Living with Integrity: Just How Hard is It to Do?

(Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning, March 25, 2018)

In the Bible there is a proverb (Proverb 4:26) which says, “Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.”

It’s a call to pay attention and to be intentional in your actions, to be dependable, and to be trustworthy. It’s basic ethical and pragmatic guidance. “Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.”

One of my favorite words in the Bible is ‘steadfast.’ Integrity has something to do with this steadfast concept. It’s about being consistent and  keeping your sense of truth, and acting accordingly, and doing so over and over, even when it is hard.

Integrity is about not just knowing what the right thing is to do. It’s about doing it.

You may remember back in 2014, CVS stores decided to stop selling tobacco products. CVS had a mission to help people on their path to better health and wanted to align their actions with this mission. In CVS’s words, “It’s official! All CVS/pharmacy locations are tobacco free as of September 3, 2014. When we first shared our decision to remove cigarettes and tobacco from the shelves of our 7,700 CVS/pharmacy locations, some called it a bold decision. …we call it the right decision.” CVS changed their name to CVS Health. I can imagine there was energized debate that led to this business decision to go tobacco free. Do I think CVS is altruistic in this change? No. I do think it was a decision about running a business from a consistent core. It was a declaration that this type of integrity mattered. CVS lost revenue, in the billions. Yet, there has been another consequence. CVS’s studies have shown in some markets where CVS had a significant market share, smoking patterns have changed for the better.

Integrity: Doing what is right, and actionable, and sustainable over the long haul.

Yesterday I attended the March for Our Lives rally in Washington. Many of you were there, and some here were at the marches in Chestertown, Annapolis and NYC. By now you’ve likely seen the clips from the event. In DC, where 100% of the speakers were 20 or under the messaging through the over 2 hours of speeches was clear: 1) Things need to change; 2) It won’t be easy; today is only a start; and 3) Change will take persistent, consistent action over a long period.

With integrity there is a sense of knowing not only where to stand firm, but the art of how to do so in sustainable ways. It’s a knowing of when to listen, and when to be open to meaningful change. Pretty basic in concept, yet living with integrity we know is, shall we gently say, subject to distractions – competing forces.

Regarding the forces that pull against us when we try to do the right thing, Martin Luther King said, “On some questions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it polite?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but we must do it because Conscience tells us it is right.”

When we listen to Conscience, and act accordingly, that’s integrity.

Acting with integrity is about a lining up actions with values, and doing so considering “the whole” – the whole society, the whole corporation, the whole person. To stay aligned means picking a course and, resisting distractions, and keeping on a steadfast path.

Think about the a building which has structural integrity. The building isn’t likely to fall down. It fulfills its purpose well. For a building to have structural integrity its outside walls need to do their job, and floors, and windows and doors need to their job. Points of stress tension need to be in balance. And the materials used to construct the building need to fit their purpose. To test a building’s structural integrity, you don’t measure its durability when the building is empty, on a clear, quiet, wind-free, 70 degree day. You assess a building’s strength and performance when it’s full of people, and equipment, and when it’s windy and the temperature is extreme, and when the restaurant in the lobby has been running all of the ovens and cooktops on a busy day.

Integrity is about all of the subparts working together well, especially under stress. Buildings need deep basements, and structures which are both strong and flexible. Likewise a tree with integrity is a healthy tree, with roots to sustain, and water paths which facilitate fluids reaching all of the branches. A tree needs to move in wind without breaking.

With integrity there is a sense of ‘holding together’ around a central purpose, and staying true and sturdy, especially in challenging times. Not being too rattled, and yet able to sustain some rattling.

In 2018, consistently acting with integrity seems challenging. While we might be able to individually be dependable and show up on time and be prepared, and we can be personally honest and return extra change at the cash register, and we can each vote our conscience. Yet, acting with integrity is more than just what we can do alone. Many of the ways we’re called to act with integrity involves working with others in governments and organizations.

