Sunday, September 2, 2012

Seeking integrity in an unbalanced world

Texts: James 1: 17-27 (quick to listen; slow to speak); Mark 7 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (actions not rituals)

None of us like being called a hypocrite. As people of integrity, we want to honour our word. We want to act on our values. The Pharisees, whom Jesus attacks as hypocrites in today's Gospel reading, would be no different, I am sure.

But is it ever possible to live up to one's ideals? Can any of us escape the pitfall of hypocrisy? These are questions that come to my mind after hearing our two Scripture readings today.

Jesus calls a group of Pharisees hypocrites because they follow the rituals of religion – for instance, washing their hands before eating – while ignoring it's spirit. He does not say how they ignore it. But our other reading from the Letter of James give us a clue. James tells us that the spirit of real religion is found by reaching out to the homeless and loveless.

We are urged to turn our worship into good deeds. Perhaps, then, Jesus does not see these Pharisees expressing their love of God in service to their community.

Our Scripture readings remind us to not stop at the words and rituals. Real religion is more about what we do than what we say.

Still, we cannot avoid words. Spouses pledge undying love and care for each other at weddings. Countries say they stand for peace, order and good government -- as in the case of Canada -- or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- as in the case of the United States. Retailers tell us that "the lowest price is the law." Churches tell us that they have a mission to be welcoming and to serve the community.

But having made these statements, we do not always live up to them. Spouses sometimes treat each with disrespect instead of care. Countries sometimes go to war instead of keeping the peace. Retailers sometimes sell us shoddy merchandise at high prices. Churches sometimes focus more on the needs of their buildings than on the needs of their neighbours.

None of these failures necessarily reflect bad intentions. They might just result from our reach exceeding our grasp. After all, the higher a standard we set for ourselves, the more likely we are to fail.

To set those standards, we come together to explore our values and the commitments that flow from them. This is one reason we come to church. In responding to God's love, we hope to discern and clarify what our deepest values are, and then discuss how those values might influence our actions as individuals, as a church, or perhaps as a country.

When our actions line up with these values, we exhibit integrity. This means that our will and capabilities follow our commitments.

So why do the Pharisees, and so many of us as well, not always have the courage of our convictions. Why are we sometimes hypocritical? Part of the reason, I believe, is that we are not always of one mind. We all have inner voices and desires that pull in different directions. When we suffer from inner disunity we may find ourselves doing things that run counter to our values or stated commitments.

It is not only individuals, of course, who suffer from disunity. Countries do as well. To illustrate this, I now look at Canada. Like most people anywhere, we in Canada like to think of our country as virtuous, capable, and influential; as a doer of great deeds; and as a great place in which to grow up, do business, and enjoy life. And in many respects, this description often fits our experience.

But like all countries, Canada has internal divisions that sometimes compromise its integrity and prevent it from achieving all of its stated ideals and goals. Divisions exist between rich and poor; between those that own and manage the big companies, and those who work for them; between those who live in regions with resources, and those who live in regions that are resource poor; etc.

One persistent division in Canada, of course, is that between French and English. The French fact in Canada has always been a source of vitality. But it has also spawned conflicts and bad feelings. The percentage of those speaking French has declined in many parts of Canada, including here in southern Saskatchewan. So now this divide is largely between Quebec and the Rest of Canada.

This Tuesday, the voters in Quebec go to the polls to elect a new provincial government. For the fifth time since 1976, it looks like the nationalist Parti Quebecois may form the next government. If so, many commentators fear another round of constitutional arguments between Quebec and Canada and new anger and misunderstanding between French Quebeckers and English Canadians.

In a country of diverse regions, Quebec is distinct in a way that goes beyond the other provinces. The people of Quebec share a language, a territory, and sense of being a people. In this way, Quebec fits the definition of a nation. Our federal government acknowledged this fact in 2006; the legislature in Quebec City is called the National Assembly; one could go on.

Canada was set up as confederation and not as a unitary nation state. Canada contains French Quebec, the First Nations, and that less well-defined group: English-speaking people like me in the Rest of Canada. While this diversity is one of Canada's strengths, it also present challenges.

I am pleased that Quebec survives as a French-speaking nation 250 years after the conquest of New France by Britain in 1763. Contrast this with the fate of New Holland. In the 1600s, Holland established a colony of Dutch settlers on the eastern edge of North America. In 1667, Britain conquered it. The major settlement of that colony was on the island of Manhattan and was called New Amsterdam. The British renamed it New York, and soon after that, English became the main language. Today virtually no one speaks Dutch in New York.

