July 22, 2012

Rev. John Watts

NampaFirst UMC



Psalm 139:1-18


A doctor was delivering a breech baby.  Usually, almost always, babies manage to get into the head down position by the time they are ready to be born.  That’s a good thing because in a breech delivery the umbilical cord gets compressed between the baby’s head and the mother’s pelvis.  There is no oxygen getting to the baby while the head is delivered.  One breech baby in 10 dies in delivery because it is not delivered rapidly enough.

And so this doctor knew that all the skill he possessed was required of him at that critical moment.  He was determined to do everything in his power to safely bring this baby into the world.  Then, suddenly, he stopped trying.  He had discovered that this baby was deformed.  One leg was about half the length of the other.  He had a decision to make.  He could do all he could to save this badly crippled baby.  Or he could take his time.  No one would ever know.  If enough time ticked off the clock this poor baby would be spared a sad and difficult life.  And the baby’s parents would be spared the hardship of raising such a child.  Surely that was the best thing to do.  But he couldn’t do it.  His instincts as a doctor were to save life.  And so he saved this pitiful little girl.  She came into the world alive because he didn’t have the courage to let her die.  Normally he felt proud when he helped a mother give birth.  This time he felt guilty.

Years passed.  This doctor was attending a Christmas party.  The music was lovely.  He was especially moved by the music of the young and talented harpist.  Afterwards a woman approached him.

She said, “You saw her!  You must have recognized your baby.  That was my daughter who played the harp — and I saw you watching her.  Don’t you remember the little girl who was born with only one good leg 17 years ago?  We tried everything else first, but now she has a whole artificial leg on that side — but you would never know it, would you?  She can walk, she can swim, and she can almost dance.  But, best of all, through all those years when she couldn’t do those things, she learned to use her hands so wonderfully.  She is going to be one of the world’s great harpists.  She enters the university next year.  She is my whole life and now she is so happy . . . ”  (Christmas in My Heart, Joe Wheeler, page 73).

There are few questions today as difficult and as divisive as the question of abortion.  Is it ever morally acceptable to end a life before that life is born?  Does it matter that that life is moments away from birth, as in the example just given?  Is abortion more acceptable early in a pregnancy?  Does it matter that there is likelihood of a serious birth defect?  And even if we decide that abortion is always wrong, do we want to make it illegal?  Do we think by making it illegal it will go away?  And if abortions were to suddenly stop, how would we deal with the sudden population explosion that would result?  Who would care for all the babies if every pregnancy resulted in a live birth?

It is estimated that 25% of all pregnancies in theUnited Statesend in abortion.  That works out to about 1.5 million abortions each year. That’s 340,000 more than all the American lives that have been lost in all the wars we have ever fought.  1.5 million in a year works out to about 4,000 abortions every day.  That’s a lot of abortions.  That’s a lot of women who live the rest of their lives with that decision.  That’s a lot of lives, with promise and potential like that harp player with the artificial leg, that end before they are born.

You have heard and will hear about abortion in the presidential campaign, but maybe not as much as in previous campaigns.  Why?  Because public opinion has shifted.  It used to be that Republicans were predictably pro-life and Democrats were predictably pro-choice and it was pretty even but with an edge to the pro-choice side.  Not any longer  The latest Gallup poll (May 2012) shows a record low of 41% identifying themselves as pro-choice, 50% as pro-life, and slightly more, 51% who consider abortion morally wrong.  If I may be cynical for a moment, these numbers explain why Condoleezza Rice is not going to be Governor Romney’s vice presidential pick and why President Obama is never heard talking about this subject.

The UnitedMethodistChurchrecently held their every-four-year General Conference in Tampa.  We’re the largest religious body in Americathat supports legalized abortion.  The Catholics and the Baptists are larger and I think you know where they stand.  But to say we support legalized abortion does not tell the whole story.  Our Book of Discipline says there are “tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion” but then it goes on to say that we oppose abortion categorically as a means of birth control, gender selection, and that we oppose that barbaric practice called “partial-birth abortion”.  And added just this year is this concluding statement:  “We mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates.”

It’s a nuanced statement, which you might say means we’re afraid to take a stand, but I’d say it means our big church just represents how torn people are on this issue.   And of course, whatever words are printed in our Book of Discipline and whatever that latest Gallup opinion poll says, we are each free to think for ourselves.

So let’s think a little bit about this, using our minds and also the witness of scripture.  Let’s begin with the question that seems to be at the center of the abortion debate:  When does life begin?  You see, whether life begins at conception, or at viability (which means when the fetus can survive outside the womb), or at birth makes all the difference in how we view the morality of abortion.

I have a cartoon that shows a priest, a judge, and a teenage young man.  The caption above is this question, “When does life begin?”  The priest says, “At the moment of conception.”  The judge says, “At the moment of birth.”  And the teenager says, “When you get your driver’s license.”

When does life begin?  What does the Bible say?  We read today from Psalm 139.  It’s one of my favorite passages of the Bible.  “O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me.  Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;  thou discernest my thoughts from afar.  Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?  Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?”  God knows us.  God loves us.  God is with us, no matter what.  “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.”

Then comes the “fearfully and wonderfully made” section.  It speaks of how God formed our inward parts and “knit us together” in our mother’s womb.  God’s eyes beheld our “unformed substance”.  And God wrote in his book the days of our lives before even one of these days was lived.

It’s poetry.  It’s some of the finest poetry even written.  We’re told not to take poetry literally.  And yet who can read this passage and miss the underlying assumption that life begins before we are born?  God knows us and loves us and sees our future even as God is “knitting us together” in our mothers’ wombs.

It seems pretty clear to me.  Life begins at conception.  For corroborating evidence we can consider what we know about human embryology.  By day 9 after conception, the sex of the child can be determined.  By day 18, the heart has begun to form.  By day 20, the foundation of the brain and spinal cord are present.  By day 24, the heart has begun beating.  This is 3 1/2 weeks into the pregnancy.  Many women wouldn’t even know yet that they are pregnant.  By day 28, the muscles are developing and arms and legs are budding. By day 30, blood is flowing and the embryo has grown to ten thousand times its original size.  By day 35, the mouth, ears, and nose have taken shape.  By day 42, the skeleton has formed and reflex responses can be observed.

By week 7, the lips are sensitive to touch.  By week 8, every organ is present.  By week 11, the baby can urinate and smile.  (I think there might be a connection between the two.)  By week 12, all organs are functioning and the mother is starting to feel kicks.

There’s a lot of growth and development that occurs between week 12 and week 40, when the baby reaches full term.  The image on the screen by the way comes from week 18.  It appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in 1965.  It is quite clear that there is life inside the mother long before birth.  And it’s clear to me that that life began at the very beginning of the pregnancy.  When God first began the awesome work of knitting that tiny baby together.

Some say the measure of life is viability.  If we have any constitutional law scholars here, you will remember that Justice Blackmun’s majority opinion in Roe v. Wade said that government can get involved in restricting abortions only after viability, when the fetus could survive outside the womb.  He said viability begins at 3 months, an admittedly arbitrary date.  But if viability is the test, we might conclude that kidney dialysis patients are not really alive.  They could not survive without regular help from that dialysis machine.  Does that mean government has no business protecting their lives?

I really don’t see any way around it.  Life begins at conception.  Dr. Jerome LeJeune says what seems obvious to me:  “If a fertilized egg is not by itself a full human being, it could never become a man or a woman.  Something would have to be added to it and we know genetically that does not happen.”

So if we accept the premise that seems both scripturally and biologically sound, that life begins at conception, what then?  Well, a chain of logic seems to follow.  If the unborn embryo or fetus is alive, then to end that life intentionally is murder.  If abortion is murder, it cannot be tolerated in a civilized society.  If abortion is illegal, that law must be enforced in order for it to be obeyed.  If a law against abortion were enforced, we’d have no room in our prisons for anyone but the women who were caught and their doctors.  And illegal abortions, secret abortions, abortions that would place the mother’s life in serious jeopardy would still be commonplace.

