Out of Love for the Truth

John 8:31-36

“Out of love for the truth and from a desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place.  Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter.  In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”

This was the introduction to the 95 Theses which Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Wittenberg University Chapel on Wednesday, October 31, 1517.   We sometimes think that nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the church was an act of rebellion, and in retrospect it was powerfully symbolic, but it was actually a normal practice.  The church door served as a kind of bulletin board for the academic community.  If you wanted to propose a debate, that’s where you posted the notice with the propositions to be discussed.

Luther didn’t intend for the 95 Theses to be a manifesto for rebellion.  He had no idea that his challenge to the practice of selling indulgences would spark a revolutionary movement that would sweep across Europe bringing enormous changes in religion, politics, education, and everyday life, but once that movement started, he gave himself to it body and soul because he was committed to the truth of the Gospel and the love of Christ.  The truth quite literally set him free from the heavy-handed authority of Rome—the Pope excommunicated him—but the truth also bound him to the proclamation of salvation by God’s grace through faith and to the authority of God’s word in the scriptures.

Out of love for the truth and from a desire to elucidate it…  

According to the Gospel of John, when Jesus was on trial before Pontius Pilate, Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”  In some respects that seems like an almost ridiculous question.  We know what truth is.  We learn about truth almost as soon as we learn to talk.  Sadly, that’s also when we learn to lie, because we learn pretty quickly that the truth may reveal things we would like to keep hidden.  We learn very early on that sometimes truth has consequences that we would like to avoid, and that those consequences might be unpleasant or even painful.  

Truth, the dictionary tells us, is the true or actual state of a matter.  Something is true when it is in conformity with reality.  We say a thing is true when it is a verified or indisputable fact.  The truth reflects actuality or actual existence.  When we say a thing is a basic truth, we mean that it is an obvious or accepted fact.  

Truth means that my desires or imagination do not have the final word in determining what is reality and what is not.

There are twenty-seven verses in the gospels that contain the word truth.  Twenty-one of those verses are in the Gospel of John where truth is not only a central theme, it is anchored in and identified with the person of Jesus.  In John 1:14 we read, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  Three verses later, John puts aside the figurative language of the Word to make it clear who he is talking about: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

When Jesus sat discussing theology with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well, he told her that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”  In chapter 14, not long after he has told Thomas that he, himself, is “the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth” and in chapter 16 he tells his disciples that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”  In chapter 17, as he prays for the disciples, Jesus asks that they would be sanctified or consecrated in truth.

“For this I was born,” Jesus told Pilate, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

In today’s Gospel reading from chapter 8 of John’s gospel, we see a hint that some of those who were listening to Jesus were unsure about continuing to follow him.  Some scholars think that this passage is indicative of tension between Jewish believers and Gentile believers in the community where this gospel was written, and John, the writer, is calling both sides back to the middle ground of the truth found in the person and teaching of Jesus.  

“Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word—if you remain faithful to my teachings, then you are truly my disciples.  And you will come to know the truth.  And the truth will set you free.”  When they protested that they were descendants of Abraham and had never been enslaved by anyone—apparently they forgot about their own history with Babylon and Egypt—Jesus went on to make it clear that he was talking about the truth setting them—and us—free from our slavery to sin.

But how does the truth set us free from sin?  

Martin Luther defined sin as being curved in on the self.  Sin is when I put my preferences, my desires, my ideas, my plans, my goals above and before everyone and everything else.  Sin is me, me, me, me, me taken to the extent that it harms or disenfranchises or marginalizes or disempowers or diminishes or neglects you, you, you, you, you.  Sin creates a false reality, an illusion centered on my desires, my fears, my imagination.  And that illusion is seductive and captivating.  It ensnares.  It enslaves.  It makes me believe that I am the center of the universe, that what I think or believe or even just want very, very badly to be true is what is real.

Truth disabuses me of that illusion.

Once again: Truth means that my desires or imagination do not have the final word in determining what is reality and what is not.

We are currently struggling through a time when truth is endangered in our culture.  There’s nothing new about that.  People have always preferred to put their own spin on facts that confront their biases or preconceived ideas.  People throughout history have taken refuge in denial when events or outcomes don’t fit the way they wanted things to happen or the results they wanted.  What’s new is how widespread this devaluation of the truth has become.  

When lies and spin become so prevalent that they begin to undermine any common understanding of basic facts, the world becomes a more dangerous place.  When people refuse to accept observable facts, when there is no longer the common cultural ground of truth based on fact, then there is no longer a starting point for discussion or compromise.  There is no way to move past confrontation and opposed binary positions that divide us.  When people lift up conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” as justification for their actions or opinions then we stand on the precipice of political violence. 

Sadly, we have seen clear examples of that lately.  It has become the sin of our society.

Sin convinces me that I stand apart from the rest of humanity.  But the truth, the fact, is that I am deeply and intimately connected to the rest of humanity and, in fact, to all of creation.  Standing apart is an illusion.  Rugged individualism is a destructive myth—destructive because it undermines and negates the relationships that keep us alive in every sense of the word.

“We must all overcome the illusion of separateness,” said Richard Rohr.  “It is the primary task of religion to communicate not worthiness but union, to reconnect people to their original identity “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The Bible calls the state of separateness ‘sin.’ God’s job description is to draw us back into primal and intimate relationship. As 1 John 3:2 reminds us, ‘My dear people, we are already children of God; what we will be in the future has not yet been fully revealed, and all I do know is that we shall be like God.’”

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live in the imitation of God.  We are called to observe what God is doing all the time and everywhere and then do the same.  We are called to be generous because God is generous.  We are called to be creative because God is creative.  We are called to embrace diversity because God revels in diversity so much that no two things are exactly alike in the entire universe.  But above and beyond everything else, we are called to love.  Because God loves.  God is love.  And, as Richard Rohr has said, God does not love us if and when we change.  God loves us so that we can change.

That is grace—the grace that makes us whole, the grace that heals us, the grace that reunites us, the grace that saves us.  

Believe it.  

It’s the truth…and it’s the only thing that can set us free.

Dear Pontius Pilate

Dear Pontius Pilate

John 18:33-38a

Dear Pontius Pilate,

I have spent much of this week reviewing a single moment from your life, to be specific, your brief interrogation of Jesus of Nazareth.  Surely you remember it.

One of the advantages I have, looking at this moment twenty one centuries after the fact, is that I know things you could not possibly have known. You could not have known, for instance, that this moment when Jesus stood before you was, in fact, a pivotal moment in the history of all humanity.  I’m sure that to you he just looked like another troublemaker and the whole business seemed needlessly tiresome.  As he stood in front of you awaiting judgment, with his overeager accusers prodding you from the wings and insisting on his execution, how could you possibly have known that your decision either way would have repercussions that would change the course of history?  I wonder…if you had known how monstrously important your moment with Jesus really was, would it have changed your decision? Would you have taken more time to think about it?  To make your choice?

After your exchange with him about whether or not he was a king or had made any claim to be a king—an issue which, it seems, was left somewhat unresolved—Jesus said something that was both intriguing and a bit enigmatic.  He said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

That last part is a little tricky in translation—that’s one of the problems with reviewing things centuries after they happened.  Details can become blurred.  Languages don’t always translate precisely.  Words and phrases seldom bring their cultural context with them when they plunge into a new language.  Did Jesus say “everyone who belongs to the truth” or “everyone who is of the truth” or “out of the truth” or “from the truth”?  All these are reasonable and acceptable translations of that potent little Greek word ek.  The differences in meaning are subtle, but not unimportant.  The choices we make in how we choose to hear it carry weight.  Personally, I like belongs.  It reminds me that truth, even as a philosophical concept, is bigger than I am.  Truth is my master, I am truth’s servant.  This means, of course, that I must be very careful that it’s not my own subjective version of truth or my wishful thinking version of truth that I am serving.  I have to be careful that I haven’t bound myself in service to a propaganda version of truth.  I belong to truth.  It owns me.  So I listen to the voice of Jesus.

