Lent 1 … Luke 4:1-13 … February 14, 2016, Pastor Phil Fenton
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
If I had just one gift to give you for Lent, I think it would be the gift of integrity – such a gift that when you come to the last chapter of your story, you could have the chutzpah to say, “I have lived a life that God approves of; I have lived according to God’s dream for my life.”
If I could, I’d give you the gift of integrity. But I can’t give it to you. This is not something that just zaps us in the night. It’s not something we have in our genetic code. Integrity isn’t a possession that we have once and for all. It’s a calling. It’s a decision, or many decisions you make every day. It’s something we have to work at all our lives as we coauthor our stories with God. And it comes very hard.
I was having this conversation with the high school youth in my congregation. One of them said, “You got that right, Pastor. Integrity is hard. The hardest thing for me is to be honest all the time.” I felt an instant rapport with him. “I know what you mean,” I said. “Wait a minute,” he said, “how can it be hard for you? You’re a pastor. I mean, you get paid to be good!”
“It’s hard for everyone,” I said. “There are so many people to impress, so many people to please, so many powerful reasons why we should make believe that we are what we appear to be when we are not, or pretend to be what we think other people expect us to be – so many pressures to fake it, gloss it over, to make believe instead of make true. It’s tough to walk in integrity.”
One of my favorite definitions of integrity comes from Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird. It is said of Atticus Finch – the lawyer and main character of the novel: “Atticus Finch is the same in the house as he is on the street.” He is not an angel in public and an ogre behind closed doors. His is the same wherever he is. He has integrity.
What about you? Is there a central, integrating belief that permeates and informs every move you make? Are you kind? Are you generous? Are you honest? Are you noted for being a person of your word – all the time, everywhere? It comes hard. Integrity is earned in the trenches of life. It is earned in the crucible of pressure. Integrity is not what you look like on Sunday morning in church. It’s not revealed when you are on stage before the floodlights of popularity. It is seen in the ordinary experiences and pursuits of life – in the day-to-day choices you make. And be aware of this: the closer you and I walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the more we will be tempted to be less than we should be, because the more often our ethics will be at odds with the majority, with what is popular with what is comfortable and self-pleasing. There in the crises is seen the stuff of which you are made.
To use the imagery of our Gospel lesson, integrity is earned in the wilderness. What did that long, famishing stretch in the wilderness do to Jesus? It freed him–from all devilish attempts to distract him from his true purpose, from hungry craving for things with no power to give him life. It clarified his purpose. It galvanized his resolve. It gave him integrity. After forty days in the wilderness, Jesus had learned to manage his appetites. He had also learned to trust the Spirit that had led him there to lead him out again. And he came out with the kind of clarity and grit he could not have found anywhere else.
This wisdom about the value of the wilderness is just about lost to popular American culture. Mostly, we see no value in the wilderness experience. We do everything we can to avoid it, spend a lot of time and money on what we think will grow our souls without any sacrifice or pain, without any true appraisal of our spiritual insufficiency, without any repentance. Everyone uses something to avoid the wilderness: the cell phone, the IPad, shopping, eating, Facebook, the Bed Bath and Beyond catalogue, the Budweiser. I’m not saying those are awful things. I’m just saying they are distractions, anesthesia, pacifiers–things to reach for when a person is too tired, too sad, or too afraid to enter the wilderness of the present moment–to wonder what it’s really about, to examine how I’m living this life.
God will often use a hard place, a wilderness to get our attention. Time in the wilderness is the only way I know to grow into integrity. It’s the only corrective for the unexamined life. The Church has believed this too and so every year prescribes 40 days in the wilderness. It asks us to spend a few weeks choosing to live on less, not more, practice subtraction instead of addition, give up whatever appliances or habits or substances we use to keep us from an authentic encounter with what God is looking for from our lives.
I love that verse from Psalm 51 we heard on Wednesday night:
“Lord, you look for truth deep within me. You will give me wisdom in the secret places of the heart.”
The point of the wilderness is to look for truth deep within. It’s to get honest with yourself at the very core. Sometimes I worry that in the Church we put words in peoples’ mouths that aren’t their words and thus lead them into untruth. There are times when people stand before us and make promises, but they are promises pre-determined by the ritual. Prescribed questions with prescribed answers. The questions we ask parents at baptism: Do you promise to bring your child regularly to the services of God’s house, place him regularly before Word and Sacrament, teach him the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in his hands the holy scriptures, and nurture him in faith and prayer? And the answer, “I do.” It’s right there (point at booklet). Now, no one in their right mind is going to stand up here and answer, “No, you know, I really don’t think I’m going to do that,” even though, when you look at the pattern of somw parents after the baptism of their children, it would have been a more truthful answer.
Likewise, when people come into membership, we bring them up and put words in their mouths. “Do you covenant today to worship regularly, continue to grow your faith through educational opportunities, and give of your time, talent and treasure to further the ministry and mission of this congregation?” And again, the only answer is “Yes I do!” For some, a more truthful answer would be, “Well, no, not exactly. I’m going for a hit-and-miss, Christmas/Easter sort of arrangement.”
We have to do a better job preparing folks for those moments, help them go deeper for the truth within and have more honest conversations ahead of time.
The Lord looks for truth deep within us. This journey to the secret places of the heart is a critical one that leads to wisdom and integrity. To journey there is to be turned around, away from self-absorption, to look at the world and others and see them as God sees them. The church believes that anyone who wants to follow Jesus all the way to the cross needs the kind of integrity, clarity and grit that is found only in the wilderness.
Our world today yearns for integrity. Ask those who manage people in the workplace: “What’s the #1 thing you would like to see in your employees?” They are going to answer, “integrity”. They are looking for people who understand that showing up on time and not leaving before time and not calling in sick constantly shows that a person is aware of his/her interrelatedness to others and is willing to accept that responsibility. They are looking for people of strong ethical and moral character – when the boss is watching and when the boss is not. I believe integrity is the #1 thing that spouses are looking for in their mates. It’s the #1 thing that young people are looking for in their parents.
Think of someone you admire most in this life, someone for whom you would walk through walls. What are the qualities of character this person possesses or possessed? You ask 100 people those questions and you are going to hear remarkably similar answers. You are going to hear qualities and characteristics of integrity, and more than anything else you are going to hear that people of integrity offer up their lives to God in service to others. They are singularly convicted that the debt they owe to God for his mercy shown them is to be paid to the neighbor who needs them.
It’s not easy when you consider the way we are put together. Leonard Bernstein was once asked, “What’s the hardest instrument in the orchestra to play?” He smiled and said, “Second fiddle.”
Paul wrote this to the Romans, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God …” (Romans 12:1) “Living sacrifices…” One of the best gifts you can give your children is to teach them early on to become moral people. Take them into the wilderness. The wilderness is the only cure I know for the self-centered life. Let them experience a Lent, giving up something cherished, perhaps even giving it away to someone else who needs it. Help them escape the prison of self that is the root cause of all human cruelty.
A young man told me once about the greatest lesson his father ever taught him. When he was a teenager he was looking for a summer job. He was offered one at a local grocery store and promised to start work the following Saturday. On Friday another job offer came along, paying $2 an hour more. No one would blame him for taking it over the other. He went to his father and laid out his dilemma. His father said, “Did you promise the manager you would go to work for the grocery store?” “Yes,” the boy said. And his father said, “Then why are we having this conversation?”
Start these lessons early on with your kids and early on they’ll develop a holy vision, allowing them to see others, be connected to the story, the plight, the hopes and dreams of other human beings. This is integrity.
“Offer yourselves…” All the great Christians that I have met in my life have this characteristic in common: they give their lives as a thank offering to God. What do you think of when you hear the word “offering”? Are the feelings associated with the word benevolent or sinister? Do you tense up when the plates are passed?
When I think of offering, I think of the children who help bring the offering to the altar, and what a wonderful lesson they are learning early on. And they’re getting it, because I’ve learned of one little guy who refused to let mom and dad give him money for the offering. He wanted to give from his own money. How could he call it an offering otherwise? He’s on the road to integrity.
How would your life be different if you began to live into the qualities exemplified in those you most admire? Imagine this: You are standing before God one day, and God says, “I know that it was tough going sometimes. I know it cost you something. I know that your story was not a best seller. But I vindicate you, my child, because you have walked with me. You have walked in integrity.