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Whatever Happened to Right and Wrong
September 21, 1975

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

ROMANS 12:1-2

“Grandpa, do you think kids today behave worse than they did when you were young?” 

“Well, the worst thing we ever did was to hide the Dutchman’s washing tub up in the hackberry tree so his wife couldn’t clean his one pair of overalls. And back in the 30s, the real Bonnie and Clyde came through these parts and I could name someone you know who hid them from the law overnight.”  

“But didn’t you have any reasons to have marches and demonstrations?” 

“Oh, yes, I think we had some reasons but I guess we just went about things a little bit differently. In those days we didn’t have TV to give nationwide coverage to everything we did.” 

“Grandma says you went to church every week without ever missing a Sunday.”  

“That we did. The sermons were over an hour long, too. And then we’d come back in the evening for some more. We always had a contest to see whether the widow O’Brien would go to sleep in the choir loft before the preacher finished.” 

“You make it sound like fun. You know, I kind of wish.. 

“that you’ve been alive then? Well, it’s hard to say whether it was any more fun although the pace was slower.” 

“At least you weren’t about to blow up the world with the bomb. And you weren’t choking to death with pollution.”

“True, but remember, we started the whole process. We were so certain that science and technology would save the world. Well, it’s going to take a little more than that. It’s going to take faith.”


“Yes, faith. Not the know-it-all kind; nor the lord-it-over-science kind of faith, but a different kind of faith that is deeply rooted in God, yet hard headed and ferocious enough to demand that some changes be made. That kind of faith will turn you around.” 

Whatever happened to right and wrong? The recent edition of the Christian century has an interesting cartoon on the front cover. The cartoon is supposed to depict the president and his wife. She is sitting up in bed chattering away. He obviously is trying to get to sleep with his head buried in his pillow and his back to his wife. She chatters away and says, “If Susan told me she was having an affair, I wouldn’t be surprised, but I would certainly counsel her and give advice around the subject. And I would want to know pretty much about the young man that she was planning to have the affair with. Of course, she’s still pretty young. But then on the other hand..” And interrupting her babbling is the husband saying “I’d wring his neck.” 

Whatever happened to right and wrong? There is disagreement in our land these days over what is right and what is wrong. There is more disagreement perhaps than in our history, which is causing confusion and in some cases, chaos. Society as a whole is changing its values, changing its morals, changing its ideas of what is right and what is wrong. There is open disagreement over things that used to be agreed upon. There used to be much more unity in our society, much more common acceptance of certain codes, of certain ethics, of what is right and what is wrong.

Take, for example, the McGuffey Reader. The McGuffey Reader was the backbone of the American school system from about 1836 into the early 1900s. Education in that day was, first of all, a moral education. The purpose of the school was to inculcate morality into the students and the McGuffey Reader was the textbook. The McGuffey Reader reflected the dominant ethic code of America and taught it to the children. This code was widely accepted. The materialistic, worldly Puritan ethic was a very simple ethic— good is rewarded and evil is punished. Good is rewarded usually in materialistic ways and evil is punished by the deprivation of materialism. For example, there was the story of the old lady who befriended the vagabond, the bum, who turned out to be her rich young nephew just returned from the gold fields. There was the farmer who because of his honesty, was given $500 by his rich neighbor. There was the poor boy who helped an old man cross the street who in turn gave the poor boy a job. 

Good was rewarded with riches. If you were thrifty, if you worked hard, and above all, if you were punctual, you would get rich. Now that ethic has certainly crumbled down upon us. Try teaching stories like that in the schools today. The students will laugh, or they will point out example after example of a person becoming rich through a price fixing scandal, or a person becoming rich because they took advantage of someone who is down and out. Or they’ll point out that when you help an old man cross the street, and he falls and breaks his hip, then you get sued. 

