Imagine someone with a wonderful singing voice, who once loved to sing. She would just lose herself in song and anyone who heard her singing would be swept in a current of music that brought them to wondrous and holy places. But over time, she stopped singing. Maybe it was because her life became really hard and complicated and she became burdened with worries, or just too busy, or maybe it was because she became embittered with the world or with herself, or depressed or self-loathing … Whatever the reasons, and we can imagine many, her voice has closed. Now, if you cared for this person, how would you feel when you found she wasn’t singing any longer? If she was our friend, or our daughter or mother or beloved, I’d like to say we would be sad if she was no longer singing. Sad for her sake – whatever the reasons that were blocking her from singing, they’d be things that were blocking her not just from doing the beauty of her voice but, deeper than that, this isn’t just about singing, these would be that that would be blocking her from the depths of herself, from her soul that came alive and was expressed through her voice. But we’d also be sad for our own sakes. We’d miss hearing her music. We’d know this is a loss for more than just herself. Then imagine that with all the things that were keeping her from singing, something broke through her finally and she broke out again into song – What joy! What Joy to hear her voice again! I mean true joy. The joy of fulfilling our soul’s purpose. This is true joy, not merely happiness. Because we can imagine that her singing after all this silence, after all that conspired to shut it up within her, her may well have sadness and longing, not just a pure innocence of her youth. It may be rougher or have a harder edge. But whatever roughness or sadness or longing would be true to her true voice, and it would have purity in it as well, it would be filling and fulfilling her soul. And that is true joy.
And this is what I mean by true integrity, spiritual integrity. This singer is a parable for our souls, for the integrity of our souls as we live with integrity in our actions, in our speech, in the choices we make about how to live, how we make a livelihood, how to be with others, how to respond to the challenges and struggles of our lives and of this world. So, if God has created you to be someone who has the gift of music to offer yourself and the world – honoring that gift is one form of integrity. But this is also about all the different ways that people give of their various gifts, and act with integrity with their souls, or not. I’m starting with this image because a sermon about integrity can tend to get too moralizing – which ends up being demoralizing. Rather integrity is joyous and fulfilling. This is about the urge to be compassionate towards another person, and how fulfilling it is to live out that compassion, and how damaging it is when we let our own sin or the sinful circumstances of the world choke us from our compassion, make us hardhearted or cowardly. This is about integrity to our strongest values. The integrity of a business person, say, or a police officer, who finds themselves in a corrupt department, where there are abuses of power and cover-ups, and this person of integrity takes the tremendous risk of speaking out. This is about the integrity of standing up for one’s own dignity, or the dignity of someone else who is being bullied or trampled over or forced into the closet. Acting with integrity, being in integrity with our souls, being in integrity with our God who creates our souls and sustains our sous and redeems our souls, this is a way to fulfillment and true joy that is like a singer swept into the music that is flowing through her. Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s easy to have integrity. There is a wellness in this way, a fullness of the soul, we are when living with integrity. But this often comes at the cost of an easy life free of struggle. There are a lot of pressures to conform to crooked ways. The Jim Crow south was full of decent, law abiding people (who were scared to step out of line). And those who had the courage to be true to a higher law of God-given universal human dignity, had hell to pay. So, it’s not always easy to have integrity. It can take a lot of courage. And, let’s be fair and honest to ourselves, it takes humility and grace from God – because we often fall short of our values and ideals and true souls. I’m speaking especially as a Christian who is ordained by an institutional church. Churches as institutions and clergy as an office have a very easy time not just falling short of our ideals, which is human, but committing hypocrisy in ways that are very damaging and abusive. But the cost being out of integrity with God is soul-sickness. The wellness, the wholeness of our souls has gotten buried. Individuals and societies who are not sincerely working to have integrity with values that are good, strong, true, and sacred – and even worse, individuals and societies in the throes of unrepentant hypocrisy are full of soul-sickness: bitterness, numbness, cynicism, resentment, injustice, fear. So, it’s just better to struggle in an earnest, courageous way to have integrity, even as we find ourselves humbled by the task. And the good news is, If we want to follow Jesus as our Way, and Truth, and Life, We have a good way to an open, courageous, singing, ringing integrity of the soul at one with God, come what may. That’s what the Gospel story for today is about (Luke 4:1-13) Jesus in the wilderness, facing temptations to turn from his integrity in God. Remember this happens immediately after Jesus’ baptism, this wonderful story of Jesus breaking through to the true song, a song that all heaven and earth sings out as Jesus breaks through the surface of the river, coming into his own as God’s beloved. The Holy Spirit descends upon him, and then that Holy Spirit immediately sends him into the wilderness where he faces these temptations by the forces of evil at work in this world. These temptations are forms of what everyone who is striving for spiritual integrity needs to confront. The trial about bread can be the temptation to turn from our integrity because of our anxiety about whether we can get enough to live. This is the trial that whistleblowers, for instance, go through – am I willing to risk losing my job, my livelihood? Can I trust that I don’t live by bread alone and God will make some way to provide for myself and my family if I am true to my values? The entire story of Jesus is about that radical trust in God. The trail about the kingdoms of the earth is about the temptation to get worldly power. This is the temptation that the Christian church as a whole and American churches by and large, have succumbed to, I’m sorry to say. Power. Wealth. Dominance. You just have to sell your soul and be willing to cover up a few atrocities. Jesus didn’t go there. He had a much more important task that God had set him to, one that set all souls free. And the last trail is about displaying spiritual prowess or righteousness. Using God and the gifts of the Spirit to prove how special and blessed and chosen we are. This is really easy to fall into. We can say, oh, this is about those snake handlers. But it’s also about those who want to display our enlightened understanding of faith by judging those snake handlers. You see, it is a constant process, living into the integrity of our souls. It is both humbling and uplifting, and deeply fulfilling. Jesus weathered these temptations because of the strength and beauty of his true Spirit, one with God.
“In conclusion, friends, whenever you find things that are true or honorable, just or pure, lovable or praiseworthy, and if virtue and honor have any meaning, let them fill your thoughts.” – Philippians 4:8
(Delivered March 3, 2019, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)