The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, D.D.
This morning, Cathedral Day, we celebrate the gift of this cathedral as being the place where the sacred is made known to us through the brilliance of art, architecture, music, and illuminating prayers, and the incarnational presence of God as revealed through the holy mysteries of the Eucharist. Unlike Jacob in the Book of Genesis, who was touched by the hand of God when he fell asleep using a stone as his pillow, we are blessed by the magnificence of this Cathedral to more comfortably know God. While Jacob was surprised to know when he awoke from his sleep that he was truly in a sacred place, we have been blessed by this Cathedral’s majesty to know that we are already in a sacred place. And like Jacob, we can together say, “Surely the Lord is in this place.”
The stones that define and mark the outward and visible presence of this Cathedral also mark and define the inward and mystical presence of God who is very much with us. Take a few moments to look around you! You are surrounded by living stones. They are not lifeless like the one that Jacob laid his head upon, but rather, they are living stones, shaped, crafted and designed by human hands to help define for us what is so hard to know and experience in our own daily lives; that God is present among us and demands from us the very best that we have to offer, not only to God, but to the world and all who inhabit it. And the Eucharist of bread and wine that we will receive is the sacramental process through which God ultimately comes to reside within us, to empower us to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a horribly conflicted and broken world. And for each of us who find their lives broken, filled with tension, tragedy, grief and loneliness, or are in need of forgiveness, healing or renewal, the Eucharist provides each of us with the opportunity to claim new life, a new day, hopefulness, forgiveness, strength, reconciliation and empowerment. This sacramental process changes our lives for the better in order that we might become the vessels of light and verity in a world that will eagerly and noisily greet us when we walk out the west end doors of the Cathedral this morning to face the challenges of living into another day. But the question remains in practicality: “How are we going to really do this?”
In 1975, the Watergate scandal and the sudden resignation of President Richard Nixon shocked the nation. As we move into the 21st Century, we are exposed to the fall out from the Enron scandal, the corruption of a high profile K Street lobbyist in Washington, and the indictment of Tom Delay, one time House Majority Speaker, and other abuses of ethics and morality by those in politics and the business sector of America. What is bizarre in all of this is that all persons involved displayed a lack of ethics, and in turn violated the public trust.
Some years ago in the Wall Street Journal there appeared an article about the crisis in ethics referring to the crisis as the plague of “moral myopia.” The article went on to say that there seemed to be an attitude in this country that says, “we are not so much consciously immoral as we are unconsciously amoral.”
Since Watergate, more books have been written about applied ethics than during the entire history of humankind. Prior to Watergate, few law and professional schools offered courses in applied ethics. The only places where such courses were offered were in schools of theology. Today, that all has changed. Now there are a plethora of courses offered on practical and applied ethics. As an aging “baby boomer” I ask, “does this mean that the emerging generation of the 21st Century will be more ethical? The evidence so far would indicate that this is a question up for grabs. It is a question that reaches into even the highest levels of government in the United States.
A poll by the Gallup Foundation was taken to investigate the cheating levels in high school and college. The results were shocking! At the junior and senior high school levels, 75% of those polled admitted to having cheated. At the college and graduate school levels, the figure was an astounding 50%.
I believe that today there is a universal moral principle operating that is based on the following ethic: “short of causing bodily harm to another person, I am free as an individual to do my own thing.”
In America we place a heavy emphasis on the principles of individuality and individual rights. If we say that the moral principle in this country is “that we are free to do whatever we want to do so long as we don’t cause bodily harm to another person,” then from a theological perspective, the Commandment “thou shalt not commit adultery” has lost its moral imperative. No moral injunction has any authority bearing on doing drugs, receiving illegal “kick-backs” from business or political interests, violating one’s oath to the Bar, the Hippocratic Oath, priestly ordination vows before bishop and congregation, political constituents, or the way in which we treat friends, customers, or even husbands, wives and children because, whatever one does with one’s self is free from moral fault.
I say this as a “boomer” to the emerging generation of the 21st century: I believe we are suffering as a country from an over emphasis of individuality and our extreme sensitivity to plurality. This is one of the dark legacies of the “boomer” generation—my generation. Because we have become so diverse and heterogeneous as a culture in our moral standards, I believe that our educational systems and churches find it very difficult if not impossible to teach moral standards of behavior. We have not provided our young people with the foundation to seek out and define appropriate moral standards of behavior. We have left the young by themselves to figure out the difference between right and wrong. Instead of giving them bread to eat, we have given them stones.
The attitude that my behavior is ok because I am only doing what everyone else is doing promotes a dangerous ethical and moral standard that says, “society’s standards are my standards.” The dilemma here is that if moral standards come from a particular group or society, then there can be no universal moral laws. Painful and disastrous examples of this are the rise of the Nazi Party and the extermination of millions of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals during the Holocaust. Likewise, in this country, slavery and racism were found to be morally acceptable, even sustainable, by most faith traditions of the time. Such did not change until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1864 and the Civil Rights act of 1964.
You and I know that the atrocities of the Nazis and the institution of slavery are inherently wrong and morally abhorrent. And if we know this, then we must know that there are some clearly understood universal moral standards of behavior, or there are none!
As Christians we know that there are some universal moral truths that must guide our behavior. So what are they?
We know that telling the truth is better than lying. We know that cheating is wrong and a failure of the human character and eventually hurts everyone. We know that stealing is wrong and should have no place as a behavior in our lives. We know that adultery may be the societal standard of our time, but for Christians it is morally wrong. We know that focusing all of our efforts in life solely to acquire material wealth and “things” is unhealthy and contrary to the teachings of God and the three great Abrahamic Faiths. We know that murder is a violation of not only the teachings of the Christian Faith, it is also a violation of universal religious, moral law. We know that passive resistance and non violence is a more appropriate behavior than physical violence. We know that war in all of its forms is the ultimate definition of human failure. We know that since we are, as human beings, created in the image of God, it is sinful and morally wrong to discriminate against another because of race, culture, language, class, sexual identity, orientation or age. We also know that the fullness of so much of this knowledge comes to us from the collective thinking and writing of well over 2000 years of human civilization; it is truly a crime not to teach our young what we know about moral values!
Jesus Christ and in fact the teachings that come to us from the Hebrew Bible and the Koran call each of us to take the time to breathe some fresh air and rethink the implications of our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren. Do we live within the framework of a moral philosophy that says, “short of causing bodily harm to another, I am free to do my own thing?”
Each of us should take the time to breathe some fresh air and rethink whether our behavior is being motivated by an ethic that says, “I’m only doing what everyone else is doing so there is nothing morally wrong with it.” If we are using societal standards of behavior as our standard, then we are living in a frightening “no man’s land” where anything is permissible and where people can do horrible, inhuman things to one another. And this cathedral, on Cathedral Day, 2006 pledges to be the place where such moral myopia will continue to be challenged and where sound teaching and sound moral challenges to the dehumanizing of the human mind, soul and body will be at the forefront of our mission to our local community, the nation and the world. For in Christ we are a new creation and in Christ we are called to live life by a new, higher moral order.
The challenge before the emerging generation of the 21st century is to see if they will do better than the “boomer” generation in living into this new higher moral order.