Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
November 29, 2000 - Pastor Diane Schmitz
Every Thanksgiving, I remember, with deep feelings of regret an encounter where I held my truth captive in silence.
Several years ago, while living in another state, I was invited by a new friend to a Thanksgiving dinner at her service club. I had recently moved to the area and she knew I was eager to meet others and get a flavor of the community in which I now lived. About 50 members, friends and relatives gathered to share a meal. The hall in which we met was toasty warm, conversation flowed, and aromatic food smells wafted around the room. It was inviting and comfortable; I felt relaxed.
As we sat eating our pumpkin pie one of the members invited people to share some jokes to wrap up our evening. We shared laughter at some not-very great jokes but we were mellow enough not to care. Then a man stood up and said, "Here's one for you." As he began to tell the story, it sounded like the beginning of a racist joke. I felt myself suddenly jerked to a different kind of attention. As he went on I was curious about how it would transform into an acceptable ending. I was na´ve. It didn't. A few people laughed at the end - laugh with a nervous edge to it. I sat there in shock and looked at my friend who had a look of disbelief on her face.
I looked around at all of us "normal" people and expected something: someone to say something - to respond in some kind of way. But they didn't and I didn't. Although I was thrashing about internally, I let my status as guest and my own fear of confrontation strangle my voice. As the leader of the club tried to move past the awkwardness of those few seconds and bring an end to the evening, a variety of responses coursed through my head. Should I say this or that? Should I just walk out? All the while "I can't believe this" reverberated in my whole body. I felt paralyzed on the outside while an earthquake erupted on the inside. I was not prepared for such blatant racism. I was not prepared to speak out of my truth.
For weeks afterwards I wrestled with what had happened. I was deeply disappointed in my inability to challenge what had been said. I was sorrowful at this painful reminder of the reality of racial prejudice alive in our culture. I resolved to never again remain silent in such a situation. I realized that if I had spoken up, no response I might have received from others could be worse than the pain I felt at not speaking the truth in that moment.
We all experience moments like that where a truth inside of us is strong but our ability to give voice to it is weak. The truth may be one we want to speak to a friend, a partner, or even our own selves. Or it may be one that needs to be spoken within our community, or to our culture. We struggle with defining our truth and discerning how to best to live it in our lives and speak it in our conversations.
However, we know that discerning "the truth" is not a simple matter. In our story from John this morning we see Pilate wanting to get to the bottom of the charges the Jews have made as they brought Jesus to him. He likely saw the accusations as just one more squabble between "those people" he was governing. He had heard the Jews say that this Jesus person was making some claim to sovereignty so he thought he better check it out. He asked what he thought was a straightforward question: "Are you a king?" he said to Jesus. The first part of Jesus' reply is "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"
Now this is an intriguing response to Pilate's question. Jesus wants to know where the motivation is for the questioning. In his question he reminds Pilate that there are two possibilities here: Pilate making his own judgment or Pilate relying on the judgments of others. It's as if he is asking Pilate to consider his own truth, his own understanding in this situation. Pilate, however, preferred to play it safe: "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me." He does not share his own feelings about the matter.
"What have you done?" he asked Jesus, turning the focus back on him. Jesus explains that his kingdom exists in another framework entirely - it is not one maintained by fighting like the kingdoms of the world known so far.
Still seeking to get to the truth of this matter, Pilate asks him again, "So you are a king?" Jesus responds that he was born and brought into the world to testify to the truth.
Pilate then goes out to the Jews and tells his own truth: he sees no crime in this man. He acknowledges that it is customary to release one man during Passover and asks if he should release Jesus. But the crowd called instead for a robber to be released.
Pilate tells his own truth and it makes no difference to the Jews. Jesus tells his own truth and he ends up being killed. In a stark and vivid reality we are reminded that telling the truth cannot be done as a means to a particular outcome. Truth-telling stands alone; as its own integrity.
We know from the stories of Jesus that living with that kind of integrity meant often speaking a truth that was counter-cultural. He challenged the righteous and respected; he lifted up those marginalized in the culture. He spoke of the Spirit of the truth rather than blindly supporting the letter of the law. His truth, both spoken and made visible by actions, was often the unexpected; it disturbed many and at the same time was living water to others who had been thirsty for so long.
Ours is a world thirsty for integrity and truth. Jesus testified that he was born and brought into the world to testify to the truth. This raises similar questions for all of us. For what were we each uniquely brought into this world? Each of us has been given a voice and a responsibility to testify to the truth as we see it.
That testifying can be done through words or actions. Often times our body can be our most reliable guide about what is truth for us. Despite the mental mind games we might play with ourselves, if we pay attention to the wisdom speaking to us through our whole body we will have good guidance. Most of us know that feeling in our gut that guides us to decisions we might otherwise make differently.
Rosa Parks, an African American woman, knew a truth deep in her body. She was tired that day in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white person, but in some ways no more tired than any other day. It was the accumulation of that tiredness within her that said, "Enough". It was her body that made visible her truth. She would not be moved from her seat on the bus. That act of holding to her truth in a physical way changed the course of history.
In the recent movie, "The Straight Story," a 73-year-old man estranged from his brother for 10 years, learns the brother, living in a nearby state, has had a stroke. At the same time his own health changes remind him that his life is nearing an end. He cannot see well enough to drive and he uses two canes to help himself walk. His daughter is mentally handicapped and cannot drive. But, he comes to the realization that he must go see his brother and reconcile. He takes an old tractor, attaches a wagon with a makeshift tent on it and sets out to cross 350-some miles of Iowa cornfields to get to Wisconsin to see his brother. He has surprises and trials along the way and even an offer of a ride at one point. But, he refuses, saying, "I need to take this journey alone and do it my way." As he travels slowly across the Midwest, he wrestles with many truths about his life and his relationship with his brother. It is the physical-ness of this journey as well as the pace of it that supports him confronting past demons and regrets until he finally arrives at his brother's house, able to open himself to an authentic encounter of healing.
Along the way, many people who saw him or met him thought he was crazy. But others were inspired by his commitment. They found it opened up their own lives for them in a way that allowed them to see truths that had previously been hidden. Some of them had been in a prison of their own making, living a life of lies about themselves or their relationships with others.
Perhaps that is one of the best things about truth-telling. Not that the truths are always entirely thought-out and reasoned but that the action of engaging in that process opens us in new ways. This is a process that repeats itself several times throughout our lives. We define our truth in the process of the giving and receiving the truth of others. In that exchange we will often discover that our own truth has changed. Poet Earl Balfour addresses this:
Our highest truths are but half-truths;
Think not to settle down forever in any truth.
Make use of it as a tent in which to pass a summer's night,
But build no house of it, or it will be your tomb.
When you first have an inkling of its insufficiency
And begin to descry a dim counter-truth looming up beyond,
Then weep not, but give thanks:
It is the Lord's voice whispering,
`Take up thy bed and walk'.
The truth Jesus testified to throughout his life was the importance of listening to God and being willing to go where that Spirit leads you even though the way might be risky.
Advent, which begins next week, is a time where we reflect on what expression of God might be born anew in us - what paths might we need to walk, what truths might need to be spoken in our lives. In these coming weeks we are invited to listen attentively to the voice of the Spirit moving within us.
We will also be asking where God is guiding this church to walk. There are things we must "take up," and examine to see if they are truly reflective of what we are called to testify as this church in this community, in this time. There are truths we carry in the history of this community that we must be careful do not entomb us. There will be inklings of other truths being born which will need nourishing by us for them to grow into the expressions God desires them to be.
At the same time we must stay connected to the still viable truths of our tradition and the boldness of those who have gone before us. Because the ones before us did not hold their tongues and hide their truths, we have guidance of ways to be church. From those truths of the past we are reminded how to live in the rough places and how to find our way home.
Our guidance to finding our way home to our truths is most of all rooted in an ongoing relationship with God.
The psalm reading this morning reminds of the steadfast love that God has established with us forever. Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O God, in the light of your countenance. What a confident image: those who walk with God shout boldly and festively; they are able to risk living the truth because of their deep trust and faith in their Creator.
There will always be those times when we despair of giving voice to the truth within us. We weaken at the thought of conflict, judgment or even being mistaken. But the Spirit working through us strengthens us.
The poet Rilke says of a man: "When the god's energy takes hold of him, his voice never collapses in the dust. Everything turns to vineyards, everything turns to grapes, made ready for harvest by his powerful mouth."
May God's energy take hold of us all and lead us to seek and speak our truths powerfully that we may be transformed by such a process and come to new realizations of what it means to be God's people. Amen.