You asked a simple question in response to Jesus.  Well that’s not quite true.  It’s not a simple question at all.  It is, in point of fact, a question that has kept various philosophers, theologians, and even scientists awake at night for two millennia.   Three small words in our language, also in your language, and also the ancient Greek that handed the question down to us:

Quid est veritas?  What is truth?

Were you being cynical when you asked that, my dear Prefect?  Or did you ask it, as Frederick Buechner suggests, with a lump in your throat?  Is this a question that had kept you awake at night, also?  Or had you dismissed the whole idea of objective truth after so many years on the judgment seat hearing people give competing versions of “the truth”?  

Did it occur to you for even an instant, my dear Pontius Pilate, that the truth was standing right in front of you as you asked the question?  Did it occur to you that the truth was not an idea or philosophical concept, but rather a person?

The truth was standing right in front of you, Prefect.  I don’t say that out of piety.  I don’t say it to be in conformity with the holy writings that arose from his followers in the years after your time with him.  I don’t say it merely to resonate with his own words when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  I say it, dear Pontius Pilate, because it is true. Objectively true. The answer to your question, the truth, was standing right in front of you.

Here is the truth that you were not seeing, my dear Pontius, as Jesus stood before you in silence with his hands tied and his fate all but sealed:

Heaven was confronting empire.  

As you faced each other, it was more than Jesus of Nazareth fronting Pontius Pilate of Rome.  In you, Prefect, was all the relentless and violent might of the empire spilled down through its systems of hierarchy and bureaucracy.   In you was oppression and military organization used ruthlessly to maintain efficiency, protect investment, and continue the empire’s  domination.  All that might and power and agenda was condensed into your title, Prefect.  And in that moment with Jesus, all the authority of that title was condensed into your word, your yes or your no.  

Across from you was Jesus, unadorned humanity in the image and likeness of God.  Challenging your word of imperial authority, your yes or no, was the yes of life,  the yes of creation, the yes of generosity, the yes who spoke light into the shadowy hearts of all humanity.  Creation, life, the light of understanding, love, which is the presence of the divine, grace and her twin sister mercy, equity and her twin sister justice—these things have always been opposed to empire, and Jesus of Nazareth embodied all this as he stood facing you in silence.  Standing before you was one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  

All the natural flow and goodness of earth and heaven was standing before the empire’s paranoid, overzealous, and slightly incompetent middle management, waiting for a decision.  

But so was everyday life.

The truth came before you, Pontius, in plain clothes.  Truth came to you as one of the invisible people you passed without seeing as you rode your chariot through the city.  Truth came before you already roughed up and mistreated by those with less authority but more fear, anger, and frustration.  Truth stood before you as one of the little people.

Truth came as a workman turned rabbi, a teacher who was trying to open the eyes and widen the embrace of his people—of all people—a teacher who was trying to give us a larger vision of how life could be with real justice and real fairness and real concern for persons.  He was trying to show us how life could be in a kin-dom of God where we love our neighbors as ourselves.  

The truth stood before you armed only with words and a vision, the most powerful tools humanity has ever known.  But words and vision have always found themselves contesting swords and spears because empire knows that words and vision are inevitably its undoing. 

Heaven confronted empire, Prefect, and heaven came armed with nothing but truth, words, and vision. 

“What is truth?” you asked.  Can you see now, my dear Marcus Pontius Pilatus, that truth is not an idea, nor merely empirically proven facts?  Can you see yet that truth is a person?  All of us stand in that truth one way or another.  And empire will always have trouble seeing that.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has never understood it.  

Truth was staring you in the face, Prefect.  

Know that truth, Pontius, and the truth will make you free.  

No Deceit

John 1:43-51

Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree.  I wonder if the writer of John meant that literally or figuratively.  The Jews have always said that the Torah is a tree of knowledge.  Those who studied Torah were said to be “sitting under the fig tree.”  That expression, “sitting under the fig tree” was also sometimes used if you were studying under a rabbi’s instruction and taking in the “sweet fruit of his knowledge.”  And, of course, there were actual large fig trees in Judea which spread out large canopies of shade.  Sitting in the shade of a fig tree was often where someone would go to pray or to meditate on scripture.  So I wonder which it was.  Did Jesus see Nathanael discussing Torah with a rabbi who was his teacher?  Did Jesus see him praying or meditating?   However it was, Jesus saw him. Really saw him.  And in seeing him, Jesus knew him. 

“Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” said Jesus as Nathanael came walking toward him. Nathanael was one of those people, apparently, who didn’t bother to buffer his opinions.  He didn’t mince words.  When Philip told him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  Nathanael’s response was,  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  

Most of us learn somewhere along the way how to be a little less than one hundred percent candid in sharing our opinions about things, even things we think are really important, even when it’s our job to speak.  We learn pretty early on that plainly speaking the truth we see often puts us in direct opposition to what someone else sees.  “Know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” said Jesus.  That’s true.  But one of the things it may set you free from is those people who don’t like your truth.

In our monthly collegium meeting on Thursday, some of my colleagues were sharing how frustrated they are with parishioners who have taken them to task for being too political in their sermons recently, and especially past week after the storming of the Capitol building.  Knowing them as I do, I’m sure they weren’t saying anything overtly political simply for the sake of being political.  I’m certain they were doing their best to proclaim the Way of Jesus and the love of Christ in the context of the events that have been keeping all our lives in turmoil.  I’m also sure they were trying to be faithful to their ordination vows which call us to speak the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to speak for the poor, and to speak for justice.  But maybe they spoke a little too plainly.  Like Nathanael.  

I have a friend, a classmate from seminary, who left the ministry a few years ago because he refused to bend or soften the words of Jesus to avoid confronting his congregation’s extreme political stance.  He went back to his old job of writing code as a computer programmer because, in his words, “The computer doesn’t ever pretend that the code is saying something it doesn’t say.”

We want to hear the truth.  We want to know the truth.  But we want it to be in our favor. 

Unvarnished truth makes us uneasy when it doesn’t jibe with what we already think and say what we want it to say.  We want to be on the side of truth, but far too many people would bend the truth rather than bend themselves to make that happen.  Over these last several years, in fact, we have seen people living in a flat-out alternate reality, inventing their own version of truth because they don’t like the facts in front of them and can’t find a way to bend them that’s convincing to everybody else. 

Here’s the thing about speaking the truth you see.  You can be wrong.  Nathanael was wrong.  Something good did come out of Nazareth.  But Nathanael was wise enough not to cling to his original opinion when he saw that he was wrong.  He was open to having his mind changed.  He was willing to get in the discussion.  And when he came to know the truth, the good thing that came out of Nazareth, he changed his life to follow that truth and live that truth.

How often, though, do we shy away from having the discussion about how we see things because we’re afraid we might not agree on what’s right or because we want to avoid the tension?

But as Dr. King pointed out, there is such a thing as creative tension, a tension that helps us separate truth from myth and helps us see a way forward.

This weekend we observe the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote of his frustration with people who sat on the sidelines of the Civil Rights struggle.  Nice people who acknowledged that his cause was right.  Nice church people who acknowledged that truth and justice and the cause of Christ were on his side.  But still they sat on the sidelines and quibbled about whether or not he was doing things the right way.

“I must confess” he wrote, “that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

Dr.  King was writing to people who knew he was speaking truth and calling them to be true to the faith they professed, but who didn’t want to risk standing up publicly against a culture that denied the truth of equality, a culture that had lived for a very long time with the lies and structures of racism and inequality.

I think in these times God is calling us to be true to the truth we have professed.  True to the faith we have professed.  I think God is calling us to not just be “not racist,” but to be anti-racist.  I think God is calling us not simply not to lie, but to be anti-lie, to turn our backs on false facts and false realities.  To speak truth plainly.

And when we find that the way we see the world doesn’t quite match what others see, then let’s go sit under the fig tree together and talk about it.  Let’s learn to really see each other the way Jesus saw Nathanael.  Let’s learn to discern the truth together.  In the presence of the one who is the truth, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  

Knowing Things Changes You. You Can’t Help It.

John 8:31-36; Matthew 22:34-46

“Knowing things changes you.  You can’t help it.”

Maybe some of you recognize that line.  I use it as a signature line on my emails.  It comes from one of my favorite novels, The Bromeliad Trilogy, from my very favorite author, the late Sir Terry Pratchett.  The novel is about of a civilization of Nomes who have lived for generations in an old-style department store, something like a Harrods or Selfridges.  These Nomes believe that their “world” of the department store was created for them, and that, in fact, Nomes simply cannot possibly exist anywhere else.  One day, though, a young Nome named Masklin learns that the store is soon to be demolished.  In a very short time he must convince the other Nomes that their world is ending, that they aren’t as important as they think they are, and that they can all survive if they’re willing to make some sacrifices and hard choices.

After significant struggle, Masklin manages to lead the Nomes to a new home just in the nick of time.  In his struggle to gain their confidence and find them a new home, he has to learn many new skills and absorb a great deal of new information.  Often the things he’s learned and seen put him at odds with the other Nomes.  At one point toward the end of the story, his girlfriend, Grimma, says to him, “Masklin, you’ve changed.”

Masklin pauses for a long, thoughtful moment before he replies, “Knowing things changes you.  You can’t help it.”

The human mind is a remarkable thing.  We can choose not to see things that are right in front of us. We can choose not to learn things that are clearly beneficial.  We can go through our days with our eyes and ears closed to anything that veers from what we already know—or think we know.  Or we can choose to stay curious, interested  and open to discovery, new information, and change.

In 1945, Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon was standing in front of a magnetron, a vacuum tube used to create high frequency radar waves, when he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had started to melt.  He was intrigued, so he scattered a few popcorn kernels in front of the tube.  The kernels exploded all over the lab.  Spencer started tinkering and experimenting and ten years later he patented a “radar range” that cooked with high frequency microwaves.  Today you have one in your kitchen.   

Microwave ovens became part of the restructuring and reordering of life after the disorder of World War II.  Kitchens are designed to accommodate them.  A whole industry of microwave foods and microwave cuisine was developed.  Schedules became more flexible because food preparation became less time consuming.  

Life has changed for all of us because Percy Spencer learned something.  He learned that the high frequency radio waves that could spot aircraft miles away could also melt a candy bar and pop popcorn and cook things.  It changed him.  It changed life for all of us.

Knowing things changes you.  You can’t help it.

All life moves in cycles of Order, Disorder, and Reorder.  Your life.  My life.  Our relationships.  Cultures.  Nations.  The world.  Order.  Disorder.  Reorder.  This is simply part of being alive.  This is the pattern of transformation and growth.  

As Richard Rohr has pointed out, “To grow toward love, union, salvation, or enlightenment, we must be moved from Order to Disorder and then ultimately to Reorder.

We can see this pattern clearly and repeatedly in the life of Martin Luther.  He was about to graduate with a degree in law and enter a life of order when a sudden lightning storm threw his life into disorder and drove him to the monastery.  Life in the monastery was one of imposed order, but his doubts and his anger at God kept his heart, mind, and soul in a turmoil of disorder.  He was sent to teach at Wittenberg, and it was there, as he prepared for a lecture, that the words of Romans 3:23-24 leapt off the page to bring peace to his disordered spirit:  “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  These words reordered his spirit and his intellect.

Knowing this changed him.  He couldn’t help it.

A changed Martin Luther began to ask questions.  Good questions.  Hard questions.  His questions began to shake the Church.  Order was threatened.  The Reformation began—a long time of great disorder, marked often by great violence.  But it was disorder with a purpose, and in the end, the world found its way to a kind of order once again.  A new order.  A different order.

“Know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” said Jesus.  He said this to Judeans who had believed in him but who didn’t quite understand what he was talking about.  He was trying to tell them that what they were hearing from him was nothing less than God’s own word and promise.  They couldn’t quite grasp it.  He was trying to tell them that they were so committed to their understanding of things, to the order that they knew, that it was making them blind and deaf to the truth of who he was and what he was trying to show them and tell them, making them blind and deaf to the new order of the beloved community that God was calling them to be part of.  

“I tell you,” said Jesus, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.  So if the Son makes you free, you will be free, indeed.”   Remember, he says all this to Judeans who had believed in him.  So what sin could he be referring to in this context other than their refusal to see and understand?  What could their sin be other than that they were choosing not to hear what they did not want to hear, choosing not to see what they did not want to see.  Jesus was offering to free them so they could live in the freedom of the beloved community under the ethic of love instead of the yoke of the law, but they were choosing to live instead in the illusion of “all systems normal.” 

In today’s other gospel reading, Matthew 22:34-46, a lawyer who wants to test Jesus asks him what is the greatest commandment in the law.  In response, Jesus quotes back to him the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  But then he adds to it from Leviticus 19, “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 

Saul the Pharisee certainly knew these commandments in the days when he was persecuting the early Christians.  The Shema, after all, was part of every devout Jew’s life.  But on the road to Damascus a vision of Christ threw Saul’s orderly life into disorder and he heard these words in a radically new way.  His life was reordered to such a degree that Saul the Persecutor, the legalist Pharisee, became Paul the Apostle of grace. He wrote in Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

He had come to know the truth, and the truth set him free.  He knew something old in a new way and it changed him.  

Knowing things changes you.  You can’t help it. 

For 8 months now we have been all been living a very different life than any of us envisioned a year ago.  This time last year none of us imagined Pandemic life.  None of us imagined that we would have to think twice about gatherings with even a few friends and family.  None of us imagined wearing masks whenever we left our homes for even a simple trip to the store.  No one imagined that we would be meeting and worshipping and learning electronically.  No one imagined how much time we would have alone with our own thoughts or how much time we would have to look at and think about what is happening with the rest of the world.

After 8 months, one can’t help but wonder, what have we learned?  What do we know now that we didn’t know before?  What do you know now that you didn’t know then?  About yourself?  About your relationships?  About the church? About the country?  About the world?  How has it changed you?

We have had 8 months of disorder imposed on us by a virus.   What will reorder look like?  Are we content to simply try to rebuild what was or are we wiser?  Have we learned things that will change the way we reorder our lives?  Do we have a larger vision?  Is God guiding us to something that looks more like the kin-dom? 

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,” said Jesus.  Have we learned a better way to do that in this time of introspection?  Are we being prepared for a new Reformation?  Have we learned a truth that will set us free as we move through disorder to reorder in our lives, in our nation, in the church, in the world?  Do we really need to know anything more than to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves? 

I think you know the answer to that.

And knowing things changes you.  You can’t help it.

Time to Wake Up

Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

At the end of August in 2018 in the small town of Actlán, Mexico, a message began pinging from phone to phone on WhatsApp:  “Please everyone be alert because a plague of child kidnappers has entered the country. It appears that these criminals are involved in organ trafficking. In the past few days, children aged four, eight and 14 have disappeared and some of these kids have been found dead with signs that their organs were removed. Their abdomens had been cut open and were empty.”  

No one knew exactly where this grisly story came from or if it was even true.  

