The importance of integrity

Sermon by Wesley White, Interim Pastor
Milton United Methodist Church
August 14, 2005

Acts 5:1-16

So far in Acts we have heard some keys to a vital congregation. It is important to wait for the power of GOD’s ministry to make itself clear. For us to move too quickly makes what we do “our” ministry. The early disciples learned to wait for the right time, for kairos time.

Having waited, the earliest church learned key lessons about being inclusive of life experiences as evidenced through language. Pentecost occurred and the wonders of GOD were communicated in languages beyond the usual expectation. We spoke in other people’s languages, not expecting them to first learn our language, our experience, our way of doing things.

Having developed a very diverse group, questions arose about how such might flourish without dividing itself back up into special interests. We learned about the importance of studying the traditions and teachings of the Apostles, of Jesus, of the Hebrew scriptures and how those lead us closer to GOD. We learned about the importance of widening the fellowship and how loving our neighbors leads us closer to GOD. We learned about the symbols of communion and other ways of symbolizing GOD’s presence and how that leads us closer to GOD. We have learned about deepening prayer and how that leads us closer to GOD. We have learned how these intentions best show up with real, tangible, sharing of resources.

It is one thing to learn and fellowship and worship and pray and intend to share with one another. It is another to actually do the sharing.

If we remember back to Jesus, one of the words that he most used to describe the trouble of the world was “hypocrite,” someone who acts religious but isn’t (and we have had hypocrites in every generation, including our own present day). In the New International Version of the Bible this accusation shows up twice in the Hebrew scriptures [although a case could be made for the word “idolatry” meaning the same thing (pretending that the false is true) and then it, too, would show up many times]. In the Christian addition to the scriptures the word “hypocrite” shows up 33 times in the gospel stories. In the King James Version it increases to 37 times.

In fact, one of the top reasons people give for not joining a congregation is that churches are filled with hypocrites who talk a good game of compassion but don’t seem to actually be able to put it into action. Church folks are known for disconnecting their heads from their hearts.

Today's scripture is not a pleasant piece. No one is portrayed as coming off well. Ananias and Sapphira are liars and God and Peter give up on their opportunity to be redeemed.

And, yet, this can be an important story for us. In today's scripture, hypocrisy is what got Ananias and Sapphira. This is what gets us in trouble, too.

This hypocrisy catches us as individuals when we commit to something and then only come up with part of our promise. I know that you who are here are probably not in this group, but we have a lot of hypocrites in our membership. Each of our members have taken vows to support this congregation with their prayers, their presence, their gifts, and their service. They have promised to support the ministry of the United Methodist Church around the world (this happens primarily through prayers and apportionments with some occasional mission trips).

It is hard to measure how much or often someone is praying for us as a congregation but we know that only one-third of our members are present on a given Sunday. The question must be asked how well those who are not here are praying if their praying doesn’t convict them to fulfill their membership vow of being present in worship.

We know that only a couple of our members are tithers and that overall a quarter of our members support three quarters of our program with their giving. Again the question of how strong prayer is in our congregation if it doesn’t touch our pocketbooks.

We are able to get a reasonable turnout for serving to ride on our float in the Fourth of July Parade and to put on our Beef Dinner, but we struggle like crazy to get people to serve in decision-making  positions or as mentors of the next generation or as people who will mention their church affiliation with anyone outside of church. And, yes, the question of prayer again surfaces if it doesn’t affect your visibility as a member of Milton United Methodist Church.

Last year was pretty typical of our apportionment giving coming right up against it and we finally took out a loan from ourselves to pay the remainder. Even though we received a major gift for apportionments this year and have them paid there is still a tendency to think that church is just about what goes on in this room on Sundays and not how what goes on here strengthens or weakens a world-wide witness to Jesus’ Way to GOD.

Experience teaches us that when folks are not involved in the on-going life of the congregation with intentional and growing prayers and regular attendance and giving and a willingness to be visible in serving, then the murmuring starts and blame begins to be assigned and the morale of the congregation suffers. Just like anything else – you put garbage in and you’ll get garbage out.

I do need to note that the issue here is not just membership, but whole-hearted participation. There are congregations who have more people in attendance at worship than they have members. Even there the issue is one of commitment and that is not a word with much power in today’s world.

In church today, hypocrisy is not a cause for the physical death of an individual, like it was for Ananias and Sapphira. It is, however, a reason for great sadness that so many are missing the joy of having something so much larger than themselves to be a source of continued growth in the meaning of life. Hypocrisy is also a source of congregational weakness. Instead of having individuals drop over from shame of being caught saying one thing and doing another (think of almost any news story this past week) the whole body keels over. There is something very vital and central to life about walking our talk. Anything less weakens ourselves and those we care about.

I was struck with the report in Acts about what happened after this strange encounter with Ananais and Sapphira making a promise and only keeping part of it. It is like folks promising to support this congregation with their prayers, their presence, their gifts, and their service and then maybe only coming through on the prayer part. For Ananias and Sapphira it was an immediate going away. For us we have a rule that it takes two years of inactivity before we will finally tell folks that they have not lived up to their vows and see them gone.

Do let folks, who are not regularly here, know that two year count will be half over for them at our next Church Conference. Hopefully some will take this as a sign and renew their vows by doing a better of job of praying so they will regularly attend and give willing and visible service and support of the congregation.

A question before all of us is having our insides correspond with our outsides, to have our “Yes” be “Yes” and our “No” be “No.” Like the cartoon in the bulletin with the man with the bag with a smiling face over his head (presumably scowling like crazy underneath it), GOD sees behind our good front. This does not mean GOD is out to get you whenever you don’t live up to your best, but that if GOD notices, then we ought to notice as much about ourselves and move toward doing better. I imagine, week by week, that bag getting more and more worn and the man finding out more and more about the blessing his gifts are bringing to people around the world, until, finally, the bag is off and the smile is real.

May this next week bring awareness of where you fall short from the integrity of your claims, how you are spinning the truth to make yourself look good. May you then not beat yourself over the head with your hypocrisy, but take steps to reduce it until it is gone.

This has been a difficult sermon because there are real consequences for hypocritical behavior, real consequences for our lying to our selves and one another. The good news is that personal discipline is helpful and can make a difference in our future, we can come alive. The good news is that we can help one another keep the helpful routines of life (waiting for GOD, paying attention to the teachings of Jesus, widening our fellowship, attending to worship, and deepening our prayers). The good news is that our improved behavior will be noticeable to others who will, in turn, want to associate with a congregation that has helped you be all GOD desires of you. The good news is that in living lives of integrity we are being missionaries, already.

Do note that this sermon could have shaken a finger at each and every one here, saying, "You've not done well enough!" That didn't happen. Instead this sermon ends with a beckoning finger inviting us to assist one another to do better this next week. There is glory ahead of us that will make the difficult work of getting better worth the effort. So, thank you Ananias and Sapphira. Your hypocrisy has been revealing and helpful to us. May you yet find GOD's mercy and be sainted to help us move into wholeness of self and congregation.