Me trying to get a little clever in my sermon today. Based on John 8.
We have spent well over 2000 years trying to interrogate for the truth. Facing his accusers at a trial around 400 BCE we find Socrates turning the question of truth inward claiming that is the unexamined life is not worth living. In the New Testament Pilate seemed to have some cynicism at Jesus’ trial asking, “What is the truth?” And from the witness stand on the big screen we heard Col Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, thunder, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” It seems that the notion of living truthfully or of uncovering the truth of life is somehow bound up the mechanism and structure of law.
But even in these three simple accounts that I offered, which to be honest were just the first ones that came to my mind, there is a tension if not a completely strained relationship in how the law can examine truth and life. Socrates feels falsely accused for corrupting the youth and instead of submitting to the verdict and examination of the law he upholds the virtue of self-examination. The case of Pilate is perhaps a little more ambiguous. Whatever his tone or posture behind asking the question what is the truth it seems clear that whatever the testimony he hears or the public’s intent Pilate would end up doing whatever was most politically expedient. And finally the scene I referred to was from a movie called A Few Good Men. It is a military courtroom drama where two soldiers are being set up to accept a guilty verdict for the murder of another solider. The movie climaxes as it is uncovered that this was not simply a case of murder but that there was an illegal command called a ‘Code Red’ that was given to execute this soldier. And so here the law uncovers something that everyone in the military knows is operating apart from the law.
It seems that we have attempted to create elaborate and powerful structures to find and determine the truth. We are obsessed with wanting a final verdict on matters. And this idea spills out into our relationships and our beliefs. How can we determine the truth? We create our own elaborate and internal structures that we at times submit to and at times evade. Are they telling the truth? Should I tell the truth? Can we both be right? Are we both wrong? Can anything be completely true? What does that mean? What do I do when I am not even sure what the truth is? The conversation gets tossed back and forth and suddenly you find yourself distinguishing between capital ‘T’ Truth and small ‘t’ truth. And by the end of it you might just start thinking that you have somehow missed the point.
In the interest of being a little clever I don’t want to talk about capital ‘T’ or small ‘t’ truth; I want start with no ‘t’ truth; I want to start with Ruth. Who is Ruth? Ruth is the name I have given to the woman in the story just before our reading. She is a well-known woman if not by name. Ruth is the woman caught in adultery. Somehow or other this group of religious leaders and legal experts caught this married woman sleeping with another man, where the man ended up I could not say. And as if to emphasize the point they say to Jesus, “Ruth was caught in the very act of committing adultery.” The law of Moses, the law that helps to maintain and build our community as one of truth and justice commands that we stone Ruth. Here we have yet another interrogation for the truth. Jesus, then, not appealing to codified and fixed law stoops down and makes outlines in the shifting sand and then, not denying the law, simply asks that the one without sin should cast the first stone. Whatever it was that Jesus wrote in the sand and whatever the leaders thought, it was clear that they would have to take responsibility for this execution. The truth of their own lives would have to account for upholding their notion of truth. Knowing the truth in this instance meant bringing death. But in the end there is no condemnation of this woman. The truth, or I mean Ruth, has been brought to light and because of this she was no longer the pawn of those who had power over her. Ruth was set free.
To continue trying to be clever, all this makes me wonder if what we have in our reading this morning was actually the result of a misunderstanding, the crowd may have been a little hard of hearing or distracted. We know that the Gospels were originally transmitted orally. So what if Jesus was actually saying that if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and [reaching out his arm to draw her close] you will know Ruth, and Ruth will set you free. I will try not to travel too much further in my poor Bible study here but I hope that this passage is given something of a different feel, a different way of engaging you. The legal proceedings of the religious leaders were meant to ferret out the lies they believed Jesus was telling. They leveraged their legal structure to prove him technically false so that they could confirm and entrench their own notion of truth.
Part of the shift that Jesus makes, and I think this is important, is that Jesus’ actions revealed how the structure, the law itself, was being used falsely. Jesus it seems reversed the direction of the relationship between truth and falsehood. Through the law these religious leaders use truth as a tool to secure their power. Jesus, rather, points to the laws and expressions that should emerge out of the community’s commitment to life and freedom. In this account it appears that you will not know truth, I will go further and say that you will not know Jesus unless you also know Ruth; unless you know the Ruths of this world who serve as pawns for establishing the so-called truthfulness of particular cultures and nations.
