Integrity and Hypocrisy
Luke 22:39-51; Luke 22:54-62
Perhaps you’ve heard, “This American Life” some Saturday on National Public Radio and the host Ira Glass, covering some off beat story that you can’t stop listening to, even though you are sitting in the parking lot at Home Depot. At the very beginning of the show Ira would say something like this. “The Gospel story:
Act 1- a baby is born in the midst of a people under occupation; circumstances mysterious but very hopeful that ordinary people can be real players too; the world is a gift full of goodness and possibility;
Act 2- the baby is a man now; teaches important spiritual lessons about life
Act 3- The stuff of our adult lives. Challenges. Betrayal. Resolve. Why are we like this? We don’t know. We just are.”
My wife had a childhood friend who had another sister and another brother, all of them pretty successful in life. They raise their families, one of them divorces and remarries, sort of. It is not clear if they actually filed the paperwork. They move away from each other and develop lives of their own. For a variety of reasons, they stop doing vacations together, but they keep communication going via the internet.
Mom and Dad become older and one of them needs some nursing support, so the entire family agrees that the best thing to do is sell the house and have Mom and Dad move into an assisted living facility. Everyone helps with the move, they get the house sold, and the three kids decide that the middle child, the brother should probably manage the money since middle brother has the business training from the University up east and has had the career in finance. He’s been in and out of work, it is true, but so are a lot of people in that field that are in and out of work- and he has a pretty whopping abode which suggests that the down times have been amply offset by the up times.
Things go along for several years when suddenly the healthy parent dies, pretty much out of the blue. So the older sister Sheila goes immediately to be with the other parent and begin to think through the funeral and what comes next.
She is only there for a couple of days and she is going through the mail, a box of other mail, trying to make sure that they have all those papers you need at the time of death. She’s looking through the mail, including financial statements from the bank and the investment brokers that her brother has been using to manage their parents money. Long story short, it becomes patently obvious that her brother has been making rather generous withdrawals on their parents account. In a few short years, he has pocketed half of the estate, tens of thousands at a time on a fairly regular schedule.
It turns out that his under-employment the past few years was more like un-employment. She found herself re-playing phone conversations in her mind with him in the past few years. Was it cocaine again at mid-life after a couple decades straight? How could it come to this for someone so able when they were young? What is going on?
And what do you do with it? Do you tell your aging, feeble parent? Do you and your sister make him pay it back, sell his house, possibly the only actual asset he has? Do you do the ‘tough love’ routine and call the cops and let the chips fall where they will? Or, in the mean-time, maybe you just call Kate who will ask Chuck?
There is just the sheer incredulity of it all? What was he thinking? Did he think he would pay it back? Was he that desperate that he would steal from Mom and Dad? Do I really actually know him at all? How is it going to go at the funeral? Do you talk to him ever again? Is he a pathetic loser or in real need of basic help that you didn’t notice?
As the African proverb puts it, “You can out-distance that which is running after you, but not what is running inside of you.” It is a complicated thing but Solzhenitsyn was right, when he said, “The line separating good and evil passes …right through every human heart.”
People always ask that question, “How could you?” How could you betray the people you love? Your family? The Bernie Madoff question…
What is up with Peter? He’s been with Jesus for three years. He is part of the team. He is on the inside. He’s been absorbing the spiritual message. He’s been brought along. And in the moment of conflict, when the Romans are about to arrest Jesus, he not only takes off, he deserts the movement.
“I don’t know him” Peter will later say.
“Dammit, I don’t know him.”
“I said I don’t know him.”
I guess he doesn’t know him???
Peter was afraid. Let’s be clear about one thing, you would be too. I would be too. The Roman army was fearful and they did not care if you screamed all night.
But what do you do with people that collapse like that? Tough call isn’t it? Because we do collapse from time to time. We sure do.
I had a couple that wanted to add a phrase to their vows. They’d had both been married before, so I was curious about this request. They had both grown through their failures and they had learned some things for the second go at it. So they included the usual. “I Michael take you Abbey to be my wife to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health”… And then they added this line, “when I am proud of you, when I am ashamed of you”, to love and to cherish, as long as we both shall live.”
I thought to myself, gutsy and realistic because you may well find yourself ashamed and disappointed with your spouse. In fact, you probably will.
Someone asked me a thoughtful question a few years ago, ‘what have you learned about marriages that succeed that you probably wouldn’t have expected? What is it that surprised you?’
I could have answered a few things but what I actually said was ‘how important it is that your spouse respects you, as you grow along together.’ You don’t have to be perfect but it really helps if your character is converging as you approach and transcend middle age. If your spouse’s respect for you starts eroding around that time instead, then the other symptoms of distress that you identify pale in comparison. I’m not totally surprised but I’d never thought about it until I listened to enough people describe the great unraveling- and the underlying issue of respect comes up more often than I would have imagined.
No we don’t want that. We want to partner with people that will point us towards our higher Angel. We want to be converging, growing, becoming somewhat more whole. We are all works in progress and the truth is that our life is all about soul formation. It is about becoming substantive. And our life with God, make no mistake, has that dimension of God telling us, “I take you for my child when I am proud of you, when I am ashamed of you.” But how much better our lives go when we have a spouse, when we have good friends, when we have siblings- that keeps us grounded like that, when they keep us on the higher path, the profounder path, the way that leads towards integrity…
That is why we make those big vows in marriage. It is not just because your love is so special that- kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss- that I just can’t believe it. Of course, your romance is wonderful. And it is also true that your project will succeed only after both of you have had many personal, hurtful failures, and mutually you turn again towards reconciliation and growth. It is also true that some of these will be the biggest personal challenges of your life because most of our troubling demons only get expressed under stress in our most intimate relationships. But that is who we are, not the airbrushed image we can fairly easily control in our vocations or at parties. We do fail. We hurt. We have to deal with that and make it right.
And for all those difficult challenges, we can look to Jesus. In our passage, Jesus knows that he is in the deep weeds, there was no mistake about that. Jesus knew that he would be arrested in all likelihood. He knew what that probably meant, the Romans were just crystal clear like that. They nailed their dissidents to crosses and hung them outside the city gates, so that every week, you could have a visceral reminder of the price of ‘free speech’ in the Roman Empire. You didn’t need clairvoyant powers to see the likely future here.
Jesus will pray, “Not my will, but thine.” I know what I would like to do. I know what I need to do, what I have to do. This is not just about me, it is about something bigger than that. I have to commit myself to the higher way, to God’s way, the way of integrity, the more difficult path but, ultimately, the only path that is actually really real.
Atticus Finch put it like this in “To Kill a Mockingbird” “Before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.” Sometimes you have something big enough to address that you have to have the deeper resolve to face it.
We start developing resolve early in life, praying before a big exam, praying for your nerves, to focus on the game when the stands are full of fans and that nervous energy is overwhelming you. These challenges may just be games, but…
I see it occasionally at weddings. With some regularity, I’m standing around with the groom and, shortly before the beginning of the service, I can tell that he is suddenly thinking, “what am I doing?” And he needs a word of prayer because he knows he is over his head.
Parents have that moment, sometimes walking around the hospital or driving home, after the birth of a child. What a great blessing and you make a vow, a commitment. You know that to get this project right, it will take more than you actually have at the moment you know you need divine help to make it materialize on time. You call up the deeper well of resolve.
And I can tell you from my brief experience in politics that when you step into a big job like being a Congressman, a Senator, a Governor even the guys with big egos and self-confidence have a moment with as much sincerity as they muster in them that says, “Would you pray for me because this is much bigger than I realize and I know that…”
Of course, authentic leaders in every field think like that, live like that. You have to tap into a deeper commitment and resolve. You know that you are responsible for a broader vision. Not just my will….
And most of us here will have something that comes at us during our life, some moral challenge that is difficult, some social movement that catches us up and in a short amount of time, without the luxury of complete information, we have to act. You don’t have to look for your cause. In the world that we live in, the cause will find you.
Think of the citizens of Egypt, Tunisia and now every single country in the Middle East. Before that the Sudan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Tibet, Burma, The Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Russia. And this is just the past 20 years.
These social movements come to you with a very personal moral question. Most of us remember our lives recalling the way that we responded to these moral issues. We know that they force us to actualize our character, we have to take a stand for the fundamental things that we believe in, and our families are watching, the younger generation is watching, our friends are watching. We don’t want to compromise here. We don’t want to screw this up.
In the case of Jesus, as is often the case in extreme situations, we know that taking a stand is going to come at the price of being attacked, of having to endure injustice, perhaps violence and inhumanity, almost always ridicule and character assassination by some opponent. But sometimes you just have to do it. You have to pray the prayer of Admiral Chester Nimitz, “God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right even though I think it is hopeless.” As my grandfather used to say to me, “Son the time is always right to do the right thing.”
You have to call on that deeper resolve. In our story, it is said that Jesus prayed so hard, he sweated drops of blood. What a metaphor but sometimes we get to these moments and we know that there is no real way out, except to go through them, possibly even unto death but we can face all manner of hardship and pain if we are filled with moral/spiritual purpose. It is one of the highest expressions of the human spirit. It is transcendent. In our time, on our watch, we want that integrity and authenticity in our lives.
We are a curious mixture of the sublime and the petty, the profound and the compromised. Why are we like this? We don’t know. We just are. We are capable of heroic self-sacrificial acts of moral purpose. We can be fearful, weak, and in the middle of the night, under threat, just decide to cover our ass and be done with it.
And this is where our relationship with God is not like our relationship with our best friend or our spouse. With your spouse, with your best friends, with your brother, it is possible that you can do something so ruinous to the relationship, so hurtful and filled with betrayal that you lose the relationship. Your spouse leaves you. Your brother doesn’t call you anymore. They can’t get by this, not this time, not anymore. It is over.
But, for better and worse, God won’t let you go. Your life is all about soul formation, character formation. Even after your worst mishap, even after your family has unraveled and your marriage has unraveled. Even if you move across the country and start a new life, your life is still about soul formation. We have to live with ourselves, in our triumphs and with all our failures too and, hopefully beat a new path towards redemption.
When we were just young, after one of our first fights, Kate said that she was sorry, I said that I was sorry and both of us were just standing there, still in college at the time. She said to me, “What are we going to do now?”
I looked down at the ground and said, “We are going to pick up the broken pieces of our lives and figure out a way to go on.” She laughed. I laughed. The fight wasn’t serious.
We still say it to each other, mostly for a smile. But by now, sometimes thinking of real hardships endured by our friends or real tragedies that have beset our families, it is said with some poignancy. And I genuinely hope that neither of us has to say it with a literal application needed. But I know, and you know, that we all probably will. So we read this story together about challenges, betrayal, resolve- the stuff of our adult lives.
And we remember the point: that our lives are all about soul formation through our friends, our families, our spouses, our community, our world. Wherefore, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “seeing as how we are surrounded by this great cloud of models we can learn from, let us also gather up every vice and failure that have beset us, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who had integrity of purpose to face even the cross, and endure the ridicule of the crowd, and through such trial to become honored by God and sit at God’s right hand.” Amen.
May the redeeming love of God bless you and keep you
May the healing love of God shine upon you
May the courageous love of God grant you peace!