Integrity – a sermon based on Matthew 5:21-37
Saint John’s Cathedral, Denver, Colorado
A movie, whose title I have now long forgotten included a scene burned into my memory because it so clearly showed how so many see the church.
The scene is a small, French, pre-world war two village. It was the 1930’s. It is early morning and the place is a town square with a church at one end, paving stones covering the ground and in the center, a classic stone drinking fountain and horse hitch. The buildings around the other three sides of the town square from the great town church are the standard shops, mansions and government houses one would see in a town built in the middle ages and now showing their age in the early 20th century – elegant, impressive. Imagine a French town like the one in Cinema Paradiso or Chocolate.
The images are in black and white. The paving stones are wet with morning dew and bits of fog linger in the early morning chill. The sun is very low as it begins to rise and the camera is across the plaza from, and facing the church. We see two elderly women (though they could just as easily have been men). They are short, wrapped thickly in layers of black woolen clothes in black sensible old shoes, slightly bent over with age and holding large black rosaries in their right hands. They are speaking animatedly as they make their way – the first to arrive at the early service –perhaps the only to arrive at the early service. The camera follows them at a distance as they walk across the flagstones to the steps of the large church.
They continue to speak, though the camera is too far away to hear them as they mount the steps. Suddenly the camera is in front of them, just inside the portals to the church and we can see them up close as they enter the church door. As is the custom among Roman Catholics, they cross themselves as they enter the church doors. The sound comes up on them as they cross themselves at the door – with the dark , moist plaza behind them. As their hands, laden with rosaries simultaneously move from forehead to belly, and shoulder to shoulder we hear one say to the other “…and you know, I hated her then and I hate her now!” They disappear into the dark church.
“You have heard it said…but I say to you…“ This formula in the Gospel today is Jesus’s way of changing the game. Jesus is stepping into a certain place, a certain religious institution, at a certain time, as God intervenes in history – enters time, for the first time, as a physical entity. And this passage of anti-theses is Jesus arriving on the scene to change the rules. The resurrection turns the fraction of the world into a whole number.
But we must engage the wholeness – strive for it, co-create it, long for it, work for it, pray for our catching up to God’s action. The bottom line in today’s gospel is that Jesus is calling for the faithful to usher in the new Kingdom with a call for integrity. Do not kill. Do not let anger fester. Clean up your messes with others quickly and proactively. Do not abuse or denigrate women. Do not be vague. Do not manipulate others. Do not be creepy. When you make a promise – keep it, no matter how small. When you say “no,” then stand by it.
When we say “…thy kingdom come…” in the Lord’s Prayer, this is the stuff of which we speak. Jesus is calling us to try to limit the Hell and hells we create on our planet, in our church, in our families, in our daily lives and in the lives of others when we speak and act without integrity – without wholeness. And the great thing is that, as an act of biology, humans and many animals can see and even feel when they are in the presence of a lack of integrity. We know it. We feel it. Our computer-minds calculate the eyebrows, the mouth, the eyes – that great triangle of truth-telling; and calculate trustworthiness. We need to be able to see past charm and even beauty, to truth – as an act of evolutionary and biological survival. God has programmed us, through evolution, to seek and find wholeness in a broken world. As Desmond Tutu says in his life-changing book, we are programmed for goodness – biologically and spiritually.
This week we celebrated Valentine’s Day. The event serves an economic purpose by providing a shopping opportunity between Christmas and Easter but it also is a secular reminder that love is something to be celebrated.
When, in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God ”thy Kingdom Come,” what are we asking for? We are asking for wholeness – for integrity. Is “…thy kingdom come…” a throwaway line to get us to the next line, and then the next prayer, and then the next hymn, and then to brunch? Do we really consider what we are asking for when we ask that God’s Kingdom come to earth as God’s Kingdom exists in heaven? Are we willing to be a part of that kind of Kingdom in which the integrity about which Jesus speaks in today’s gospel is a moment by moment act of mindfulness and worship?
Integrity – the word – comes from the 15th century word integer. Integer means wholeness – it is the term used in math for a whole number. To have integrity is to be whole – complete, not lacking in some small wedge as would happen in a fraction – a lack of wholeness. This kind of living is very hard work. This kind of living – integrity-living – in which wholeness is the goal, means that we need to act and speak with great care. The word “integer” comes from two medieval words that were combined. “In” which meant “not” and “tangere” which meant “to touch.” Integer, in its earliest form, meant to be so whole – so complete – so, entire as to be untouched – whole.
A few verses later we will hear “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mt 5:48) Never has a passage been more recklessly translated. The correct translation s that we are to be whole as our Heavenly Father is whole. Our church is to be whole. Our city is to be whole. Our relationships are to be whole.
On my Sabbath Day – Friday – Valentine’s Day, my Godson was visiting. He is 25. He and his girlfriend sat across from me drinking black tea and eating candied ginger and corncakes seasoned with anise. They were fresh-faced, alive, beautiful, cheerful, bright, healthy and entirely open – entirely whole. She is a life coach; he, a massage therapist. They are Generation X. I asked, gingerly, if they went to church. Brightly, with gentle honest wholeness he said “I practice yoga, I pray sometimes in an Orthodox church near work, I hike, I love good food and I love my friends.” For him, the answer was “yes.”
I considered how much the generations under 40 (Generations X -born in the early 1960s to 1980s and Y- born early 1980s to early 2000s ) distrust institutions and especially distrust the church and how well deserved that distrust is. To read the history of the church – even our Anglican Church is to wince at the arrogance and cruelty. And yet young people long for beauty, silence and connection – all of which the church could provide were it not seen by young people to be more like Countess Violet in Downton Abbey than Laura Ingalls in Little House on a Prairie, or Whoopie Goldberg.
As Canon Steward, I was brought here to raise money and people. Each of the canons of this cathedral were brought here with specific skills. Mine are in raising money and people. It is each of our jobs – clergy, vestry, laity – to raise money and to raise new members ; the resources of the church’s mission. But it is my job, in particular, to serve briefly as architect, coach, and sheepdog in these functions.
In the back of my mind, I was thinking about how we would grow the Episcopal church – how we would increase membership among the next two generations of people under 40. And I was aware of the question of integrity raised by today’s gospel. So I asked the inevitable question to my friends. “Why don’t you go to church?” Kai, my black lab, snorted, pretending to sleep but with one eye half open. Rude.
They smiled as if I had asked why they do not wear corsets -kindly, with a hint of compassion.
“My generation,” he said, gently, will give our time and money to whatever brings wholeness to the planet and to human lives.”
We drank the rest of our tea in silence, loving each other.
A sermon based on Matthew 5:21-37 Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder’; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be `Yes, Yes’ or `No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.