Sunday, 9 October 2011

If you talk the talk you'd better walk the walk

A sermon based on Matthew 22: 1-14
Integrity seems to be in short supply nowadays. And yet I think it is what people yearn for.
Public confidence in politics, law enforcement, religion, journalism, banking etc  is at an all time low. In certain sectors like politics we are now conditioned to think that the person speaking must either be lying or have a hidden agenda before they even open their mouths.
Trust that other people we meet and live with are basically honest and at least mean us no harm is no longer the default position. A lack of trust tends to lead to an inward looking, atomised and fearful community that dare not let their children play outside and where no one speaks to their neighbour.
This didn’t just happen overnight. Unfortunately it is based on people’s actual experience and we all know that a few bad apples colours our entire view.
Integrity for me means that our words and actions add up to an integrated whole, that there is no gap between the two or at least we are working hard to close that gap. In religion it can put an awful lot of pressure on us because the ideals we espouse are generally so lofty that you might say that it is impossible to live them. So we need to be realistic and crucially we need to be honest about when we fail. But sometimes I suspect that knowing that we often fail becomes the excuse for never trying in the first place and we become complacent.
In this case I think the only real crime is not to even try, whether we actually attain these lofty ideals or not. Otherwise the claim is that we are just hypocrites – that our words have no real meaning and we are no better than the politicians and journalists etc. We have to be aiming at certain ideals even while we do fail.
Empty religion is the worst crime of all because we say that it is all underpinned by God. So if our religion is empty then it is valid for an observer to conclude that perhaps our God is also empty – perhaps He doesn’t exist at all. It’s a frightening and sobering thought that people may judge Christianity on the quality of our lives but it is a reality. In a very real way our coming to church marks us out as ambassadors and representatives for God’s nature and character to our neighbours.
In fact the only proof we can give that God’s nature and character is what we say it is, is that we respond to God in and through our life – personal and corporate.   At least that proves that we think He exists and that we respond accordingly. If we can indicate that we think God exists and demonstrate the positive impact that belief has on our own character and actions, then a casual observer whilst not perhaps being drawn into faith by us is at least given cause to think and we are at least not a barrier to people coming to faith!
We stop being a barrier to faith when we exhibit integrity – a confluence of word and deed. Honesty is the key here.
One of the greatest Christian thinkers of the 20th century for me was Harry Williams. He was a great orator and apologist for Christianity, who nevertheless ended up having a nervous breakdown and spent years in therapy. What had led to his breakdown was what is known as “Cognitive dissonance”. In layman’s terms that just means that “nothing added up”. His life was in his own eyes, a sham and he became disillusioned with theology and the church.
His breakdown was a watershed in his life. Through it he rose phoenix-like from the flames to enter the most productive Christian phase in his life – one based on integrity – based on a painful honesty that shocked many of his contemporaries. To me he was an inspiration. After his breakdown he resolved never to speak of anything from the pulpit ever again of anything that he didn’t have personal experience of.  I, in my faltering way have tried to keep as close to that ideal ever since, even though I know I sometimes fail and stray from that ideal.
Being honest about our doubts and fears and problems with our religion is cathartic. Honesty, in life and religion, doesn’t win you many friends in high places in the church I have to tell you, but I hope that at least, even if the words can sometimes be painful to hear, that people might be drawn by honesty and integrity.
What has all this got to do with the gospel reading? Well the poor guy who was bound hand and foot and thrown out of the banquet has this done to him because he wasn’t wearing wedding clothes. The best interpretation of “Wedding clothes” that I have found is that they  are a metaphor for exhibiting good deeds. A metaphor for bearing fruit because as Jesus puts it so well, “By their fruits you shall know them”.  Not by their beliefs note, but by their fruits. Our Archbishop wrote this week that people in the church often use faith as an excuse, a reason to be particularly nasty to other Christians they disagree with – using “faith” as a cover so they can be un-Christian to others.
The man when he was grabbed was “speechless” according to the parable. He was speechless because he wasn’t expecting it. He thought he was a part of the crowd, an insider, because he said and believed all the right things, but as James, Jesus’ own brother, puts it even more succinctly, perhaps even brutally in his letter  - “Faith without works is dead”.

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