“What Is Truth?”

Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for Trinity Sunday, 6 June 4. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Proverbs 8: 1 – 4, 22 – 31; Romans 5: 1 – 5; and John 16: 12 – 15.


It is highly ironic that on this day when the United Methodist Church celebrates "Peace with Justice" Sunday, the world is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy. For my family, at least, there is also the irony that but for an ulcer, the landings themselves would be more than just a major note in history.

In 1943, my grandfather, a Colonel in the Army, was on leave and in the States for my father’s graduation from Cornell. As he prepared to return to the island of Aruba in the Caribbean where he was commander of the Army base, the Army decided that he had completed his overseas tour and he needed another assignment. This new assignment ultimately was to be commander of an Infantry Regiment that would be part of the Normandy invasion forces. During this period, his ulcers flared up and, because he could not eat GI food, he was retired for physical disability in the line of duty in March 1944. But for that, I suppose today’s celebrations would have a far different meaning for my family and myself.

But we have to be careful about the celebrations that take place. We must make sure that these celebrations are for and about those who served and sacrificed so that others could be free today. If we are not careful, these celebrations could easily, if they have not done so already, turn into a celebration of war.

And that would be a dishonor to all who, civilian and military, sacrificed their lives in World War II and all previous wars and to what freedom is all about. War is about ignorance. People go to war because they fear what they do not know. People go to war because they are not willing to learn about others and find out how they think or act or do things. People go to war because their leaders tell them lies and distort the truth, making it seem as though they must fight for what is theirs. Wars are fought because people are convinced that they know the correct way to do things and no one else does.

We need to be reminded that the United Methodist Church has a long heritage of opposition to war going back to John Wesley in the 18th century. "War", John Wesley said, "is a ‘monster’ that cannot be reconciled to ‘any degree of reason or common sense’ — a monster bringing miseries to the warriors and to all those in the warriors’ path. Wesley also said that, "war is too often caused by national leaders, who in disregard to their people, fail to find more creative ways of settling disagreements."

There are those who say that war is inevitable, a result of two competing visions or forces. One historian, Victor David Hanson, has concluded that war is the natural state of mankind. (Newsweek, 31 March 2003)  There are those who say that some wars are justified, that sometimes one must go to war in order for good to triumph over evil. But no war can ever be justified; for wars cause destruction and death, wars bring suffering.

No matter how hard we try, the only inevitable thing in war is that someone is going to die. And one death by unnatural causes is one death too many. The ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus once said, "Nobody is stupid enough to prefer war to peace. Because in times of peace children bury their parents, whereas, on the contrary, in times of war parents bury their children."

We may find ourselves in war, simply because there are no other alternatives. The forces that bring war may be so great that combat, death, and destruction must come. But such a response must always be the last one, the one that we are forced to make when there are no alternatives.

We must work to insure that this choice is never forced upon us. That means that we must work to eliminate those factors of life that cause war: racism, poverty, greed, corruption, must be eliminated. We must work as strongly for peace as we seemingly do for war.

The problem is that we do not truly understand what peace is. We think of peace in terms of not being at war. We lived through the period of time known as the "Cold War" thinking we were at peace. Even the B-52 bombers that stood as sentinels against the Soviet Union wore the slogan of the Strategic Air Command, "Peace is our profession", on their noses. But this peace was only the product of an understanding that if the other side were to attack, we would attack in kind, leaving the world a desolate and dead planet. This theory that our forces would counter other forces was known as mutually assured destruction. The acronym for this theory, MAD, was very much appropriate.

But peace is not the absence of war; it is the establishment of conditions that prevent wars from ever happening. We speak of the peace dividend whenever a war is ended; it is the transformation of a war economy to the production of goods used in peacetime. But weapons are still manufactured and sold; if we cannot buy them for our own country, we find some country that will. And the causes of war, racism, poverty, greed, corruption all remain to fester and inflame those who are its victims.

It comes as a surprise to people but the motto of the Central Intelligence Agency is a quote from the Bible, specifically John 8: 32, "and you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." These words of Jesus actually refer to freedom from the bondage of sin through obedience to Christ but are quite apropos for today. Freedom is ultimately found by the knowledge of truth, both within us and within our groups. In knowing what the truth is, we are able to make choices and forced to rely on others to tell us how to think and act.

Wisdom, the subject of the reading from the Book of Proverbs for today, is our ability to gain the truth, to find it and use it. In Chapter 7 of the Proverbs the attention was on the fool and the traps used to catch him or her. In Chapter 8, there is a shift to praising wisdom. Wisdom is not limited to a select few but rather, as the writer of Proverbs suggests, open to all who seek it. Wisdom cannot be hidden through privacy or deception, available to only a select few. The words of wisdom can be trusted and the offer of grace found through wisdom is often beneficial. The words of truth given through wisdom contrast with the lies of wickedness; wisdom will ultimately deliver on the promises made and not simply tease the reader or listener with offers of better things to come. The value of wisdom goes beyond the simple value of gold or silver; it is impossible to pay for wisdom with gems or other desirable things. Wisdom is the ultimate in priceless objects, inestimable in value. In the Old Testament, wisdom acted as God’s dynamic word; in the New Testament, Jesus is the personification of wisdom and the Word of God.

Understanding what we are required to do, to really know what the truth is does require a great deal of wisdom. It requires that we act and think for ourselves, in other words, we search for the truth. There are those who would naturally not want us to think for ourselves, to act without their guidance. In the very act of acting independently, of thinking for one’s self, we begin the great act of dissent.

