I was at the United Methodist Church of Purdys, North Salem, NY and First United Methodist Church of Brewster, Brewster, NY this morning as a last minute fill-in for their pastor. Services at Purdys start at 9; services at Brewster start at 11 and you are welcome to attend either service.
The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (B) were Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13, James 1: 17 – 27 and Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, and 21 – 23.
It is my habit to read the three scripture readings that constitute the lectionary readings for a particular Sunday and think of a title that somehow relates to the three readings. Sometimes this is easy to do; other times, like today; it is not so easy to do. The thing that makes it easy though is to understand and appreciate that that the Bible is a living and breathing document. It makes the readings especially easy to put into the context of the world around us.
So, in reading the three Scriptures and hearing Jesus and James call out the false leaders of their times, it wasn’t that hard to come up with the title. But the title for this message that you have been given, “Tell me the truth, but . . .”, is incomplete, if for no other reason than the entire title is a bit lengthy. The complete and full title is “Tell me the the truth but make sure it is my version of the truth.”
Of all the goals of humankind, the hardest to achieve is finding the truth. One could easily argue that the truth is subjective, dependent on time and place. We may, and many do, argue that the men whom Thomas Jefferson wrote about were a particular group of individuals and that today that group is a much broader, more inclusive group that goes beyond race and gender. It would be very difficult to apply a limited definition of equality in today’s day and age, though there are many throughout the world who would much rather do so with a straight face.
In the end, we are reminded of a very basic statement that Jesus Christ said to such a group that would seek to limit the freedom of others when he told them in John 8: 31 – 33, “seek the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Of course, those to whom that Jesus was speaking never considered themselves to be anything but free so it was difficult for them to realize that no matter how you may lead your life, slavery to sin and death is still slavery. And when you seek to impose your rules or your beliefs on others, as was the case of those who heard Jesus speak of truth and freedom, you seek to impose a degree of slavery on the people as well.
In these words that follow I seek to show you the truth, the truth as I see it. You may disagree with me on how I interpret what has been placed before me and that is your right. But I also hope that you will take on the challenge of finding out for yourself what the truth is.
I am the grandson of an Army officer and the son of an Air Force officer. This lineage gives me a slightly different view of the world than others may have. As the son of an active duty Air Force officer, I lived in four different localities before I began school and I attended five different elementary schools, two junior high schools, and one high school before my father retired in 1964. I would attend two other high schools from 1966 to 1968 as my father settled into post-service employment.
When I would mention this to my students sometimes, they sometimes saw me as some sort of trouble maker because they, truthfully, could not imagine someone moving practically every year of their life. But it was the life that I had and it is the life that has allowed me to do and see many things.
It was as a 7th grader in Montgomery, Alabama, that I would encounter the ubiquitous truth that schools could be separate but equal. What I remember about the first days of attendance at Bellingrath Junior High School was that my parents had to buy my books at a book store and the teachers were not going to give out the books on the first day of classes as I had experienced in previous years in previous schools in previous states. I did not know it at that time but tha was the way that the Montgomery, AL, school board dealt with the order that all schools had to be equal even if they were separated by the color of the students in the classes.
My exposure to the nature of racism and segregation wasn’t limited to attendance at an all-white school or having to buy my textbooks at a local book store. It also included a memorable encounter with the newly elected governor of Alabama, George Corley Wallace.
My grandmother had come to visit us from St. Louis and went to church with us on Sunday. As we left the church that Sunday morning, she somehow got separated from us. We, my two brothers and I, found her outside the church amongst the crowd and we asked how she got out. She pointed and said that she had been helped by that “nice young man over there.” To which we replied that that nice young man was the newly elected governor of Alabama, who had stood on the steps of the Alabama capital and defiantly announced that segregation would be the policy of the state of Alabama. A few months later, he would stand in the school house door and deny duly qualified black students the right to attend the University of Alabama. I might point out that this particular church was, in 1962, a Methodist church, and George Wallace was a Methodist.
We would move from Montgomery to the Denver area where I began studying for my God and Country award in Scouts and then from Denver to the St. Louis area. We would then make the move from Missouri to Memphis, Tennessee, and I would again encounter this idea of equality, perhaps a basic truth if you will, of education in southern states. There, the Shelby County Board of Education insured that students attending any school in the county received free textbooks. But the band and choral programs only received $50.00 for music, supplies and, if need be, repairs to the instruments. Other funds had to come from the Band Parent Organization that each school had. If your parents were in a high income group, your band was better equipped than those whose parents were less affluent, such as was the case with Bartlett or in lower social economic class, as much of Shelby County was back then
I could not help but begin to wonder why there was such a fundamental difference between the schools that I attended over the course of my junior high and high school years. It is entirely possible that there were other factors, factors perhaps that I was not aware of, but I encountered in those two years of high school in Memphis, Tennessee, many items that suggested that some individuals had a vision of the truth that conflicted with the vision of others. Let those who remember understand that I graduated from a high school in the Memphis, Tennessee, area in the spring of 1968, a spring that perhaps changed how we see our fellow man, both in this country and throughout the world.
And it would go beyond just high school and into the beginning of my college career. Before my family moved to Memphis in the summer of 1966 I began attending college at what was then called Northeast Missouri State Teachers College.
I do not know the exact conversation that took place between Wray Rieger, Dean of Students at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University), and my parents after I was selected for the Honors Program at Truman and before I began attending college that summer of 1966. But I am certain that Dean Rieger or someone from Truman called and expressed some concern and worry to my parents that I would be rooming with a 19 year old Negro from Dallas, Texas. And while I was surprised when I met Al, I discovered that neither my mother nor my father were, having cleared this pairing in advance. That the college would call on this was a surprise but equally surprising was the fact that my parents were not bothered by this random assignment of individuals to share a dormitory room.
Three years later, my grandmother would frantically call my parents to tell them that she had seen me leading a sit-in of the administration building on the Kirksville campus protesting the lack of available off-campus housing for black students enrolled in school. But I wasn’t leading the protest; I was merely standing next to my first college roommate, Al, as he and other leaders of the Black Students Association protested the unfairness of the housing or rather lack of housing available to them off-campus. I was there because Al and others involved were my friends and I believed that their cause was just. (see “Side By Side” for more on this). It just happened that the way the video was shot, it appeared that I, with my rather Afro-style naturally curly hair, appeared to be one of the leaders.
A few years later, I would get a phone call from my mother asking the full and complete name of Al, my roommate and friend. I told her it was Alphonso Jackson and she replied that he had just been named Secretary of Housing and Urban Development by George W. Bush. Sadly, because of the paths that we have taken and the choices we have made, Al and I are no longer friends, in part because I questioned his view of the truth.
We are faced with one of the greatest dangers that we can imagine and how we respond will do as much to dictate the future of this planet as perhaps if some life form from another planet were to appear out of the blue and tell us that the planet Earth is in the middle of a planned interplanetary galactic highway and we have less than twenty four hours to find somewhere else to live before the planet is destroyed by the demolition team (and yes, for some of you, that is the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!)
We have lost and are losing our ability to think creatively and independently. We would much rather have others tell us what to think if we are to think at all. We are being told what to believe and that those who would speak differently are at the very least liars and at the very worst, in religious terms, blasphemers and agents of Satan. We hear others say that there is only one true translation of the Bible and that it is not subject to interpretation. Perhaps that is the case; in which case, my thought that the Bible is living and breathing is faulty. And if the Bible is not living and breathing, then it cannot be read in the context of today’s world and we are unable to solve the problems that face us.
That period of time from 1962 to 1968 was a period of time when I began to find out who I was, both spiritually and mentally. I was given the opportunity to see the world for myself and not have to accept the views and definitions of others, possibly as the truth. I look around, and because of technology am able to see, hear and read the views of some of those who graduated from Bartlett the same year that I did and see that their view of the world hasn’t changed that much. And when I began reading the Scriptures for this morning, I came to the conclusion that one thing that we must all do is seek the truth, not the truth of others but the truth that God has laid out before us.
To read the Book of Solomon without giggles and some sense of embarrassment is difficult for some today Our sense of love has been so compromised by the “outside world” that we may not even begin to understand what the Song of Solomon is about or how it fits within the Bible.
You see, among other things, there is very little mention of God in the Song of Solomon or the books of Proverbs, Esther, Ruth, or Job, the books in the revised common lectionary that will be the source of the Old Testament reading for the next few weeks (from “Forgotten Books”). These books are a bridge between the history and law portions of the Old Testament and the prophecies. Those who put together the Old Testament put these books in to illustrate an alternative view of wisdom and a different understanding of God. There is more to life than a framework of laws that must be rigorously followed. The only way that one gains from reading these books, the Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Esther, Ruth, and Job, is approach them on their terms, searching and mediatiting on its meaning (from “What Does It Mean?”).
And that means being involved in the process, not merely letting someone else tell you what to think or what to do. Part of the reason that I chose to read the Scriptures today is that I like the translation that The Message provides. As I noted, the manner in which Ephesians was translated means that the selection starts with verse 16, a statement from James that we are not to get thrown off course.
What we hear from the Letter from James today is that we must first hear the words and then we can act upon what we hear. We have been given a great gift and those who would seek to incite anger and hatred in us, especially when it is done in the name of the Lord, only seek to destroy that gift. When we fail to think about what we are hearing, we can find ourselves, like James wrote, wondering who we are and what we are doing. But if we pause for a moment to truly hear the word, then we begin to get a glimpse of the One True Word, the Word that God gave to us and we begin to sense the truth that we may seek.
The Pharisees and other scholars confronted Jesus about His disciples’ lack of observance of the appropriate and proper rituals. Now, we as children were told repeatedly by our parents and we as parents have echoed those same words that one must wash their hands before eating. In part, we are merely echoing, for good reasons, what was the practice, habit, and culture of Jesus’ time. But we know why it must be done; the reasons why it was part of the culture then were lost in the passage of time.
When you insist on doing something because “that’s they way it has been done since time immemorial” you have lost the reason why. If you tell me that we are trying to keep contagious infections down, then I will listen perhaps a little more carefully.
Jesus wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t wash our hands before dinner; he was merely pointing out that doing so out of habit contains no meaning. We will hear these words later, when Peter is hesitant to minister to the Gentiles for fear that he will violate any number of Jewish laws. It isn’t what you take in, it is what you put out that is the poison in this world.
I am like so many others who grew up in the South during the sixties. I sang the song, “Jesus loves the little children of the world” but lived in a world where the little children suffered because of the color of their skin. I encountered racism and segregation, sometimes subtely, other times overtly, all the while hearing from various pastors that God loved us enough that He sent His Son so that we might be saved. And yet, many of those who also heard those words back then and even today have chosen to hear a different set of truths.
We see it in many churches today, or rather we don’t see it in many of our churches today, because those that seek the truth do not come to the church to hear it because they don’t believe that the truth can be found in the church, in the one place where it is supposed to be told. What they see in many churches today is a place that holds onto a truth that is antiquated and favors the rich and the powerful, the very groups that Jesus spoke out against. How many times has some powerful clergy spoken out against everything that Jesus spoke out against in the closing words of the Gospel reading for today, “ obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness” (Mark 7: 21 – 23) while doing many of those acts themselves. Such individuals tell you the truth but it is their truth that they tell you and not the truth that you seek to know.
I grew up in a time and place where I came to understand that the truth that was told by religious and political leaders was not necessarily the Real Truth, the Truth of God. I will admit that I am still seeking the truth, much in the same way that John Wesley began to seek the truth in such a way that the Methodist Revival began. And I know that there will be some who hear my words or read them on my blog but who will scoff at what I say and what I write. But if perhaps one hears these words or reads these words and then begins to think and question, then they will begin the path to the truth that will set them free.
Each Sunday that we come to church, we are asked to make a choice, sometimes verbally, sometimes physically, sometimes in our minds, and sometimes in our heart. It is the choice to say in some way, by our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions that we are truly followers of Christ, that we will in some way find the means to help others seek the truth and be set free.
The call is not to hear the truth that one wants to hear; the call is to hear the truth that will set you free. The call is not to simply say that you believe in Christ on Sunday but that you will believe in Christ when you leave this place. The call is to open your heart, your mind and your soul to Christ today and allow the Holy Spirit to come in, empower you and give you the strength to go forward from this place.