It’s a good thing this ethic has crumbled. For the Christian ethic is: you help an old man cross the street because he needs help, not because you expect to get anything out of it, like a job. Our values, our ideas of what is right and what is wrong are changing. Dr. William Barclay, an eminent biblical scholar, in his new book, Ethics in a Permissive Society, says that just thirty years ago, there was a commonly accepted code. It wasn’t disagreed with. It wasn’t even discussed, it was just taken for granted by society as a whole: Divorce is disgraceful. Illegitimate children are a disaster. If you work hard, you will get rewarded. Chastity, virginity is good. Honesty is the basis of human relationships. A man’s responsibility and for his own self respect is to work hard and put out a good day’s work for his employer. These are not commonly accepted anymore. All of these ethics which we accepted thirty years ago are being bombarded by an attack on every hand, and we ask the question, “What is right and what is wrong anymore, whatever happened to right and wrong?” 

In the days in which we are living, we are seeing values changing, crumbling. We’re seeing a lot of disagreement, a lot of confusion. It really helps to remind ourselves over and over that you and I are living in the middle of a revolution. We are living in a time that has happened over and over again in history when a civilization undergoes a dramatic, cataclysmic change. History teaches us that during these times, either the civilization completely collapses and a new one takes its place, or the civilization is able to assimilate the change, and enter a new period. 

You and I are living in the midst of revolution. It’s not clear as to what is coming. It’s not clear that all the changes are for the good, nor is it clear that all the changes are for the bad. This is a time of transition. It’s as if we were living in an earthquake, a constant earthquake with the old traditions shaking, the old ways shaking, the old structures shaking and in some cases crashing down. Underneath us the ground is in constant movement and we are in constant turmoil. Our society is constantly shaking. We are reverberating from the earthquake. We see the ground opening up, forming chasms from the earthquake. Ways that were accepted, tried and true and believed are now being lost down in a deep hole. On the other hand, new hills are erupting, new mountains are forming, the landscape is changing. It’s not clear yet as to what these new mountains are or what they’re going to be. 

As we live in this earthquake, there are two possible stances that we can take, two positions. One is disastrous and one is filled with hope and gives us security. There are an awful lot of people living with a disastrous stance characterized by fear. They are afraid of the earthquake. They constantly fear what is happening around them. They’re scared. They see things changing and they don’t know what to do. They are reaching out and grasping for something to hang on to, something that will make them sturdy and stable, something that will give them security. They turn to drugs. They turn to alcohol. They turn to off beat religions. 

Or they turn to the past. They face backwards. They long for the pre-earthquake days when things were a little simpler. They wish the earthquake had never happened. They’d like to turn back the clock. They’d like to keep all the old traditions, all the old values, all the old ways just like they were. They’re hoping that when the earthquake is over, they can rebuild everything just like it was. Actually, this is a very small faith to believe that the best has already happened, that the best is in the past. It’s a very small faith to believe that the best God Almighty can do is behind us, and that God doesn’t have the power to create out of the earthquake, a new and better order. 

This stance—one of fear, of looking backwards—is also characterized by a preoccupation with trivia. When the large issues just get too much, when it just gets too threatening, we get involved in trivia. For example, Martin Marty has written an article called “Our Moral Arbiters”, an excellent article. He cites some quotations from church publications over the last few months—Roman Catholic, protestant, evangelical church publications. He cites some quotes from some of the leading religious leaders of the day. And out of these quotes, he finds emotional words that express extreme agitation—aghast, unthinkable, frankly appalled, a cancer sapping the vitality of the nation, endorsing evil, shallow secularism, a moral mess, deterioration of morality. These strong emotional words of indignation were not raised about bombings. These words were not written about a Korean dictator who oppresses and suppresses Christians. These words were not raised against the Soviet Union for its harassment of the Jews. These words were not raised against rich nations hoarding so poor nations starve. No, these views these words were raised against First Lady Betty Ford because of her views on abortion, marijuana and premarital sex! The large, weighty moral issues of the day go unnoticed while they pick on one little woman and her liberal views. Remember how silent the churches were when the Nazis exterminated Jews. When 60 million Jews were massacred, the Pope said nothing. The Lutheran Church of Germany said nothing. The world-wide church said nothing. But oh, how we pick on a woman who expresses some views of a changing morality! We are preoccupied with trivia rather than face the large earthquake and the great moral issues of our day. This is the stance of a people afraid of the days in which we are living. 