On the 29th of August, as this horrid rumor about child abduction was sweeping through the area, Ricardo Flores and his uncle, Alberto, came in to town to buy supplies for the cinderblock water well they were building on Alberto’s ranch in the countryside.  Since Ricardo and Alberto did not live in town, the local rumor monger did not recognize them and began spreading the word that they were the feared child abductors.  Francisco Martinez began livestreaming into his phone saying, “People of Actlán de Osorio, Puebla, please come give your support, give your support. Believe me, the kidnappers are now here.”

Ricardo and Alberto quickly found themselves surrounded by a mob. The police arrested them for disturbing the peace, but since they had no real reason to hold the two men, they let them go.  Sadly, the moment Alberto and Roberto walked out of the police station they were seized by the angry mob who beat them, doused them with gasoline and burned them to death.

It turned out, when it was all over, that the rumor about child abduction was fake news.[1]  

Terry Pratchett wrote, “A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.”[2]

Rumors can be fiercely destructive.  Even deadly.  Rumors can even be weaponized.

Because rumors and misinformation can be so destructive, in 1942, as World War II was utterly transforming life in the US, psychologists Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp set up the first Rumor Clinic at Harvard University.  Their goal was to stop pernicious rumors that could undermine the war effort or upset public morale, and, in the process to try to understand why rumors are so attractive to us.

Knapp noted that rumors arise to express the public’s feelings in a time of crisis or instability.  Rumors supply the illusion of information when real information is unavailable or unsatisfying.  They can give a sense of having some measure of control when things seem out of control.  

Knapp identified three kinds of rumors and the psychological functions they serve.  The wedge driver rumor expresses hostility in a time of frustration and allows us to find a scapegoat.  The current rumor about the Corona virus originating in a Chinese lab is an example.  Pipe dream rumors express our hopes and wishes.  The debunked rumor about hydroxychloroquine as a cure for Covid is an example.  Bogie rumors express our fears.  For instance the rumor back in April that hospitals were not going to treat anyone over 60 was a bogie rumor.

When we’re living in highly uncertain circumstances where even day-to-day decisions can have unforeseen outcomes, rumors will be rampant.  They provide an outlet for our collective emotional life.  But they can have dire consequences.

One of the most common negative consequences of rumors is that they can damage relationships.  Let’s say Gomer tells Wanda that he heard that eating bleu cheese can keep you from getting the flu.  Two weeks later Wanda is in bed with the flu, feeling miserable, despite eating bleu cheese every day since she first heard about it from Gomer.  Now she’s going to be skeptical about anything Gomer tells her.

Or let’s say Wanda doesn’t buy the idea of the bleu cheese cure for a minute.  Now she’s going to wonder if Gomer’s elevator goes all the way to the top floor since he passed along this crazy idea.

The easy way to avoid the mistrust and skepticism that inevitably arises from this kind of thing is simple: don’t pass along anything unless you are absolutely certain that it’s true.

There’s a simple rule that has been attributed to Socrates or sometimes to the Buddha: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.  Is it true?  Is it kind?  Is it necessary?”  For those of us who are followers of Jesus, who are trying to live in and maintain the beloved community, I would add one more gate:  Is it loving?

We’re living in a very conflicted time.  Information and misinformation is flying around us at lightspeed—information and misinformation about the pandemic, about science, about political candidates, about political parties, about nations, about issues, about factions.  A lot of that information and misinformation is sent out with an agenda.  And some of those agendas are destructive.  

If ever there was a time when we needed to double and triple check the truth, the agenda, and the sources of the information that comes to us, this is it.

I think we know that not everything we hear is true.  But we’re not always diligent about taking time to verify sources and facts before we pass things along.

As St. Paul says in today’s epistle reading from Romans, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”  There’s a lot at stake—in our country, in our communities, in our church, in our personal lives, in our relationships.  We need to be wide awake and thoughtful about what we hear and what we share.

But as St. Paul also says in that same passage, the one thing we owe each other above everything else is to love each other.  All the commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Loving each other with agape love means that we tell each other the truth.  No rumors.  No fake news.  No gossip.  It means we check our sources.  If necessary, it means we check our sources’ sources.  

