Lloyd Menke | Our Saviour’s Lutheran
The scripture for this sermon is Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 and can be found here.
By Phillip Medhurst [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Steven Carter writes in his 1996 book, entitled, Integrity.
“Integrity is like the weather: everybody talks about it, but nobody knows what to do about it. Integrity is the stuff we always say we want more of.… We want our elected representatives to have it, and political challengers always insist their opponents lack it. We want it in our spouses, our children, our friends. We want it in our schools and houses of worship. And in our corporations and the product they manufacture…”
Remember now, Steven Carter was writing in 1996. He has no current political agenda – he is just describing what things are like when he goes on to say:
“And we want it in the federal government, too, where officials all too frequently find themselves under investigation by special prosecutors. …
There are all kinds of stories that demonstrate the lack of integrity. Perhaps some of you saw the 2002 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks entitled, “Catch Me If You Can.” In the movie, a seasoned FBI agent pursues Frank Abagnale, Jr. who successfully forged millions of dollars’ worth of checks posing as a Pam Am airline pilot, a doctor, and a legal persecutor, all before his 19th birthday. You can watch a clip from the movie as he poses as a medical doctor here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5j1wWY-qus)
Frank Abagnale, Jr. is a negative example of integrity. We see integrity when there is an alignment of heart, actions, and moral principles. The first century historian, Josephus, records a story of a conflict that erupted between the Roman general Petronius and the Jews living in Jerusalem.
Petronius was ordered to erect a statue of the Emperor Caligula in the Temple in Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of Jews protested, baring their throats and insisting that they would rather die than become idolaters. After lengthy negotiations, Petronius was so moved by their sincerity, courage, and commitment, that he decided to not carry out his orders. In an act that also took great courage, Petronius wrote to the Emperor that honor would not allow him to place the statue in the Temple.
There was a congruency of heart, mind, and action in what the Jewish people did. They were willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of their commitment to God. Likewise, Petronius was willing to risk the emperor’s wrath, for the sake of honor. This personal alignment of heart, action with their principles, demonstrates integrity.
One last example, only because it is all over the news.
This week, thousands of people are paying honor to Senator John McCain. McCain is being honored for his sacrifice in the Hanoi Hilton, his military and public service and the way he reached across the aisle in the Senate. I am sure many of you have seen a video clip from his 2008 campaign where he was in Lakeville, Minnesota. (You can watch the video clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrnRU3ocIH4).
You may disagree with John McCain’s political positions, but it is hard not to admire his willingness to be booed for not fomenting fear; or for dispelling false understandings of his political opponent. It is this alignment of heart, action with high principles, that people are pointing to as being a person of integrity.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees. They ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
In response, Jesus quotes Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Jesus is saying they lack integrity when it comes to their relationship with God. Jesus quotes Isaiah to say that their hearts are not in alignment with God’s Kingdom. “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Jesus says religious integrity is alignment of our heart and actions with God’s Kingdom. Integrity for Jesus not just about alignment of our heart and actions with principles. It is alignment of our heart and actions with God and God’s kingdom.
The problem is that they are more concerned about external human traditions than about God’s commandments and the cleanliness of their hearts. They are more concerned about tradition than the alignment of their hearts. It is not that traditions are bad. Traditions help order our lives. As Tevye says in The Fiddler on the Roof. “Traditions help us know who we are and what God expects us to do.”
Can you think of some traditions we have here at Our Saviour’s? How about: “no eating or drinking in the sanctuary?” I was at a catholic church this last week for a memorial service. As I was sitting in their fellowship hall I looked up and there was a sign that read, “No drinks on the dance floor.” It is not a sign you’ll find here at Our Saviour’s. Doubly so, the “drinks” clearly didn’t refer to coffee and water, because we were seated on the dance floor drinking coffee.
This is a clear example of two very different traditions around the use of the church space. What’s allowed and what’s not allowed. I am not advocating that we need to change these traditions just pointing out the fact that we also have them.
The problem is not that traditions are bad. But traditions can never be the basis of having integrity in living as people of God. But this isn’t easy. William Willimon writes:
“Some of us are conditioned to think that the way to do something about the evil in the world is exclusively through legislative action, political change, or systemic solutions. But this week’s Gospel suggests that the evil we find in the world starts with us. If we are serious about transforming the world’s evil, we need to begin personally, in admission and confrontation with our own evil.
“There is sin and evil in our crooked systems, true. But there is also sin in our crooked little hearts, and that’s the sin that Jesus seems to go after in this Sunday’s Gospel.
“G. K. Chesterton was once asked by a London magazine to contribute to an issue of the magazine that was devoted to the theme, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’
“Chesterton replied with a two-sentence contribution. ‘What’s wrong with the world? Me.’
“And what are we going to do about that perplexing problem? How can we fix what’s wrong?
“We can listen to Jesus. You may have come here this morning hoping for a few uplifting ideas, an opportunity for you to consider some religious beliefs and practices. Then Jesus turns the discussion back on us, forcing us to look within, to examine ourselves, to open up our hearts for self-reflection.
“St. Augustine defined the Christian life as long-term training in desiring the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons. He seems to have agreed with Jesus that what causes us grief is not so much the wicked world and its impact on us but rather our own internal misdirected wants and desires.”
Jesus is saying: examine your alignment! Do your heart and actions align with God’s Kingdom? Are your heart and actions consistent with living a life worthy of the call to which you have been called? Do you have integrity with God?
Integrity with God is a bit like walking towards a star. We are on the journey, but we will never reach it – in this life at least. None of us can do this perfectly – least of all me. But, the good news is Jesus doesn’t leave us to our own devices. Jesus has come to us in the Holy Spirit in Baptism. Jesus has promised to work on our hearts, through the scriptures, through worship, through prayer, and through our conversations with each other. Through the Holy Spirit’s prompting, calling, and movement within us, Jesus promises to draw us closer and works within us moving us to desire the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons.
He is as Francis Thomas’ poem describes – The Hound of Heaven. We can take comfort in the fact that although we are in need of life-long training in desiring the right things – we have a life-long trainer in Jesus. Amen.