Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 21, 2022

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 
 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, 
and before you were born I consecrated you; 
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; 
for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth. 
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow, 
to build and to plant.” 

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.

The last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about truth, about what it is, and how to deal with it.

Now, you might expect that it’s all the stuff in the national news that is making me thing about the nature of truth, and I suppose that’s part of it… seeing how little some people think of truth.

But much of that isn’t really about truth, it’s about facts.  Did President Biden win the election?  Yes, that’s a fact.   Facts are demonstrable, provable, verifiable.  Truth, well, that’s something else altogether.

It seemed to me that today’s reading from Jeremiah is one of those Bible selections that can be read either as about facts or about truths.  I first thought about this in seminary.  You’ll remember that I’ve said I was raised in a Christian denomination considerably more liberal than the UCC, and it never occurred to any of my teachers that the Bible contained anything other than truth.  The idea that it might also contain facts was astonishing to us.  I’m not sure my teachers believed that Jesus was a real person, and I know no one believed that the miracles of Jesus were based in fact.

So, when I was studying Jeremiah at Andover Newton, with one of the world’s experts on Jeremiah, I was doubly astonished to discover there were people who believed that because the words said “before I formed you in the womb” that it was a polemic against abortion, or because the words said, “I am only a boy” that it literally meant Jeremiah was a little kid, maybe an eight-year old?

Doubly astonished because not only was that so unlikely to be factually true, but because for me, those interpretations or explanations meant that you missed the real point of the story.  

So, here’s what I think the story is about at this point.  God is calling Jeremiah to speak truth to the people of Judah in very troubled times.  Think of it this way…. Jeremiah has a job as dangerous as Liz Cheney’s, trying to speak truth to people who not only don’t want to hear, but don’t want him to have the opportunity to speak.  Speaking, in his time, and in his place, was dangerous.  But God was calling him, and so he tried to avoid the truth of the call by saying he wasn’t an adequate choice.  He was trying to fool God into letting him go.  

At the same time, and this is the truth I saw this week, Jeremiah really believes he’s not equipped for the job.  He can’t see the truth of his own abilities, and so he’s ducking, or trying to duck, the call to exercise what he doesn’t really believe exists.  He sees the danger, knows what’s likely to happen, and doesn’t feel up to it.

Who can blame him?  Who here has not, from time to time, found themselves denying a truth because it was too challenging, too frightening?  Friday night I was reading an article about leadership: the author was describing being sent to a basic school, where for the first six weeks, because of his prior experience, he thought he could skate.  One day, he wrote, I realized that the newbies, the students who’d never studied this before, were learning more than me, because they knew how little they knew.  And I thought I knew everything that was important.  His attitude changed that day, and recognizing the truth of his ignorance, he began to get so much more out of the training.  He saw his truth and it re-ordered his life.

Seeing the truth, not allowing facts to mislead, is one of the great skills of the Christian life.  It’s not easy to move from assuming that facts are truth, to understanding that facts are only part of truth, that facts always exist within a specific context, and that context is part and parcel of the meaning of those facts.  

This past week there was a story in the NY Times about a home appraisal in Maryland.  The owners wanted to appraise their home so they could get a loan and they expected, after having put tons of money into it, that the value would have risen considerably.  They’d paid $450,000 for the house, and done $40,000 of improvements, for a total of $490,000.  Homes in their neighborhood had gone up about 42%, so they expected a value closer to maybe $600,000.  But the appraiser said it was only worth $475,000.  In a neighborhood where values had gone up 42%, their home had lost value.

They tried again, made some changes in the interior – changed out photos – and arranged for friends to be there for the appraiser instead of being there themselves.  This time, with no other changes, their home appraised at $750,000.   

Yes, you heard me right.  The first appraiser said the home was worth $475,000.  The second appraiser said it was $750,000.

What was the truth here?  The truth seems to be that the first appraiser met the owners, who are Black.  The second appraiser met the owner’s friends, who are white.  And being white made the house worth almost $300,000 more.

Tell the truth and shame the devil.

It’s truth we need to get behind why the facts are what they are.  Yesterday, I read an article which discussed whether or not going to college is worthwhile – their primary evaluation was whether or not you made more money after going to college than if you had never gone.  No one will be surprised to hear that there’s a wide variance in results.  The top 19 schools are all medical schools, for instance.  After that, there are law schools, and business schools like Babson and Bentley.  The only unexpected high-success school, for me, was Princeton Theological Seminary.  Apparently, Presbyterians pay a lot better than I ever imagined, and Princeton Seminary is a much more financially rewarding place to study than even Princeton University.  Who knew?  

There are almost 4000 schools on the list; things get really interesting when you head to the bottom of the list.  The very bottom is populated by beauty colleges and independent yeshivas, but just above those schools, and the for-profit technical schools, you begin to find schools like the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico, where a former dean of my seminary went, and colleges for the native American community, and then community colleges and historic Black colleges, HBCUs.  They’re all mixed together, and if you only looked at the facts, you’d think that Benedict College was not all that different from the McCann School of business or the Advanced Institute of Hair Design.  Benedict is a small, Black school, in South Carolina.  Many of the kids who go to Benedict come from families where no one has ever gone to college before.  Their prep is abysmal, their challenges daunting.  Once you know the facts of the school’s background, know just who they’re hoping to educate, you realize that the worth of the school cannot be measured by how much money their graduates make.

Truth provides nuance to facts.  Facts are flat, truth is multi-dimensional.  When Jeremiah dug in his feet and tried to argue that he was not qualified, God provided a different view, the view that’s not quantifiable, the idea that some of our options have more social value than others.

Facts can say that we don’t make a difference, but truth says there’s more to what we do in life than facts can ever reflect.  Facts say we are only worthwhile when we can contribute to the community in some quantifiable way… either by working outside the home, or caring for children…. something that might be best described as work.  

A friend who’s living at an over-55 community tells me that she has neighbors who are still canning their vegetables for the winter, even though they live alone and can eat all their meals in the dining room, because without that canning activity, they don’t think their lives have value.  Facts say, unless they’re producing, they don’t matter; truth says that everyone matters, whether they can add to society or not.

Today’s lesson from Jeremiah calls us to a way of life which values truth more than fact, values people more than their usefulness, values love more than anything else.  Let us join Jeremiah in listening for God’s truth in our lives.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child