Wednesday, August 31, 2011

From Earthquakes to Aquinas

It's hard to believe that we had an earthquake and a hurricane in one week here on the East Coast! Life throws many unexpected things our way, so it is important to be prepared for what we can and to remain calm when things happen. 

During the recent earthquake, my cat disappeared under a bed. It took a lot of coaxing and time to get him to come back out.

 According to FEMA guidelines, Gandalf did exactly the right thing: 

"Take cover under a sturdy desk, table, or bench or against an inside wall, and hold on. If there isn’t a table or desk near you, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner of the building."

While I and many other people were trying to figure out what was going on, my cat knew exactly what to do instinctually. 

I've been reading Aquinas for Armchair Theologians by Timothy M. Renick with a young adults group. One of the interesting things that we've discussed is Aquinas' idea that all created things (whether humans, cats, trees, or rocks) have the same basic end or goal - to serve God and God's plan for the world. Animals, plants, and inanimate objects serve God naturally by doing the things that they were created to do. Human beings have a choice in whether or not we fulfill our created end to seek and serve God. (This is an very basic explanation of Aquinas' idea, but it will do.)

It's nice to think of my cat as serving God naturally just by being a cat, a part of creation. Aquinas' concept includes all of creation as being important in fulfilling God's plan for the world, even rocks and trees (which we don't often think of as serving God). Human beings have a unique role due to our capacity for rational thought and our free will. In my opinion, this is both a blessing and a difficulty. It is a blessing because we have the capacity to serve God and one another in creative ways that are beyond the capability of any other being on this planet. It is a difficulty because what we say and do has consequences for other people and even the world - and these are often negative and contrary to God's will for us.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Virtue Ethics and Jonathan Myrick Daniels

The feast day for Jonathan Myrick Daniels in the Episcopal Church is August 14. My GOE (General Ordination Exam) Ethics question was about him and the concept of virtue ethics and I've decided to share it on this blog. What follows is the question and my response (from January of 2009).

QuestionHow does a virtue ethics approach in moral theology provide a way to interpret and understand an example like that of Jonathan Daniels?

     Jonathan Daniels was a Episcopalian seminarian and a worker for civil rights.  He died saving the life of a fellow picketer during the struggle in the 1960s for the right to vote for African-Americans.  He is remembered with a feast day in Lesser Fasts and Feasts.  By exploring the concept of virtue ethics, we can come to a greater understanding of the exemplary life and death of Jonathan Daniels.

     Virtue ethics is one of three major systems of moral theology or ethics.  The other two are deontology and utilitarianism (also known as consequentalism).  Deontological ethics emphasize duties and rules, whereas utilitarian ethics focus on the ends or consequences.  Both deontology and utilitarianism focus on right action and ask the question “What should I do?”, while virtue ethics differs from both by emphasizing right character and virtue and asks the question “What person shall I be?”

     A practical example might serve to help to differentiate the three systems of moral theology more clearly.  A person tells the truth about a matter and does not lie.  A utilitarian would tell the truth because the consequences of lying would be harmful, or the consequences of telling the truth would be beneficial.  The greater good is the goal here.  A deontological person would tell the truth because it is their duty, they would be obeying a moral rule that says that telling a lie is wrong and telling the truth is essentially good.  A virtues ethical person would tell the truth because they have an honest character.  It is not so much the action of truth-telling that is important (either acting in duty or for the greater good) as the virtue of being truthful in nature (they are fundamentally an honest person at heart). 

     The founders of virtue ethics are Plato and Aristotle.  The key concepts of virtue ethics are from ancient Greek philosophy, and include arete (virtue or excellence), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom) and eudaimonia (flourishing, happiness, or well-being) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  Aristotle describes virtues as being twofold, “partly intellectual and partly moral” (Aristotle 395).  Intellectual virtue is “originated and fostered mainly by teaching; it demands therefore experience and time” whereas moral virtue “is the outcome of habit” (Aristotle 395).  Ethical behavior is not innate, it must be taught and more importantly it must be lived.  Aristotle wrote that “it is by doing just acts that we become just, by doing temperate acts that we become temperate, by doing brace acts that we become brave” (Aristotle 395).  A virtuous character is not in-born, it has to be developed over a period of time and maintained. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Hope and Challenge for Mission

A sermon based on 1 Kings 19:9-18
August 7, 2011

Our Old Testament lesson today is from the book of 1st Kings. 1st and 2nd Kings together tell a narrative story covering about 400 years, from the death of King David to the Babylonian exile. After King David died and there was some fighting between David’s sons, his son Solomon rose to power. King Solomon was known for his wisdom, his riches, building the temple, and his many wives. King Solomon was also responsible for building temples to other gods for his foreign wives, this led many people astray, angered God, and after Solomon’s death the kingdom split into two – Israel and Judah.

