Being Right vs. Belonging to the Truth

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, April 14, 2019

Several of us were gathered in my office last Sunday afternoon and I mentioned that Palm Sunday and Holy Week were coming up, and this month’s theme, which is “truth.” Neal Ferreira spoke up and said, “Didn’t Pontius Pilate have something to say about truth?” And then he opened up a bible and found it, there in the gospel according to John! 

None of the four gospels are accurate history; they are different versions of the Jesus story, with differing sources, all written down decades after Jesus died. John is the latest, and the most mystical. In the reading we heard this morning, Pilate and Jesus are talking, and Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus is speaking mystically, but Pilate takes him literally and asks, “So you are a king?” And Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And then Pilate asks, “What is truth?” (see John 18:36-38)

This is Palm Sunday, which marks the day when Jesus and his followers, after a lengthy period traveling around the countryside teaching, preaching, and healing, they come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. The story tells us that Jesus is welcomed as a hero, with people lining the streets, waving palm branches, and cheering “Hosanna!” But the crowd, which adores Jesus on Sunday, will turn against him before the end of the week. The gospels tell a painful story of betrayal, suffering, and death. 

We could talk about how much of the story is historically accurate. We could argue about this, and people do, though no one knows for sure what really happened. But who wants to waste their time on arguing?  Because there is plenty of truth in this story, isn’t there? Hard truth, like when people say they are with you, that they support you, and then they turn against you; they even lie to you and betray you. And there’s the truth that when people gather in a crowd, especially when they are anxious or afraid, things usually don’t go well. And the truth that people who speak out and say challenging and uncomfortable things, especially if they threaten those in power, there’s often a cost to that.

On Friday I will be here from noon until three in the afternoon, holding open a space for us to gather, those of us who want to come and be here, with our lovely stained-glass Jesus before us. We’ll hear the account of Jesus’ last days from Mark, which is the earliest gospel. We’ll sit with that hard and sad story, and with the silence, and try to be open to what we need to hear. We’ll watch and wonder how this old story might speak truth to our lives in these days. I need this, it’s how I get ready for Easter, and if you do too, please come, and know that you can stay for as long or as short as you wish. 

Here’s what I know to be true. The way to get to light and joy is to by passing through the shadows and the struggle. To face what is hard and fearful, as best you can. To trust that you will have companions on the way. That even death is not the end of the story. That in the end, love wins. And we are invited to put our faith and hope there. To trust that a faithful life is made by putting one foot in front of the other, and by reaching out your hands, by being open. It’s more about how you act than what you say.

It pains me and saddens me that so many people see religion as about having the right answers. That they equate faith with certainty. And if that works for you, then I suppose there’s no harm in it, as long as you don’t use your faith to oppress others. But if you read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry, it doesn’t seem that Jesus was one of those literalists. He saved his harshest criticism for the Pharisees, those who interpreted the law strictly and were self-righteous about it.I’m grateful that in this tradition, we can bring an openness and spirit of curiosity to religious and spiritual questions. That we have some spaciousness within which to wonder about these things, and ask, “Is there truth in here that is life-giving for me? Or am I called to explore another way?” I love and am grateful for the fact that it was the openness of the UU church that helped me to find my way back to a more lively and liberating version of Christianity, and that this search brought unexpected joy, as I found I could reimagine and reinterpret and redeem language and stories that I thought had been lost to me.

When I was in seminary I had the privilege of studying with the feminist theologian Carter Heyward, and, in my final year, working as her teaching assistant for her Christology class. Among her many books, I have particularly benefitted from this one: Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right: Rethinking What it Means to be Christian. Carter says she initially thought of the book as a response to the so-called Religious Right, but she came to see “those who are right” as “all persons whose socio-political commitments are hardened fast… people who are so sure they’re right they don’t seem to notice moral complexity and don’t want to be bothered by those who do. ‘Those who are right,’” Carter says, “can be any of us… (and this is most of us at least some of the time), so set in our ways or judgments that we assume we ‘have it’ politically, intellectually, or spiritually.”

In other words, there are people on the left who can be as sure and self-righteous as those on the right, as certain they have cornered the market on the truth. And this is not the approach the best religious teachers, ancient and modern, commend to us. There’s a new movie just out this weekend, called “Mary Magdalene,” which tells the story from the perspective of the woman who has been vilified over the centuries for her friendship with Jesus. The movie, described as “the reverent feminist take on one of the Bible’s most misunderstood women,” portrays Jesus as more of a mystic than the church later made him out to be. And I can’t wait to see it! But there are those in earlier ages who also had a more expansive view of Jesus, like Jalal al-Din Rumi, the mystic in the Islamic tradition; he wrote, Jesus “was teaching in a new way.” Do you know these lines Rumi wrote about the seeking the truth?  He said, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

A week ago I went to hear Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers speak about their new book, called I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening). The subtitle is A Guide to Grace Filled Political Conversations. The authors introduce themselves as, “Sarah from the left, and Beth from the right.” They have fundamentally different perspectives, and they’re committed to being in conversation with each other. They say the way out of our current cultural divide is to be talking to, and listening to, one another. Especially listening to those you disagree with. They talk about the importance of prioritizing the relationship, and say, “You have to give way sometimes.” In the amped-up rhetoric and heated disagreement of these days, they urge us to “Be passionate about being reasonable.”

In John’s gospel, Jesus says he came “to testify to the truth.” He says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” I hoe you can you hear this in a wide and inclusive way. As an invitation to belong to, and be in touch with, that which is good and true and just. To seek after wisdom and mercy; to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. To belong to the truth implies a certain maturity, the ability to take a wider view. So we might, as the hymn says, “build the common good and make our own days glad.”

Could this be the invitation of Holy Week: to practice being in touch with, and belonging to, the truth? Come when it may, cost what it will. Coming down to earth, finding that place of quiet calm where we can at least listen to those whose perspectives are different from our own? Rather than being part of the crowd, which is so easy swayed from one idea of right-doing to another, how about we listen for a deeper and quieter voice? How about we consider the lowly donkey who, Mary Oliver writes, “as usual, waited.”

Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.
(“The Poet Thinks of the Donkey,” by Mary Oliver)

My spiritual companions, let us keep on moving forward. Let us keep on being brave, and being patient with what is still unresolved and unfolding. May these lines from the old hymn be our prayer, and give us strength and courage in these days:

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come. 
’Tis grace that brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.

Take care, my friends, and remember you are part of a great and abiding Love.