“Truth of the Matter”

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | November 21, 2021

John 18:33-38

In my role as a parish minister, I conducted a lot of funerals. In one year, I had 68 funerals. For each funeral, I would meet with the families and loved ones of those who died, to try and get some sense of the person’s life, so that their story could be told, and their life could be celebrated.

It wasn’t always an easy process, but it was always interesting. There were conversations held in living rooms, work-places, pubs and prisons. In one gathering there were six adult children whose mother had passed. I always had a notebook with me to write things down and I would ask questions to prompt the stories. I asked them, “What are some of the things you loved about your mother?”

There was silence as they looked at each other. One son said something to effect that his mother was not a very nice woman. She had a sharp tongue and a quick hand. One daughter said, “Aye, it’s a good thing she’s died as I was close to cutting her throat myself!” And everyone laughed. They loved her.

I said, “Well, that’s a start.”

In all those many, many conversations over the years, no matter who we were talking about, there was always some truth to be found; always something that could be lifted up, celebrated and remembered. Even for the man whose wife could only describe him with three words, “He was jokey.”

People will sometimes say, “Oh you should write a book. Tell these stories!”

I could fill many books with vivid tales. But of all the stories I’ve learned, there are maybe ten percent that I am able to tell. I might use these in a sermon. The other ninety percent, out of respect for the living and the dead, are not my stories to tell. Some stories were told to me in the trust that they would not be shared, and the in the knowledge that they would go to the grave along with the person who had lived them.

One of my all-time favorite books, “Spoon River Anthology,” by Edgar Lee Masters. A town librarian gave it to me as a gift when I first moved to Iowa. It was published in 1915 and it tells the story of life in a small mid-western American town. The story is told from the perspective of the people in the graveyard at the town’s edge. People who look back on their lives, sometimes with clarity and sometimes not. It has helped me greatly in listening to people’s stories.

One fellow in the book was a stone cutter and he would carve epitaphs into tombstones. He said,

“When I first came to Spoon River

I did not know whether what they told me

Was true or false.

They would bring me an epitaph

And stand around the shop while I worked

And say, “He was so kind,” “He was wonderful,”

“She was the sweetest woman,” “He was a consistent Christian.”

And I chiseled for them whatever they wished,

All in ignorance of its truth.

But later, as I lived among the people here,

I knew how near to the life

Were the epitaphs that were ordered for them when they died.

But still I chiseled whatever they paid me to chisel

And made myself party to the false chronicles

Of the stones,

Even as the historian does who writes

Without knowing the truth,

Or because he is influenced to hide it.”

I remember sitting on the stairs as a child, listening to the conversation of the grownups in the other room. Just a few friends gathered in some social event. But they spoke with such conviction and to my childish ears, wisdom. They knew things, what was true and what was not. They knew how to solve the problems of the world. Someday I would be a grown-up and I would know things and be so sure.

But upon reaching adulthood, it was as if what Paul said in 1st Corinthians 13 came to pass: “When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” The childish way of thinking that someday I might know it all.

The society we live in today is one of fractured truth. Your truth, their truth, alternative facts, misinformation and big lies. What can we believe and how do we believe anything as truth? How do we believe in anything?

We should feel free to question and to ask questions. To wrestle with questions that address our fears, our hopes, our dreams and all else that touches upon what it means to be human. Maybe we come to church not because we know all the answers, but because we have questions. We may not even know what our questions are. We may find some answers during our time in worship. But more than facts, we may gain some assurance, some comfort and some courage.

Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler of Palestine. Pilate was asking Jesus questions and he was not happy with the answers he was getting. Jesus was a man facing death, yet he seemed sure of himself.

          “Are you a king?” asked Pilate.

Jesus answered him with a question, “Did you think that up on your own or did someone tell you about me?”

          “What have you done?” demanded Pilate.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world,” answered Jesus. “If it were, my followers would be fighting to set me free.”

“So you are admitting that you are a king?” asked Pilate.

“So you say,” said Jesus. “I came to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

          Pilate’s final question was, “What is truth?”

          Jesus did not answer.

One truth of the matter was that Pilate had the power. His power enabled him to define the truth as whatever he wanted it to be. In this case it was the life or death of the man who stood before him. He chose death as his truth.

For Pilate and everything he represents, there is truth in power.

For Jesus and everything he represents, there is power in truth.

Why didn’t Jesus just come out and say, “Yes I am a king. In fact, I am the King of Kings! And some day you will discover that hard cold fact when I crush you under the heel of my empire!”

But he had answered Pilate’s question already when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” My realm is not a political force; it is not a secular government. What I bring into the world is not accomplished through political power, prestige or by force of arms.

Where did we miss that? Why is it that for centuries from the beginning of the church until now people still cling to idea that the realm of Christ is a physical entity? After 2000 years we are still arguing about the rules of institution, structure and power. We think of Christ the King in the same vein as an earthly monarch, only he is more so. And it should be clear that whenever religion tries to get close to political power, it usually the case that political power co-opts religion for its own purposes.

Sometimes religious people are so committed to the truth of what they know God to be thinking on any given subject, that they are willing to commit violence to prove their point.

People pronounce the truth with conviction as well as satisfaction that some people are going to hell where they will suffer in torment for eternity; just because they don’t believe a certain way, or because they were born a certain way. God of such truth becomes a violent avenger. Then it becomes a simple step to avenge on God’s behalf.

If we say we know what God is thinking, we are merely saying that we know what we are thinking, and God must be thinking the same thing. God is easily created in our own image in order to justify our own ends. One problem though in fashioning God after ourselves is that in order to fit within the framework of our understanding God must become small enough to grasp.

The closer God is to our own image the more we feel that God requires our defense through varying degrees of violence. Excluding people who don’t match our definition of worthiness or blowing them to smithereens are degrees on the same continuum of violence. And since God within the framework of our understanding is always on our side of things, we justify violence in what we call our own defense.

When Jesus stood before Pilate he said, “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would fight to save me.”

What is truth?

Is God violent or non-violent?

Is the nature of Jesus’ message inclusive or exclusive?

Is faith literal belief, or trust and commitment to the work of love and justice?

Is deliverance salvation from hell, or liberation from injustice?

A truth that I have come to as a firm conviction is one that I have shared in hundreds of celebrations of life. That is, when life is all said and done, what matters most is the love we share. It is as we give and receive love that we touch upon God’s purpose for our lives. And so we affirm that none of us lives in vain, labors in vain, gives or receives love in vain. Within God’s eternal purpose each of us are worth more than we can ever measure or calculate.

How might we answer the question if it is asked of us: What is truth? Or more pointedly, “What is your truth?” Amen.

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