Ezekiel 18.1-4,25-32; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32
Well, it’s that time of the year again when we’re treated to the sight of our political parties holding their conferences around the country.
The shots of politicians on the beaches of Brighton and Bournemouth and Blackpool or around Manchester, enjoying themselves, the scenes from the Conference Halls, the adulation, the jeers, the speeches, words, words, words, promise after promise that things can only get better.
It’s all about integrity of course, that’s what we’re looking for, hoping for and not just from our politicians but from all those who have to speak and act and that’s all of us in fact. We soon see through the person who says one thing and then goes off and does another, they lack integrity, their words cannot be trusted, what they do and what they say just do not hang together.
That’s what Jesus is saying to those who were listening to him in the Temple. The Scribes and the Pharisees sidle up to hear what he’s saying. Often they’re on the receiving end of his criticism, for their hypocrisy, for the way in which what they teach they do not do themselves, the way they load requirements on to others and then pay lip service to it themselves. It just will not do is what Jesus is constantly saying to them.
So Jesus tells the crowd this story of a father with two sons. One says he will do what his father asks but doesn’t, the other says he won’t do what his father wants and then has a change of heart and does it. In both cases what they say and what they do are different but at least the second son ends up doing as his father wishes.
It’s easy to point the finger at politicians just as probably it was easy for Jesus to point the finger at the Scribes and Pharisees, the lawyers who always come in for fierce criticism. But in fact Jesus is speaking directly to me and to you, Jesus is talking to the church, Jesus is challenging our own lack of integrity. Elsewhere he talks of us trying to take a splinter out of someone else’s eye whilst ignoring the plank in our own, we have to face up to the fact that we can all do with a bit of a wake up call where integrity is concerned.
These have been interesting times politically, not just at home but in many places. Elections in the USA, in France and last weekend in Germany have produced results that are surprising and often shocking. But there seems to me a common theme, that voters and particularly younger voters want something different – that the old, tired ways of doing politics are being rejected for something that on the face of it seems fresh and honest and that has integrity. So old established parties are being rejected and something, or someone different, who people feel that they can trust, comes to the fore.
The same forces affect the life of the church. People are rightly very critical of the church where she says one thing and does another, where she preaches a gospel of love and then acts in a way which seems loveless, when the church on earth does not reflect the church in heaven, when the church is not seen clearly enough to be the body of Christ that we see in Jesus.
St Paul in his Letter to the Philippians makes this plea to the people
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Having the ‘mind of Christ’ as it’s described elsewhere is having that mind which is totally at one with God. Whether people liked it or not no one could deny that what Jesus preached he lived, that what he said he did. It’s the same point that’s being made by the Prophet Ezekiel who rejects the old saying that ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’. Your actions are your actions and they will affect you directly, the action and the effect are one.
The Primates of the Anglican Communion meet this week and it looks like the Scottish Episcopal Church will be sanctioned for its integrity. I hope that when people look at this Cathedral and the way in which we try to live out our vocation they will at least admit that we have integrity. They may not always like what we do and what we say we stand for but nevertheless I hope that what we say and what we do are reflections of each other.
Take our stance on the issue of sexuality for instance. I was talking to a priest from the diocese the other day. He comes from a conservative evangelical background and was unhappy about some of the things that ‘go on here’, like taking part in the Gay Pride March in London as we did for the first time this July. I was up in York at the meeting of the General Synod when that took place but there were 15 clergy and twice as many people, lay people, some of you, marching behind a banner which said ‘Southwark Cathedral – inclusive, faithful, radical’. As the group moved slowly along the route of the march they were met with warm applause and no little surprise. Here was a church, here were Christians and clergy prepared to be out on the march, prepared to take pride in other people.
At the same time in the General Synod we were debating whether it was right or not in the church for people to promote the healing of homosexual people through prayer, seeing being gay as a sickness that could and should be cured. The contrast between what was happening in York and what was happening in London could not have been greater, the contrast between the church gathered in Synod and our Cathedral out on the streets could not have been more profound.
But I explained to the priest who was questioning me about this that it was a response to our values, not a fad, or an instant decision, not being trendy but part of a journey that this Cathedral and this community has been on for years. I had to go back to 1991 when the St Andrew’s Chapel in the Retrochoir was designated as the AIDS Chapel. Some of you were part of the congregation at that time and might remember that. I wasn’t anywhere near Southwark then but I imagine that it was a courageous decision by the Chapter to name something in church that many Christians were defining as God’s righteous vengeance on homosexual people. And then on 16th November 1996 there was a milestone on our journey when we hosted the 20th anniversary service for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. Again some of you may have been at that service. I was but I also remember the storm of protest that it created in the diocese and the wider church. But this Cathedral persisted and was continuously courageous, defending Jeffrey John when he was forced to withdraw as Bishop of Reading, marking World AIDS Day each year with style, always trying to do the right thing.
And welcoming people who have had a Civil Partnership or nowadays have had what’s called an Equal Marriage, not for a blessing, as we’re not allowed to bless, but praying with people and embracing people who’ve committed themselves in relationship, is just another step in this journey.
This is a sign of integrity, living out what we have committed ourselves to. And we need to do that in every area of our life. We’re not a single issue cathedral, we’re equally committed to integrity with regard to people whoever they are, whoever you are, whatever our circumstances and background because that is what we see in Christ and that is what we believe is having the same mind as we find in Christ.
The integrity of God is challenging to our lack of integrity, when words and actions do not match, when what we say and what we do are not in harmony. But in this Eucharist the integrity of Jesus is before us where word and sacrament stand together, where the self-emptying God fills us with grace, in which God says to us ‘Turn, then, and live’ and live with integrity and challenge the world and challenge the church. Whatever you do, do it with integrity and the God, who is integrity, will be with you.