Ephesians 4.25 – 5.2
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Things have been a little different in the way I read and interpret scripture in the last year and a half. Instead of reading a text and wondering what it might have to say to us at Plymouth, I first wonder about the broader political implications of what the text might be saying to our politicians. We are in a different era than we were before an intransigent Congress dug in their heels and refused to do business across the aisle. Imagine if all those good Christian men and women on the Hill agreed to “put away falsehood,” “speak truth to their neighbors,” acknowledge that “they are members of one another,” to identify what makes them angry, but not “let the sun go down on their anger.” Imagine if our president, instead of losing his cool on Twitter agreed “to let no evil talk come from his cell phone” but would only tweet “what is useful for building up…so that his words may give grace to those who hear.” And what if our attorney general agreed that we should “put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” in carrying out the work of the Justice Department?
You know, it’s pretty easy to point fingers and to read the admonitions of the Letter to the Church in Ephesus as being applicable to someone in Washington. It’s much more difficult for us to grapple with what they say about us.
The critique I offered of people in Washington who claim to be good Christians may be valid, but I want to return to the harder work of how this text might apply to us as well. Because there is precious little we can do to affect the behavior of folks in Washington, other than with our votes, but we do have the power to direct our own thoughts and actions here.
I think that each of us still has lots to learn in terms of good, open, honest communication, and I think that while we are a healthy congregation, we also have room to improve the way we talk to one another in the spirit of love. If we can’t do this within our congregation, God knows we won’t be able to engage people who hold political views that differ radically from our own. And at some point, that sort of dialogue may be an important task you and I will be called to engage.
“Let us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Here at Plymouth we have a low sense of ecclesiology –- the theology of the nature the church itself. But when we invite people to join as members and to covenant with us, we are inviting them to be part of this body and also the church universal –- body of Christ in the world. (That’s a big deal, folks!) We may see ourselves as individuals, but I hope that we each can also learn to see ourselves as part of a larger organism, which is our church, and beyond it, the church universal.
Sometimes it is really difficult to speak the truth lovingly to our neighbor. I get that. In the family I was raised in, we avoided unpleasant conversations and topics. So, nobody talked about my mom’s alcoholism or the impact of moving the family across the country every few years. As a young adult, I learned that avoiding something -– not talking about it -– won’t make it go away. In fact, avoidance is an invitation to allow problems become worse.
Church people are probably the worst offenders when it comes to avoiding “speaking the truth to our neighbors,” because we try to be nice. And I looked through the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and could find neither a commandment: “Thou Shalt Be Nice,” nor a Beatitude, “Blessed Are the Nice People.” So, maybe we can let go of “nice” and instead embrace compassion and speaking the truth in love.
Apparently, the author of the Letter to the Colossians (unlike my family of origin) thought that anger was an acceptable emotion, and to work through it is the way to keep it productive, and not to “let the sun go down on your anger.” Anger (like doubt) is a perfectly acceptable feeling, but it is not a healthy place to hang out forever, because it can consume your vital energy.
Healthy church systems depend on honesty, on respect for one another as the body of Christ, on speaking the truth, even when it pinches a bit and makes us uncomfortable. And the funny thing is that being open and honest can make living together so much more pleasant. You don’t have to wonder if Darlene is upset with you (or why), because she told you straight-out that she had a strong reaction to something you wrote in the Placard. And because Darlene brought this up directly with you, you had the chance to sit down with her and listen to her point of view and to describe your views more fully. Even though you and Darlene may not agree on everything, you’ve had the chance to clear the air, and you have started a pattern of healthy conversation that has ripple effects in our congregational system. We build up the body of Christ when we speak the truth to our neighbors, and when we listen lovingly.
Last week I was talking with a friend who goes to a theologically conservative Evangelical church, and we were talking about the fact that nobody –- none of us –- has our act together, that all of us are dealing with stressful life situations, whether in a marriage, a career, with our kids, in our grief, our finances, our depression, our isolation. And she remarked that her pastor often says, “We’re all just walking each other home.” We all have bad things happen in our lives, and most of us are doing our best to make it through the day as best we can. I liked that phrase, “We’re all just walking each other home,” and I was curious about where it came from. So, I did what any self-respecting minister would do: I Googled it. It turns out that the quotation comes from Ram Dass, the American guru who was popular with people of my age or a little older. So, whether you’re an Evangelical, or a Hindu, or a UCC member, we can acknowledge that “We are all just walking each other home.”
After hearing that I also reflected a bit more about Ray Becker, whose funeral I had the privilege of leading last Tuesday. Ray was a compassionate and a peaceful spirit who was the unofficial patriarch of Plymouth. Ray was born here in Fort Collins in 1925, lived through the Great Depression, served as a surgical technician on a troop ship ferrying wounded servicemen back from Europe in the Second World War, and was a meat cutter and eventually Meat Department manager at Safeway. Ray was supportive of a lot of changes at Plymouth that his parents’ generation were not, and he also had the gift of being able to disagree with people without becoming disagreeable.
I also had a fascinating conversation after the service with Joe Grassmick, who attended Ray’s funeral and was visiting from his home in Buffalo, NY, where he is a member of an inner-city UCC church. Ray was Joe’s Sunday School teacher, and Joe’s dad, Veldon Grassmick, was the minister here at Plymouth in the 1950s. Three monumental shifts happened under his pastorate here at Plymouth, and they did not happen without controversy: we gradually switched our worshipping language from German to English, we became part of the UCC in 1957, and we moved our home from Whedbee Street to this location on Prospect Road. That is a LOT of change! Joe told me that Ray was one of his dad’s right-hand men because he knew that if Plymouth was to thrive, it would need to attract younger people, to broaden its reach, and to move into a larger location. And it wasn’t easy. The older generation didn’t like those changes, and they lost members when they moved down to this site. People complained that the new location was so far south that was clear out of town; they complained that there would be a Fellowship Hall, because that might encourage fraternization and dancing, and what would we possibly do with three whole acres?!
So, I learned something after the funeral: it turns out that Ray was one of the people in his generation at Plymouth who knew how to speak truth to his neighbors.
I think we all can learn something from that example: to speak “what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear.” We can speak the truths that need to be spoken and to do that in a grace-filled and loving way, because “We’re all just walking each other home.”
So maybe when we get snared by “bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with malice,” it might be a good time to ask what is really going on. Is there something in us that is getting triggered by something someone else said or did? Maybe it’s time to take some deep breaths, say a word of prayer, and try to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving,” and also honest and forthright. And to speak the truth to our neighbor.
Back in 1629, our Congregational Puritan forbears had a covenant that members entered as they became part of that church in Salem, Massachusetts, (which is now a Unitarian congregation):
“We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and do bind our selves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himselfe unto us in his Blessed word of truth.”
Today at Plymouth, we are part of the body of Christ in the world, we are an outpost of the kingdom of God, and Plymouth itself is a body of people who are in covenant with one another “to walk together in all God’s ways” and to walk each other home. And the best and healthiest way to build the spiritual depth of this congregation is to “learn to speak the truth to our neighbors,” “put away bitterness,” “forgive one another,” and “live in love.”
May it be so. Amen.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.