Elijah was a prophet during the reign of King Ahab in the kingdom of Israel, in about the 9th century BC. Ahab’s wife was Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who worshiped the god Baal. Jezebel was responsible for converting Ahab to worshiping Baal, and also for the deaths of many Jewish prophets. Elijah challenges 450 prophets of Baal to a competition to prove whose god is real by calling on their god to light the sacrifice on their altar. Elijah exposes Baal as a false god and then has the Baal prophets slaughtered.

At the beginning of 1st Kings 19, Elijah is on the run from Jezebel and Ahab. He was afraid, went into the wilderness, and asked God to let him die. An angel provided food and water and encouraged Elijah. This is where today’s reading begins.

Elijah goes to a mountain to encounter God. There Elijah experiences a great wind that breaks rocks, an earthquake, a fire, and then the sound of sheer silence. If you’re familiar with the story, then you know that God was present in the silence and not the three powerful forces of nature. But if you hadn't heard this story before, would you have been surprised about the way in which God manifested?

I was certainly surprised when I learned this story as a child. The Old Testament is filled with spectacular events and awesome demonstrations of God’s power.  There was the burning bush that wasn't consumed by the flames, all those terrible plagues, and the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. A great wind, an earthquake, or a fire would fit right in with those other images of God’s power. But this time God chose another way.

This time, the great wind, earthquake and fire were all distractions. God was present in the sound of sheer silence, or as some other translations say, a still small voice. When we are desperate we often cling to what is flashy and powerful, but Elijah did not make that mistake. Elijah recognized God’s presence in the silence.

A voice asked, “‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’”

Elijah may have recognized God’s presence, but that didn't stop him from being despairing and a bit self-righteous in his response. Nor can we blame him for his very human attitude – Elijah had accomplished wonders but was faced with so much opposition and probable death. Elijah was afraid, lonely, depressed, and tired. God answered with compassion – reassuring Elijah that he was not alone. There were many other followers left besides Elijah. God had a plan, and told Elijah who to appoint as the next King and also who to appoint as Elijah’s successor. This reminded Elijah that the mission wasn't dependent upon him but rather upon God. It is God’s work that Elijah was doing, and God would make sure that it continued after Elijah.

At one point or another in our lives, we experience similar emotions to what Elijah did – depression, fear, loneliness. The circumstances leading to those emotions are very different from person to person – I don’t know about you but I certainly haven’t been in a fight to the death with prophets of Baal. But I have felt overwhelmed by life at times, felt that I was alone or not up to doing what needed to be done. I’m sure many, if not all of you, have felt the same way at some point. This story of Elijah can serve as a message to us of hope and challenge. The hope is that God will prevail; and that things do not depend upon only us for we are not alone. The challenge is to resist distractions, as well as to resist the allure of corruption and despair that often permeates this world.


A sermon based on Matthew 14:13-21
July 31, 2011

The feeding of the five thousand – this may be one of Jesus’ most important miracles because it is in fact, the only one of his miracles during his ministry that is recorded in all four gospels (other than the miracle of the resurrection of course). All four gospel writers thought that this story was important enough to include in their gospel, and so this story is worth a second look to see what it has to teach us today.

This story takes place immediately after Jesus and his disciples are told about the death of John the Baptist. That’s the news that Jesus heard that caused him to take a boat to a deserted place to be by himself. Jesus must have felt grief at the loss of his cousin and fellow-worker for the Kingdom of God. But a great crowd followed Jesus and would not let him be alone.

Jesus could have been upset at being denied time alone, or he could have been overwhelmed at the size and need of the crowd. I know that I would have felt those things. The text tells us that there were 5,000 men, plus women and children – so there is no telling what the actual number of people was, just that it was an enormous crowd. The text also tells us is that when Jesus saw the crowd “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Jesus had compassion. An important lesson that we can take away from this story is that God is love.

Jesus had compassion and didn't send away people who needed to be cured. And when the crowd became hungry and the disciples wanted to send the crowd away to find food on their own, Jesus had compassion on the hungry and ordered his disciples to feed the people. Jesus said to his disciples, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." The disciples replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."

It is interesting that the disciples describe what they have as nothing. What they had was meager, but it was more than nothing. All the disciples saw was the fact that they did not have enough. I’m sure that we all have had similar situations – where all we see is what we lack and not what we have. It’s hard to see the potential in what we have when we are focused on what we lack. Jesus saw what the disciples had – five loaves and two fish – and he saw the potential. Jesus told his disciples to bring the bread and fish to him.