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16)

But what do you do if something does happen to damage your relationship with someone else in the community, if some rumor or misinformation or half-truth or something worse insinuates itself between you?

Fortunately, in Matthew 18 we have a formula in the words of Jesus, himself, for dealing with exactly that situation.

The first step in Jesus’ formula for reconciliation is to go to the person who you feel has wronged you one-on-one, alone, and talk about it.  Speak your truth in love.  If that person listens to you, all well and good.  Your relationship can begin healing.  I should note here that the Greek word translated as “listens,” ἀκούω (akouō) implies not just listening but understanding.  So the hope is that you will come to an understanding.

Unfortunately, instead doing that, our typical way of dealing with such things often is to triangulate, to find someone else to hear our grievance.  As Brian Stoffregen describes it, 

“When we have been wronged, we often don’t confront the person. Instead, we create triangles. We go and tell two or three or more of our friends, ‘Do you know what so-and-so did to me?’ Jesus did not say: ‘Go tell everybody what that stupid jerk did to you.’ Jesus told us: ‘Go and talk to that stupid jerk about the hurtful actions s/he has done,’ although Jesus didn’t quite use those words. We are to go and talk to the person, not to go around telling everybody else. We are to be so concerned about the breach in the relationship, that we are willing to do whatever is possible to restore it.”[3]

So that’s the first step.  Go talk to the person.  If that doesn’t work, try step two.  Bring two or three others into the conversation.  Listen to what they have to say about it.  And here’s a caveat:  Be prepared to be told that you’re in the wrong.  And if that happens, be prepared to be gracious about it.

Remember, this is the ideal way of dealing with disagreement or injury within the beloved community as Jesus described it.  This part with two or three witnesses is also completely consistent with dispute resolution as it described in Deuteronomy.

If you’ve tried steps one and two, the additional witnesses think you’re in the right, and the other person still won’t listen or try to understand, then Jesus says to take it to the whole congregation.

This may seem a little radical to us, but it really is wise in two very important ways.  First, it brings everything out in the open and puts a dead stop to any scuttlebutt that might be circulating.  It stops the rumor mill dead in its tracks.  Most importantly, though, it acknowledges that relationships are important in the beloved community, that, in fact, the community exists because of relationships.  One fractured relationship can collapse the community as surely as one fractured beam can bring down the roof. 

So you’ve tried to resolve your differences by talking one on one.  You’ve tried with one or two others sitting in.  You’ve tried with the whole church.  But you can’t seem to reach that other person.  Now what?  

“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church,” says Jesus, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  

That sounds so harsh.  But is it?  On the one hand, it seems clear that at this point the offender is separated from the rest of the church.  An outsider.  On the other hand, it’s important to note that Gentiles and tax collectors were a special focus for outreach in Matthew’s gospel.  

So yes, that person is now on the outs for a while.  But you—and the you here is 2nd person singular—you have a new special focus for outreach.  You have a mission to find a way to bring that person back into the fold.  You don’t get to wipe your hands and say good riddance.

In a world and a time where so much is falling apart, now more than ever the beloved community needs to do everything we can to hold it together.

We need to remember that we owe each other love.  Love that is patient and kind.  Love that is not arrogant or boastful or rude.  Love that is not irritable or resentful or self-seeking.  Love that rejoices in truth.  And speaks truth.

We need to remember that, as much as we might like to have everything spelled out, as far as God is concerned, the entire law is spelled out in “love your neighbor as yourself.”  

We need to remember to speak the truth in love.  To pass our words through the three gates—is it true, is it kind, is it necessary—before we run them out of our mouths our through our typing fingers.  

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  the night is far gone, the day is near.  In Jesus’ name.


[1] BBC News, 12 Nov 2018, Marco Martinez

[2] The Truth, Terry Pratchett

[3] Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes, Matthew 18:15-20