Homily for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost, August 9, 2009
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
John 6:35, 41-51
“Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4: 25)
In the movie, A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise plays a lawyer following up on a wrongful death case at a military base. As he is examining the base commander, Col. Jessop (played by Jack Nicholson), Tom Cruise’s lawyer character shouts at Jessop, “I want the truth!” To which Col. Jessop shouts back, “You can’t handle the truth!” They are coming at things from very different perspectives on truth – one from the point of view of expedience, and obedience to a military code of honour, and the other man, represented by the lawyer, from the point of view of the victim, the need for a larger perspective, and the need for accountability to the rule of law, not just institutional priorities. The movie underscores how difficult it is to arrive at a single version of truth, and was a vehicle for telling a story about the criteria necessary for truth to prevail.
People’s sense of what’s true can be totally wrong. I think of the teacher who once suggested that Albert Einstein was mentally handicapped! We all could tell stories of people missing the truth by miles. Pontius Pilate asked one of the key questions when he said, “What is truth?” Indeed, truth is hard to pin down. We live in a world of spin, false advertizing, exaggeration, fraud, deception and cover-up, and so truth is more of a fragile commodity in our time than ever. Our tendency in this kind of world is to be closed up, suspicious, and even hostile and aggressive toward others, as every day the news reveals one more story of trusted friends and institutions proving false. It’s risky and difficult to open up, as anyone who has been betrayed by a colleague or someone posing as a “friend” can attest.
Over the years, I developed a question which became a criterion – a testing point. My question to people was and often still is, “Where can you be honest?” Because that place where you can be honest is where you can be yourself – to me, that’s home, no matter where it is – that’s family, no matter who you’re with. But the fact is that many of us find it hard to be honest even when we’re standing looking in the mirror!
We talk about “living a lie” and how liberating it is to be able to tell the truth, and LIVE the truth. Many people I have dealt with in ministry have been hugely relieved to be able to make a confession – to have a safe opportunity to begin to tell the truth, and thereby integrate and accept their own story. Just to give it voice and have it heard without judgment is validation. It can be a step toward integration and liberation.
Along the way, I have dealt with many victims of abuse who have felt it necessary to cover up and even deny painful truths about their own upbringing and about who they are. This often involves a very complex pattern of deceiving themselves in which they block, alter or repress whole chunks of their personal history. Many people have no conscious memory of many years of their lives – yet those years are part of who they are, a part of their story even they cannot raise to the light of acceptability.
I have dealt with many gay and lesbian people who honoured me by telling me their truth, and about how difficult it had been to be obliged to live a life of deception and avoidance because the world around them was not prepared to accept the truth about their reality as something inherent, genetic, even God-given, and not a “lifestyle choice.” We live in a society which intimidates many people into living a lie. That’s one of the reasons why the Pride Day parade is important as a statement to all people (not just gay, lesbian and transgender people) about having the courage to be yourself. In the long run, you can’t really be anyone else.
Christians in our time are not well known for being able to handle the truth. Dealing with the place of gay people is just one issue, but there is also the embarrassing battle over evolution and scientific discovery, the issue of women’s rights, the critical analysis and interpretation of scripture, and so on. St. Paul, writing to the Church in Corinth, says “Love rejoices in the truth.” Love is OK with what’s true – meaning we don’t need to insulate ourselves against reality. He also says it is the function of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth.
The Curate’s Egg story, from the Punch magazine cartoon of many years ago, is a pointed comment on Christian sensibilities. It shows a young 19th Century assistant priest having breakfast with his Rector, and the Rector has obviously noted the curate being somewhat hesitant with his egg, and so the Rector says, “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Sir.” To which the eager-to-please, keen-not-to-offend curate replies, “No, I assure you Sir, parts of it are excellent!” Choking down a rotten egg for the sake of decorum, for the sake of not offending some rigid social hierarchy, is just plain stupid, which is what the cartoon was trying to point out in the first place – the ridiculous lengths to which people will go to avoid being offensive or a bother – of how we will literally lie through our teeth – and worse, how distorted and unreal we become as we persist in living untruthfully.
I think we’ve come some distance from there, in that most people nowadays wouldn’t sit there choking on a rotten egg out of fear of speaking the truth. In fact, most people wouldn’t just sit there choking on anything, such as abuse, bullying, injustice, etc. But the truth can still catch in our throat, as it were, and the world is not better for it, because then we are withholding vital information, as well as creating distortions in our pattern of relating. As St Paul was wise enough to know, we are all “members” of each other – all connected – so an inability or unwillingness to contribute what we know to be true or genuine skews the entire network of which we are a part.
