On 2nd September, the second day of Creationtide, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 36:5-9, James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.
Earlier in the week I watched a television programme called ‘A week without lying’ (BBC Horizon https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bhngq7). Scientists studied three people from diverse walks of life to find out if it is possible to live without lying. Using the latest technology, the participants were monitored for heart rate, sweating, body movements and language use to indicate if they were lying or not. Once some baseline measurements had been taken during typical days, the second part of the experiment challenged the participants to live for a week without lying.
Mo is an advertising executive who often tries to please people. Ehiz is a student and YouTuber, given to exaggerating. Ruth is a parish priest, trying to live out her faith. Although they were all interesting, perhaps Ruth is the most interesting for us as Christians.
Ruth quoted Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. She recognised that if she had to make a choice, she would choose love over truth. She knew she needed to work hard to find a way to be lovingly truthful. To avoid hurting people, Ruth often used omissions, avoiding saying hurtful things. She found it hard to tell difficult truths. This behaviour resulted in her verbal and non-verbal behaviour not matching. What her words were saying was betrayed by the way her body language gave insight into what she was really thinking.
Over the course of the week, Ruth had to think deeply about what really could be considered a lie. Her husband thought she should say all the negative things she was thinking. Ruth, however, thought this would be wrong; it would be rude to volunteer information that someone had not asked for. By the end of the week she had come to the conclusion that she does not lie to benefit herself but would lie for the benefit of others.
Ruth and the others were really struggling to find out how to live with integrity. The root of that word is ‘integri’ in Latin, which means ‘whole’ or ‘sound in construction’. For a person, that means being undivided. Faith and action, words and work should be an integrated whole. If we allow ourselves to be divided, we undermine our authenticity. Integrity is not something that can be taught; it has to be lived so that others can see it.
The international theme for this year’s Season of Creation is ‘walking together’. Jesus walked with his friends in Galilee and around Jerusalem. As he walked, he talked and taught. He drew on themes of creation for much of what he taught: the falling sparrow, the lilies of the field, the wandering sheep, the marauding wolf, the grains of wheat dying to produce a harvest. Jesus’ disciples saw him all the time – tired, happy, disappointed, challenged, even angry. If his life had not matched his teaching, if he had not possessed integrity, they would soon have seen through him and fallen away. In this season, we are trying to consider how we can live more authentic lives, which honour God our Creator and Sustainer.
The reading from the Letter of James points us in the right direction. He reminds us that God himself is without variation. He doesn’t change or say one thing and mean another. As we strive to live with integrity, we are striving to be like God the Father and Jesus the Son. James points out where to go for the source of the problems we face. We need to get rid of those inner attitudes which lead to the unpleasant behaviour. These need replacing with the word of God allowed to take deep root within us.
It’s no good just paying lip service to this. James challenges his readers to do what the word says, not just hear it and forget it. Being ‘religious’ is no help at all if it doesn’t result in outward actions that are born of love for God and neighbour. Being ‘religious’ is meaningless unless it results in the control of ungodly actions. James promises that those who act on the word they receive from God will be blessed.
Jesus confronted the lack of integrity of the Pharisees who complained about the disciples not washing their hands before eating. It was only the rich and privileged who could hope to follow the strict cleanliness laws advocated by the Pharisees. The ordinary person was struggling to make ends meet by fishing or farming. Extortionate taxes by the Romans kept them in poverty. Meanwhile many of the rich became that way by colluding with the occupying forces and taking advantage of the poor they then criticised. This was not a lifestyle of integrity.
Jesus pointed out that much of the piety of the Jews was mere words, but ‘their hearts are far from me’ as God had said through Isaiah. Their own traditions became more important than God’s commandments, yet they purported to worship God. Like James, Jesus highlights that it is the inner attitudes which lead to evil actions. It is no good pretending to be ‘religious’ because actions say more than pious words do. Integrity of words and action is what is needed.
In this Season of Creation we are taking the opportunity to rejoice in the wonderful gift of creation which God has given us. We also have a chance to reflect on how we care for creation. It is pointless singing praises to God as Creator if our actions bear no relation to our words. If we are to witness to the world as Christians, we need to live in a way that honours the God we say we worship.
With global communication, we have a mirror in which to see what our lifestyles are doing to the natural world and the people who share it with us. Unless we choose to do as James says in his letter and look away and forget, we are faced with the challenge to act. Until recently, when the programme ‘The Blue Planet 2’ highlighted the problem, how many of us knew about great islands of plastic waste in the oceans? But now we DO know, and as stewards and first fruits of God’s creatures, as James calls us, we have to consider the impact each of us is having in terms of plastic waste. It’s time to make a commitment to live in a more sustainable way, rather than just plundering and polluting the earth as it suits us.
The task seems overwhelming. Can each of us really make a difference? If enough of us make changes in a few areas, we really will make an impact. The areas where the greatest difference can be made are in energy, meals and transportation. Think what you could do. Use your own coffee cup rather than a disposable one? What about cutting down on car journeys? Eating less meat? (Meat is a leading cause of climate change and deforestation.) Turning down the thermostat? Those of a more political leaning might lobby politicians or join marches. It’s up to each one individually to work out how to live with integrity in terms of caring for creation. It’s probably best to start with just one thing at first. Once you have decided on a commitment, you can make a personal pledge on the Living the Change website if you want (https://livingthechange.net/).
Finally, this excerpt from ‘Three Men in a Boat’ by Jerome K Jerome, reminds us that one of the greatest blocks to integrity, and appreciation of creation, is our tendency to fill our lives with what we think we want, rather than what we need!
“How many people, on that voyage [up the river of life], load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber[…] Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy […] you never know a moment’s freedom from anxiety and care, never gain a moment’s rest for dreamy laziness—no time to watch the windy shadows skimming lightly o’er the shallows, or the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples, or the great trees by the margin looking down at their own image, or the woods all green and golden.”