One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
-from Psalm 27
Before I really get started on this sermon about integrity, let me note two things:
- We can’t talk about the testimony of integrity without reference to Jesus’ command that we simply say yes or no, rather than taking oaths to somehow prove that we are telling the truth.
- It has come to my attention that the integrity of my personal yes has come into question, with regard to my professed willingness to eat my Sunday lunch at Taco Bell with whomever would like to join with me in sharing terrible knock-off Mexican food and discussing the topic of the sermon. So, let me be clear: I am eating lunch today at Taco Bell. I’ll be heading there after today’s session of Meeting for Business. If you’d like to talk about integrity, please come and join me. The food will be mediocre, but the conversation may be excellent.
So. As I started thinking about the testimony of integrity, I was drawn to part of Psalm 27 that I memorized as a child: One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple.
That’s a good working definition of integrity, I thought. I’ve always liked this image of a life lived in pursuit of only one thing, the experience of the presence of God. The word integrity, I’ve mentioned before, has the same root as integer: a whole number, with no fractions needed. That sense of wholeness works well with the Psalmist’s seeking with entire focus after only one thing, wanting only to be present with and alive to God.
So, this was going to be my sermon on integrity. Practicing integrity as part of our Christian discipleship molds us into people who consistently tell the truth, sure, but it also reshapes our focus so that, moment by moment, we are consistently aware of the capital-T truth that surrounds us. Becoming more whole makes us people who are capable of being more wholly present with God. Something like that.
Here’s the thing, though- last weekend, I went to Yearly Meeting down in Tennessee. I’m going to tell you a bit about that, but for the moment, let me just say that I can no longer advocate dwelling in the house of the Lord all the days of one’s life.
I, instead, would like to extol the virtues of being in my own house. Craig and I walked back through our door, Sunday night, and the relief was immediate. Here are our terrible cats. Here are three Chinese lanterns, and a string of pictured loved ones, and our familiar neglected plants. Home is a beautiful thing.
That’s not to say that I didn’t like Yearly Meeting. I found many parts of it enjoyable. I just don’t think that I can give any honest testimony about wanting to live forever in a church.
It was interesting to me, then, to go back and read all of Psalm 27 with my own ambivalence in mind. I picked this Psalm because verse four evoked an unequivocal desire for God’s presence, but the entire Psalm is a lot more complicated.
The Psalmist begins almost laughing at the notion that he could be made afraid of anyone. The Lord is my light and my salvation- whom shall I fear? No one, right? What attack could possibly make him afraid?
He then introduces a new element, that of his enemy’s defeat. The attack is no longer hypothetical; he writes, When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.
Then comes the section that I liked, in which the Psalmist is seeking only to live in the temple. It sounds a little bit less like devoted worship, though, and a little bit more like seeking sanctuary. In the day of trouble, he writes, God will keep me safe in God’s dwelling.
The next few verses are full of panicked-sounding pleas that the Lord not forget about the Psalmist. Hear my voice… don’t turn away from me in anger… do not reject me… this doesn’t seem to be the same confident Psalmist who refused to fear even a besieging army.
After that spell of doubt, there’s a reaffirmation- the Psalmist veers back and insists that he will see God’s goodness, and encourages us to wait to see the same.
I still think this is a psalm about integrity. The Psalmist’s integrity isn’t showcased as I had first thought, though, in just that line about only seeking one thing. It’s in the whole poem, in the Psalmist’s willingness to bring his whole messy self – with his desire for purity and his fears for the future and his excitement about his enemies’ embarrassment and his stubborn hope – into the song that he sings before God.
The same is true for us, right? We don’t become people of integrity by becoming one-dimensional. Being exactly who we are in all times and places does not make us uncomplicated people.
Rather, integrity means that we show up as everything at we are – wounded and healing, weary and hopeful, sinners and bearers of one another’s grace. We bring all of this complexity along, everywhere we go.
So. We’ve talked about the Quaker testimony of integrity before. Usually, when we talk about the testimonies, we talk about them personally. How am I living in integrity? How are you living in integrity?
This morning, though, I want to ask a different question: How do we live together as a faith community of integrity?
Let me tell you three stories from Yearly Meeting to give you a sense of what I mean:
Story 1: This year marks the 50th anniversary of Maryville Friends Meeting, down in Tennessee. This is, somewhat confusingly, the second Maryville Friends Meeting in our history. The first Maryville Friends were very active in post-Civil War Reconstruction efforts, including building many schools for black children. On Thursday night, those of us who attended Yearly Meeting got to hear a presentation that included information about all the work that they did.