We might reflect: do we reward or punish people for speaking the truth? I remember recoiling in embarrassment as an elderly matron bent down to scoop up my three year old daughter. She drew her close and spoke to her, but my daughter’s direct response was: “You stink!” Like the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, it can be a gift when someone will name the truth, and children are famous for being just that direct, so it’s wise not to overreact when they make us uncomfortable (my daughter could have been seen as doing the lady a favour, if her breath was really as sickening as all that). As we mature, we must develop appropriate levels of respect and responsibility in our communication, but people will never find the balance between candor and consideration if they are reprimanded when they speak the truth.
Must we always speak the absolute truth? To be honest, we have to say that it’s complicated and depends on many factors. There are always people in our lives who go into a tailspin or tantrum when we speak the truth to them, and the potential of their anger or tears or withdrawal keeps us tap-dancing around the truth and therefore not really connected. This is especially unfortunate in marriage, in which intimacy is always undermined by the inability to communicate openly and honestly. Does the person want to hear the truth (e.g. the wife who does NOT want to be told she looks fat)? Will I be seriously punished for telling it? Will the person understand what I’m trying to say? Can the person handle it? Does he need to know? These are all factors in assessing whether or not the truth can be told.
In the movie “Liar Liar,” starring Jim Carrey, the question is posed, “What if . . . .” What if people could only speak what was true? There are some hilarious scenes in which Carrey’s character compulsively spouts truth, much to the dismay of friends and colleagues, but then also discovers and expresses the truth about how he feels with those he loves, which is a blessing to those around him and a revelation to himself. It’s a movie which suggests that truth indeed does lead to liberation. In today’s Gospel, people are complaining about Jesus because he speaks truths that some people found outrageous and impossible to comprehend. Nevertheless, he persisted in speaking the truth. That’s who he was. And we might reflect about where we would be if Mahatma Gandhi, or Dorothy Day, or Rosa Parks, or Nelson Mandela, had not spoken their truth.
Adrienne Rich said, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” In that sense, Jesus’ words, “the truth will make you free,” make a lot of sense.
That’s why I think the frank depiction of King David and his dysfunctional family this morning (and over the last few weeks) is very important. Today, David’s rebellious and murderous son Absalom is killed by David’s troops, and he is heart-broken at the news. There is tremendous honesty in the Biblical witness, which doesn’t gloss over people’s mistakes and doesn’t try to market them as shining examples of human perfection. The Bible paints the portraits of the great figures warts included.
In the Church, we have usually been quick to avoid the possibility of conflict and to sweep things under the carpet, more concerned about keeping up appearances than willing to deal directly and honestly with people. Like the stilted relationship between the Rector and his lowly curate, the Church has often perpetuated a lot of polite nonsense that is as phoney and disingenuous as the day is long. In recent years, however, we are beginning to cultivate an environment in which people can be more open, more honest, about who they are, about their doubts and questions, about their deeper hopes and insights, and as a result we might be getting to a point of being capable of helping people move forward in their spiritual journeys in a context of meaningful fellowship and support.
It’s my firm belief that God can deal with the truth, with what’s real, because God is truth, and thus you will never find God in falsehood, or idolatry, or anything that is not real or genuine. That applies to issues like evolution, as well as to many aspects of our spiritual journey. If it’s true, it’s true. So denying reality, or putting on an act, or lying about who we are, is never going to move the Church forward, or move us closer to God.
I think by presenting a person like King David with all his flaws, the Bible teaches us a very important life lesson. David’s failings as a father, as a leader, as a man, are somehow reassuring, because it’s a way of saying that even the greatest people are not perfect, even God’s chosen people have problems. And you are not disqualified from life because you have a flawed relationship with your children or your spouse – you are not prohibited from greatness because you have failings. More importantly, you are not banished from the love of God because you are not perfect – God’s love for David, and David’s love for God, is well documented in scripture. Being human necessarily involves a life of ups and downs, and times of darkness and light.
The importance of truth, the pursuit of truth, cannot be underestimated, even though it may be elusive. Truth can often be harsh and even painful, but perhaps not as much as we think. I think by urging us toward dealing in the truth, and seeing Jesus as a figure who embodies truth, the Christian tradition points us toward wholeness, in which we are encouraged to integrate all the parts of ourselves, and don’t get stuck with always trying to figure out how to appear flawless. And it creates the potential for a healthy community in which we can truly support and encourage each other because we are not holding each other to an impossible standard of perfection, and we know that honesty and humility are critical virtues.
As we continue to reflect on the truth that scripture is revealing to us today, let me encourage all of you to embody your own truth with courage and integrity, and, in giving voice to the truth that is in you, to practice the graceful art of speaking the truth in love. Let us be aware that we are members of one another, and that, for the Body of Christ to thrive in this place, each of us needs to be true to ourselves, as well as to each other.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers