Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:20-33 ~
Prefer to watch David deliver this sermon on Facebook? Click here to see “What if They Had Taken Guns?”
Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see something new on the market.
The Apple Watch in all its many models and status levels is the most current example that comes to mind.
Just the other day I discovered “Birthday Cake” M&M’s for the first time.
The same store also sold another item new to me: an all-terrain stroller that can handle grass, gravel, dirt, rocks, trails and other so-called “mommy terrain.” (I did wonder why it was not also for “daddy terrain,” “partner terrain,” “grandparent terrain,” and wondered why humans must label everything)
But by far, the most mind-boggling new invention of which I just heard are Robot cars that make decisions about what crashes to avoid.
I am not speaking about toy remote cars. These are real cars that will transport real people.
Let’s think about this together for a moment:
Robot cars? Robot cars that make ethical decisions?
Yes. Let’s say you’re driving one of these vehicles down the street and fail to notice the group of five people standing in the road in front of you. There is a programmed plan in place. Your car will take control of the wheel from you and swerve to the right. Five lives are saved because the car has been programmed to avoid collisions and save human lives.
But what if there is a person standing on the sidewalk, to the right of your car? That person could be killed when the robot car obeys its own life-saving laws.
The solution? There are ethics settings built into every robot vehicle.
“Did your robot car make the right decision?” Is both a good question, and the title of an article by author Patrick Lin in Wired magazine. Although there’s no clearly right way to go, it’s “generally better to harm fewer people than more, to have one person die instead of five.”
That is a basic premise of Utilitarian ethics.
But should robot cars be making these decisions? Maybe human beings should have the power to make them, instead of letting the vehicle decide — based on its ethics settings — that it’s always better to swerve and kill one person instead of crashing directly into five.
Okay, well … then … why not let the driver select the ethic settings of the car? One owner might value their life over all others. Another may prefer that the car values all lives the same. Another may want to minimize legal liability and costs. In a recent survey, 44 percent preferred to have a personalized ethics setting, while only 12 percent thought the car manufacturer should determine the ethical standards.
Adjustable ethics settings!
Let’s go back to our texts today from Jeremiah and John where both affirm that only God has the power to adjust our ethics settings, and actually does this in Jesus.
In these texts we see that God intervenes to adjust our ethics setting. God does this when a new law is written on our hearts.
Context from the Hebrew Scripture: The prophet Jeremiah receives a message about a new covenant: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (v. 31).
A new covenant likely sounded good, because the word “new” always carries the promise of improvement; that is one of the advertising messages of items like the new Apple watch, the “all-terrain” stroller, or Birthday M&Ms.
God tells Jeremiah, “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke …”
This old covenant was a promise-based relationship that God entered into with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, a relationship that God initiated.
God heard the Israelites groaning when the Egyptians held them in captivity as slaves. God delivers them (Exodus 6:5), after freeing them from captivity, gives their leader, Moses, the two tablets of the covenant, containing the law of God (Exodus 31:18).
“I will be your God, and you will be my law-abiding people.” These were the terms of the old covenant, and they made it very clear that a relationship with God required deference to God’s ethics.
Problem was, the people couldn’t — or wouldn’t — obey.
Their disobedience began as soon as Moses came down the mountain carrying the tablets of the covenant, and it has continued in every century that has followed.
The old covenant was designed to create a new community by drawing boundaries around it through laws and rituals. These boundaries also helped keep people safe and healthy, much as robot cars have been engineered to keep people safe.
For example, within the old covenant, rest from work was guaranteed by the commandment to keep the Sabbath, and family harmony was preserved by the commandments to honor your mother and father. (Exodus 20:8-14). If you kept the law of God, you were safe from most threats to your happiness and health.
But the old covenant was not working, so God made a new covenant with the house of Israel. “I will put my law within them,” says God through the prophet Jeremiah, “and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v. 33).
Suddenly, our ethics settings are no longer external, not written on tablets of stone, No, our ethics settings are deep within each one of us, written on our hearts.
Jeremiah declares that when God readjusts our ethics settings, God writes the law on our hearts. Suddenly, our decisions are driven by knowing God and understanding God’s way — a way we see most clearly in Jesus.
Now, when we meet people who are hungry on the Sabbath, or any other day, we feed them, just as Jesus did (Matthew 12:1-8).
When we encounter people who are ill and unclean, we help them, just as Jesus did (Luke 5:12-16).
When we encounter persons who are strange/stranger to us, we sit down and talk with them, just as Jesus did (John 4:1-15).
We discover that our true brother and sister and mother is the person who “does the will of God,” as Jesus did (Mark 3:31-35).
“Christian ethics is not a matter of discovering what’s going on in the world and getting in tune with it. It isn’t a matter of doing things to earn God’s favor. It is not about trying to obey dusty rulebooks from long ago or far away. It is about practicing, in the present, the tunes we shall sing in God’s new world.”
–N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (Zondervan, 2010), 222.
In a world torn apart by labeling, violence and dehumanization, we choose to follow Jesus as the path to true peace, creating and inviting others into a different kind of community.
None of this is a negation of the old covenant. Keeping the Sabbath and honoring our parents remain as important as ever. But Jesus readjusts the Sabbath’s ethical setting by reminding us that the Sabbath is designed to help us, so no one should starve on this holy day.
Jesus readjusts the family setting by teaching us that our parents and siblings go far beyond the people in our biological families.
Jesus reminds us that we are not robot cars controlled by God, with orders that we will always swerve to the right when a collision is about to happen.
We have free will, therefore we have choices to make as we seek to follow God and Jesus faithfully.
And it is these choices we make that lead us toward new understandings of what it means to be loving and faithful people.
