Scripture: Matthew 5:13-20
Live with Integrity
If I asked you to shout out names of people you thought had integrity, I’m sure we’d get quite a variety. Mother Teresa’s name would likely come up. Maybe Martin Luther King, Jr., or Greta Thunberg or Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps you’d think of a parent or friend. I grew up hearing stories of one of my great-uncles, Allan Knight Chalmers. Uncle Allan was a friend and supporter of Dr. King’s. He was treasurer of the NAACP, led its Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and was active in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I thought of him this week because he also chaired the Scottsboro Defense Committee. You may know of, or may have seen, the play “The Scottsboro Boys,” now showing at the Beck Center for the Arts. It’s the story of nine black men falsely accused of rape. My Uncle Allan was integral in mounting their defense. He could be quite the flamboyant showman. And he was also a person of enormous integrity.
If you look up the word “integrity” in the dictionary, the first thing you’re likely to see is something along the lines of “adherence to moral and ethical principles.” When we think of integrity, we often think of honesty, or of people who are sticklers for the rules, or of people who act on the highest truths—people, like those we’ve named, who are unafraid of the consequences when they do what they know to be right.
There is usually a second definition of that word “integrity,” as well, something like “the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished” (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/integrity?s=t), like a fossil that’s found that’s completely unbroken. It, too, has a kind of integrity. These are clearly linked definitions. They’re both related to the word “integer,” and they reflect a kind of fullness or consistency or alignment of life.
When we think of integrity, it seems to me we tend to think first of the moral dimensions of the word. If you have integrity, it means you don’t lie, cheat, or steal. And it is that. I suspect, though, that the second of those definitions conveys at least as rich a sense of what integrity is. It has to do with a sort of integrated wholeness. People with integrity are like an integer in math, meaning a whole number. They’re not divided or partial or fractured. They may strike us as comfortable in their bodies, at home in their skin. They’re whole, full, complete.
The striking and maybe counterintuitive thing, and the thing that may be so hard to believe, is that we all have a kind of holy integrity, we are all, right now, integrated people, if only we’ll take it in. Last Sunday, in the Beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount, we heard Jesus tell his ragtag group of followers that they are blessed. They are already blessed. There is nothing they need to do, no success they need to earn, to achieve that blessing. It is simply given to them, and to us, by the grace of the God who will not let any of us go. You are blessed just as you are, says Jesus.
Today, Jesus takes off from that as his Sermon continues. Not only are you blessed, he says to them, but “You are the salt of the earth.” And then, “You are the light of the world.” And then, you are “a city built on a hill” (Matthew 5:13-14). A whole bunch of searing directives follow in this bracing Sermon. But here, as we noted last week, Jesus isn’t giving orders. He isn’t telling people what to do. He’s reassuring them. He’s telling them who they really are. Not “You should go and make yourselves salty,” but “You [already] are the salt of the earth.” Not “You really ought to light yourselves up,” but “You [already] are the light of the world.” Not “It’s time, for a change, to build yourselves as a city on a hill,” but you already are “a city built on a hill.” Jesus isn’t saying, ‘This is who you’re supposed to be.’ He’s saying, ‘This is who you already are: tasty salt, radiant light, a beacon community of God’s people.
We’re spending a fair amount of time on linguistics and grammar as we encounter this Sermon, which may seem a little strange, but I think it really matters. Last week we were reminded that these opening sentences in the Sermon are in the indicative voice, not the imperative voice. Meaning that they’re not orders. They’re Jesus’ assurances about what already is.
This week we’re going to take note of another grammatical feature of these words of Jesus. When Jesus says the people—meaning you and me, as well—are salt and light and a holy city, he’s engaging in what linguists call “performative language.” This may sound needlessly esoteric, but here’s why it makes a difference. When Jesus says we’re all salt and light and a special city, his very pronouncement of that makes it so. The words perform what they say they’re doing
Let’s make this a little clearer. We can find performative language in any number of settings in everyday life. In baseball, for example, when an umpire call balls and strikes, that’s a kind of performative language. The umpire’s call makes it so. When the umpire calls a ball, it’s a ball. It doesn’t really matter where the pitch was thrown. It can be right across the middle of the plate, but if the umpire calls it a ball, it’s a ball. That’s performative language. The same is true when a minister pronounces a couple married. When I pronounce you husband and wife or husband and husband or wife and wife, you’re married, whether you want to be or not. Performative language. The same is true when a judge declares a verdict or issues a sentence: “Guilty. Five years in prison.” The judge’s declaration makes it so. The same is also true if I say to you, “I’m sorry,” or “I forgive you” (cf., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, p. 177). The language itself performs something. It creates a new reality, or it makes clear a reality that might have faded from consciousness.
This is what happens when Jesus says to you and me, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world” and you’re “a city built on a hill.” Jesus tells us what is true beyond a shadow of a doubt, and by saying so, he makes it true, he “performs” the truth.
And our only job—and this makes it sound so easy, and it isn’t at all—our only job is to take that reality in and to live it out. I’ve quoted before from Paul Tillich’s transcendent sermon “You Are Accepted,” but it’s a such a gem that I think we need to hear it again every once in a while. Tillich acknowledges how broken and despairing we often are and knows that, hard as we try, we simply cannot save ourselves. He knows that we cannot make ourselves whole. That wholeness can only come to us from outside ourselves. And so, says Tillich, it does. “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’” (http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/383693/9154847/1288214160857/You+Are+Accepted.pdf?token=mmJyuzBDmlbCfQtBymnnJTAQ1EI%3D). Whether you feel it or not, in other words, God says it and makes it so: performative language. You are accepted and adored. You are integrated. You have holy integrity.
Not only is this the way God is with you and me. It’s the way God is with everybody. And if there’s anything worth doing, among people of faith, it’s seeking to be aligned with what God is doing. The crux of the message we hear from Jesus is: You are light. Now go be light. You don’t have to do anything to make yourself light: that has already happened. What you have the opportunity to do is to take your light out from whatever may be shielding it, and to let it shine.
A church member just urged me to read the speech made by Arthur Brooks at this week’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, a breakfast attended by the President, the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, and other leading politicians. Brooks told the gathering that he is a political conservative, and he asked them, with a show of hands, “How many of you love somebody with whom you disagree politically? I’m going to round that off to 100%. The rest of you are on your phones. Are you comfortable hearing someone on your side [of the political divide] insult that person that you love?”
And he went on to talk about a lesson his father taught him about moral courage. “We’re always taught that we need to stand up to the people with whom we disagree. [And, of course, that’s important, too.] . . . [M]oral courage[, though,] is not standing up to the people with whom you disagree. Moral courage is standing up to the people with whom you agree on behalf of those with whom you disagree.”
And we do this, he says, by the way we approach and treat everyone. “Why can’t we get out of this dark place that we don’t like? . . . The problem isn’t anger [which is what we often think]. The problem is what psychologists call contempt. . .. Contempt is the conviction of the utter worthlessness of another human being. When you are treated with contempt, you never forget it. [A leading expert on marital success says the greatest predictor of future divorce is] eye-rolling, derision, dismissal. My friends, contempt kills marriages. Contempt kills relationships. Contempt kills love. And contempt is ripping our country apart.”
It’s not civility and toleration we need, he says—that’s way too low a standard. “Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew [in the very Sermon we’re hearing this morning], didn’t say, ‘Tolerate your enemies.’ He said, ‘Love your enemies.’ Answer hatred with love.” And Brooks goes on to say that we are to be missionaries of Jesus, meeting every word or gesture of hatred and contempt with love. When we do, says Brooks, we are “bringing light to darkness. . .. Run toward the darkness. Bring your light.” He reminds his audience of a sign that many churches have over the door as people leave: “You are now entering mission territory” (https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4853002/user-clip-arthur-brooks-national-prayer-breakfast).
Mission territory: that’s what we’re entering when we leave here. That’s where we’re to let our light shine toward the people we meet. Do we look at them with contempt, or do we see in everyone we encounter a spark of radiance and holiness and wonder?
Some of you may have seen a series of YouTube videos in which some college students are doing a project. This is the project: they set up on a sidewalk somewhere and simply invite passersby to have their picture taken. And when the people ask why, the students say, “Because we’re taking pictures of things we think are beautiful, and you’re beautiful.” And you should see people’s reactions when they’re told this. Some of them just don’t believe it. One person gets really angry about it. But most of them look startled at first. And then they look embarrassed or sheepish. And then they look incredibly grateful. They put their hands to their mouths. Their eyes beam. This may seem like a strange way for me to put it, but it’s fair to say they look as if they’ve been saved—saved from self-doubt and self-criticism, saved from being lost and alone, saved from a sense of despair and gloom (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KJdkYJmYWE). They have been saved by encountering light. The light has restored their wholeness, their integrity. Hearing that they’re beautiful makes a startling difference.
Now clearly we can’t go out and tell everyone we see that they’re beautiful. If we do, we’re likely to get slapped a time or two. So we will have to pick our spots. But that needn’t stop our blessing-work. We can convey with our eyes and our smiles and our tone of voice that we sense and appreciate the deep beauty in everyone we meet. When we leave here, we can look at everyone—everyone—as if they’re gorgeous.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You’re a city built on a hill. And what’s more, you’re beautiful. That’s it. That’s the voice of God speaking to you. Listen. Take it in. And you and I have this incredible mission field in which to spread that love. May it be so.