A similar process was underway in New France following its conquest by Britain in 1763. But then the American Revolution approached. When the British became aware that revolution was imminent, they tried to drive a wedge between their English-speaking colonies of the south and their new French-speaking colony of Quebec by accommodating Quebec.

In 1774, Britain passed the Quebec Act, which gave privileges to the Roman Catholic Church and preserved French Civil Law there. This ploy worked. When the Revolution broke out the next year in what is now the United States, the French settlers in Quebec did not join it. With the defeat of Britain by the U.S. eight years later, Quebec was the last remaining bit of British North America. The survival of Quebec as a French-speaking British colony was a key factor that allowed Canada to become a separate country from the U.S. 80 years later.

Without those long-ago British concessions to French in Quebec, Canada would not exist. These concessions also explain why Montreal today remains the second largest French-speaking city in the world instead of being the world's 50th or so largest English-speaking city.

But despite the fact that French Quebec made Canada possible, the existence of a French nation within confederation has also made Canadian unity difficult to achieve from time to time.

No political party has yet been able to find a way for Canada to work as a confederation without periods of friction and bad feeling. French people have suffered repression at various points in Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, and now French is hardly spoken anywhere outside of Quebec. Many Quebeckers yearn for more autonomy within Canada or outright independence even as many English Canadians resent the wishes of Quebeckers and sometimes use hurtful and insulting language to describe them.

When bad feelings flare up, Canada's integrity suffers. Canada says that is supports the rights of small nations. But in the two Quebec referendums on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995, English Canada tried to blackmail Quebeckers with all manner of threats. We say we are a people who value human rights and respect diversity, but then find ourselves saying terrible things about French or about Quebec.

Canada is hardly unique in its struggles to achieve unity amid diversity. Many countries have tribal, linguistic, religious, and national divisions, which sometimes lead to civil strife or worse. But given this week's Quebec election, I wanted to highlight our own difficulties in achieving integrity amid diversity.

Just as a country has many forces that can tear it apart, so each of us can be torn apart by competing inner voices. We have fragile and mortal bodies and conflicting desires. We are forced to fit into a society that does not always allow space for kindness or the other virtues we want to live by. Nor are we always sure what values we hold.

Do we believe that alcohol is always a sin, or are we OK with moderate drinking? Do we believe that all sex outside of marriage is against God's will or not? Do we think that patriotism is a sin or the highest virtue? Do we think that individual consumer behaviour is responsible for pollution and climate change, or do we believe there is nothing we can do? This list could go on and on.

I certainly do not have easy answers to the how to best define our values and how to find the integrity to live by them. But I close with a few thoughts.

Amid social divisions and competing personal desires, God calls to us from the depths. While many things divide humans one from another, at the deepest level we are all broken sinners and children of God.

In a few minutes, we will celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion. Perhaps it sometimes might feel like an empty ritual. Or perhaps celebrating communion might sometime make us feel like hypocrites.

But the ritual is also a way to point to our unity as members of the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ spans all human divisions -- men and women, young and old, rich and poor, French and English, Canadian and non-Canadian. In our hearts and minds, we may be divided against our self. At the level of a company or country, we may be torn apart by competition. But at the deepest level, we are fellow pilgrims on the journey and broken fools. We all need God's grace to support us and save us.

No matter how we worship, none of us have the ability to always act according to our values. But communion can symbolize our wish for unity in the midst of diversity. It can symbolize our wish for a world that is fit to be called the Kingdom of God. It can express our prayers for the inner unity and will to work for this kingdom in and through Christ, even though our abilities are limited.

Understanding the competing forces that fight within our hearts can seem difficult. Understanding the forces that contend within a country can seem difficult. There are so many factors that work to disintegrate or confuse us as individuals or as a country.

God's Grace helps us find healing and unity despite the forces of disintegration. God's love call us to unite in the work of trying to mend our hearts and our world. God calls us to be the Body of Christ, broken though we may be.

My prayer is that our worship will help us remember God's sacred values. May it strengthen our will to pursue those values as best we can. And may it help us give thanks for God's grace, which is always available to us to help restore our integrity in word and deed.


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