And so, opposed to abortion though I am, I find myself trapped by this chain of logic that leads where I don’t think any of us want to go.  If I climb on board that train, there’s no getting off until that train has taken me to a strange and terrible place none of us wants to visit.  The thought of 4,000 abortions inAmericaevery day breaks my heart.  The thought of a society with zero tolerance for abortion scares me to death.  So we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma.   Where do we turn?  Well, how about the Bible?  The Bible actually gives many examples where the letter of the law leads nowhere we want to go and where the only way out is God’s grace.

The so-called Arab spring of 2011 began inTunisia. Tunisiawas and still is a strict Muslim nation.  But there is a small enclave of fundamentalist Christians who live there.  They call themselvesSt. George’s.  Now the Christians inSt. George’shave to be very careful, because their mission is to convert Muslims.  That is illegal.  That is punishable by death.  You think sharing the Gospel is scary here?  They are a very brave and highly committed band of believers.

And also very strict and extremely judgmental.  An Episcopal priest lived among them.  He really didn’t fit in.  Their version of Christianity was not at all his.  But the circumstances of his life had led him to make St. George’s his temporary home.  This priest had a minor in Islamic studies.  He had a deep appreciation for the Tunisian people — their open-heartedness, their music, their food, their faith in God.  It bothered him to hear members of theSt. George’scommunity speak of the Tunisians as evil and benighted.  This priest was scolded by a Texan namedCalfor attending a concert of classical Tunisian music.  “It’s of the devil,” he was told.  This priest found he felt more at home with the Muslims than with his fellow Christians.

One day there was a frantic knocking on the door.  The priest opened the door to a young woman with a small suitcase and tears streaming down her face.  Her name was Mabrouka.  She was fromAlgeria.  She had traveled toTunisiafor an abortion, but no one would exchange her Algerian money.  The father was a Frenchman.  If her family found out about her pregnancy, they would kill her.  She had nowhere to go.  She was a Muslim but she had heard about the compassion of Christians.  She had been told to knock on this door, that there were Christians who lived here.  She pleaded with the priest to help her.  This was her last hope.  The priest thought to himself that she had come to the last place to find the kind of compassion she was seeking.

TheSt. George’scommunity gave Mabrouka a place to stay that night.  They gathered while she slept to pray about her situation.  Their focus was on the abortion.  They also mentioned the sin that got her in this predicament.  The priest listened with great sadness.  He knew where this was going.

Then Cal, the Texan, spoke up.  He spoke slowly.  “If we send this woman home in this condition, it would be like casting the first stone at the woman caught in adultery.  Despite my fierce opposition to abortion, the compassion of Christ impels me to help her have one.”

The priest could not believe his ears.  He watched in amazement asCal, of all people, not only gave Mabrouka the money for the abortion but also accompanied her to the clinic.  He had witnessed grace in a most unexpected place.  (This story came from Bob Olmstead’s August 16, 1998 sermon preached at First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto, California.)

I opened with a story that suggested that it’s wrong to end an unborn life.  Now we close with a story that suggests it’s sometimes right.  One story is not any truer than the other.  Both are stories of God’s grace.  Both are stories that remind us that God’s grace is bigger and better than we can possibly imagine and full of surprises.  Both are stories that remind us that what makes perfect sense to us is not always the way of our God who knows us and loves us and never will let us go.

Dear God, we confess that we are not of one mind on this subject of abortion.  We confess that we have participated in the creation of a climate of mistrust and hostility between those who have reached opposing conclusions.  God, our prayer this morning is for those many thousands of women right now who are considering an end to their pregnancy.  Somehow may they be led to an alternative.  And whether or not, may they be led to you and your grace.  In Jesus Christ our Lord,  Amen.