Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, November 12, 2017
Psalm 15: O Lord, who may abide in your tent? . . . Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth. . .
John 18:33-38: Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Truth, it’s said, is stranger than fiction. And sometimes, it seems as though it is fiction. It certainly feels that way these days, when you get into it with someone who has said the most amazing things that you know, know are just plain not true.
And it gets worse when someone says, so what makes you an expert….and you are the certified expert….
My friend David Gaewski, who’s the New York Conference Minister, wrote recently: “I don’t mean to sound “full of myself” but…. If an MD tells you that your kid has chicken pox, and you say, “no, he has the flu” then what’s the point of MDs; likewise if an M.Div tells you “this is what a Good Samaritan is” and you say, “no, the Good Samaritan packs a semi-automatic” then what’s the point of theological degrees?”
It seems to me that we’re in the midst of a world that’s throwing away all our history of the power and effectiveness of education, and have fallen back into a world where “truth” is whatever we say it is, no matter what observable facts testify. So, we have people denying climate change when anyone who lives on the coast of the United States can tell you that tides are coming higher than ever before, when we who live in New England can say that it’s snowing less, barring the occasional bad storm. They’ve been making snow this week in Vermont – making it, not plowing it. And yet people say there’s no change.
Pilate’s question tells us that the search for truth isn’t a new one, and truthiness, the preparation of false news to appear to be true, isn’t new either.
Truth is all about factual accuracy, so the dictionary says. Truth is that which is in accord with fact or reality. But I’m going to suggest that part of our challenge these days is that truth is not primarily about factual accuracy, but about the foundation upon which those facts lay. It is with the lens of truth that we assign meaning to facts.
So, what is truth? The person who says that more compromise would have prevented the Civil War is building on a truth that says the Union needed to be sustained, even at the cost of the continuation of slavery. But that’s not our truth. Our truth says that God made all people to be companions in one community of mutual trust and support. With that truth, we realize that there was no sustainable compromise available.
The truth we live with, the truth we build our lives upon, is a truth which is founded in our faith. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life…”; our truth is epitomized by Jesus. It is when we live in his way, when we practice his virtues, when we share his love, that we most clearly live truthfully.
Truth is sometimes hard to live with. It calls us to examine our own lives, to recognize the ways in which we have allowed falsehood to lure us away from God. We close our minds to truth when it would mean giving up what we love, what gives us pleasure, or what speaks to the anger in our lives. In fact, the stubborn persistence of our self-centered minds can make it entirely impossible to see truth when it’s before us.
Learning to recognize, to speak, to stand up for truth is not always easy, but it is always important. That’s because the truth we speak makes us who we are. When we say things we know are not true, we change ourselves as much as we change the world.
The story’s told of Thomas Monson, who leads the Mormon church, that when he was in the Navy, he was known for refusing to drink alcohol. His church absolutely teaches abstinence, but that’s not what was important… what’s important is that he matched how he chose to live with what his church taught. He lived the truth he believed. Mormon or UCC, that’s our call – to live the truth we are taught.
When we live our truth, we make it possible for others to see truth through us. I think of the person who joined one of my churches, early in my ministry. She told me that she’d come to try out church because she saw a difference in how people who attended church handled disaster, and she wanted to learn how to live that way. She saw truth in the lives of people like you and me, and came to join us.
Living our truth, openly, lovingly, without shame or excuse, is the only reliable path to opening conversation and creating community with those who, these days, struggle to know what truth is.
“Fake news is as old as time,” and so are the attacks on anyone who claims authority for a different answer. My friend David tried to tell a neighbor what the story of the Good Samaritan was really about, and his neighbor told him he didn’t know what he was talking about, even though David has studied the Bible in graduate school and is an expert on the subject. But David’s conclusions challenged his neighbor’s expectations that a “good Samaritan” was someone who would use violence to destroy instead of love to change. The only hope for a change is that as his neighbor sees David, learns to know him as a man who speaks truth, who acts in love, that his person integrity will give his words a deeper power and authority.
Without truth, it’s hard to imagine trust, and without trust, it’s hard to imagine a functional society. We all know, I think that in today’s world, trust is thin on the ground, and all too often, our default setting is to disbelieve.
I heard the other day of a meeting in a church, set up to allow people to talk about a mutual issue important to them all. The sound system failed, and some of the folks began posting on Facebook that it was all a conspiracy to keep their side’s voices from being heard. Right now, that community is gasping for life.
So, what is truth? Pilate walked away before Jesus could answer, but really he didn’t need to answer then and there for us to learn what Jesus knew truth to be. He explained Truth to all of us in the Sermon on the Mount, as he talked about how to live with authenticity, how to bring together our words and our deeds, how to make our lives coherent.
He said a lot in that Sermon….it’s in Matthew, chapter 5, in your Bibles, and well worth your time. But here’s the quickie version:
- Truthful people don’t make more of themselves than they should.
- Truthful people are compassionate.
- Truthful people are concerned for those who have no power.
- Truthful people are merciful.
- Truthful people create peace.
- Truthful people don’t quit when folks give them a hard time; they stand firm in what they believe.
Truth doesn’t require turning away from disagreement and debate, for it is from such reasonable conversation that further light and truth can break forth. But it does require turning away from argument and hatred, for truth cannot co-exist where hatred flourishes.
Jesus says that to live with truth is to be the light of the world.
We are called to be that light, to be truth, to be ambassadors of love, servants in this centuries-long work of bringing forth a new world, built on love and proclaiming truth.
Come now, and become a bearer of truth in the name of Jesus Christ.
© 2017, Virginia H. Child
 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, email newsletter Nov2017