Sermon from July 26: The Burden of Moral Agency

The Burden of Moral Agency
Pentecost VIII (O. T. 17); July 26, 2020
Luke 1:39-45 and Jeremiah 1:4-10

When I invited you to suggest topics for summer preaching, I was sort of expecting some light-hearted stories and ideas. You know, it’s summer; think “beach reading.” This week and next I have challenging and important things to consider with you, thanks to thoughtful members of our church. The shorthand description of today’s question is “abortion,” but the question posed had more depth than that. The two Scripture readings posed the question; I propose to ponder those readings with you in the light of the question, and ponder a few more portions of Scripture in the light of that question.

I want to start by suggesting to you that the question of abortion is really four types of questions. It is a moral question: What is the right thing to do? It is a biological question: When does human life begin? It is a legal question: What is the role of government in regulating abortion? And it is a theological question: What is my responsibility to the will of God? As I ponder with you all these Scriptures, let’s keep these four questions in mind. This may be a rambling journey, so stay with me.

My questioner called attention to Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” God had a mission for Jeremiah, even before Jeremiah was born. The implied question is, “What if Jeremiah’s mother had had an abortion? What would that have done to the purposes of God?” Because people of God always want to be aligned with the will of God, it is an excellent question. Consider all the other ways the purposes of God could have been thwarted. Many pregnancies end spontaneously, sometimes even before the woman knows she is pregnant; some of you may have had that experience. That could have happened. Infant mortality was very high in the ancient world; in some cultures they didn’t even name their children until they were two years old, because of the likelihood they wouldn’t make it that long. So the question is whether the will of God is still accomplished, even if human beings make the wrong choice or something random happens to interfere. Remember what Mordecai said to Esther as I told that story a few weeks ago: if you fail to intervene, the people will still be saved. But perhaps you were supposed to have been the one to do it. We believe – and I hope that we are right! – that God’s ultimate will is accomplished; our joy and well-being are tied into cooperating with God’s will.

My questioner also called attention to the story I read you, when Elizabeth’s son “leapt in the womb” when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, came in. Does that not imply that John and Jesus were both already someone, since Elizabeth interpreted that to mean that John recognized Jesus? Yes, frankly, it does imply that. Now, John and Jesus are both special cases in the story of God, so I don’t know that it’s fair to draw a general conclusion from this specific incident. But the story is challenging, isn’t it? At this point, Mary is newly pregnant and Elizabeth is six months along. At the very least, we should affirm that at this point it is clear who these boys are going to be; Elizabeth’s unborn child, six months along, seems to be recognize Mary by her greeting, aware of Whose Mother she is going to be.

Another Scripture, then I’ll make a comment and then share some more Scripture. In Psalm 139, the poet says:

It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
Intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
When none of them as yet existed. (13-16)

Again, the poet looks back to before birth as the time of being shaped by God, and that God already has the poet’s life laid out in advance, what all the days are to bring.

Does God plan our lives and we really have no choice in what we do? That doesn’t feel quite right, does it? When I make a choice, I feel subjectively as though I truly had the freedom to choose. Philosophers who have discussed freedom and determinism and fate and the will of God have suggested that, although how we feel is not absolutely reliable, we should pay attention to how the situation seems to us. So, despite the poet’s suggestion that God had already written the book before the main character is even born, I suspect that we have a lot of freedom to choose our own way. Poetry is important, but it isn’t an absolute source for doctrine or decision-making.

Here’s another thing from Scripture: In Genesis 2, God takes the dust of the earth and shapes it into a human creature. Then it says that God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (v. 7). Here the suggestion is that, whatever God may know or decide about what our life will be, you and I don’t actually begin to exist as living beings until we begin to breathe. Remember something from another recent sermon: ruach is breath and wind and spirit. When we begin to breathe, says Genesis, we have and are spirit.

Two more; please indulge me. A phrase that is associated with this conversation is “Choose life,” which comes from Deuteronomy (30:19). I won’t read the whole passage to you, but will summarize it. Moses is speaking to the people, and he tells them they have a choice between following the ways of God and not following them. He says that the ways of God are the way of life; to turn from the ways of God is the way of death. So, “choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” So to “choose life” means to choose to follow the Torah, the teachings of God. What does the Torah say? It says, “Keep the Sabbath. Do not oppress the foreigners among you. Do not harvest to the edge of your field.” It does not say, “Do not abort a pregnancy.”

So, before I turn to the last piece of Scripture and conclude this, let me summarize my thinking. When does human life begin? Life is ongoing, a process of becoming. There is no single “moment” when a human life begins. My life, for example, has roots that go back millennia, into the dark recesses of human evolution. When did “I” begin? Maybe, as Genesis suggests, when I started to breathe. Maybe, as Romans suggests, when I was baptized and became a new person in Christ. Maybe when I began to form memories that I retain.  I don’t know. I can say, however, that the popular notion that it began when my Dad’s sperm fertilized my Mom’s egg is derived not from biology nor from the Bible, but from Roman Catholic dogma about something they call “ensoulment.” We’re not Roman Catholic; we don’t have to accept their way of thinking. And for those who talk about the “moment of conception,” they need to attend to their biology: there is no “moment of conception;” conception is a process. I don’t think it’s possible to answer the question when any particular life begins, much less when human life begins. But that said, the Bible is clear that God has purposes in mind for each of us, and part of our responsibility as human beings is to strive to cooperate with God’s purposes.

It is also clear from the Bible that human life is precious, and we should never be quick to dispose of it. Even if the life we are talking about is potential life, a life that has not yet really begun, dispensing of it should not be easy. Whenever life begins and whenever a particular life begins, even in potential it is precious. The Jesus who was not yet gave joy to the John who, though farther along, still was not yet. Even in potential, life is precious.

But now the last piece of Scripture for today, from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (5:24-25). The argument of the book of Galatians is that people who belong to God should not be constrained by any particular set of rules, but instead should be guided in doing right by the Holy Spirit. In other words: you are a moral agent, you have the capacity and responsibility to make moral decisions. Do so, guided by the Spirit.

The book the Men’s Book Club recently read[1] included the thoughts of a character who said that people never ask the government to prohibit something because they themselves have trouble with it; it’s always because they want the government to force other people to do something they think is good for them. We don’t ask, “Please outlaw abortion so that I’m not tempted to have one” but, “Please outlaw abortion to stop those people from doing it.” The message of Paul in Galatians is that we should be hesitant to ask the government to make decisions for us that are ours to make. In other words, in response to the moral question I posed at the beginning, the right thing to do depends on a number of factors, and you have the responsibility to decide what is the right thing for you to do in these circumstances. If you are confronted by the need to make a decision – about whether to have an abortion, for example, but also about what to do with respect to your own or someone else’s medical care – you have the burden of deciding. But since you are a child of God, do not carry that burden alone. Include others as part of your guidance: friends you trust, family members, your pastor and other spiritual leaders, the witness of the Holy Spirit within you.

The answers to the questions I posed at the beginning of this sermon are not absolute. Except that yes, you and I have an absolute responsibility to try to live conformed to the will of God. But likewise, we are free most of the time to discern what God’s will is. With freedom comes responsibility, the burden of having to make a choice. But with freedom in Jesus Christ also comes assurance: that whether we choose well or choose poorly, we are people of God, we are children of God, we are loved by God, who started calling out to us in love long before we were anything at all.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master; Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress