Epiphany 5. Sermon preached by Canon Professor Paul Foster. 5th February 2023

Isa 58.1-9a, Matt 5.13-20

Integrity is a word that I have heard frequently in the media recently. Or perhaps more accurately, talk about lack of integrity. It is spoken about as a quality that one should possess, and the lack of it reveals a person’s unfitness for office, or at a more fundamental level that an individual cannot be trusted. Yet, I am often left wondering what exactly is integrity and how might one recognize it. To assist me in understanding the term, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary (and to show the unbiased nature of this sermon – let me say, other dictionaries are also available!). The Oxford English Dictionary provides various semantic domains for the term ‘integrity.’ However, when used in an ethical sense it defines the quality of integrity as ‘an unimpaired moral state’ or as ‘the character of uncorrupted virtue.’ That moral sense, however, was not the leading semantic domain that the dictionary defined. Instead the primary definition of integrity is ‘the condition of having no part or element taken away or wanting.’ Hence it relates to a state of completeness or wholeness. That is, integrity describes the state when all the parts of an entity are intact and function together in their entirety.

I only met Archbishop Desmond Tutu once, when I say ‘met’ that is a slight exaggeration. I was at a lecture where he spoke at the University of Edinburgh. He gave a powerful account of the complexities and the ongoing nature of Truth and Reconciliation in his homeland. One of the secretaries in the School of Divinity who was from South Africa had asked whether she might attend, and of course that was encouraged. After the lecture there was a time of informal conversation. The secretary was asked if she would like to be introduced to Desmond Tutu. She wished for that very much. She thanked the Archbishop for all he had done for her country, and being a person of a different racial group she apologised for all the injustices. At that point she started weeping. Tutu was extremely comfortable with this display of emotion. He thanked her for all she was doing to make South Africa a better place and told her that together they could create a more harmonious and integrated society. In that moment I recognized a person whose words about reconciliation were fully aligned with his actions and his concerns for an individual. What I saw was integrity.

Over the last year we have been fortunate to have several readings from the Book of Isaiah. We heard about the prophet’s vision of the Lord of Hosts in the year that king Uzziah died. Those events occurred around 740 BC. However, the Book of Isaiah appears to have had a long compositional history. Today’s reading comes from the third section of the prophetic text, which appears to have been written at a later stage after the people returned from their exile in Babylon, maybe some time after 515 BC. In this section there is a hope for a more outward looking orientation, and engagement with people beyond narrow national borders. Such hope is expressed in terms of the gates of Jerusalem being open to everybody, and that all people might see the salvation offered by God and hence be drawn to join the inhabitants of Zion in the worship of God. Yet alongside this hopeful vision, the author of this third part of Isaiah take some of those who have returned from the captivity in Babylon to task. He portrays the people as being outwardly religious and even as commending themselves for their own piety. They are portrayed as speaking of their own humility and their acts of fasting, delighting in their apparent nearness to God, while at the same time being perplexed that God did not hear or notice them. The prophet tells the people that their religious actions do not align with the other things they do in their lives. He says that even on the same day that they perform their religious fasts, the people seek after their own desires and force their workers into excessively heavy labour. Speaking with the voice of God, the prophet tells the people that their ritual acts of bowing and covering themselves in sackcloth and ashes are not things that make for a fast that is acceptable to the Lord. Instead, it is God who defines what makes for a true fast – release of slaves, abstaining from wickedness, sharing resources with the hungry and the homeless, clothing the destitute. The prophet tells the people that it is only when they perform such acts for those in greatest need, that the Lord will hear the people and declare to them ‘here I am’.

The words of Isaiah diagnose what is perhaps a perennial danger for religious people. That danger is getting so caught up in one’s own acts of piety or forms of worship and fasting, that one loses sight of the point of those things and thinks that they are an end in themselves. If fasting or acts of piety are done at the expense of the poor and needy, or if those performing such acts do not allow those actions to shape their whole mode of existence then those things are empty and worthless. Moreover, when there is not a wholeness or alignment between one’s professed religious life and the actions performed in the rest of life, it is then that lack of integrity is fully apparent.

Last week the beatitudes were read to us as our Gospel reading. Today’s Gospel text follows directly on. Last week we heard of the blessings that God pours out on people – the hungry are feed, those who mourn are comforted, the meek inherit the earth, and the poor in spirit possess the kingdom. This week, by contrast, alongside those blessings we are told of the responsibilities of the people of God. They are to live distinctive lives that benefit those around them. Employing metaphors that remain memorable, the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel tell his hearers, and us, that they are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Salt and light are powerfully transformative agents: one seasons, the other enlightens. Their presence changes things. Yet note, that change is not for personal benefit – it is for the earth and for the world. There is much talk about climate justice and environmental concerns. Perhaps, you like the benighted me wonder why so often in this place we are talking about the climate and the environment and not just concentrating on our religious life, or on preaching the gospel. Then I actually read the words of Jesus, and my blinded eyes are opened by his light. The change that the gospel calls us to enact is for the earth, it is for the world. It is for planet, and it is for people. Jesus continues with the metaphor of light. The saying concerning the lamp speaks of the wide reaching benefit of illumination. Due to light pollution it is sometimes easy to forget how dark the darkness of night truly is. I remember being in the Australian outback one night. There was no moon and the heavy cloud obscured the stars. When the group leader’s torch failed we were plunged into totally darkness, and all sense of direction and orientation was lost. Fortunately, one of the other people in the group reached into her rucksack and took out a spare torch. After the darkness, the rays from the torch felt like the brightest light. Its light did not benefit only the person who had the torch, it provided light and a way home for the whole group.
Jesus tells us to let our light shine before all people that they might see one’s good works – that is consistency between words and actions – and consequently give glory to the heavenly father. When religious people do things simply for their own benefit and not for the good of all, such actions have no benefit even for the one doing them. Perhaps that is the paradox we need to learn – the more we give, the more we receive, the more we seek to share our light with other, the more enlighten we become.

I remember more than ten years ago standing at the altar in this place and celebrating communion. All eyes were looking forward, apart from mine. A man walked into the cathedral through the west doors, this was before we had our glass box. I promise you, I was concentrating on the holy sacrament, but he did indeed distract me. He was wearing mock fur shorts that extended from his waist to just above his knees, and nothing else. That, however, was not the most distinctive thing about him. Like some character from Avatar, the rest of his body was painted sky-blue. My first thought was that this situation had “potential” and I wondered what would happen next. I need not have worried. The gentleman in question simply took a seat in the back row in one of the side aisles where he sat silently till the end of the service. As we processed out, I determined that I would speak with this brightly painted individual. As I reached the back of the cathedral, one of the stewards had already gone over to him. I overheard the conversation. It went something like this – the steward said, “hello, how are you, what brings you hear today?” I heard the gentleman say that he had been at a party and lost his phone and wallet (I obviously do not get invited to the fun parties anymore!). The member of the cathedral speaking with him simply said “You must be struggling to get home, can I sub you?” With that he reached into his pocket and handed him a bank note.
Jesus said let your light shine that people may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven. That day, in this cathedral, I saw a good work that I have no doubt brought glory to the father. I was so proud to be part of this congregation of the people of God, as I so often am when I see so many of you quietly doing good works for the benefit of others. I am sure I only observe the tip of the iceberg, but be assured the rest of those works do not go unseen. It is in those moments that we display true integrity. It is then that our actions are fully aligned with our words. It is then that we do not just ‘talk the talk’, but we ‘walk the walk.’ It is then that acts of piety and fasting actually mean something, for they leads to that transformative mission of Christ, which is for the benefit of the whole earth and for the service of all the world. After this sermon, we will stand together to affirm our faith. That is good and proper. What is better, is that when we go from this place we must live that faith in a manner that transforms the lives of those around us. Will you, will I, be salt and light today, this week, and always? For as we hold the Christ-light before all people, it is in those moments that we truly glorify the one to whom belongs all might, majesty, power, and eternal light, both now and always. Amen.