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"Lives of Integrity" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church - February 22, 2015

posted Feb 24, 2015, 9:56 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Mar 11, 2015, 10:13 AM by Andrew Warner ]

Over the last dozen years a controversy brewed in Nantucket Sound.  Cape Wind proposed building 130 wind turbines off the coast of New England.  The project aimed to produce 75% of the electricity used by Cape Cod and the islands, a tremendous expansion of green and renewable energy.  And the technology developed for the Cape Wind project would power the development of wind turbines, spurring green projects elsewhere.

But this green initiative recently fell apart.  The two utilities which had pledged to purchase power from Cape Wind withdrew their support because the project was so far behind schedule.  People opposed to the project created the delays by tying Cape Wind up with regulations.

Much of the objection to Cape Wind came from those concerned with how the turbines would affect their views.  Now the turbines would have been at least 5 miles from shore, barely visible even from the upper stories of a house.  

What interested me in the story was the man behind the use of government regulations to thwart a company: William Koch.  Like his more famous brothers, Koch generously donates to conservative causes dedicated to curtailing government regulation.  But here, on Nantucket Sound, Koch used the very regulations he hated to save the view from his beach house.  

So Koch’s story appealed to me for two reasons.  First, it’s a classic story of hypocrisy.  We hate it when people say one thing and do another, say “no regulations on business” and then use those regulations to destroy a company.  But second, I loved it because of course we all love stories of hypocrisy in people we don’t like or admire.  It’s stories like these which propelled John Stewart.

But this Sunday, I want us to use this story to think not about William Koch but about ourselves.  When are we hypocrites?  What does it mean for us to have integrity?  These questions matter because they get to the heart of the promises we make in baptism.  At baptism, parents and sponsors promise to live lives of integrity, compassion, and justice.  During the Season of Lent we will look at each of these virtues we promise to live by; this Sunday we ask, “Do our lives demonstrate integrity?”

Jesus often spoke against hypocrisy.  He pointed to all the ways the religious authorities of his time said one thing and did another.  In particular, it bothered Jesus that religious authorities and pious people would work to appear spiritual when their interior lives were a mess.  A friend recently pointed me to one of Jesus’ many critiques of hypocrisy, where he said, “Woe to you, religious authorities and pious people, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind person of faith! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”  

The critique Jesus offered can be found throughout scripture.  The prophet Isaiah once heard God speak in frustration, “These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.”  

And of course this critique of hypocrisy resonates today; the disconnect between what religious people say and do is one of the leading reasons why people leave faith communities.

In many ways, Jesus’ critique gets at the definition of integrity, a concept and word worth understanding at a deeper level than just our conventional usage.  Often we use integrity to mean the agreement between what one does publicly and what one believes or thinks.  Thus we critique William Koch’s actions against Cape Wind for lacking integrity - his actions and his values don’t align.  And, in the past, conservatives critiqued Al Gore for advocating environmental causes while leasing his land to a zinc mine which often violated EPA rules.  

Such definitions of integrity focus on the agreement between someone’s actions in the world and their internal belief and framework of ideas.  We think: as a libertarian, William Koch ought not care what someone does off his property; as an environmentalist, Al Gore ought not profit from evading EPA rules.

On the surface, this seems to be what Jesus is talking about, too.  The inside of the cup and the outside of the cup ought to match.  The religious authorities ought to match their exterior demonstrations of virtue with an interior commitment and vice versa.  

But integrity is more than the congruence of thought and action.  In reality, matching our thoughts and actions ought to be called consistency instead of integrity.  Consistency matters, but Jesus meant something more by his critique of hypocrisy and call to integrity.  

The difference between consistency and integrity matters.  Ted Bundy was a notorious serial killer, a man who used his personal charisma to charm his victims before sadistically assaulting and killing them and then disgustingly treating their bodies.  Even his defense lawyers saw his depravity: one of them described him as “the very definition of heartless evil.”  And yet, his thoughts and actions were consistent, he matched his heartless thoughts with heartless actions; he was consistency immoral.

If Ted Bundy can be consistent, then clearly Jesus called us to something more than just consistency.  We can hear it in the quote about clean cups.  “First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”  Jesus didn’t say, “Be content with a cup that’s as dirty on the outside as it is on the inside.”  He wanted more than just consistency; the inside and outside of the cup didn’t just need to match, they needed to match a concept of virtue: cleanliness.  Integrity isn’t value neutral; instead integrity means matching our thoughts and actions to what is truly good.  

Ayn Rand - can I quote a conservative philosopher in a liberal church - once made this point in one of her essays when she wrote, “Integrity does not consist of loyalty to one’s subjective whims, but of loyalty to rational principles.”  To care about integrity, and to seek it in our life, is to ask, “what principles matter?”  Ted Bundy was consistent, but utterly lacked integrity because his actions and thoughts didn’t reflect positive virtues.  

