By: The Rev. Mary Foulke
February 16, 2020 • Epiphany 6A
Good morning St. Mary’s.
For a couple of weeks now I have been reflecting on the concept of integrity, and how we seem to have lost all sense of it in our culture. In the dictionary integrity is defined as the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, the state of being whole and undivided, a condition of internal consistency. Even the Episcopal organization called “Integrity,” founded to promote LGBTQ participation in the church, has fallen into disarray with accusations of mismanagement and inaction.
Today’s lessons are about integrity, however dated (divorce for example is understood differently now) the message is about making choices for the well-being of our whole selves, our whole communities, about making choices that reflect our relationship with God and all of creation.
I want to begin with this idea that we have lost all integrity in our society. I would agree with this sentiment to the extent that integrity, honor, and truthfulness no longer seem to be values held by our dominant society. People who say “but what about truth?” are shouted down. And people who ask questions about the impact of social policy on the poor are considered naive or fiscally weak. However, I would ask you, is this really so different from where we have been in the past? In dominant American society the concept of truth, of integrity, and even of care has been defined since the beginning by a powerful minority of our society – affluent, Protestant, white, cis-gendered, apparently heterosexual men. There was no integrity in writing a document that “all men are created equal” that intentionally left out all women, and then defined people of color and especially people of African descent as less than human. There is no integrity in the practice of or profit from chattel slavery. No integrity in the exclusion of women and men from opportunities in work and education based on who they are or who they appear to be. I don’t think we have gone from a society in which integrity was valued to one in which it is not; I think we have gone from a distorted and inaccurate illusion of integrity to something more honest even in its dishonesty and corruption. Activist adrienne maree brown has said, “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.”
This means that our task is not to bring back the past in any way including in church, rather it is to create and protect communities that are striving to live with integrity, that are seeking to make choices that reflect life, reconciliation, and growth in God. What one writer calls, “islands of sanity.”
There is of course a danger even in this striving, the danger that we think that we have some kind of grasp or ownership of integrity or justice, honor or truth, and that we can then judge others. When the Psalmist says, “happy are they whose way is blameless,” I hear it as an aspiration, a wish, because surely life would be so much easier if we ever could be blameless. But that is not reality. As long as one person suffers, we are all responsible, as long as one person is hungry or homeless or lonely, we are called to act for life, reconciliation, and growth in God, to build the kingdom of God, the freedom of God on earth.
As a task it is depressing, we are up against (in this nation alone) well over 200 years of white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy, and the unabashed embrace of systemic oppression continues every day. And yet these horrifying, violent and systematic powers have never gone unchallenged. Every step of the way, humans of many different faiths and no faith have challenged religious and political authorities to make different choices, to choose real life and justice and integrity. This is the movement we are called to be part of – by the Gospel, by our conscience, by the best part of ourselves. The second line of that quote by adrienne maree brown is, “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
The Gospel today reminds us that there are costs to integrity, and surely we know the costs of standing up to the principalities and powers: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, people known and unknown to us who were killed because they stood up. This is an intimidating history. What we don’t know as well or maybe we forget about are all the people who stood up and lived, people of all races and genders and abilities (known and unknown) who continue to work for freedom and peace throughout their lives. Harriet Tubman was one, Ella Baker, Bob Moses. Every day when I walk by the mural on Old Broadway, I am reminded of Yuri Kochiyama who continued her activism until she died in 2014. Bayard Rustin was another, a longtime civil rights activist who organized the march on Washington, but was unknown for years because he was gay, because he was a pacifist who resisted the draft, and because he associated with communists.
There is a wonderful quote from Rustin describing a choice he made for integrity, not just for him personally, but for a busload of people in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky:
“As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the ring necktie I was wearing and pulled it, whereupon its mother said, ‘Don’t touch a n*****.’
If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child, who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, ‘They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it.’ I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, I owe it to that child, that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested, letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that.”
One of the things I appreciate most about this example is that Rustin was not simply “doing the right thing,” as if any of us can do so in a vacuum. Rustin was thinking about everyone on the bus; contrary to all appearances, he was not standing alone but standing with the community for integrity – though the community did not stand with him (later he was arrested and beaten). Similarly, when we celebrate Black history, we are celebrating the wholeness of our nation, we are standing up for the whole, even as the nation continues to deny its wholeness.
At the end of the service today we will sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn of power, solidarity and beauty forged in the determination to be whole. This hymn by James Weldon Johnson and his brother Rosamond Johnson is 120 years old this week! It was written as part of a celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12; it just happened that February 14, was the day Frederick Douglass celebrated his birth, and through the creative process, the hymn became the impassioned story of enslaved people’s journey to freedom. It was written as part of the powerful energy at the turn of the century when Black people were finding their way into more equal participation in society (at the same time as being violently repressed by Jim Crow and the terror of lynching). May the hymn today serve to inspire, comfort, and transform our own lives, that we might make choices for the well-being of our whole selves, our whole communities, that we might make choices that reflect our relationship with God and all of creation.