“Integrity”

July 7, 2019
Jonathan Rumburg
I Kings 21:1-22, 25

Introduction

With summer well under way, I have noticed them popping up all around.  I am not referring to dandelions or lightening bugs.  I’m referring to: garage sales!  That great American tradition where we comb through our attic, basement and garage and find all those items that once served us so well, but now need a new home because they are still perfectly good items—items that are certainly not junk!

Julie and I did a garage sale once.  But because I am one who can easily become sentimental over the most insignificant thing, and can convince myself I will someday need some worthless piece nothingness, we haven’t done another since.

I don’t know how to get rid of things.  I am getting better after reading Mari Kondo’s book and learning from her “life changing magic of tidying up.” But admittedly, I still struggle with why I would get rid of items of great value to me—items that are certainly not junk— for some paltry amount of money?

But it is not only at garage sales that we sell something of ourselves that has great value.  More often than the garage sale season, opportunities and temptations to sell our integrity are presented to us.

And when such opportunities and temptations are presented, we must be very careful that we don’t sell ourselves for some paltry amount.

I’ve said on many occasions: the Bible not only teaches us what to do, but it teaches us what not to do.  Our text for today, this story of King Ahab and Jezebel and Elijah and a vineyard, is a teaching of what not to do.

Move 1

When Ahab became King of Israel, he pledged to serve God and lead the people as a moral and righteous King.  Ahab began as a man of faith, a man of honesty, a man of integrity who could have been a great example and leader to his people.

But one day King Ahab saw a small vineyard next to his property and wanted to make it into a garden, because it was convenient to his castle.  The only trouble was a man named Naboth owned it.  But this was just a formality for a King.  Ahab offered Naboth a good price for his vineyard, and even offered to throw in another vineyard in return, one that was even better.

It was a good offer, a fair one.  You could even say generous.  But Naboth wasn’t selling.  Naboth’s little plot of land held more value to him than any amount of land or money.  It had been handed down in his family generation after generation.

Naboth was a man who knew what was worth holding on to, and refused to sell that which was of great value to him.

Upon this rejection, King Ahab returned back to his castle to pout by refusing to eat.  Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, a woman who did not worship the God of Israel and did not consider herself under any god, learned what had transpired between Naboth and Ahab, and in a fit of prideful anger shouts at her husband, “You are the King! You are free to do anything you want.  If you want that vineyard—take it!”

The more Ahab thought about the vineyard, the more he wanted it.  And the more he wanted it, the less he thought about his pledge to serve God.  And so a plot was hatched to have Naboth falsely accused of speaking ill of God and King.

The plan was implemented successfully and Naboth was stoned to death because of the false accusations.  Afterward, Ahab is walking the land of his new vineyard when God’s messenger, Elijah, confronts him, and says to Ahab, “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you.”

Elijah charges Ahab with committing the sin of “selling himself”.

For a few grapes, Ahab sold out his values, his reputation, his honor, his faith, his integrity.

*******

          It’s not only at garage sales where we can sell things of real value for a paltry amount.  We human beings are capable of selling out our very selves for a few ill-gotten grapes.

Move 2

In April 2009, at the Annual Scholarship Dinner for Pennsylvania State University, Professor Emeritus Gary Fenstermacher said:

“Consider the example of two friends having lunch, engaged in a robust conversation about the state of the world and national affairs. They speak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of the dire circumstances of American banks and financial companies, of the rising number of unemployed, the inequities of health care, the precarious position of American car makers, and the apparent decline in American prestige around the globe.

          After taking a breath following their litany of ills, one of them sighs and asks, ‘How did we get here?’ 

          The question arises because the place they find themselves, along with their families, neighbors and fellow citizens, is strange, unwanted, even dangerous.”

          Professor Fenstermacher concludes, saying, “I have a one word answer to the question of how we got here. Integrity… But to be more specific, I’ll give you three more… The loss of integrity.” 

This quote, shared more than ten years ago, has been reinforced again and again over the past decade, and we don’t have to look hard to find evidence of such—on either side of the political aisle, around our country, or even in the Church.

We press upon our children lessons in strong moral character, but then the actions of the world around them come from a different textbook.

We tell our children to have fun, but then they see adults brawling on a little league baseball field because of a disputed call by a teenage umpire.

We lecture our children on the importance of honesty, yet on a daily basis they see tolerance of deceit, lying, and subterfuge.

We celebrate a justice system where a person is innocent until proven guilty, and yet allegations fly across our screens as if they are truth without any regard for source or context.

These are but a few examples of where we chose to sell off our integrity.  And where does it get us?  The same place as King Ahab—with nothing more than ill-gotten grapes.

Move 3

But there was Naboth.

He knew what was of value to him, and knew there was no price for it.  Naboth was a person of integrity.

King Ahab started as a person of integrity.  He made a fair and generous offer for that which he wanted, and was willing to give more than the value of something because it was of great value to him.

But along the way he was influenced by a voice not of God.  And when he listened to that voice, he sold off the greatest thing of value in his life.

His integrity.

*******

          An old moral teaching story tells of a boy who knocks on the door of a house and asks the person who answers if she would like to buy some fresh picked berries.

She agrees and says, “I’ll take your pail into the kitchen and measure out a quart.” She then takes the pail and heads for the kitchen only to realize the boy isn’t following her.  She turns and asks, “Aren’t you coming along? How do you know I won’t cheat you?”

The boy replies, “I’m not worried. You would get the worst of it.”

Puzzled, the woman asks, “What do you mean, I would get the worst of it?”

The boy replies, “Ma’am, I would lose only a few berries, but you would make yourself a thief.”

For a few grapes, and because he listened to a voice not of God, Ahab made himself a thief and murderer.

This is a reminder of the human condition: We are all capable of putting a price tag on our faithfulness, our values, our honesty, our integrity, and selling them for some paltry amount.

*******

          We are called to be people of integrity.  But what we should keep in mind is that people of integrity will still make mistakes.  No one is perfect, and everyone will make mistakes.  But there is a distinct difference between making a mistake, and selling yourself.

King Ahad made a mistake in listening to Jazebel and thought her idea was a good one.

He sold off his integrity when he allowed the plan to be carried out.

Conclusion

On this Fourth of July weekend, we celebrate and cherish our freedoms.

But freedom doesn’t mean we have the ability to do or get anything we want.  That is the way Jezebel interpreted freedom.

True freedom must always be guided by integrity or else we are in danger of selling ourselves for something worth far less than our character.

Whenever we are dishonest for personal gain; whenever we act immorally for temporary pleasure; whenever we use and abuse another for our own advancement…

…We have sold out that which was of value in us for something that is worthless.

…We have decided we no longer value our relationship with God and are willing to give it up in exchange for some material thing, or some sensual thrill, or some temporary satisfaction.

*******

          So this summer, if you want, go ahead and sell your “junk” at a garage sale—but let’s not sell our integrity for that which is worthless in the end.

For what this world needs more than anything is a people who cherish the freedom to do what is right, the freedom to express our faith, the freedom to live for a higher value than ill-gotten grapes.  Amen.

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