Is it harder to act with integrity in 2018 than it was 50 years ago, or 100 years ago? It often seems so. Society is more polarized in many ways. Moral action and virtues seem less agreed upon. Acting with integrity can feel stressful.

Is it really harder to act with integrity in 2018 than it was 50 years ago, or 100 years ago? My gut is no. Acting with integrity has always been hard. The hard parts come when we ask, “Is it safe?” “Is it polite?” “Is it popular?” and shy away from pursuing the right thing in a consistent, effective way.

How hard was it to make choices to act with integrity on matters of slavery? and Jim Crow? and Civil Rights? and LGBTQ rights? How hard was it 50 years ago, or 100 years ago to collectively act with integrity on matters of war and unrest? How about our forbearers who acted with integrity to find a path toward a sustainable social security system?

On the issues of gun policy, many of us feel the current policies and culture are off track and we need to do the right thing. Sustaining the actions will be hard.

I brought my kids to their first march about gun violence in the year 2000. It event was on Mother’s Day, and I asked if my present could be all of us going to the Million Mom March together. Later in 2013 I worked with many at the county and state level on changes after Sandy Hook, and Maryland made some changes.

We need more. We need sensible federal regulations, and the hurdles to achieve change have seemed daunting. Despite a huge push in 2013, nothing really changed. I know in time I’d shifted energy to other issues. Doing the right thing is challenging. It’s easy to lose the inspiration, to feel hopeless.

It’s at the point of being discouraged, we need to remember, we’re not alone.  We need to to call on our resources. What images, and principles help you act with integrity when it’s not safe, polite or popular? Who are your role models?

It’s easy to picture Father Knows Best, or the commonsense wisdom of Aunt Bea or Andy Taylor on the Andy Griffith show as individuals of integrity. People of strong character. Not a bad start, and yet, laudable as they are, they are models who may lead us to the safe, polite and conventional middle class, white-centered responses. At times this can be a ‘preserve status quo’ morality, where integrity are actions to win favor from those most like you.

Who are your role models for acting with integrity who help you stretch? Who comes to mind, whether a public figure or personal contact, who has helped you act consistently with your values over the long haul? Anne Frank? Ida B. Wells? Sophia Fahs? Harvey Milk? Who are these rriends, mentors, or colleagues?

The March for Our Lives offered fresh voices. Young role models. These speakers were clear that what we were hearing Saturday were their thoughts and perspectives. They weren’t puppets for others.

Quickly their pleas are going to be tested. Many will try and distract and change the conversation, again. It will take all generations to act with depth and persistence.  If we want to achieve not only policy change, but culture change, it will take cohesive action, as we laddress the tools of violence – the blatant pervasiveness of guns, and address the causes of violence.

If we are to succeed, we’ll need to call in our resources. To act with integrity, and muster the braveness and determination, what helps? Where does one lean when being rattled? Might there be a sense of something beyond ourselves which supports the challenges of living with integrity? For some a sense of a loving force in the universe they name as God. For others, the ‘beyond oneself’ is the sense of love in community, and obligations to our fellow persons which we can lean on when we sense we are losing our footing.

Acting with integrity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To act with integrity we need relationships built on firm grounding – a growing circle of those we trust and can be honest with and who can be honest with you. To act with integrity we need good information. We need to discern what is fair and good. To act with integrity we need to communicate directly, with messages offered with respect in the spirit of love.

Integrity is not about perfection. It’s about alignment – of bringing certain truths to our core and then holding fast to what is good, and letting go of what isn’t important and moving forward one step at a time, with confidence, and conviction, and humility.

My heart was stretched by the students yesterday. My hope is buoyed with fresh ideas, and enthusiasm, and potential for change. And too I wonder of our tenacity as a society.

My prayer coming out of yesterday is that in our work to make our world a safer place, we act with steadfast resolve, grounded in community, and the power of love.

In the weeks to come, may we hold onto Proverb 4:26, “Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.”

May It Be So

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