The second stance—the stance of the Christian, the stance of a person who can survive these days—is characterized first of all, by faith, faith in God who is mightier than the earthquake, faith in God who is mightier than the revolution, faith in God who the Bible teaches us can take any situation and work out his process through it to bring this world to the kingdom of God through the changing times. It’s a faith that believes the best is yet ahead. These are exciting days for the past that brought us to today wasn’t all that good. The old codes may not have been that beautiful. God is leading us to a new day, a closer approximation to the kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. These are exciting days in which to live. There are as many bright spots on the horizon as there are dark spots. There is as much ground for hope today as there is for despair. And when have faith in God, hope brightens .

The stance of a person who can survive today, the stance of a Christian is further characterized by resilience rather than rigidity. Rather than being rigid, be resilient, move and bend. When we moved to California, I said to a builder in the Bay Area, “Look at all these new houses going up. Why do they build them out of toothpicks? I’m from the Midwest where we really know what timber is and where we use cement blocks to build our houses. I come out here and see all these houses built out of matchsticks, toothpicks. What is all this weak lumber you use?” He said, “When it’s time for an earthquake, the house ought to be able to give a little bit, be able to move a little bit. If you put up a firm, Midwest type of building that is rigid, when the earthquake comes, it cracks and crumbles. So we build them with resilience.” That’s the kind of stance we need, resilience like a tree. An old tree that is rigid, when a strong wind comes along it topples. A young tree is resilient and it goes with the wind; although it doesn’t go completely with the wind because it springs back. And it doesn’t bend completely with the earthquake. It doesn’t go all the way with the quake, it comes back. 

We need resilience today to be open. Don’t be so sure that you are absolutely right. Don’t be so definite, don’t be so autocratic. Don’t be so strong that you lose your kids, or that you lose people around you. Be open to the possibility of cooperation, be resilient. The Christian can be resilient because his inner security is not dependent on what other people think of him. Your resilience does not depend on what other people think of you. You do not need the structures of society to keep you good. Your resilience is not dependent upon what you think other people ought to do, what you think how other people ought to live. Your inner security that allows you to survive these days is built on Jesus Christ. 

Our scripture lesson this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans adds a beautiful dimension when we view it as being in the midst of an earthquake, as we are today. Paul wrote to Romans, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable and perfect.” Offer your body to God and body in Paul’s language means your whole life; not just your soul, but your whole life—what you do with your hands, what you do with your mouth, what you do with your time, what you do with your money, what you do with your days, what to do with your dreams. Offer them to God. Begin the day by saying, “God, this is your day. This is the day you’ve made, I give it to you. I give you all that I’ve got to do today. I give you my mind. I give you my dreams. Take me, work in me and use me today.” Offer your life to God. Do not be conformed to this world. Don’t let your neighbors tell you how to live. Don’t let the world tell you how to live. Don’t let the customs tell you how to live your life. Don’t let the past dictate how you live your life. Don’t let the earthquake demoralize, depress and discourage you. Do not be conformed for Christ is our teacher. Christ is our leader. Christ will lead us. His Holy Spirit will come into us. The Holy Spirit will give us strength, sustenance and direction as we find what is the will of God. No one has the whole story on the will of God. It is revealed to us, it is revealed to our country, it is revealed to the world as we live our lives. Be open to his spirit. Trust in Him. Rest in his grace. 

That’s our stance: be resilient, be open, believing that God is working out his purpose in you and in this world.

© 1975 Douglas I. Norris