I was reminded of this in a very poignant and powerful way last Sunday afternoon when I was privileged to hear The Rev. Gil Caldwell speak about the early Civil Rights Movement, in an afternoon gathering at Stoughton United Methodist Church.
It was riveting to hear Rev. Caldwell speak about his early activism, and walking with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders, including a peaceful march against school segregation in the city of Boston.
He shared important moments from many occasions, including the voter registration march that became known, horrifically, as Bloody Sunday.
About that march and those who went to participate he asked this question: “What if they had taken guns?”
He then went on to remind us of the consequences of retaliatory justice, based on the old covenant law, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth…makes the whole world blind and toothless.”
This drew us into a conversation about current Civil Rights protests, and his personal dismay with acts of violence.
We discussed the increasing civil unrest, marked so vividly in places such as Ferguson. With Ferguson as our beginning point, we discussed issues of race, gender, sexual orientation and sought to discover some path toward community despite all of the forces that would separate us from one another, and increasing acts of violence towards minority communities.
This time we spent together discussing what is important in the Civil Rights movement today affected me most of all.
The essential point was summed up in that one question posed by Rev. Caldwell, “What if they had taken guns?”
We talked about Ferguson and the temptation some have given into to label and dehumanize one another, for whatever reasons; the recent shooting of two police officers because of their job provided one tragic example.
And then we discussed differences between “then” and “now.”
I was not quite prepared for this discussion because I thought some of my opinions were only coming from a place of privilege- but when I heard Gil Caldwell and others speaking about aggressive attitudes, the power of hostile and misogynistic music, and the increasing tendency for all of us to use labels to identify, dehumanize, and discriminate against one another- I realized I was not alone in my reflections and concerns.
The beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in this country was rooted in the church, following Jesus in spiritual practices such as non-violent resistance, and prayer.
Rev. Caldwell reminded us that whenever people gathered before acts of civil disobedience they sang and prayed together.
A woman present recalled witnessing “wave-after-wave” of protesters sitting down in prayer, being beaten by the police and carried off, then replaced by another group who sat down in prayer to endure the same treatment.
Several persons there, spanning several generations, lamented the violence, the labeling, and the dehumanization that accompanies many protests today both in words and acts of violence on all sides.
It was significant to think and talk about these things, to be reminded of our roots; and to remember that when we agree to embrace the new covenant embodied in Jesus, we do not lose our moral compass, nor do we turn our ethics over to the marketplace.
This new promise-based relationship with God does not mean that our compass needle is going to quiver all over the place and not provide the guidance we need.
Instead, we discover that our moral compass now points us consistently to Jesus.
“No longer shall they teach one another,” predicts God to Jeremiah, “or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (v. 34). We all have an opportunity to know God personally through the example and being of Jesus Christ. v
In Jesus, we see the human face of God, and we learn about God’s love, grace and truth. Through Jesus, we learn how much God wants to be in relationship with us, and to eliminate any barriers that might separate us from God or one another.
Aki Ra leads a contingent of 20 people dressed in military fatigues through open land in Cambodia. Their job? Clearing land mines left over from the brutal Cambodian civil war. They walk with care, following their leader. They depend on him to protect them from losing life or limb.
Aki Ra can do that because he knows where the land mines are. He knows because he planted many of them himself.
Aki Ra was but a child of 10 when the Khmer Rouge gave him a rifle as big as he was and set him to work laying mines. He was good at it, laying between 4,000 and 5,000 land mines a month. It troubled him that his actions could cause others to be maimed or killed, but he felt he had no choice. He was under orders, and the brutal Khmer Rouge was not noted for kindness to those who disobeyed.
After the war, Aki Ra’s conscience troubled him. After receiving some rudimentary training from the U.N., he began going out into the countryside by himself to clear mines, using a knife, a stick and his bare hands. Eventually, he traveled to Britain, where he received training in more sophisticated mine-clearing techniques.
In 2008, Aki Ra gathered a group of native Cambodians, including other former soldiers and some war crime victims, to form his own nonprofit demining organization. One of the workers is an amputee who lost a leg to a land mine. They focus their efforts on rural villages that are not high up on the government’s priority list for mine-clearing.
To clear land mines, you have to know what Aki Ra knows: you must know where they are. That’s the function of God’s law: warning where the mines are hidden, even when the ground looks perfectly normal otherwise.
Through Jesus, God eliminates the burden of our sins and seeks reconciliation. “I will forgive their iniquity,” promises God through the prophet Jeremiah, “and remember their sin no more” (v. 34). This promise is made true for us by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which shows us what right relationship with God and neighbor looks like.
So, is new always better? When it comes to Apple Watches, “Birthday Cake,” M&M’s, all-terrain strollers and robot cars … maybe.
To tell you the truth; the older I grow I less I pay attention to such things- or most “things.”
But new is clearly an improvement when we’re talking about God’s new covenant with us, one that resets our ethics setting and points us clearly and consistently toward Jesus.
When we walk the path of Jesus, we don’t abolish the law or the prophets, but we find a way to bring them to together in the light of Christ.
When it comes to ethics, the Jesus setting is always the right setting.
Originally delivered March 22, 2015 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.
- Lin, Patrick. “Here’s a terrible idea: Robot cars with adjustable ethics settings.” Wired. August 18, 2014, wired.com.
- Ebonne Ruffins, “Cambodian man clears land mines he set decades ago,” CNN, July 30, 2010. cnn.com. Retrieved September 30, 201
Former Khmer Rouge Soldier Aki-Ra has dedicated his life to ridding his country of landmines by Rodney Evans/AusAID [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Accident Nehoda Uherský Brod 2 by Ervín Pospíšil [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons