July 24, 2011 Gospel: John 14:1-7 Psalm 15 2nd Reading: Ephesians 4:25-32
This week I have the question from one of you “What is truth?” This question came to me in the context of some family strife and an argument where some people had more information than others, and some were unwilling to look at the information right in front of their eyes. So this is a question that we deal with everyday and we deal with when we think of Biblical truth, as well. And those two things aren’t unrelated. So on this big topic of truth, I am going to pick a couple of themes to explore.
Truth. Reality. Facts. Christians have been arguing over this kind of thing for centuries and denominations have split off from others because of how they regard truth. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod have a main difference in how they regard the truth of the Bible. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God—that every word in the Bible actually happened and was written down the way God intended it and has no errors or discrepancies or misunderstandings.
Now if that describes your view, have no fear. You are welcome here. I imagine we each have a different understanding of the Bible. It is the official stances of our church bodies that see us as divided. Christ says there is no male or female, citizen or illegal immigrant, inerrant-believing or inspired word of God believing. We are one in the Lord. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America says officially that the Bible is the inspired word of God. That means that God inspired the words of the Bible in human hearts and we wrote it down. Sometimes we may misunderstand what God said and sometimes human ideas can get in the way a little from what God intended. Each writer comes from his own perspective and some of that influences what gets written in the Bible. However we as ELCA Lutherans don’t see that as interfering in any way with the truth of the Bible.
This congregation is rather advanced in their understanding of the Bible, so I don’t feel I have to tiptoe around you. We were told in seminary not to rip the rug out from anyone—not to tell you more than you could handle in understanding the Bible as literature and as a living document that is always changing based on advances in translation and who is reading it and the context it was written in. But you’ve had some good Christian Education in the past that has taught you to look critically at the Bible. Not that you criticize it or say it is wrong, but that you analyze it and try to understand when some of these things were written and why and how the Bible evolved over time to include the stories and books that it does.
When you read the book of Genesis, for example, and you see two creation stories side by side and they aren’t the same. How can we understand the truth of the Bible? Is one of the stories right or wrong? Or when you read that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and you know from science that he’s not going to survive and then later in the story you read that even the cattle put on sackcloth and mourned and repented. Do you go home and put sackcloth on your cat or dog? Or do you consider that maybe there is a greater meaning behind these stories than the absolute fact. Or when you read in the Old Testament that a “young woman shall conceive” and in the New Testament that prophecy gets translated that a “virgin shall conceive,” how do you decide if that is a necessity in your belief or it doesn’t matter to you? I think Mary would have been pretty embarrassed that the whole world discusses her virginity so often!
There are facts and there is truth. Writing hadn’t been invented when creation first began, so that story was passed from one person to another over the camp fires, and you know what happens when you start that game of telephone. Two stories emerged. We get both, because they both have a greater truth than their facts to tell us. They tell us that creation didn’t happen all at once. They tell us that we are charged with caring for creation. They tell us that there is more than one way at looking at creation—a good lesson for those of us who argue about evolution verses creationism. We get a lot more truths than just facts so we should dig deeper to understand what God is trying to tell us, instead of arguing over who is right.
And the story of Jonah and the whale—it may be telling us to watch out for large fish. And it might be telling us something deeper about running away from God and how it doesn’t get us anywhere, but how God gives us second chances and can turn a hopeless situation into one of joyful celebration.
And the story of Jesus born of a virgin. Maybe it is about the miracle of virgin birth or about purity or something. And maybe it is telling us that his birth was very special and different from most, so we should pay attention to this Messiah.
When you read the Bible, even if you’re a literalist and you are believing all the facts just as they are written, and that’s fine, also look a little deeper and try understand the full truth of what is being said. There are so many layers to this amazing book. There is so much to take in. You’ll always find something new there.
And there are layers of truth in the people we know and interact with every day. Sometimes they seem like liars. Sometimes they don’t have all the information. But also look deeper and try to see why they can’t face that truth just then. Try to see it from their perspective what is true and what isn’t. There are few things in life that are so clear cut as to have right and wrong answers. Usually the truth is somewhere in between.
In the Gospel Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life. Some have taken that to mean that you have to confess the exact name of Jesus to be accepted into heaven or God’s love. Even the angel Gabriel didn’t get Jesus’ name right. He called him Immanuel—God with us. So what does it mean that Jesus is the truthi Certainly he told the truth, no matter how unpopular. He was honest with people of importance that they were missing out on something big because of all the distractions in their lives. He was honest with the nobodies—telling them parables, stories with details that weren’t about anyone factual, but told a deeper truth, that didn’t insult their intelligence, but made them think. He was honest with the disciples that he would have to die and be raised. And he lived his life in an honest way, not bowing to pressures from those who were rich and not sugar-coating his message for anyone. He was truth, pure and simple, and many times truth is not pretty.
When I was looking for hymns to help me tell the story of truth, I was surprised how few of them I found in the hymnal. Maybe truth isn’t a big Lutheran focus. But I would say trust is. We want to know if we can trust God and how to trust God and how to live in trust in an imperfect community where sometimes people let us down or we let others down. Trust is a lifelong journey. Think of trust growing or getting broken down in a marriage. We are born with trust. We don’t have any choice. It was beautiful to see the trust of the little children at Bible School. I know I will have a helpless infant soon who will fully trust in me because it will have no other choice. I will do my best to keep that trust, but I will fail at times. And we get to relearn that trust when we get older or other times we can’t do things for ourselves. Usually, people around us are helpful. Sometimes they fail us. Do you know people who are centered and generous and hopeful, no matter the facts and details? There are some people who are calm and trusting even when it seems so much is going wrong. For others of us, everything can be going right, and we are waiting for the other shoe to drop, for it all to fall apart.
Trust is an attitude we can cultivate that isn’t based on the facts, but the deeper truths that God never fails us. Sometimes God makes a different choice than we’d make. And sometimes we have bad things happen to us that are a consequence of our own actions or the sin in our society and world. But that is the world we live in, not God that has let us down. God is love. God is everything that is faithful and true and good.
So how do you cultivate trust in God? Some similar ways to cultivating it in any relationship: Daily conversation and open communication, sharing meals together, devoting time to the relationship, learning about the other, working side by side, paying attention to what is important to the other, compromising, being honest. All these things are going to be helpful in a loving relationship of any kind whether it be with a partner or with our partner we refer to as God.
What is truth? For Christians, I would say our main truth, is that God created us good, came as Jesus to show us how to live, and lives among us in our neighbors and enemies alike, that God loves us and is the love we share with others, and is a force that unites us as one with each other and the whole universe. I suppose that’s my creed, if I were to write one. You might have more in your creed or less. But I respect your truth and I am your sister in this Christian family, this family of God’s cosmos.