How moral are we, really?

3rd Sunday after Epiphany—Mark 1:14-20—January 22, 2012

How moral are we, really? When push comes to shove, will we do the right thing? Some sociologists who study these kinds of questions did an interesting experiment recently in the Netherlands. They asked psychology students whether they would blow the whistle on an unethical experiment, one that would put the participants in harm’s way, or impact them negatively. This is against the code of social experiments. Eighty percent of the students said yes without question. But then the researchers did another experiment, with a different group of students but a similar sample: this time, they asked the students to write a letter recruiting people into the same experiment, the one that would negatively impact participants. This time, only 8 per cent of the students refused to do so and reported the experiment. The rest dutifully wrote up the letters.

This week, most of you have no doubt been reading a lot about the accident involving the Costa Concordia and especially the actions of its captain, who was among the first off the boat and then refused to follow orders from the coast guard officer in charge and go back on board to help save people. The captain has become a national coward; the coast guard officer a national hero. Certainly, the captain failed his call to service: he failed to follow his duty as the person in charge of the ship. People died as a result of his failure to do the right thing. But let’s go beyond that. We can pass judgment on him – and he certainly appears to deserve the charges he faces. But here’s an opportunity to discuss a bigger question and a more personal one: Are we moral ourselves? Would we fight over the life jackets, or give them up to the people least able to get off the ship on their own?

Clearly, Jesus calls us into this action. In our gospel this morning, he has asked the disciples to take a chance on him, to leave the lives they had known and the families they loved and follow him. They must have known the risk involved – Jesus, after all, was a voice against the powers that be. I am sure they had loved ones who no doubt begged them to stay. But still we are told they put down their nets and went. “Immediately,” we are told. That word strikes me as a bit odd – maybe they did make the decision, but I suspect only after meeting Jesus. And I wouldn’t want us to think that all moral thought has to come with an immediate decision – that sometimes thinking it over makes us less moral even if we make the right decision. Of course, there are times when immediacy comes into play – like standing on the decks of a tilting cruise ship. But in most cases, our moral decisions are produced out of reflection and prayer; if anything, that reassures us we have done the right thing. Perhaps in the moment, knowing what they knew about Jesus – and appreciating the inherent danger because of the arrest of John the Baptist – our disciples knew they could do only one thing without regretting it for the rest of their lives. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that: It was the right thing to do.

But how do we reach that point? Sometimes, it’s true, it’s pure instinct: we step in to help someone without thinking. When the purser – essentially the accountant – aboard the Costa Concordia ran below deck as the ship filled with water to rescue more passengers, I don’t imagine he spent much time weighing out the potential personal cost of his actions. But I also think that moral behaviour is the result of reflection, education and, yes, work: it takes initiative and energy to be a moral person, especially when so many other things are pushing us in the other direction. Indeed, there are programs in the States now designed to do just that: to train heroic behavior, to teach people to be “positive deviants,” and this year, when we have our 40-hour famine, we will be running our youth through one of the programs. After all, most real change in society comes from a certain amount of clever strategy: that’s something that needs to be learned.

I think these programs are meant to replace the vacuum that has been left by the liberal church in this country, since, essentially, they echo the gospel. We get our education on morality and risk-taking here every Sunday; we get our jolt of hero-training. But is that enough? We know it’s not. So let’s be more specific. I want to steal from a new program I learned about this week, and give you three practical challenges. They aren’t hard – but they are an espousing of the gospel in daily life. Here they are: smile at 10 strangers this week, go out of your way to open the door for someone, and write down 3 things you admire about three different people. How does this relate to the gospel? Well, the first exercise spreads joy. The second is a small moment of generosity. The third is a way of giving thanks. Ideally, you will write these down somewhere and then look at them at the end of your week to see how you did. And then make it not just a one-week deal, like Sunday morning, but every week.

The researcher who came up with this is a prominent psychologist named Philip Zimbardo, who studies in the university setting. He often cites the Millgram experiment. Let me tell you about this one: Participants were brought into a room and told they had to shock another person when they failed to answer a question properly. With each jolt the voltage increased. Of course, the other person wasn’t getting a real electric shock; they were just pretending. Researchers assumed people would stop after a certain point, if not right from the beginning. Instead, two-thirds of the participants went all the way to the highest voltage even though the other person was pretending to be in real pain, even begging them to stop. All the participants went half way. But then they did another experiment: before the participants started, they watched another person – a researcher – go all the way with the shocks: this time 95 per cent of people followed suit. When a researcher came in and stopped early, refusing to go on, 91 per cent of people also abandoned the experiment.

This tells us something very important: something reassuring. Jesus keeps telling us: the gospel is contagious. If all the strong swimmers give up their life jackets on a sinking ship, more will follow. If people blow the whistle, others will, too. If the fishermen give up their spots to walk with Jesus, the crowd will grow. Sometimes we bite off more than we can chew: we think that change is important only if it comes quickly, if it happens immediately. But Jesus certainly teaches patience as much as he practices patience: how a small conversation at a well can make the difference; how one invitation into the circle can change things for better.

So let me remind you of your homework for this week: imagine you are on that dusty road with Jesus, gathering a crowd of the old, the poor, the disenfranchised. How, when you arrive at the next town, will you bring about change? Will you draw in new followers, as the PR team for Jesus? How will you make them listen? Well, you might try smiling at strangers. You might consider performing an unexpected act of kindness like holding the door open for someone not expecting it. You might write down one thing you admire about three different people, and then try to emulate that quality. Who knows? You may just draw a crowd into your way of thinking. Amen.

PRAYER OF THE DAY (ELW)

Let us pray…Loving God,
by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service.
Strengthen us by your Spirit,
and make us worthy of your call,
through Christ, our Savior who calls us into mission for others. Amen.

As God’s beloved people made radiant by the light of Christ, let us pray for the church, the whole human family, and God’s good creation, responding to ‘Hear us, O God’, with ‘your mercy is great’.
A brief silence.

Steadfast God, you call all people to turn to you and believe in the good news. Cast the net of your love over the earth, and make us willing messengers of your salvation. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

God our stronghold, you will never be shaken, and your sustaining presence holds all creation in life. Protect endangered species and fragile ecosystems, and give hope to those who labor on behalf of the environment. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

God of refuge, the cities of the world cry out for peace. Create new ways for enemies to be reconciled, and end the cycle of violence that perpetuates war. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

God of deliverance, we pour out our hearts on behalf of those in need. Bring to safety those who flee from war, poverty, and famine. We lift to you all who suffer from natural disasters. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

God who meets us in silence, you are near to those who wait. We pray for all who long for healing from addiction, despair, and illness. Especially this day we pray for Anneliesal and Leo and all those we name in our hearts before you (pause). Comfort the dying and ease their passing. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

Eternal God, you fulfill all things. We give thanks for your patience as we develop our moral character and seek to be the people you are calling us to be. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

Holy God, we lift our prayers to you in hope, entrusting all for whom we pray to your great goodness and mercy, made known to us in Christ, our Savior who calls us into mission for others.

Amen.

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