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The Wisdom of Solomon: Integrity or Disgust

May 15, 2011
Sermon:  The Wisdom of Solomon:  Integrity or Disgust
Text:  Proverbs 10:9; Proverbs 11:2-4; Proverbs 13:5-6; Proverbs 22:1-2, 4 Ecclesiastes 12:1-8

Today on this Senior Adult Sunday, we continue our sermon series The Wisdom of Solomon.  We are blessed to have in this church a number of senior adults.  It is also a blessing that we have a wonderful group of young families with children.

I have crossed the Mendoza Line.  By that, I simply mean that I have crossed the line from those who are not on Medicare to those who are on Medicare, which seems to be quite a definitive line.  It is wonderful to cross that line and still be upright and above ground.  Now if people get angry about Medicare, they can put my face on it because I am part of that plan.  Regardless of the side of the line you are on, the issue I want to address today affects everyone.

I chose a passage of Scripture that I planned to use as the text for today and announced it to the staff by e-mail Sunday night.  By early Monday morning, I had changed my mind.  I decided to select four brief passages from the book of Proverbs instead.  As I read the Word of God for your hearing, listen to the wisdom revealed in the book that we know as Proverbs.  These passages all focus on the theme of integrity. 

Proverbs 10:9:  Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out.

Proverbs 11:2-4:  When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.  The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.  Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.

Proverbs 13:5-6:  The righteous hate what is false, but the wicked bring shame and disgrace on themselves.  Righteousness guards the person of integrity, but wickedness overthrows the sinner.

Proverbs 22:1:  A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.

After a visit at the hospital early one morning this week, I stopped for some breakfast at a local eating establishment.  Several guys there were talking with me.  One of them asked, “Kirk, isn’t it about time for you to retire?”

I looked at him across the top of my glasses.  Before I could say anything, another guy said, “No, he’s only in his fifties.  It’s not time for him to retire.”

Regardless of how you get it wrong or right or off one way or the other, the truth is that everybody ages.

I want to put your mind at ease.  I am not ready to retire yet.  The time will come, but it is not quite yet.  We have many opportunities in front of us as a church family.  I would like to be here to be a part of those.

This year I have come to see the issue of senior adulthood differently than I have seen it in the past.  I was reminded of this insight when I had a conversation with a ninety-three-year-old woman.  Having been transferred to the skilled nursing area in a local retirement home, she was complaining rather vehemently.

I asked her, “What’s wrong?”

She said, “I don’t belong here with all these old people.”

On the one hand, she had a pretty good attitude.  On the other hand, she needs to be realistic and know that she has come into her own as a senior adult.

Certainly, I am there.  I am glad to be there.

I will never forget the day I was offered a senior price on coffee at a fast food restaurant without even asking for it.  The employee just somehow knew I was old enough to get a senior coffee.

The issue of integrity during our senior adulthood is so important.  Think about an athletic team, a football team, for example.  If the team plays well in the first half and really well in the third quarter, it cannot stop playing in the final quarter.  The team must play the game out, all the way to completion.

Living life is very much the same way.  We cannot live for a little while doing our best and then say, “Well, I’ve done enough.  I’m going to stop now.”  That is not what the Bible teaches.  We are supposed to live our lives all the way to the very end.  Think about the people you really admire, the people in your realm of influence who have made a difference in your life.  They have been people of integrity, people who have lived very well all the way to the end.  Preaching a funeral service for those kinds of people is not difficult at all.  The comments focus on reminding people of the wonderful and rich heritage they have left to us.

Some of you who have studied psychology or social development will recognize the name Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst who developed what he called the Eight Stages of Social Development.  I read Erikson and studied him, especially when I did my doctoral work.

I had the opportunity to sit in a classroom with Erikson.  He was in his mid-eighties at the time.  His hair was white.  His eyes were a little dim.  He certainly was a little feebler than he had been in previous years.  His voice was weak, but what a person of integrity!  Erik Erikson himself lived out what he described in the eight stages of development.

Erikson said that at every stage of life, we have a task to accomplish.  If we accomplish that task well, we develop one of the great virtues we admire in life.  For example, during the very first stage of life, infancy, we develop a sense of trust or mistrust.  If we go through that stage well and develop a sense of trust, we can live all of our days with a sense of hope.  If we develop mistrust at that age, it is very difficult to ever gain a sense of hope.

His last two stages are most important for us today as we think about integrity.

He says that at some point about fifty or so, during the period we call midlife, we come to experience the conflict between what he calls generativity and stagnation.  Generativity is the desire to make a difference for the coming generations.  We want to leave behind something of value to those who will follow.  We want our lives to be an example, a light, a witness to those who will come after us.

When we come to that stage of development, we have the possibility of stagnating.  We might tell ourselves, “I cannot do anything.  What is it all worth?  Why should I bother?”  Life really does become meaningless.  It is without purpose.  That is not God’s intention.  God wants us to look beyond our own life to the lives of those who will come after us, like Moses passing the mantle on to Joshua or Elijah passing the mantle on to Elisha.  God expects us to leave behind something of worth, something of value, to those who follow in our footsteps.

We have to ask some important questions and also look at the many dimensions of this period of life as we evaluate our sense of accomplishment.  For those of us with children or grandchildren, it is easy to see connections here. What have we done to assist the next generation in making the most of their time here on earth?  Did we help our children and our grandchildren get the kind of education they need?  Have we created in them a sense of solid spiritual and moral foundation?  Have we imparted to them the courage and confidence to deal with the inevitable adversities of life?  Have we nurtured them to have an attitude of service so that their desire is to make the world a better place?

Alfred Nobel was reading his newspaper one day when he saw his own obituary, which the newspaper had mistakenly published.  He read in that obituary about what was considered his greatest accomplishment, creating explosives.  The obituary continued with information about how his invention had contributed to the warfare of the world and how it had led to so much destruction.

Alfred Nobel was horrified.  He knew that he did not want to be remembered only as someone who had created explosives.  He set out to make things different.  He established endowments so that people who work for peace will be recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize.  People who make great accomplishments in science, physics, chemistry, or mathematics will receive recognition.  People who contribute to the world of literature or to the economic development of the world will be recognized.  He became a benevolent benefactor, creating incentives so that people would make the world a better place.  His life changed, as did the content of his actual obituary years later.

Let me tell you something.  You can make a U-turn at any point in your life.  You are never too old to turn your life around and make it better than it has ever been.

How will people remember you?  If your obituary appeared in the paper today, what would it say about you?  Think about your answer.  Think about how you would change the perception that the world has of you.

Yesterday, I spoke to the 1950 graduating class of Woodruff High School.  I was six years old when those individuals graduated from high school.  They are all along in life now, further than I am.  I encouraged them to tell their own stories, to write them down, to get them recorded.  I told them to preserve the stories of their life.  I encourage you to do the same.  That is a part of the heritage that your children and grandchildren – those who come behind you – will want to remember.

For Christmas last year, everyone in our extended family received a DVD. One my nieces married a young man who has skill with video recording.  He made a thirty-minute DVD recording of my dad, telling about how he came to accept Christ when he was twelve years old.  Dad also talked about how he met my mother, how they courted, and how they dealt with some of the adversities along the way.  He talked about events in his life that are certainly worth remembering.  I had heard most of the stories before, but I cherish that DVD.

The one story that I heard for the first time was a confession.  Dad told about siphoning gasoline out of the family’s lumber trucks so that he could court Mama when she was a student in Rock Hill.  He said, “I guess that was against the law.  I am sorry I did it, but I had to see my sweetheart.  We did, at least, put the gasoline in the lumber truck first.”  That DVD is a treasure.

I encourage you to find a way to preserve your stories.

Some of you will say, “I don’t have children, and I don’t have grandchildren.  How can I do this?”  Some wonderful people who work with little children week after week after week in our church have no children of their own, but they have so much to give to those little ones.  You all can take part in preserving and sharing your heritage.  You all have a lot to pass along to the next generation.

This idea of generativity, of course, has caused me to examine my own life.  What difference have I made?  I think about the sermons I have preached.  I am not sure they have made all that much difference.  My experience is that most people have a very short-term memory.  If I ask you next Saturday, “By the way, what did I preach about last Sunday?” many of you would be very hard pressed to answer that question.  Preaching is not testing your memory.  Preaching is feeding you, nourishing you, encouraging you to have steady growth.  If my wife asked me, “Kirk, what did I feed you last Sunday?” I would have trouble remembering.  It is not important for me to remember everything I ate.  Likewise, it is not important for you to remember every sermon I preach.  What is most important is for you to know that you have been nourished.

What is important about my life?  In pastoral ministry, I have been able to assist people along the way, sometimes in times of difficulty.  I treasure the fact that I have introduced people to Christ for the first time and helped them to see the need to acknowledge Christ as their Savior.  I have spent a lot of time trying to nurture the idea that God is loving.  God suffers a terrible reputation in some quarters.  Many people view God as being wrathful and condemning.  I know that is a part of God, but the heart of God is one of love.

When teaching college and seminary students, I often wondered how much good it was doing.  In subsequent years, some have come back to me and told me how much the class meant to them.  I think about the interns that have been a part of this church and what a privilege it has been for me to encourage them.  I am gratified by the response that so many people have made to my writing and more recently to my art.  The sense of generativity is the satisfaction of knowing I am making a difference in life and that I will leave a part of myself that will continue after my death.

Ericson says that without a sense of generativity we will stagnant.  We will become useless, withered, atrophied.

I really want to focus on Erikson’s last stage of development, the conflict between integrity and disgust.  Integrity – what a word!  You will notice that the word “integrity” is mentioned in the first three passages we are using as our text.  The last passage is all about integrity:  “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.”  Integrity is at the heart of the Christian faith.  It certainly is at the heart of the Bible.

What does integrity mean?  The word comes from a Latin adjective that means to be whole or complete.  When you look at a person of integrity, what you see is what you get.  Country folks would say, “A person of integrity does not put on any airs.  There is nothing phony about them.  There is nothing false.”  Integrity means being consistent.  It means doing the right thing, every time for a lifetime.  It means doing what is right over and over and over.  Integrity means being honest and truthful.  My grandfather said, “Always tell the truth, even when it hurts and a lot of times it will.”  Integrity, I suppose we could say, is the opposite of hypocrisy.  It is the opposite of playing a part, putting on an act.  Hamlet said it well, “To thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou cannot be false to any man.”

Erik Ericson says that the opposite of integrity is disgust.  People having a sense of disgust are bitter about life.  They are cynical.  They play the game Ain’t It Awful.  They react to life as if it has no good, no joy, no hope.  That kind of disgust seems to be so contrary to everything we read in the Bible.

The passage of Scripture that I first chose and then rejected for this sermon today, Ecclesiastes 12:1-8, illustrations that kind of disgust.  You will understand why I chose another text for our sermon today after listening to the graphic paraphrase provided by The New Living Bible.

1 Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honor him in your youth before you grow old and say, “Life is not pleasant anymore.” 2 Remember him before the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to your old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken your sky. 3 Remember him before your legs…start to tremble; and before your shoulders…stoop. Remember him before your teeth…stop grinding; and before your eyes…see dimly.

4 Remember him before the door to life’s opportunities is closed and the sound of work fades. Now you rise at the first chirping of the birds, but then all their sounds will grow faint.

5 Remember him before you become fearful of falling and worry about danger in the streets; before your hair turns white like an almond tree in bloom, and you drag along without energy like a dying grasshopper, and the caperberry no longer inspires sexual desire. Remember him before you near the grave, your everlasting home, when the mourners will weep at your funeral.

6 Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. Don’t wait until the water jar is smashed at the spring and the pulley is broken at the well. 7 For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.

 8 “Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless.”

How uplifting!  That passage is supposedly written by Solomon, the same man who wrote about integrity.  How do you explain that?  Consider Solomon near the end of his life.  He had about 1000 wives.  That, in itself, would challenge a man’s integrity.  His wives, from various foreign countries, wanted to worship false gods from their homeland.  Maybe to keep peace at home, Solomon decided to set up altars to those false gods.  That act violated everything that God had told him to do in order to be a wise king.  As much as Solomon talked about integrity, he lost it toward the end of his life and so this passage.

Let’s return to those verses in Proverbs because they provide strength.  They provide real lessons of integrity.  Proverbs 10:9:  “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who takes a crooked path will be found out.”  What is wisdom?  It is knowing the right thing to do next.  Integrity is doing what is right, doing what is right even when no one is looking.  Integrity is behaving the same way all the time.  Proverbs 11:2 tells us, “…with humility comes wisdom.”

“When pride comes, then comes disgrace…” Integrity is much easier to keep than it is to recover.  If you do not believe that, ask our former governor, Mark Sanford.  Once you lose your integrity, can you get it back?  Maybe so, but it is not easy.  It is much easier to maintain integrity than it is to recover it.

Martin Luther King said that the time is always right to do what is right.  A person of integrity lives that way.

Proverbs 13:5-6:  The righteous hate what is false but the wicked bring shame on themselves.  Righteousness guards the person of integrity, but wickedness overthrows the sinner.

In a remarkable speech, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”  Decisions about good and evil are made in the human heart.  The heart is the source of integrity.  Knowing what is right but not doing what is right is the worst kind of cowardice.

I am invited to many arguments, many of them by e-mail.  I do not have to accept every invitation I receive.  I can say, “No thanks” and decline.  It seems to me that that is the better part of wisdom so many times.

Judge Bruce Littlejohn’s favorite verse of Scripture is the last passage from Proverbs.  “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches and favor better than silver or gold” (22:1).

Albert Einstein said not to try to be a person of success.  Instead, strive to be a person of integrity.  If you have integrity, nothing else matters.  If you do not have integrity, nothing else matters.  Having integrity matters.

You can make a U-turn at any stage of life if you are headed in the wrong direction.

This week marked the fiftieth anniversary of what was known as the Freedom Riders.  A group of young people – both black and white – got on a bus and started riding through the South to call attention to the Jim Crow Laws.  When the group reached Anniston, Alabama, they were met by Klan members who decided to set the bus on fire.  Somebody even shouted, “Let’s burn them all!”  The people on the bus would have all died in that fire except an explosion nearby dispersed the Klan group.  The Freedom Riders were able to get out of the bus safely.

This week Hank Thomas, one of the Africa-American men on the bus, returned to Anniston, Alabama.  The reception was very different from the one he had received fifty years earlier.  The town welcomed him.  Thomas commented to the reporter interviewing him, “We were so naïve.  I do not think we knew all that was going to happen. We had no way of knowing.  We did not know how we were going to be received.  We certainly did not know that people were going to try to kill us.  When I look back on it, it was just the right thing to do.”  Five years after the Freedom Ride, Thomas was serving as a medic in the jungles of Vietnam.  Now a successful businessman, Hank Thomas is a man of integrity.

A man came up to him and said, “My father was one of the Klansmen.  I want to apologize for what he did.”

Hank Thomas said, “You do not have to apologize for your father.  Long ago, I decided that I was going to have to forgive those people.  I have already forgiven your father.”

The two of them – the son of a Klansman and a Freedom Rider – ate a meal together fifty years after that experience.

If you live as a person of integrity, you can change the world.  You can make a qualitative difference in the kind of life that people around you lead.  You can make a difference in the lives of those who will come after you.  I think again of the song entitled “Find Us Faithful.”

May all who come behind us find us faithful. 
May the fire of our devotion light their way. 
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey. 
May all who come behind us find us faithful.

Are you going to live with integrity or with disgust?  The Lord Jesus calls us to live lives of integrity.

If you have never accepted Jesus as your Savior, could I invite you to do that?  Make that decision today and acknowledge him as your Savior.  We invite you to respond to the invitations to God.

© May 2011

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