of the evils committed. This is a good, clean objective, no
moral-ambiguity, non situation-ethics position, right? Wrong. There are, in fact, some serious
problems with which we have to wrestle. First of all, the scripture readings today make very clear that
God’s judgment belongs to God, not to us. We have the right and the responsibility to render judgment
but it is our own, not God’s. Secondly, there is the problem of what we believe is our righteous anger.
Maybe it is righteous, but maybe it isn’t. Either way, anger is always something of a risk, especially when
we remember that anger is one of the “seven deadly sins.” Frederick Buechner reminds us of this risk when he says: Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll your tongue over the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways [anger]is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.
Thirdly comes the most difficult challenge and that is what we do about forgiveness
without apparent repentance on the part of those involved with the crimes. We are fortunate in that
WE do not have to see to it that these heinous crimes carry punishment. They do and they will. This is
the human side. We are Christians and our path is different in that we have the law and spirit of the
Gospel to guide us toward forgiveness. But forgiveness is neither simple nor easy, especially when
we see little or no repentance. And while letting go of our anger is part of forgiveness, we have to
be mindful that in letting go of our righteous anger we don’t grant amnesty to the unrepentant. Again,
this is God’s work.
Matthew’s Gospel today shows us that we have the choice of doing or not doing, the choice of how to
lead our Christian lives, knowing full well the consequences of one choice or the other. Not to forgive is
a choice but a costly one, like anger. Modern theologians and spiritual directors tell us that to hang on to
the wrongs is to feed a tumor in our inner lives, and thus feed on ourselves as our own prisoners.
So finally comes the act of true forgiveness. As Christians we know that forgiveness is the way of
the Gospel, a way of acknowledging how deeply flawed we are as human beings who can harm and hurt
one another and live in untruths and deceptions. But because we are who we are we remember that
God began by forgiving us and giving us Christ, His son, in ransom. The Good News is that God invites us
to forgive as we are forgiven and to set ourselves free. This is the gift of our Faith and we experience it
again in its richness and fullness on this Sunday of Christ the King.
……for I was hungry and you gave me food , I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me …and I was a child and you protected me.
Preached by Dr. Peter Kountz
20 November 2011
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia