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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sermon from Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reformation Day
Texts: Psalm 46; John 8:31-36

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen

Facing Truth

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

There’s something unseemly about human beings and the idea of truth. Truth – the honest reality about life, about existence, about anything – sounds like a noble thing, worthy of our searching and discerning. But somehow when we get hold of the idea of truth, it becomes a license for the worst in us to come forward.

Some years ago I was involved in an e-mail sharing group of Lutheran theologians and pastors, where people would post comments and others would reply. There was a very heated exchange after a particular Churchwide Assembly, with hateful things spewed about ELCA leadership, about the Assembly voters, including personal aspersions and insinuations being cast to the four winds like sown seed. So I posted the comment that, while I understood that people were not happy with certain decisions and certain elections, perhaps this conversation could be continued with a mind to seeking and bearing some of the fruit of the Spirit in the discourse – love, peace, kindness, patience, self-control, among others. The posted reply to the group in response to me, from a prominent Lutheran theologian? “I don’t confuse bearing the fruits of the Spirit with fighting for the truth.”

Indeed? So when, pray tell, might we hope to ask for the Spirit’s gifts? Only when we’re having a lovely conversation over a glass of wine and a plate of cheese? In my experience one of the gifts with which I was not innately blessed is patience, and the time I most need to ask God for this spiritual gift is precisely in the midst of heated dialogue and difficult conversation.

But the honest reality about the Church throughout the centuries is that all too often the Church has also not confused the fruit of the Spirit with fighting for the truth. And so people were burned at the stake, whole cities were razed to the ground, entire cultures were obliterated. Vulnerable and broken people have been and still are ostracized from their communities, falsely imprisoned even, and abused, all in the name of truth. We shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter people who do not trust the Church – we should rather be surprised when we find some who have not been wounded in some way, or outraged at the wounding of others.

It’s difficult to reconcile this with what our Lord Jesus tells us today: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Of course, if Jesus means what he says then knowing the truth by continuing in his word will lead to freedom, not to hatred and destruction of others. It should be a source of joy and life.

There are two things we need to clarify to understand Jesus and find this gift of freedom. First, we need to know our need for freeing – do we actually believe we need it? And second, we’ve got the idea of truth all wrong. In fact, it’s not an idea at all. But first – freedom.

We may not be as audacious as Jesus’ audience today and say “We have never been slaves to anyone.” But we live with a fiction that says we are free when we are not.

Though we proclaim that this is a nation of freedom, we act as if we are the opposite. We are a nation of people who are enslaved to fear, enslaved to self-centered, short-sighted and destructive decision-making, and enslaved to patterns and ways of life which are killing us and others. That doesn’t sound very free to me.

This current national election is almost completely being run by exploiting the first enslavement, ignoring the realities of the second, and pandering to the third. So we’re told in ad after ad why we should fear a particular candidate –if he or she is elected, all horrors will ensue. And promises are made to make all things magically right, as if changing what is wrong in our society can be done overnight. And those promises are made without asking us for any sacrifice of our way of life – so we don’t have to change anything and we get everything.

Yet we all know that we’re going to wake up on Nov. 3 and still be afraid, still trapped in our destructive patterns and behaviors, and still facing a huge challenge of effectively running this country with justice for all. Because we know in our hearts that life is harder and more complicated than we’re being told by those running for office.

And we know we are not free. So we can put aside our indignation with Jesus and just admit it: we’re trapped and we don’t know how to get out. We don’t know how to let go of our fear of our enemies, our fear of the future, our fear of life. The Psalmist helps us name our fear today – and it looks like general chaos, mountains falling into seas, earth shaking, waters raging and foaming.

And, we don’t know how to get unstuck from the way we live at every level of our society including our own personal lives, ways which are not healthy and do not lead to life for others, for the environment, for the world, and even for ourselves. The Scriptures call these things sin – and say we are enslaved to them.

I’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise.

Not true? Then think of the littlest thing you do that’s not good for you or for others or for the world. A little habit. How often and how hard have you tried to get rid of that? Any luck? So what makes you think if you’re trapped in that that you’ve got any chance at the big stuff? And while we’re adding up our catalog of enslavements, let’s not forget our need to fight over our idea of truth, to the destruction of all who disagree.

I don’t know about you, but now I’m pretty interested in what Jesus has to say. I want to know what he means by continuing in his Word, and knowing the Truth, and being truly disciples and truly free.

Well, there’s one key thing we need to understand to see it all: the truth is not an idea to be held, known, or fought over. The Truth is a person. The Truth is Jesus.

After all, didn’t he tell us in John 14, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life?” Didn’t we hear in John 1 that the Word of God is not a book, it’s a person – the very intent of God for the world is incarnate, made flesh, one of us?

Martin Luther taught us that we know God’s Word in three ways: in the written Word, the Scriptures. But more important and real than that, in the Word of God proclaimed and preached and therefore alive. And most important of all, we know God’s Living Word, our Lord Jesus who rules our lives and hearts.

If God’s truth, God’s word, are written words only, doctrines to be held, axioms to be formulated, credos to be signed and posted, then we can possess them. Own them. And fight to the death over them. Only no doctrine, no credo, no axiom can save us, or free us.

But if Jesus is the Truth, Jesus is God’s Word, we have no control over him, because he is a living reality, the Lord of the universe, the proclamation and life of the Holy Trinity in our midst. And he is crucified and risen from the dead and leading us to abundant, rich life. This Truth, this Jesus, can and has saved us. Can and will free us. And if the Son makes you free, you are truly free, he says today.

So how are we freed? Because instead of our fearing the future, or fearing that we might not have the right truth, or others might be enemies of the truth, or distorting it, the real Truth speaks to us in love and says “Do not be afraid.” Do not fear, Jesus says, for I have overcome the world. Even if the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, you need not be afraid. Even death has no power over me. Do you think anything can keep me from loving you, loving all? Do you think that the worst future you can imagine can stop my restoring of the whole creation?

And we are freed from our enslavement to sin by the Truth who tells us the truth about ourselves and then offers forgiveness and grace. The Truth, our Lord Jesus, can be brutally honest with us, as he was to so many he encountered. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, we find ourselves a little frightened because he knows everything we have ever done. Jesus, the Truth, is utterly truthful with us, and lays us bare.

But he never leaves us there – because he is real and alive and has overcome the world. And so he offers us a place at the Table of life, forgiveness of all we have done, and love in spite of everything. Which gives us hope in a world that seems impossibly broken – because we are sent out to be that love and life for the sake of the world. To bring the same healing we have received, the same good news that the Truth is not a thing, but a loving, risen Lord of life. And is come to bring the world back to the life of God.

We often use the expression “facing the truth” to talk about honesty. As it turns out, the Truth actually has a face.

And that is the face we long to see – the visible presence of the invisible God, who at a point in our history came to be one of us and live with us. And be Truth for us.

It’s complicated to live following the real Truth instead of clinging to the idea of truth. Ideas can be grabbed and held and used to beat up others, and build walls of self-protection. They can help us define who’s one of us and who isn’t, and what we need to fear. Following the One who is the Truth means discernment, not absolute doctrine, conversation with God and each other, not firm certainty.

But the Truth looks us in the face in his Meal, in his Word, in each other, and says “do not be afraid. Be free to live in my love and forgiveness and transform the world. There is no one outside of my love, no one I do not desire to bring back into life with God. And that means you, too.” And so we rest our lives on the love of God in Christ we have come to know as Truth. What could be more freeing than that?

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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