And dissent is the one thing many organizations, especially churches, do not want. Dissent is stifled simply because it runs counter to the wishes of the leaders or power brokers. I find it interesting that there are those who fear the liberal voice within a church, so much so that they are willing to finance such opposition. The New York Times two weeks ago reported about a foundation that is privately funding many conservative and fundamentalist Christian organizations. While they did not directly support or finance the "divorce decree" presented at last month’s General Conference in Pittsburgh, they did put the text on the proposal and the author’s speech in support of the proposal on their website.  ("Conservative Group Amplifies Voice of Protestant Orthodoxy", Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick, The New York Times, May 22, 2004.)  And one report from the same General Conference indicates that those who supported the more conservative positions that were presented but failed are looking to prevent more liberal delegates from attending the next General Conference in 2008. (From Connections, June 2004, Barbara Wendland, publisher and editor)

The stifling of dissent, be it at large meetings such as General Conference or at small meetings such as the local church, is one reason why church membership is declining. People will simply not come to churches where they find that their voice will note be heard. The Gospel tells us that Jesus will look for the single sheep, yet people encounter situations where their thoughts and words are pushed to the back, simply because it is a different thought or they say something different. Why should someone want to come to such a place? I will argue that one reason is that they see in churches today autocratic and rigid bodies, not willing to accept new or fresher ideas. In too many churches today, dissent or the presentation of an alternative viewpoint is simply not welcome. It is almost as if the majority view of the congregation is the only idea that will be accepted.

In some cases, this must be true. If the congregation votes to install a covered walkway from the parking lot to the church entrance or to buy a new organ to replace the venerable but worn-out pump organ first purchased in 1865, then that is the will of the church and there can be no dissent. And I state this knowing full well that our own literature, the flyer that we give to visitors, states just that situation.

Members of this congregation wanted to purchase a bell but the trustees objected, stating that the building costs must be met first. But this congregation voted to purchase a bell, collected the money and installed the bell over the opposition of the trustees. It is also noted that the trustees refused to ring the bell. But we ring the bell to mark the start of the services each Sunday and we were reminded at our meeting with Dennis Winkleblack two weeks ago that the trustees serve at the will of the church council and the congregation.

I will however disagree with the idea that the majority of the congregation can determine the meaning of the Gospel. The Gospel message is the one part of the church that cannot be determined by a majority vote; it must be determined by one’s own conscience. This has happened in churches past and I know that many preachers who have gone against the will of the majority when it comes to preaching the Gospel have run into trouble. Those who saw in the Gospel that we are all the same in God’s eyes (remembering Paul’s words that there is no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free) would clearly run into opposition from those who felt that the Bible gave credence to the separation of races. But it is the people who hold to the belief of inequality that must change their views, not the preacher. For the Gospel makes no distinction between individuals in their beliefs, no matter how hard one may try. A preacher must present the message, as the Holy Spirit guides him or her, not by the wishes of the congregation. Did not Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading that it would be the Holy Spirit who would come and guide us in our understanding?

The truth is that being a Christian requires us to be a dissenter. It requires that we look at the Gospel message and apply it to the settings around us, not let the settings around us determine what the Gospel message will be. It means that you cannot stand back and let injustice triumph over justice; you cannot stand back and let evil triumph over good and righteousness.

Many times you will be in the minority, only because the majority are people who take no action and do not want to be bothered. But always remember what happened to the early disciples in Acts.

When they heard [that the apostles had disobeyed the high priest’s order], they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people … said to them, "Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you proposed to do to these men. … If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail, but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. In that case you may even be found fighting against God!" (Acts 5: 33 – 39)

What I fear will happen, if it hasn’t happened already, is that people who want to dissent or make their voices heard will stop coming to church and seek God elsewhere. This means that churches will be filled with those who seek softness and comfort over salvation and power over servanthood. And should I fear this outcome? Remember that when Jesus came, He often dissented with the majority view. He sought to bring the disenfranchised into the church, he sought to give voice to the poor and the oppressed; yet today, those same views are quickly pushed to the back or even outside the church. To paraphrase a common phrase of the conservative evangelicals, "Where would Jesus be in today’s church?"

Our faith comes not from reading of the words of the Bible; it comes from our belief in Christ as our Savior. Because of our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, we are saved and at peace with God. Yes, this peace with God often brings suffering here on earth. Paul was very clear in his letter today that we are going to suffer for our faith and for what we do. But the rewards that we receive will ultimately outweigh what we must endure here on earth.

We are asked to be God’s representatives through Christ here on earth and it is often an uneasy task. We live in a world that lives by Exodus 21: 23 -25, "that if any harm follows [whatever action was taken against you], you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." (Exodus 21: 23 – 25)  It is a world in which for every action taken against us, we seek an equal but opposite reaction.

But we forget that Jesus said to us, "You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away." (Matthew 5: 38 – 42)

It is tough being a Christian because we are asked to do what we do not want to do. And when we try and fail we often seek other ways, fearing that Christ is not who He said He was, is and will always be.

But the truth is that there is one God, worshipped by many and worshipped in many different ways. The truth is there is one Son, sent by the one God to die on the cross and be resurrected so that we would gain our freedom from sin and death. The truth is that there is a Holy Spirit that enables us to be the representatives of Christ on earth. Through the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit we find the strength, the power, and wisdom to meet the demands of this world and seek a better, more peaceful world.

Our prayer this day should be like the one given by the Reverend Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ gave at a General Board of Church and Society event during the recent General Conference.

"May God bless you with discomfort…

At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with discomfort…

At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears…

To shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness. . .

To believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done AMEN (A Franciscan Benediction, printed in Connections, Number 140, June 2004, Barbara Wendland, publisher and editor)

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