Sermon: What is truth? (Proper 29 Year B)
Proper 29, Year B
St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Lodi, CA
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-13 (14-19)
What is truth?
Well, the truth is we were not supposed to hear that question today. I asked Penny and Deacon Tom if we could include that extra half verse on the end of our gospel reading. When the powers that be chose the texts for the Revised Common Lectionary, they made the choice to end today’s gospel with Jesus’s statement about being born to testify to the truth, and how his followers belong to the truth. I’ll get back to that, don’t worry. If you look at the full 18th chapter of John’s gospel, however, the scene doesn’t end with Jesus getting the last word. The truth of this passage is that it ends, unresolved, with a question. Jesus has been put on trial. The Roman governor was tasked with questioning Jesus to figure out the truth of his situation. And the trial ends with no resolution, just a really big question. What is truth?
Today is the last sunday of the church year. Probably, when they were putting together the lectionary readings for the last sunday of the year they wanted to tie up loose ends, not open up more questions. Why should we end the church year without a resolution? When a piece of music or a story ends without resolution, it is unsettling. It’s uncomfortable…..The truth is often uncomfortable.
What is truth? One truth is that this passage of scripture has been used to excuse antisemitic violence. Jesus speaks about being handed over to “the Jews”. Christians throughout history have used this to accuse Jewish people of killing Jesus. This has been used as an excuse to discriminate socially and financially against Jewish people. This has been used as a reason to commit violent acts against Jewish people. This has been used as grounds to kill Jewish people. That is the truth of this passage. It is so, so uncomfortable to realize the implications of such a truth. …..We cannot change history. But that does not mean we have to excuse it, just because it happened and we can’t change it. Antisemitic discrimination has always been wrong. Violence against Jewish people has always been wrong. It is uncomfortable to look at an important passage of scripture and see how it has been used for evil. It is uncomfortable to look at our history, to look at our truth, when it contains such evil, and no resolution. Antisemitism is not just a shameful part of our history. Jewish people continue to be hurt and killed because of a twisting of the truth of scripture passages. If we ignore the truth of history, the present evil will remain invisible and we will not be able to rebuke it. We must see the truth, even when it is uncomfortable.
The truth of history is often complicated and uncomfortable to look at. My Harmon ancestors settled in New England in the 1650s. John Harmon, my great…times 8? grandfather, was a founding member of a congregational church in Scarborough, Maine. That church is still there. I visited it my first year in Connecticut. I met someone named Tom Harmon, which is also my father’s name. It was so inspiring to connect, even for just a weekend, with Harmon cousins who are still in the place John settled. However. And here’s where it gets uncomfortable. John’s father, James, moved the family to Maine because he was exiled from the more established parts of the Massachusetts colony. He had been convicted of sexual harassment, domestic abuse, and violent assault. The cousins of James settled a few towns south of Scarborough. They committed multiple massacres of the Abenaki Native people in Maine. In 1715 the men of the Harmon family invited the local Abenaki men to a deceitful trap of a “pow wow” and then killed them all. In 1724, a man named Johnson Harmon led 160 militiamen in an attack on an Abenaki village. They killed 80 mostly unarmed people, including women and children. This is the truth of my family’s history. Violence. Murder. Theft of land and family and future. I can go visit my Harmon relatives in Maine. The Abenaki people were denied this future. That is the truth of European settlement in this land.
This week we celebrate Thanksgiving as a national holiday. It’s also in our Episcopal Church calendar of major feasts. The present truth of the Thanksgiving holiday includes family gathering and passing on traditional recipes, and, yes, giving thanks for the blessings in this life. The legend of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 probably contains some truth about thanksgiving for a successful harvest, and maybe even some truth about alliances between european settlers and some native people of the land. But the uncomfortable part of the truth is the violence, oppression, and broken alliances committed by the european settlers. This is not something that we descendants of those settlers can change. But in order to rebuke the evil in our pasts, we cannot turn away from the truth. We have to look straight at it. Yes, it is extremely uncomfortable. I do feel uncomfortable and ashamed to stand up here and admit the evils committed by my people. There is not yet a resolution in this story. Just unsettling reality. What is truth? Is it…this unsettling, unresolved reality?
Our nation is facing an unsettling reality. There are so many evils in our past that have gone unrebuked and unresolved. I’ve mentioned antisemitism and the violence of colonial settlement. Looking for the truth in our society is unsettling. We find Sexism. Classism. Homophobia. Gun violence. Racism. I could go on naming the unsettling reality, the uncomfortable truth of our history and present. But this examination of the truth is not something that can be completed in a 12 minute sermon. Pilate asked, “what is truth?” almost 2000 years ago. We are still trying to answer that question. We are still trying to find a resolution to this scripture passage. We can try ignoring it, like the lectionary does, and end with Jesus having the last words of the church year. But ignoring the truth means that the reality of evil is also invisible, and unable to be rebuked. Ignoring the truth means our story will not have a resolution.
What is truth? I do not really know what truth the author intended in writing about Jesus being handed over to “the Jews”. Jesus was himself a Jewish man. There were political and sectarian disagreements in this period of Judaism, and the author of this gospel is maybe referring to a rival religious group? In any case, the Nicene Creed that we are about to affirm tells us that it was not in truth, the Jewish people who were responsible for Jesus’s execution, but that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. That is the truth of this passage. Of course, we do know how the story ends up. Jesus is crucified. He dies, is buried, and then the story resolves in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
What is truth? The truth is exactly what Jesus says in the line we were supposed to end with in the lectionary. Jesus was born, God came into the world. And those who belong to the truth listen to the voice of Jesus. Those who belong to…the truth. What truth? The truth of Jesus’s life, and death by crucifixion? Those who belong to the truth do not turn away even when looking at the truth is uncomfortable. Because we know that the unsettling reality is not the true resolution of the story. The true resolution, the answer to Pilate’s question, is not the unsettling death of Jesus, but his resurrection, his ascension, and his promise to come again in glory. We are living in an unsettling, unresolved, uncomfortable reality. But it is not the truth. The truth is what Jesus came to testify to, with his life. The passage from the Revelation to John we heard today says that Jesus is the witness, that Jesus testifies with his very being, to the truth of God: the one who is, who was, and who is to come. We testify to this truth in our eucharistic prayers. We proclaim that….Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Or today we will say “we remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory”. We remember Jesus’s death. We look unflinchingly at the truth of the past even when it is uncomfortable.
We proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. The crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is not the end of God’s story. God not only “was”, that is, God not only came into the world in Jesus, but God is. Jesus is alive. As the Revelation to John says, he is “the firstborn of the dead”. And.
We await Christ’s coming in glory. Our present reality is not the end. God loves us, frees us from our sins, from the uncomfortable, unresolved reality of this world, and makes us to be a kingdom: all of us serving God in glory. That is the resolution to the story. That….is the truth.