In this sense, integrity is more about wholeness than it is about consistency.  Actually, the word integrity comes from a Latin word for wholeness, one that is also the root of the math concept of an integer.  Integrity, wholeness, comes from aligning our thoughts and our actions with what is truly good.  Or to say it another way, integrity means expressing our relationship with God in our thoughts and actions.

This concept of integrity comes out in our reading of Psalm 15.  The Psalm may be most familiar to us from the African American spiritual, “We shall not be moved.”  As a whole, the Psalm seeks to answer the question, “Who may dwell in the house of the Lord?”  Or, as we might say, “What does a virtuous life look like?”  

The Psalm answers this question with a series of descriptions.  These descriptions all speak to the quality of integrity: the people who can dwell in the house of the Lord are “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart.”  

Each of these attributes captures the elements of integrity: walk blamelessly - to have a relationship with God which determines our path, our walk, in life; do what is right - our exterior actions in the world; and speak the truth - our interior thoughts.

Such people, according to the Psalm and the spiritual, shall not be moved.  The chaotic nature of life, the tempests of anxiety, the whims of fashion, will not shake a person of integrity.  

Which is what we saw in the life of Jesus: a person so rooted in the life of God that even death could not overwhelm him.  Our reading from the Gospel of Mark can help us understand how Jesus began to cultivate integrity in his life.  Unlike the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, Mark gives only the briefest introduction to the life and teachings of Jesus.  He placed Jesus in-between stories of John the Baptist.  John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, Jesus experienced temptation in the desert, Jesus came back when Herod killed John.  

What happened in the desert?  What allow Jesus to not be moved amid the tragedy and horror of John’s death?  All we get from Mark is a cryptic comment, “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”  The other gospels flesh this out with stories of the devil taunting Jesus with bread, offering him command of whole nations, calling his bluff about a close relationship with God.  Perhaps that is what happened.  But I actually like Mark’s brevity; because our interior struggles are ultimately private moments of vulnerability.  

Through those forty days, and on countless nights later when Jesus would withdraw to secluded places to pray, Jesus worked to discern what was holy, good, and true.  His life of integrity began and was rooted in this on-going discernment.  Too often we fail to do this work: instead of discerning what is true and good, we follow the crowd and obey public opinion.   But integrity begins with the soul-searching work of figuring out what is holy and right.  

Our soul work doesn’t just mean figuring out what is right.  It causes us to look at our own lives, to take the measure of our life by God’s yardstick.  We heard a bit of Paul’s own inventory in our reading from Romans.  It comes off as a bit convoluted, a bit rambling, a bit awkward: and isn’t that how we talk when we realize our lives don’t reflect the integrity we aspire too?  

There’s an honest confession in those rambling words, a confession we might all be able to make, if we could be honest enough with ourselves.  Paul said he knew what was right; he’d done the soul-searching work to discern what was holy and true.  But he couldn’t manage to live that way.  As he said, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  Paul realized his thoughts and actions didn’t line up with what he knew was right and good.  “The inside of my cup is dirty,” he said.  

Karl Barth, one of the central theologians of the last century, once described this disintegration Paul experienced.  It’s that haunting thought, “Who am I?  I am he that wills and he that doesn’t perform: I am intolerably both at once.”  

Most of us struggle to look so closely at our lives, to truly ask if our thoughts and actions reflect what is holy and good.  It’s hard to look into our own cup.  If we’re liberals, we’d much rather talk about William Koch’s hypocrisy, and if we’re conservatives, we’d rather talk about Al Gore’s.  But the life of integrity calls us to look into our own soul.  

Too often in our culture, we focus on the shortfalls of other people - we know how they spiritually, morally, politically fall short.  We laugh at the hypocrisy of those we disagree with.  But faith calls us to the soul-work of looking at our own lives.

About a year ago Pat Gima, Barb Hoppe, and Mary Warren took over the coordination of our coffee hour.  One of the first things they noted was the poor condition of our coffee cups.  Years of drinking tea and coffee from them left an unsightly stain on the insides.  And so they set out to find a way to clean the inside of the cups.  After trial and error they found the best way to clean them was to rub the inside with kosher salt; the light abrasion of the salt removed the stain.

And, of course, what’s true of our actual coffee cups is also true of our souls.  We need some salt.  Jesus wept tears in the wilderness, Paul certainly wept them as he wrote too, salty tears as he worked to clean his soul.   

This Lent may we pursue integrity - discerning what is good and holy, and vulnerably facing how we live what is true in our thoughts and actions.

Amen and Amen.



  • Barth, Karl, Commentary on the Letter to the Romans

  • Carter, Stephen L., “Becoming People of Integrity,” Christian Century, March 13, 1996

  • Rand, Ayn, “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise,” The Virtue of Selfishness  

  • Seelye, Katharine O., “Plan for Offshore Wind Farm in Nantucket Sound Hits a Snag,” New York Times, Jan. 7, 2015

  • Seelye, Katharine O., “Koch Brother Wages 12-Year Fight Over Wind Farm,” New York Times, Oct. 23, 2013

Taylor, Barbara Brown, Learning to Walk in the Dark, 2014