Lenten Series: Virtues for Turbulent Times
A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 18, 2018
Luke 4:1-13 GNT
Let’s begin the season of Lent with a true, personal story – about Satan. At the end of my senior year in high school, I found myself working at Towne Gate Motors, the Ford dealership in Greeneville, Tennessee. I was one of three guys who cleaned up or prepped new Ford and Mercury cars when they came from the factory. Since my boss was the new car sales manager, often my job would be prepping new cars to go in the showroom.
Well, the two other guys that I worked with were much older than I was. And both of them lived rough, rowdy lives. It was not uncommon for either one of them to go on a drunken binge and be out of work two or three days, either drinking or on a hangover. I think both of them had seen the inside of a jail cell on more than one occasion. And it was not uncommon for them to talk about their visits to ladies of the evening. Their conversation and language routinely were vulgar and very inappropriate. When an attractive female visited the car lot, well, you can imagine their stares and comments.
One of my co-worker’s nicknames was “Satan.” I kid you not. His real name was Kenneth, but everybody at the dealership and anyone in town who knew him called him “Satan.” I don’t think I ever heard how Kenneth got his nickname. Perhaps it was because of his snaggletoothed facial expression when he grew angry. Perhaps it was because of his drinking, carousing, and wild reputation. Perhaps it was the mean streak in him. Or all of the above.
Satan tried to get me to have vulgar conversations I didn’t want to have, and he pressured me to do things I didn’t want to do. For instance, on Friday afternoons after work, he tried to get me to drive him to a liquor store drive-through window to order what he wanted (I think the police knew his car, so he didn’t want to drive), even though I was only 18 at the time.
The long and the short of it was, that working environment became extremely uncomfortable for me, to say the least. It got to where I woefully dreaded going in to work every morning, knowing I was going to be pressured by Satan to have conversations I didn’t want to have, use language I didn’t want to use, and do things I did not feel comfortable doing. Days when Satan didn’t show up for work were much happier days, and I hoped when I went in each day that Satan would not show up. So for quite awhile, I struggled with being true to myself and the pressure to be someone I was not and did not want to be. It was a matter of personal integrity. I eventually would leave that job at least in part to get out of that unhealthy situation with Satan. I went to another position that in appearance was a much better position, but I took a decrease in pay to do so.
And since those teenage years, I have found myself on occasion in other situations when I endured an internal battle of being true to self and maintaining my personal sense of integrity within the situation or circumstances I found myself to be in. Perhaps you can relate.
Today we begin a Lenten sermon series with the overall theme, “Virtues for Turbulent Times.” Each Sunday in Lent I will focus on a spiritual virtue with a scriptural background, but a virtue that is vitally important to each of our lives. But in some cases, we will consider virtues that beg for consideration as we read the daily newspapers and watch the world news. In other words, virtues to be considered in the coming weeks are timely, relevant, and maybe even of a sensitive nature.
And I think most of you would agree that we are living in turbulent times. Politics, religious divisions, polarization on key issues, school shootings, white supremacist gatherings, international unrest and US foreign relations with Iran, North Korea, Russia, and so on – such issues sometimes cause us to ask, “What happened to basic virtues that help us get along and keep peace in the world?” I certainly don’t hope to solve all the world’s problems during the six Sundays of Lent. But I thought it would be a good time to consider some of the basic spiritual virtues that help make for being authentically human and make for a better life and better world.
So today’s virtue is integrity, or being true to self. I pulled my American Heritage Dictionary from the shelf just to double-check myself. And I found that the definition of “integrity” includes adherence to a standard of values; the quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness.
Such, I believe, is something we see in the story of Jesus and his 40-day temptation in the wilderness – the battle for integrity. This familiar story is found in all three synoptic gospels, so obviously it was paramount in the eyes of the early Church. And this story is the traditional story for the first Sunday in Lent. So I am sure many of you have heard it read and preached upon numerous times. And whether one interprets this story as being 100% historical doesn’t matter; the truth of the story remains the same.
Most often, perhaps, the focus of this story is temptation, and the things that tempt us to stray, fall, or sin; you know, the temptation of vices like strong drink, lust, illicit sex, gluttony, gossip, greed, and so on. Certainly that is one way to view this story.
But this year I approached this story from a new angle. As we consider this story, we find that Jesus wasn’t tempted by the vices we commonly think of. As the story goes, Jesus was tempted to satisfy his physical hunger, a perfectly legitimate human need. Jesus was tempted by the offer of success. Who of us doesn’t want to be successful in life? And Jesus was tempted to be assured of God’s love and care for him. Who of us hasn’t sought assurance of God’s love, care and protection? So the things that Satan are said to have tempted Jesus with were not the seedy, common vices we immediately think about.
No, as I considered this story again this year, it occurred to me that the thing Jesus was being tempted to compromise was his integrity. What the tempter pressured Jesus to do was to not be true to self and to sacrifice his personal integrity.
And when all is said and done, I believe one of the greatest sins we can commit is sacrificing our personal integrity and not being true to our inner self that we know in our heart is right and good. And as I said earlier, probably all of us have been there at least one time, if not many times, in our lives. I know I have.
- As young persons, we may have found ourselves being pressured by peers to do things we did not want to do or that we knew in our hearts was wrong – illegal drugs, shoplifting, destruction of property for the fun of it, bullying the vulnerable and weak, cheating in school, the list is long. If we were not pressured to do such, it is likely that our children and grandchildren are.
- A job or profession in which we were asked or expected to do things that went against our conscience, things we felt were unethical or perhaps unlawful even.
- A position in which the working environment made us very uncomfortable because of what the boss or co-workers expected of us, or because of the harassment or pressure to compromise our personal integrity.
- A position in which we were expected to teach or endorse principles we did not believe in, or sell a product we could not personally endorse.
- A job or profession that we loathed because it did not match the person we are inside. We knew we should be somewhere else in life, and in the current situation we were not being true to self. I heard a story the other day about a man whose dream in life was to become a professional photographer. He had applied at and was accepted into the best school of photography in the nation. But his dad had other plans for him. His father enrolled him in a college mechanical engineering program. He said to his father, “But I want to be a photographer.” But his father said, “You are going to study to be an engineer.” So that is the way his life went. When I heard that, it made me so sad.
The scripture says in another place (Hebrews 4:15) that Jesus was tempted, yet without sin. In other words, Jesus – in the synoptic gospels temptation story, at least – remained true to his inner self and his convictions and values and the person he knew he was and was destined to be. Jesus remained whole, undivided in his sympathies, and maintained his personal integrity by being true to self.
And as we commence this Lenten Season together, may we, likewise, have the grace to do the same and pray that our children and grandchildren will as well – be true to the inner self and what is good and right; to strive to be the person we – and they – are destined to be; to honor and guard our human integrity. May it be so for us and may it be so for our children and grandchildren. Amen.