John the Baptist: example of integrity

It seems like it happened yesterday, but it happened 20 years ago? I was in 6th grade and we were lined up on the basketball court like every start of a Physical Education (PE) class. The lining up was for us to march like soldiers, jog, jump and do what most kids do in PE, burn calories. The professor had a habit of asking questions about spatial orientation once in a while: Up, Down, Jump, Lie Down, Get up, Right Left, One step back, Two steps front. And that is how it went: instructions and directions to ensure we were aware on how to follow directions. He knew we had to work on our right-left instructions. So at the start of a session he instructs everyone to turn 180 degrees to the left. Right after the mandate, almost everyone does a 180 turn to the right and I do a turn to the left with two or three other kids, just as we heard. The instructor gave the instruction once again and said: ‘I said turn to the left, not right.’ After the second yell the few that had turned like me to the left, followed the rest and turned around toward a 180 degree to the right. The instructor came to me and asked me: ‘Guerra, are you sure you turned to the left?’ I said: ‘Yes, sir.’ He congratulated me and rebuked everyone else. For the next 10 minutes I got to watch all my classmates do 50 pullups while I was sitting comfortably enjoying the satisfaction of having done what I had to do, in spite of my own fear.

What an awkward moment! That minute when you say or do something that is about as contrary to what everyone thinks or do, but you say it and you do it because you know you believe in it. What follows can turn really well, like me in my PE class, or can end up chopping your head, like John the Baptist. I am not sure if we all understood the story from Mark’s Gospel. It was about John telling Herod that he should have an affair with his brother’s wife. The woman did not like the message and got him beheaded. In case you are wondering, the message of the passage is not to avoid trouble with powerful people, nor it is to stay quiet when you know you need to say something. The message is about living a life of integrity.

Jesus supported the life and message of John. The message of this first Baptist was in line with the original Jewish practice of cleaning oneself before entering the presence of God in the temple. Accessing the temple required that one had to clean himself. One had to be pure to enter the presence of God. But now God was being announced outside of the Temple by prophets like John and Jesus. Remember the phrase God with us? God was not confined to a concrete structure anymore; God was amongst its people. Therefore, we needed to be clean, repent and baptize. It was a ritual that evidenced the change of heart.  John took this message to everyone, including Herod, but the consequence of giving this message to the most powerful Jewish figure was expensive and he ended up beheaded. John in an example of integrity, of doing what is right in spite of the consequences.

I absolutely love the following lines on integrity I found in Forbes magazine:

“If I could teach only one value to live by, it would be this: Success will come and go, but integrity is forever. Integrity means doing the right thing at all times and in all circumstances, whether or not anyone is watching. It takes having the courage to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences will be. Building a reputation of integrity takes years, but it takes only a second to lose, so never allow yourself to ever do anything that would damage your integrity.

We live in a world where integrity isn’t talked about nearly enough. We live in a world where “the end justifies the means” has become an acceptable school of thought for far too many. Sales people overpromise and under deliver, all in the name of making their quota for the month. Applicants exaggerate in job interviews because they desperately need a job. CEOs overstate their projected earnings because they don’t want the board of directors to replace them.  Entrepreneurs overstate their pro formas because they want the highest valuation possible from an investor. Investors understate a company’s value in order to negotiate a lower valuation in a deal. Customer service representatives cover up a mistake they made because they are afraid the client will leave them. Employees call in “sick” because they don’t have any more paid time off when they actually just need to get their Christmas shopping done. The list could go on and on, and in each case the person committing the act of dishonesty told themselves they had a perfectly valid reason why the end result justified their lack of integrity.

It may seem like people can gain power quickly and easily if they are willing to cut corners and act without the constraints of morality. Dishonesty may provide instant gratification in the moment but it will never last. I can think of several examples of people without integrity who are successful and who win without ever getting caught, which creates a false perception of the path to success that one should follow. After all, each person in the examples above could have gained the result they wanted in the moment, but unfortunately, that momentary result comes at an incredibly high price with far reaching consequences.  That person has lost their ability to be trusted as a person of integrity, which is the most valuable quality anyone can have in their life. Profit in dollars or power is temporary, but profit in a network of people who trust you as a person of integrity is forever.”

Now back to my sharing. We hear the words from this Forbes article and think, ‘Sure, right, integrity is good as long as it does not kill me; but what about John? It did not profit him!’ Scriptures say that people who sacrifice and die for the truth like John and Jesus’ disciples will have treasures in heaven. The Bible encourages us to do what is right in spite of the consequences.

The reason why read an article from Forbes for much of this sermon is that I needed to cite someone with more authority than me on this topic of integrity. This week Ciara and I were picking our dog at my mother’s house. It was late night and we were tired and needed to get home quickly. When we were close to my mother’s I realize that I don’t have my wallet with me. My wallet had my driver’s license. I thought to myself: ‘I hope I don’t come across a cop in the next 30 minutes or I’ll get a ticket.’ Sure enough, outside my mother’s there was a cop who pulled us over.  He requested my license and I pretended to be looking for it and then told him, ‘Sir, I cannot find it and I may have left it behind since my mother lives a couple houses  back and we are just taking the dog out.’ Let me tell you, as much as I wanted to tell the entire truth, I could not uttered more than a sort of truth blended with a good created story that could inspire compassion from the police. It was a 20 second interaction. My words did not speak truth at that moment, the reason was that I did not want to get a ticket and I wanted to get home quickly. As much as I did not want to lie, lies were the ones that came out.

I am confessing this because it was wrong for me to do this, because the message in today’s passage is for me primarily, and because I am of the belief that this message applies to everyone, whether you have the opportunity to speak to the Herod’s of our days or to a cop on the street. Integrity makes our planet a better place, integrity enables justice on Earth, integrity is a way for ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Let’s look inward to our shortfalls, acknowledging them and picking up John’s challenge to live in integrity, wherever that leads us.

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