July 15, 2018/Eighth Sunday After Pentecost/Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Amos 7:7-15/Second Reading: Ephesians 1:3-14/Gospel: Mark 6:14-29
Telling the Truth
The task of preaching is to tell the truth. It’s as simple – and as daunting – as that. The truth the church has to tell is about the love of God in Jesus Christ – who is the way, and truth and the life. These days the truth gets twisted, contradicted, embellished, denied and ignored. Nevertheless, truth is precious and essential, because the truth of the gospel gives life. So today I invite you to ponder the nature of truth – and the responsibility we all share as Christians of preserving and proclaiming the truth that has been made known to us. Jesus made this promise to those who follow him: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31) The truth of the gospel liberates us from the burden of guilt brought on by sin, and from the fear at the root of all fears: the fear of death. However, the truth is no small thing – it is not always easy to grasp, or to live. I came across some interesting comments on the subject of truth. Author Judy Blume wrote: “You will know the truth and “the truth will make you odd.” She’s right about that. Believers are peculiar people – fools for Christ. Following Jesus seems odd in the eyes of this world. Another commentator observed: “The truth will make you free, but first it will make you mad.” Some things are too true to be good. Being reminded of our shortcomings and failures is not pleasing. The truth about injustice and oppression surely ought to make us mad. Novelist David Foster Wallace writes: “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” I like that. Truth is, God isn’t finished with any of us. And complete freedom is still in our future. Flannery O’Connor, that wonderful southern Christian writer reminds us: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Not all truth is palatable – so there is always a temptation to sugarcoat it. Even worse is the temptation to manipulate or alter the truth to suit our purposes. And Aldous Huxley insists: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” When the truth is inconvenient, we can try to avoid it. But that’s like the ostrich with its head in the sand. And so truth-telling can become as risky as it is necessary. George Orwell wrote: “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Consider: all are created equal; we are to love our enemies. When the world around us is comfortable living with convenient lies and pleasing illusions – nobody will thank you for speaking the truth. Yet we must. Another quote puts the responsibility squarely on each of us: “We don’t get to choose what is true. We only get to choose what we do about it.” (Kami Garcia) And choose we must.
Our current era is not the first time that truth has been battered and bruised. In the 17th century, French philosopher and theologian Blaise Pascal wrote this. “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” You and I need to love and embrace the truth made flesh: Jesus Christ. In addition to loving the truth, we need to be steadfast and devoted to the truth. 20th century saint, Dorothy Day, advised: “Don’t worry about being effective. Just concentrate on being faithful to the truth.” The truth is not validated by the success of our efforts. Instead, our lives are validated by faithfully serving what is true. Ultimately, truth will endure and prevail, as Winston Churchill stated eloquently: “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” Martin Luther expressed his unshakeable confidence that God’s truth will outlast all the lies, all the evil in this world: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, though temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
As we saw last Sunday in the story of the rejection of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth – and again in our readings today, people do not always welcome or embrace the truth when it is proclaimed to them. They told the prophet Amos to hit the road. His message was not welcome there. And we know how John the Baptist was imprisoned and then executed for speaking the truth to those in power. In our time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. announced the truth that people should not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Some were inspired by this truth – others were offended; one so much so that he murdered Dr. King. Throughout history, truth has been contested. Wars have been fought over what is really true, right and good. These days the reality of truth itself is questioned. Some insist there is no actual truth – only opinions and perceptions. Objective truth is denied – everything is relative and subjective. These are the days of personal truth, fake news and alternative facts. Politicians play fast and loose with the truth. Daniel Patrick Moynihan pushed back against this trend, stating: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” There are those who do not accept the faith claims we make as Christians. At Campfirmation we show a clip from the film “City of Angels.” Meg Ryan plays a heart surgeon who has a patient who dies on her operating table. Nicholas Cage plays an angel sent to comfort her. He tells her that her patient is not gone – but alive in a different way. She replies, “I don’t believe in that.” His response: “Some things are true whether you believe them or not.”
Christians have a profound investment in the truth, because Jesus not only spoke the truth, he identified himself as the TRUTH. He says to Pontius Pilate: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:32) You and I belong to the truth because we belong to Jesus. In our First Reading and in the Gospel we see how people can resist and reject the truth. Yet our Second Reading from Ephesians speaks of the Truths that shape our lives. You and I are blessed and chosen by God. We are adopted children of God. We have been redeemed and forgiven. We can know the will of God (even though we don’t always do it.) We have a rich spiritual inheritance. Grace is real – and transforming.
I believe that, ultimately, people want and need to know the truth, the whole truth – even if that truth is uncomfortable to hear. There’s no future in living a lie. You can hide the truth. You can deny the truth. You can bury the truth. But the truth will out! They killed Jesus and buried him – and thought they had silenced him. But he came back. Like it says in our Psalm today: “Truth shall spring up from the earth.” We believe in resurrected truth. Christians are servants of the truth, messengers of truth. We tell the truth about ourselves: we are sinners. We are imperfect, yet we know of perfection. We are inconsistent, yet we know the one who is steadfast and unchanging. We can be selfish and unloving, yet we know the source of selfless, self-giving love. And we tell of the truth that sets people free: the truth of grace and mercy and love in Jesus Christ.
In this world full of illusions and half-truths, our calling is to freely speak the truth in a spirit of love. We do not claim truth as our possession, or point to ourselves as true and good. We point to Jesus as the way, the truth and the life – for all. Twenty years ago my parents gave a small Christmas gift to Susan and me. It is a verse from Philippians done in calligraphy. You may have noticed it on a bookshelf in my office. St. Paul offers these words to live by: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise – think about these things. (Phil 4:8)