Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Children were lined up in the cafeteria of a Catholic school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. The nun made a note, “Take only one, God is watching.” At the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. Moving through the line a boy wrote another note to leave by the cookies, “Take all you want, God is watching the apples.”
Of course, children aren’t the only one who think no one is watching. While shopping in a food store, two nuns happened to pass by the beer, wine, and liquor section. One asked the other if she would like a beer. The second nun answered that, indeed, it would be very nice to have one, but that she would feel uncomfortable purchasing it. The first nun replied that she would handle it without a problem. She picked up a six-pack and took it to the cashier. The cashier was surprised, so the nun said, “This is for washing our hair.” Without blinking an eye, the cashier reached under the counter and put a package of pretzel sticks in the bag with the beer. “The curlers are on me.”
The British writer and lay theologian C.S. Lewis once said, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” Integrity for Christians is about doing the right things with the small things of life.
My friends, this morning I would like to share with you three convictions of integrity drawn from the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. First of all, integrity is essential to our life and witness as a church, and as individuals. Second, integrity is ultimately a question of whom you serve. And Third, integrity is a behavior and attitude that must be nurtured and practiced.
Jesus’ parable of the dishonest servant is one of scriptures’ most difficult passages to grasp. Biblical scholars routinely comment on the parable, and then quickly skip over it in their own preaching. I am reminded of the pastor at the Congregational Church in my hometown who was reportedly so flustered with his Sunday sermon, that he read the appointed passage of scripture from the pulpit, and then announced, “Now, think about it.” He went back to his chair without saying another word. After 10 minutes of awkward silence in the congregation, he sighed, “Amen.”
The heart of the problem of this parable lies in the verse, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Certainly, the passage must be a question about integrity, but it is so confusing. The respected Welsh theologian, C. H. Dodd observed that even St. Luke seems clueless as to what to do with the parable, providing at least three different and conflicting interpretations at the parable’s conclusion: One, that the children of light should learn from the shrewdness of their corrupt neighbors; Two, that you should make friends by means of dishonest wealth; and Three, that if one wishes to be entrusted with true riches, one must demonstrate honesty with ordinary wealth. Dodd famously concluded: “We can almost see here notes for three separate sermons on the parable text.”
Reading the parable today, may make you think that personal, human integrity is not all that important to Jesus. The end justifies the means. I am convinced, however, that nothing could be further from the truth.
We live in a world where personal integrity and doing the right thing is often minimized. Yes, every time a politician or public figure has a scandal, you can count on their defenders coming out and saying that, “It really shouldn’t matter what a person’s private life is like. One’s private life has no bearing on their role as a leader.” Jesus reminds us, however, that integrity has everything to do with leadership ability. A public leader’s power to serve and direct develops from a private integrity that nobody ever sees. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” Human integrity is essential, and it is important to the church as well. So, day after day, we need to ask ourselves, are we doing the right thing even when no one is watching?
Second, integrity is ultimately a question of whom you serve. Every day, we make a decision about who is our master, and who commands our life. Jesus said, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Now, you may confidently say that you would never choose to serve wealth over God, but what do your unseen actions say about your choice?
As a father and grandfather, it is my joy and struggle to keep my sons and grandchildren on a steady course in life. It is a choice. I can choose either to be faithful to them sticking around and motivating them to catch a vision of a life of integrity, tending to the little things of faith, or not. As a pastor, there have been times when I have served people who did not see nor appreciate all that I was doing in their lives. Again, integrity and faithfulness demanded that I continue in what God had given me to do. It is all part of taking on the little things of faith.
The late Mother Teresa said, “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” It sounds like an easy enough task because big changes and big projects may feel intimidating. However, the little things in life can be just as hard because they may seem too trivial and mundane. It’s not that we choose to serve wealth over God. It is simply that we choose to do nothing with the little things God has given us. After all, haven’t we all been entrusted with a little life of prayer, of worship, of service to our neighbor, and of mediating on scripture?
Finally, integrity is a behavior and attitude that must be nurtured. The Indian Chief Sitting Bull, once drew upon an ancient legend of his people and the struggle for personal integrity. He wrote, “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.” God uses little things in life to temper and nurture our integrity. We tend to think it’s the big things in life that create a leader — but no. The big crises in life reveal leadership, but leadership is built in the small things. That’s where integrity shows up — in the stuff that nobody sees, when nobody is watching. Integrity is in the stuff behind the scenes, and in the small, unseen, unspectacular choices of life where you do the right thing even though nobody’s ever going to see it.
Mary Rita Schilke Korzan, in a poem entitled, “When You thought I Wasn’t looking,” captured the little things that last in the work of teaching.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you displayed my first report, and I wanted to do another.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you fed a stray cat, and I thought it was good to be kind to animals.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you gave me a sticker, and I knew that little things were special things.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you put your arm around me, and I felt loved.
When you thought I wasn’t looking I saw tears come from your eyes, and I learned that sometimes things hurt–but that it’s all right to cry.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you smiled, and it made me want to look that pretty too.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you cared, and I wanted to be everything I could be.
When you thought I wasn’t looking–I looked…and
Wanted to say Thanks for all those things you did when you thought I wasn’t looking.
My friends, what are the acts of integrity that people see in you? Surprisingly, many of our most memorable acts are done for the sake of someone else, and that is the reason we are honored and cherished and loved by others. Seldom are men and women remembered because of the digits in their salary, the square footage of their home, or the year and model of the car they drive. And yet we are convinced by the wealth of this world, that these are the things that will last. Sadly, these are the things we serve, instead of tending to the truly lasting things of God.
“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” It is a choice in truly serving God. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.