Sunday, October 11, 2020

Sermon: "Integrity", Exodus 32:1-14 (October 11, 2020)


“Describe ‘integrity’ in your own words, please.” This was the message that I sent out into the world of Facebook earlier this week, and Facebook—or at least my corner of it—delivered. I heard from all sorts of people: acquaintances from high school, colleagues from internships, church folks from my past, fellow clergy, and many others. Every response varied slightly, but most of them said essentially the same thing: integrity is the consistent application of one’s core values, beliefs, and choices—even when no one is looking. Having integrity means that you’re not willing to compromise your ideals under any circumstances whatsoever.

I asked this question on my personal Facebook page rather than in one of my clergy groups because even though I was doing research for my sermon, I wanted to find as universal a definition as possible. Integrity isn’t just for people of faith, it’s not just for the times that we set aside as sacred; it can be practiced by anyone at any time. When we talk about integrity in church, it’s easy to think about it in church terms, things like “not taking money from the offering plate as it’s passed,” or “pitching in to help clean up after coffee hour,” or “helping people when they come to the church for assistance,” but true integrity requires that these same values—honesty, kindness, generosity, and so on—are applied in the mundane aspects of our lives, too. As I mentioned in the children’s sermon, mini-golf requires integrity. Returning a lost wallet requires integrity. Taking tests requires integrity. There isn’t a separate “holy integrity” and an “everyday” integrity”—it’s all the same thing for everyone.

There is, however, one aspect of integrity that’s different for people of faith than for others. Although there’s an element of personal discernment in everyone’s core values, people of faith believe that God’s authority has the final word when it comes to our moral principles. No matter how we might feel about them, we’re expected to fully embrace and apply God’s values consistently. It’s not like God keeps them a secret; there are all sorts of ways that the Holy Spirit communicates them to us: through Scripture, through conversation with others, through worship, through study, and through prayer.

But Thomas Aquinas argues that even if you didn’t do any of this, you’d STILL be able to recognize God’s values. He believed in a concept called “Natural Law”, which describes an innate sense of right and wrong that God has placed within every human being. According to Aquinas, even if a person had never heard of the Ten Commandments, never attended church, never read the Bible, they should still be able to figure out which values are important to God according to this “Natural Law”, and therefore to practice them with integrity.

So the Israelites don’t really have any excuse for their behavior at this point in Exodus. They have the stories of their ancestors, the already-ancient traditions that shaped their lives, and Natural Law to guide them. They know the values they’re supposed to hold as God’s people. And to be fair, they had tried to live by them in general—they DID manage to preserve their faith throughout their slavery in a foreign land, after all. But the moment they thought Moses’ back was turned, the moment they thought God was too busy to notice them, the moment they felt like they were alone, their integrity failed, and it failed magnificently.

Presumably, if someone had asked them mid-festival whether or not principles like faithfulness and loyalty were important, they would have enthusiastically agreed that they are. But they probably would have just as enthusiastically justified their actions, maybe by saying that feeling safe is more important than integrity, maybe by shifting blame and questioning God’s loyalty, maybe just by saying, “Well, THIS is different,” without any real explanation. And perhaps the dissonance between their words and their actions wouldn’t bother them at all. But the fact remains that by selectively applying their values for any reason, the Israelites were abandoning their integrity without a second thought.

To make matters worse, it wasn’t just the *people* who went rogue; it was their leadership, too! Aaron wasn’t just Moses’ brother; he was their priest and something of a “vice-Moses”. He was in charge of the people while Moses was away. But he readily gave into the people’s demands and even took them a step further: not only did he make a golden calf for them to worship, he created an altar and organized a festival to legitimize it. Instead of pushing back against the people’s lack of integrity, he went along with it and normalized it—making God very, very angry. As their leader, Aaron’s willingness to be manipulated by the people and to selectively apply his ethics put an entire nation at risk.

Maybe, if confronted about their leader’s problematic choices, the people would have said, “It’s his job to represent us! Of course he should do what we want!” But friends, if leaders were meant to cater to every whim of their community, we wouldn’t call them leaders. We’d call them lackeys. Part of being a leader is setting the moral tone for the community, leading by example. This is why we have personnel committees in the workplace, judicial committees in the church, and checks and balances in the government. Integrity is important, and our leaders need to be held accountable for it.

Because like us, our leaders are human. And all humans struggle with integrity. We all want to believe that we’d be much better at holding on to our values in the wilderness than the Israelites, but the reality is that 99% of us would probably be mooing along with the crowd (or however one worships a golden calf), with a good handful of us helping Aaron to build the altar. If you need evidence of how universal a problem this is, just read through the Bible. Many biblical figures, including important leaders, have an abysmal lack of integrity on their track record. Peter denied Jesus three times. Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife. Even Moses, who managed to convince an entire people to be patient while wandering for forty years in the wilderness, lost his own patience when God told him to get water out of a rock. All people with strongly held convictions, but feeble integrity.

Why do we do this? Why do we allow ourselves to be pulled away from the values that God has declared “good”, that we ourselves claim to treasure? Like these biblical figures, many of our struggles with integrity stem from fear. Fear for safety, fear of inferiority, fear of vulnerability, fear of a loss of power or authority. Fear is a powerful motivator. And integrity demands that we put ourselves in some very unpleasant and sometimes even dangerous situations, so it’s certainly a natural response. But friends, remember the refrain of God’s messengers: “Do not be afraid.” Remember the center of the Gospel message: “Not even death can overcome God’s love for you.” When we choose to follow Christ, we proclaim that fear is not the most powerful force in our lives, so we shouldn’t act like it is. It certainly shouldn’t have the power to separate us from our commitment to being of the same mind as Jesus Christ.

But because none of us is perfect, integrity often requires us to face one of our greatest fears: changing our minds. If we come to realize that our behavior has not, in fact, been reflecting our values consistently, or if we discover a better way to live them out, we’re allowed to reform ourselves. In fact, integrity requires it. We should never be afraid of admitting that we were wrong. This isn’t inconsistency; this is growth.

In a profound lesson on leading by example, God—the immovable, the unchangeable, the eternal—changes God’s mind at the end of today’s reading. This isn’t a shift in values, and it’s not a sign of weakness. What it is is a profound example of how integrity can lead to change and progress. Moses convinces God that although justice is an important value (and punishing the Israelites certainly would be just), so is compassion. And integrity requires consistent application of ALL core values, not just the ones that are most appealing in the moment. So God decided that the best way to model integrity was to change course and allow mercy to rule the day. Now THAT’S divine leadership. If God can change God’s mind in the name of integrity, why should we be afraid of doing the same? At the end of the day, although the actions change, the values remain consistent.

People will come and go; societies will rise and fall; even our planet will one day cease to exist. But God will go on, and God’s values are eternal. So we must cling to them and strive to be as consistent as they are, as God is. We must practice kindness, mercy, justice, compassion, and love with INTEGRITY. Even when it doesn’t seem beneficial to do so. Even when—especially when!—we feel alone and afraid. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the integrity of our values is the most important part of the Christian identity. In all sincerity, I would rather my family break apart, the church close its doors forever, our nation lose its position as a world power, than compromise the integrity of the values that God has called “good”.

Friends, it’s much easier said than done. Integrity is complicated. Sometimes it means persevering in the face of fear and pressure; other times it means changing your mind and changing your course. But no matter where it takes you, know that you go with God. When it causes rifts with family and friends, when it leads to accusations of pretentiousness or flip-flopping, when it causes you to fear for your life or your livelihood, take comfort in the knowledge that you are standing on the side of holiness. By choosing God’s values even when you’re afraid, even when nobody’s looking, even when it somehow feels wrong, you are ensuring that the light of Christ shines just a little bit brighter when the shadows of the world threaten to overtake us. When you don’t know what else to do, acting with integrity is a radical act of holiness. Let’s be radical in the name of Christ. Amen.

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