It’s very comfortable to celebrate the radical actions Friends have taken in the past. The presenters, though, didn’t leave their witness for racial justice in the 1800’s.
The present-day Maryville Friends are working with a group called Blount United, which advocates for racial justice in Blount County. Blount United was formed in response to the recent spate of shootings of unarmed black people. While we were there in Tennessee, Blount United sponsored a walk through Maryville that drew hundreds of participants.
Laying aside whether or not you agree with their analysis of the national news… the presenters had the option of just talking about their century-old history. That would have been the safer choice.
Instead, they chose to bear witness to where they believe God to be calling them, as a meeting, in the present. That’s a picture of corporate integrity.
Story 2: It’s Friday, at lunch time. Craig and I are sitting in Maryville Friends’ fellowship room with Ruth and our friend Matt Hisrich, there representing the Earlham School of Religion. We are all exceptionally clever people, and so we are having an excellent time. I pulled out my phone to try to look something up (I don’t remember what)…
…and saw that West Hills Friends Church, in the Portland, Oregon area, had just been “released” from Northwest Yearly Meeting. Released, in this sense, is a bit of a misnomer- it means that West Hills was kicked out of their Yearly Meeting.
It’s a blessing, in a sense, that no one disagrees about the root cause. West Hills Friends Church affirms same sex relationships and welcomes people into leadership positions without regard to sexual orientation, whereas Northwest Yearly Meeting as a whole does not.
I interrupted our fun lunch to share the news. Then, we just sat there for a moment, thinking.
Until that moment, to be honest, I don’t think I’d ever heard of West Hills Friends Church. Now, though, after a bit of research, I know that they’ve been through a years-long process of coming to clarity on their position, followed by a years-long process of laboring in love with their Yearly Meeting.
That means that I know that West Hills Friends faced almost innumerable points at which they could have found something else to do with their time. They could have made their formal apologies and picked something other than marriage equality to focus on.
Lay aside whether or not you agree with their theology. West Hills Friends Church knew that it was possible that they’d pay a huge relational price for going where they felt the Spirit leading them, and they went anyway. They let their yes be their yes. That’s a picture of corporate integrity.
Story 3: One of the big dramas at our own Yearly Meeting, this year, revolved around Knoxville Friends Meeting. If you’ll sit tight for a minute, I’ll read the names of everyone who was attending there a month ago, so you can get a sense of what the meeting is like.
Georgine. Jack. That’s the whole list.
Knoxville Friends have gotten a lot of support from other Quakers in Tennessee. Georgine and Jack haven’t been alone. They were having some pretty serious conversations, though, about closing the meeting down.
Instead of closing the meeting down, though, a church planter has been hired to come in and work in Knoxville for a year. I’ll share more about the particulars when I report on Yearly Meeting in Meeting for Business, so be sure to stay if you’re curious. For the moment, what matters is that this was by no means an obvious decision.
I mean, it’s a meeting now of four people. There’s Jack, and Georgine, and then Jim and Tammi Watson who are there to revitalize the meeting. Statistically speaking, you could say that Knoxville Friends Meeting is (momentarily) growing by leaps and bounds!
Lay aside what you think you know about church growth, though. Just think about what it took for Georgine and Jack to say that they didn’t feel called to lay down their meeting when it was just the two of them. It would have been an awful lot easier just to close the meeting down. It would have been a whole lot safer not to invest so much in a meeting that seems to be failing.
Jack and Georgine prayed separately, and they prayed together, and they didn’t feel that the work of Knoxville Friends Meeting was over. They felt the Spirit giving them a yes, with regard to keeping the meeting going, and so they gave their yes as well. That’s a picture of corporate integrity.
So. I have three cards up here, one each for Maryville, West Hills, and Knoxville. I think all of these meetings could use a little love right now. If you’d like to sign the cards, they’ll be available after worship.
What about us though, Friends? Where do we see ourselves, as a Christ-shaped worshiping body, letting our entire messy and complicated community bear witness to the truth? It’s not going to be an uncomplicated process, any more than the Psalmist left us this morning with an uncomplicated prayer… but where do we see the testimony of integrity operating in this meeting?