What is Truth? – Chuck Rush (4/2/17)


What is the Truth?

April 2, 2017

John 8:31, 32; John 18:33-38


The population of humans has more than doubled in my lifetime, from 3.5 billion to 7.4 billion people today. And our technological development has proceeded at geometric pace, such that we live in unprecedented times. It probably even affects how we pursue the Truth.

At the moment, the quest for Truth is under assault in a way that could not have occurred before we had meme’s, retweets, before we were able to surround ourselves with other like-minded people that we trust enough to read and post articles that create trends, before the techies at Google and Facebook knew so much about us that they could re-inforce the insularity of the content we see on our personal feed.

Reams of social science long ago established that partisans tend to unconsciously overlook falsehoods that come from their own team, while being outraged by the errors of their enemies. Social media has simply magnified this effect, so we live in a more partisan environment than at any time in our lifetime.

Now add Donald Trump who speaks almost exclusively in brash bombast and hyperbole. Last week, he was interviewed by Time Magazine regarding several incidents where he made assertions that had no factual basis (wiretapping, the extent of voter fraud, you’ve heard the list; Time identified 15 tweets that are patently untrue out of a total of 298).

His essential response to the question of Truth was captured in his answer to his assertion that there had been a violent episode with immigrants in Sweden when there had not been one.

This is what he said, “I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right. When everyone said I wasn’t going to win the election, I said well I think I would.

So I am saying I was right. I am talking about Sweden. I’m talking about what Sweden has done to themselves is very sad, that is what I am talking about. That is what I am talking about. You can phrase it any way you want.

A day later they had a horrible, horrible riot in Sweden and you saw what happened. I talked about Brussels. I was on the front page of the New York Times for my quote. I said Brussels is not what it used to be, very sad what has happened to Brussels. I was absolutely lambasted. A short time later they had the major attack in Brussels. One year ago today. Exactly one year ago today. And then people said you know Trump was right. What am I going to tell you? I tend to be right. I’m an instinctual person, I happen to be a person that knows how life works.”[i]

A few years ago, Stephen Colbert called this “truthiness”. It sounds right- who knows whether it actually is- but it sounds like it should be, because, well, you know what I mean.

Only this isn’t late night comedy, this is the President of the United States defending himself in Time magazine. Time was flummoxed. So the front cover for that interview read, “The Death of Truth”.

Gary Kasaparov, the world chess champion and note human rights critic of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, has written several Op-Ed pieces, wrote on recently in the Wall Street Journal reminding us that this casual approach to the truth is a little more serious when you remember the extent to which the Russians are consciously trying to foment a general distrust in the Western media so that the overt propaganda of Russia doesn’t look so out of the norm.

His plea from all the millions of people that live in authoritarian regimes to all of us as citizens of the Leading Nation in the Free World, was please take the pursuit of Truth seriously. We need you to lead because all of the rest of us that live in Russia and other authoritarian societies look to you to set a higher standard.

We Americans take our liberties too much for granted. We forget that the rest of the world still looks to Lady Liberty as a potent symbol of the higher way. Facts actually matter and we need a reality based policy making.

And the quest for Truth is actually intrinsic to the spiritual life as the Gospel of John develops as a theme. In John, Jesus tells the disciples that “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.”

Christians believe that the Holy Spirit will lead us into “all Truth” as Saint Paul put it. Those images are powerful because they suggest that the Truth is not something you possess, so much as it is a quest unto the future. It is emerging. It is hope filled. The Spirit of God, so to speak, is pulling us forward as we evolve towards more concentrated forms of consciousness and social organization that becomes self-transcendent.

Socially just think of how we have multiplied our powers working in coordinated fashion as a species. The front cover of National Geographic this month features us as primates, then cave men with beards, then civilized people with shaved faces, and now emerging cyborgs, enhanced with technology- a tech eye and tech ear piece that makes us enhanced.

I like the future orientation. We come from the part of the Christian church that believes that the Spirit of God will reveal deeper, better Truth in the future. We can change and become better.

So now we support Gay families. Sure there are a couple of passages that condemn homosexuality in the Bible but that argument was never enough to end discussion on the matter.

We have to look back to what we used to believe, but we also have to be willing to change our minds because we have richer, better evidence today. As we say, “God is still speaking” and we cannot be limited by what people believed 2000 years ago. Instead, we build something newer better on the framework of tradition. As Mark Miller so wonderfully put it in song, through extending love to gay families (instead of hate or shame), we draw the circle wider. And you know what, we live in a better world with gay families thriving in our midst. It is a newer Truth, a richer Truth.

And I suspect that we are stumbling on a good model for the Spirit to guide us into a richer Truth by what we are doing with our conversations on race. The Truth with a capital T will emerge from the many truths that we share each from our own perspectives.

I wish religion was as simple as it was depicted for us when I was a child and the nuns taught us that we just needed to memorize the answers from the catechism and we would be okay. If you argued with the catechism all the time, you either left the church or you became a Jesuit. I grew up in a simple world where we were led to believe that the priest dispensed the Truth in short homilies and we just had to apply it in little truths in our lives.

Alas, it is a lot more complicated and contradictory than that. Our actual discussions on race are a lot more difficult are they not? And what is interesting is that no one person has the Truth with a capital T that we can just apply easily like ‘why don’t we just be nice to people’.

No, this is a quest in which we need each other, each out of our own perspective. And we have to really listen to one another too. On a subject like race, the more we understand each other’s stories, the more we realize how differently we view the world.

We just don’t see discrimination and prejudice in the same way if we haven’t been subject to it. And sometimes we just don’t realize how insensitive we sound in the presumptions that we make about the world.

It is one of those subjects that you peel back like an onion, but with each new (Positive) layer of understanding that you develop, you are more intentionally able to meet other people where they are at and all of us benefit by being able to live in a pluralistic multi-cultural spiritual community of understanding and respect.

We come at this project not with one “capital T Truth”. No, first we spend a really long time listening to a myriad of perspectives, many unique, that give us the panoply of nuance and shading that you get from different nationalities, different cultural upbringing’s, childhoods from different socio-economic backgrounds.

Out of all that difference, we pray for reconciliation, we act towards one another with an intention of developing forgiveness and real change from the past in our generation. We grow. We trust. We start to live a deeper community of faith with one another.

We release the Spirit of God and we build it into the traditions of the Church and how we relate to each other. And the next thing you know, you start having deeper, richer friendships with people that are really different than you.

A few years go by, you turn around, and something happens to you that is of real concern,- one of your kids is having trouble maybe- and  you see this outpouring of really helpful compassion from this wide variety of people that are among your inside circle of friends. And you know what? You have that great feeling that the world really has changed. Your life really has changed for the better. It is a little more profound than you would have imagined that it might really be.

And when a bunch of us live that together, we have weaved this new tapestry of many colors, many cultures, and if we could zoom out, what we would see in our tapestry is the outline of a “Capital T Truth” that is our communal life lived in the Spirit of God.

That drives back despair. It drives back cynicism. We don’t have to wait on Washington to deliver it. This “Capital T Truth” we share in love and we live in the way we share our lives together. Jesus assured us, “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth, the real Truth that you will develop together, that Truth… will set you free”.

Be free my friends. Amen.



[i] http://time.com/4710456/donald-trump-time-interview-truth-falsehood/?iid=sr-link1

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Sermons & Presentations

Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.