The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
10 September 2023
A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a week at Ring Lake Ranch, an amazing ecumenical study center in Dubois, Wyoming. In a casual discussion with a Presbyterian colleague, she expressed her dismay with David Brooks, who writes for the New York Times and The Atlantic and does commentary on PBS Newshour. Brooks is the nominally conservative voice in those typically liberal settings. I always try to read commentary by David Brooks, because even when I don’t agree with him, he often has something important to say. The article that upset my friend was in this month’s Atlantic, called “How America Got Mean,” and the subtitle is “In a culture devoid of moral education, generations are growing up in a morally inarticulate, self-referential world.”
Part of my friend’s objection was that the church has often played the finger-wagging role of the “moralizer” in American society, and we have seen that play out in ways that you and I probably find repugnant, especially around issues of sexual orientation, social justice, and women’s rights. Brooks writes, “we would never want to go back to the training methods that prevailed for so long, rooted in so many thou shall nots and so much shaming, and riddled with so much racism and sexism. Yet a wise accounting should acknowledge that emphasizing moral formation meant focusing on an important question — WHAT IS LIFE FOR? — and teaching people how to bear up under inevitable difficulties. A culture invested in shaping character helped make people resilient by giving them ideals to cling to when times got hard.” And don’t we all need resilience?
Brooks’ article made me wonder how we in the United Church of Christ and particularly here at Plymouth have done in terms of moral formation not just of our young people, but of us grown-ups as well. The second step in our mission statement’s threefold challenge is where moral formation lives: inviting, transforming, and sending. Every one of us is ripe for spiritual and moral growth, whether we’re six or ninety-six.
I think that we in the progressive church DO have something important to say about moral life, and we are at a critical moment in our nation’s history, as meanness, isolation, self-centeredness, unfettered dog-eat-dog capitalism, and a patent disregard for our fellow humans and the precious planet God has entrusted to us have become culturally normative. What WE have to say might sound vastly different than other Christians.
The church as a whole and Plymouth in particular are in a unique position to help engage a journey of countercultural transformation that moves in the opposite direction of those unwelcome cultural norms. Our mission includes a strong commitment to social justice, but it’s more than that. Our mission includes spiritual connection to God, but it’s more than that. Our faith has a lot to say about the biggest questions we ask about what gives life meaning, how to find joy rather than simple self-satisfied happiness, how we are meant to relate with one another and be responsible stewards of God’s world and the wealth God has entrusted to us.
If the voices of progressive churches like ours don’t fill the vacuum in moral formation, it will be filled by other voices: the siren song of advertising lures us toward the rocks of capitalistic ruin; the cry of “I, me, mine” will drown out “we, us, ours”; the out-of-balance individualism that takes no account of the other will win out over the value of real community.
Here is what is filling the vacuum. David Brooks points out that “74 million people saw [the former president’s] morality and saw presidential timber.” That is a strong barometric reading of the moral outlook of a lot of Americans, and I find that even more telling than the individual character of the former president.
So, my friends, as progressive Christians, where do we turn for a moral compass? What are the values you hope to inculcate in our youth and in the overall culture of our congregation? For me, the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes in the sixth chapter of Luke and the fifth chapter of Matthew are absolutely central. And I think the apostle Paul has some wisdom for us in this morning’s reading.
Hear what he has to say: “Let love be genuine,” or as another translation puts it, “Love should be shown without pretending.” This is self-giving love (agape), not sentimental or romantic love. Genuine love is costly love; that means sometimes you put another person’s needs ahead of your own. Genuine love means being willing to sacrifice something for the good of the other.
“Hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good.” I think we can get caught up in trying to define and identify evil, so you might want to focus on giving energy to what is good and encourage growth in people, communities, and creation.
“Love each other with mutual affection,” is one translation, and Paul uses the Greek word philadelphia, fraternal love, so I think a good English parallel would be loving one another like family. I see that happening at Plymouth all the time, and not just for members of this congregation, but for those experiencing homelessness, refugees and immigrants, and CSU students.
“Do not lag is zeal, be ardent in spirit, and serve the Lord.” In other words put your faith into practice…don’t just say one thing and do something else. We have an involvement fair today that invites you to become active in something that moves your faith forward.
Paul knows that part of the human condition is suffering, but he isn’t satisfied to leave it at that. Rather, he encourages us to have hope, to be patient, and to keep on praying. He doesn’t say whether prayer changes God or changes us…but my experience is that it helps in either case.
Extending hospitality to strangers is a foreign concept for many Americans, but it was a key value for life in the ancient Near East. When someone shows up at your door, you welcome them, feed them, and offer a place to rest. Part of what we strive to do at Plymouth is to offer an extravagant welcome to our guests on Sundays and also to provide a warm, homelike welcome to our Faith Family Hospitality guests experiencing homelessness.
Paul encourages us to support one another financially. Generosity is a critically important value that doesn’t get much play in today’s American culture where we tend to focus not so much on what we can give as what we can get. And I see something deeply countercultural happening in this congregation as we are exceptionally generous in supporting Plymouth’s ministry and mission and even through our Share the Plate offering.
Let’s boil all of that down. Paul is talking about loving one another. It’s about love…costly love. We all say that we want community, but it doesn’t form without genuine, costly love. Here is an important caveat, whether you are looking at Paul’s list or Jesus’ Beatitudes: Nobody does any of this stuff perfectly. Each one of us is a work in progress, so maybe we should focus on practice, not perfection.
Yesterday, I saw something I’d never seen in person: along with forty-some pistols and rifles, two assault weapons came into our gun buy-back. I looked at them after they had been sawed into pieces and disassembled. I thought about Columbine and the theater in Aurora and the King Soopers in Boulder. It heart-rending to see these weapons and to think that they were designed for one purpose: killing human beings created in the image of God…in the image of love.
The work RawTools does is a shining example of the kind of moral education and engagement that Brooks is talking about.
It actually does take a village to raise a child. It takes a village to stand up and try to end gun violence. It takes a village to create systemic change. It takes a village to embody a community whose hallmarks are faith, love, justice, peace, generosity, and welcome.
David Brooks concludes, “healthy moral ecologies don’t just happen. They have to be seeded and tended by people who think and talk in moral terms, who try to model and inculcate moral behavior, who understand that we have to build moral communities because on our own, we are all selfish and flawed. Moral formation is best when it’s humble. It means giving people the skills and habits that will help them be considerate to others in the complex situations of life. It means helping people behave in ways that make other people feel included, seen, and respected.”
Welcome to our village!
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.