The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 30, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
It has been another hard week in our nation’s news. We’re horrified at the shooting that happened in Virginia, TV newspeople gunned down on live television, and disgusted that yet again, nothing will probably change because of it. Even this most graphic and traumatic of footage doesn’t seem like it will make any difference to us, as we become more and more immune to this stuff coming across our screens. Easier to shudder and look elsewhere as I did this week, wasting time looking instead at the interactive history of Queen Elizabeth’s hats, and at the cute pictures my mom forwarded of Bob the dog and his strange animal friends. Try as I might, I can’t watch videos like that one that so many are talking about.
But at the same time, to turn away and think about other things feels like a betrayal of integrity. I think of integrity as lining up our insides with our outsides, being ‘whole and undivided.’ A building that lacks structural integrity is not going to hold up over the long run, and neither is a person who lacks integrity. Being a person of strong beliefs, I need to live those out in my life, and when I don’t, I can’t stand myself. And yet, I just can’t always do it.
So our readings today struck a chord with me. There’s the beginning of the letter of James, telling us to be doers of the word and not hearers only. Don’t deceive yourself about who you are and what you believe, don’t try pretending to be something you’re not, because then you’re like someone who doesn’t even know your own reflection. Know yourself; walk your talk: what happens to you spiritually should show forth in your life. That’s integrity.
And then there’s the whole argument in Mark about hand washing – though it’s not really about hand washing, of course. Here the washing has less to do with antibacterial soap and more to do with religious custom. The Pharisees are insisting that Jesus’ disciples are breaking important Jewish law by eating without washing their hands, and Jesus argues that they’re not. It’s not what goes in but what comes out of the person that matters, he says. What comes out of a person shows you what’s really true about their heart. You know what’s so about someone by the way they behave. But at the same time, he says, don’t get caught up in things that aren’t really that important – traditional customs may or may not be worth following, but they’re not the essence of your self. Pay attention to the heart. What you do in observing customs isn’t as important as what you live out in bigger ways, what it shows about your soul.
On the one hand, this is a very Anglican idea. Richard Hooker, the 17th century Anglican divine, wrote a very very long book called the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Among other things, Hooker distinguished between what was essential to the faith and what was non-essential – important distinctions in a still uncertain new Church of England. People were fighting to the death over whether it was ok to have bishops, or statues in church, and everyone had gotten tired out from that kind of heated intensity. Hooker wanted to widen the definition of the non-essentials, “things which do not make a difference, matters regarded as non-essential, issues about which one can disagree without dividing the Church.” He was saying, there are things that are important to live out because they matter deeply – the beliefs of the creeds, the understanding of Jesus as the incarnation of God, the precepts to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. But there are other things that just don’t matter. So get over them.
Tell that to a congregation at budget time, of course. Is the paid choir essential, or is it more important to keep the church open during the day for prayer? Are the stained glass windows essential, or is making the building handicapped accessible what truly matters? Is it more essential to have clergy around and on call for pastoral issues, or to have food to give those who need it?
Complicated, isn’t it? The readings today don’t give directions for communities on how to make these decisions – they’re more about how individuals live out their faith. James tells us that true religion, the basics of living the faith, are to care for the orphans and widows – that is, the most vulnerable ones in society – and to keep oneself unstained from the world, a directive which requires a little unpacking. Jesus points out a list of the things we do when we’re not living our faith, maybe the stains James has in mind – murder, pride, greed, lying, envy, etc. No minute-by-minute instructions, but the two of them together give us pretty clear set of markers to steer by: Do that which cares for the least, and keeps you connected most deeply with God, and don’t do that which results in you being mean and nasty. That channel between is what Hooker would call the essentials, for each of us Christians. Living in integrity would say that everything we do in our lives should accord with those essentials – our work, our family time, our alone time.
A hard enough challenge for each of us to live out, to be sure. And what about us as a community? We also could try to navigate with those same markers: We would care for the orphan and widow in their distress – tending to those in need. Easy enough to agree on in principle for a church, of course, though it takes work to be thoughtful and strategic in how we do that, what projects we engage in and who we partner with. We would keep ourselves unstained from the world – quite a lot harder to do, as everything we do and are in the world outside tends to come right in here as well. And we would need to keep watch over our intentions and guard from evil – easier said than done too. We may not murder each other often here, but avarice, envy, slander, pride? All too common in even the most careful of communities. We Christians don’t always do such a great job making our congregations truly Christ-like.
In short, this whole thing of integrity is a high bar indeed. For any of us inclined toward scrupulous self-reflection, we never can escape condemnation. Some deceit and hypocrisy is always lurking somewhere.
I’ve been reading some lately by Parker Palmer, a Quaker teacher and writer who has a lot to say about integrity. Palmer points out that by integrity, he doesn’t mean perfection. He writes, ‘By choosing integrity, I become more whole, but wholeness does not mean perfection. It means becoming more real by acknowledging the whole of who I am.’ Which includes what in us is good and what is not – all the ways we don’t live up to who we say we want to be. All the ways that we don’t, well, live with integrity.
The good news for as Christians is that even as we are encouraged and invited to move toward greater integrity, we are upheld and sustained not by our own efforts, but by God’s grace. We may try, but we often won’t succeed. Or as a friend of mine likes to say, ‘We can’t always do what we can sometimes do.’ We want to make this world a better place, but sometimes we’re just too tired. We can’t do what we should, in our own lives and in our communities. We treat each other poorly, even in a church where we all know better. We don’t speak up and loudly enough about the wrongs and injustices in the world. We keep to ourselves more than we tend to the poor and needy. And we very, very often say one thing and do entirely another. And God knows all of that.
So thank goodness for the assurance of grace that God gives us. Thank goodness for the constant reminder of how deeply God knows and loves us even so – the reminder that comes every Sunday when we are invited to the altar to receive the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, into our own unworthy selves. We receive the fullness of forgiveness even before we have the integrity to name our need for it. We receive overwhelming love even without earning one bit of it. And whether we like ourselves or like our community today or not, we all are enfolded into the arms of the one who gives everything for us – who grieves over the hardness of heart in this world, who is angry over what we do and don’t do to one another, and who yet says, I love you, all my children.
And in the end, that grace and that love is all that really will save the world. And so we allow God to do just that, placing our botched attempts and our outright messes into God’s hands and asking for God’s help with them all. Where it all should be in the first place. In our prayers each morning and every evening, let us simply say this: help us today God, and forgive us for what we cannot do. Amen.