Rev. Christa Fuller Burns
Faith Presbyterian Church
John 8:31-32, Ephesians 4:25-32 – June 3, 2018
This morning we are going to tackle the subject of truth. One of you recommended a sermon on the subject of truth, which, in all honesty, is kind of a broad topic. The danger in taking a topic and then selecting Biblical passages that deal with it is that you run the risk of reading something into the text that may not be there. Such was my experience this week when I took a closer look at Jesus’ famous words in the 8th chapter of John: You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free. When I looked closely at John 8, it occurred to me that Jesus’ statement was perhaps more about being free than it was the truth. Consequently, I suggest that we also consider a passage from Ephesians this morning. My guess is that all of you would conclude that truth is an essential Judeo- Christian tenet, which may be stunning considering we live in a time when the word “post-truth” has been added to the dictionary. The billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, recently gave the commencement address at Rice University in which he argues that the erosion of truth telling in America is a major threat to our identity. After all, one of this country’s formative stories is that of George Washington telling his father that he could not tell a lie: it was he who cut down the cherry tree. We all know that this story is probably legend but the fact that we tell it says something important about what we value. We value the truth and those who tell it.
In the passage from John, Jesus is having a debate with Jewish officials in the treasury of the Temple. According to John’s version, there has been escalating opposition to Jesus and, in this passage, Jesus takes on his opponents. If you are the descendents of Abraham, you would act like him. But you are out to kill me, Jesus charges. The descendents of Abraham would not behave like this. You haven’t listened to me, Jesus argues. You do not realize that what I say is the truth. I am the truth. Later, Jesus charges that the people who oppose him are not descendents of Abraham but of the “father of lies”: “But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the word of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” (8:46-47)
After these words, Jesus is lucky to get out the temple alive. In fact, the crowd picked up rocks to throw at him but Jesus was able to elude them unharmed.
The fact is we don’t always want to hear the truth. It seems like what we are getting in our public discourse these days is merely what some people want to hear regardless of whether it is the truth. Jesus’ listeners that day did not want to hear the truth which was that their world view was skewed. They had forgotten what it meant to be a descendent of Abraham or else they would be doing the works of Abraham and not spewing hatred toward other Jews. If you knew me, Jesus says, you would know the truth and the truth will set you free.
The truth will set us free. Free from what? I like the way Frederick Buechner puts it: “Free from imprisonment within the narrow walls of your own not-all-that enlightened self-interest. Free from enslavement to your own shabbiest instincts, deceits, and self –deceptions. Freedom not from responsibility but for it. Escape not from reality but into it. The best moments we any of us have as human beings”, according to Buechner, “are those moments when for a little while it is possible to escape the squirrel-cage of being me into the landscape of being us.” (Wishful Thinking, p.21)
The idea that truth makes us free to be in the “landscape of us” brings me to the second passage from Ephesians. In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he says basically that if we are Christian we should act like Christ and clothe ourselves with the new life of Christ. We shouldn’t be like Gentiles who “live in the futility of their minds”, “darkened in their understanding”, “alienated from the life of God” because of the hardness of their heart. (Eph.4:17-18) Doesn’t this sound like what Jesus was saying in the temple – if you are the children of Abraham then act like Abraham?
Paul goes on to say that we should, all of us, “speak the truth to our neighbors for we are members of one another.” (v.25)
I have two observations to make about Paul’s suggestion. First, speaking the truth is not always easy.
I’ve shared the story before that William Willimon tells about the time he and his wife attended a funeral at a little church in rural Georgia. Willimon had grown up in a big downtown church in a different denomination. Funerals were different where he grew up. The funeral in question had an open casket and most of the service was a sermon by the pastor.
The pastor pounded on the pulpit and looked over at the dead body in the casket and roared: “It’s too late for Joe. He might have wanted to get his life together. He might have wanted to spend more time with his family. He might have wanted to do that, but he’s dead now. It is too late for him, but it is not too late for you. There is still time for you. You still can decide. You are still alive. It is not too late for you. Today is the day of decision.”
The preacher went on and told about how a Greyhound bus had plowed into a funeral entourage on the way to the cemetery. That could happen today and that would be it for us. Today is the day to get your life together. Too late for old Joe, but it’s not too late for you.”
Willimon says he was furious with that preacher. On the way home, he unloaded on his wife. Have you ever heard anything like that? Have you ever heard anything so insensitive and manipulative? That poor family. It was disgusting!
His wife replied: No, she had never heard anything like it. It was insensitive. It was manipulative. It was disgusting. Worst of all, it was also true. (Will Willimon, The Writing on the Wall, Preaching Today.com) The truth may not be what we want to hear.
First of all, then, telling the truth is not always easy. Telling someone that they are going to die is not easy but it is the truth. We are all going to die. How then are we going to live?
Second, and this is perhaps the more salient point. We tell the truth because we belong to a community. As Paul puts, we are all members of one another. We owe it to each other. The sense of common obligation is what is missing in our America today.
When Bloomberg spoke to those college graduates he pointed out that the honor code every Rice student signed was historic at Rice. The words honor and honesty come from the Latin word honestus which can mean either. We have honor codes because we believe that the academic community is worth our living up to certain standards, honesty being one of them. We have an obligation to each other to tell the truth.
I don’t know how it has happened but it seems to me our country has given way to what Buechner described as escapism from reality, to the squirrel-cage of being me rather the landscape of being us. Maybe that is why they tell us churches are dying…because we stand for the idea that community is stronger than individualism, that truth is more valuable than self-advancement, that kindness and forgiveness, and respect are more valuable than winning.
This past week Roseanne Barr used untrue racial epitaphs to describe Valarie Jarret. The comedienne, Samantha Bee, trashed Ivanka Trump. We are separating children from their parents at our borders. This morning I arrived at church and someone had simply dumped their trash in front of our driveway. We are, it seems, in the squirrel cage of being me.
I don’t know how we got this way and I don’t have all that many solutions. But, at the age of 68, I still have faith in the church as viable, prophetic alternative. On Wednesday night, we welcomed our neighborhood to a party. We served hot dogs, we played games and music, we shared each other’s stories and prayers. The block party was all about community. It was all about communion. It was all about the landscape of being us.