The last few Sundays here at church have been on community and how we cultivate good practices that sustain and nourish a church community. So what does this particular shift look like? How can we live truthfully if the structure of our church, our culture, our economy, or our nation may be false? Let’s start small and perhaps in an extreme example. Let’s start again with Ruth. Ruth is married and in an abusive relationship. Her church however, upholds marriage as the highest calling and expression of faithfulness. The church teaches that there are times in life that we suffer but God works for good in all circumstances. The church teaches that all things are possible with faith. So the woman stays at home and tries to live truthfully and gets beaten regularly. Ruth’s church apparently does not know Ruth and is not living truthfully.
There is a famous scene in the movie Apocalypse Now in which the main character, the former Colonial Walter Kurtz, talks about fighting in the Vietnam War. He reveals how the soldiers who were trained to drop bombs on villages were not allowed to write swears on their airplanes because that would be too obscene. Despite the many good people in the military I sometimes wonder if it is possible to live truthfully in the army’s community.
Taking some note of the upcoming election in the United States I also wonder sometimes, is it possible for a politician to speak truthfully? I don’t say this as some dismissive cynicism but as a simple observation of the nature of how modern politics works. Promises are made and hope is communicated but the basic structure of modern politics is the acquisition and preservation of power and not the good of the people. Politics is a thoroughly compromised expression. And, again, I don’t say that to dismiss it or deny the many good things that can come from it but I say it as a sort of honest wondering about its structure.
As I preparing for this message I had to stop and ask whether I could write a truthful sermon on a laptop that may well have been built in a factory requiring suicide nets around its building in order to keep workers from permanently ending their shift. Is it possible to live truthfully with our money, if it is caught up in a system whose basic motive of growth and profit is placing tremendous strain on the world and its inhabitants?
And to move from the tragic to the absurd; yesterday I heard that NFL quarter-back Tim Tebow put a patent on his now literally trademark ‘kneeling in prayer’ so that he could preserve the purity, the ‘true’ nature of its expression.
It would appear that much of our life is based around false structures using a system of interrogation to preserve its own truth. The lies do indeed run deep. . . . But this is all just a bit dramatic don’t you think? I may as well start quoting from the Matrix at this point. As I sat with this I couldn’t help thinking that is Paul in the book of Roman lamenting what he sees around him and speaks of how people have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. As he proceeds he confesses that no one has escaped the length and breadth of this false power, this death-dealing power that is called sin. In Romans 7 Paul outlines the dizzying reality that he himself does not always know what he is doing; that he has been sold as a slave into sin, into a powerful structure of lies. Thinking about sin and falsehood as a thoroughgoing and complete structure it makes sense why Paul is so adamantly opposed to the idea that good works can attain salvation. It is like being an honest accountant for a corrupt company.
If we follow this line of thinking it is true that despair will likely become part of our truthfulness. To put it mildly this is a big problem. But despair is not all. We remain in our faith precisely because we believe despair gives way to something else. Paul culminates in despair in Romans 7. I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? And how does he reply? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. . . . There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. This is a striking line in light of Ruth, the woman caught in adultery. As she was found with Jesus there remained no condemnation. Ruth was no saint, but she encountered the Truth and truth set her free.
Living truthfully as the church and as the community of God is nothing if it does not recognize and wrestle with the structure of lies that exist in the world and of God’s truth as that which releases and brings life. This image of truth transforms how we understand our worship and our work. We pray and we confess because at times we are simply staggered by the powers we see working in and around us. We practice the small acts of wise and appropriate truth-telling because we want to move out of deception. We sing ancient songs because we long to connect with the resources that helped past generations. We explore our gifts and give thanks because here, even here, overwhelming beauty can still be found and made. Our committees become strategic gatherings responding to the implications of a truth that releases us from being condemned. We help one another become aware of when general church meetings are more about leveraging particular agendas than discerning the truth and requirements of the good news. And we celebrate, we celebrate as richly as we can because this can be the best offence against the lies that pull us down and pull us apart.
And the trick in all of this, that simple, small, but absolutely crucial element of avoiding deception; the call of keeping ourselves from playing truth when we are actually in hands of a lie is to keep ourselves from forgetting Ruth. Whatever our direction in life or church we need to remember Ruth. Who is affected by the truth we uphold? And if Ruth is suffering or being used for it we need to give that careful attention. We can’t simply interrogate from some abstract truth, God’s truth is what emerges as new life emerges.
The Bible is not much concerned with capital “T” or small “t” truth but with no “t” truth. So if you desire to follow Jesus in truth you will likely end up knowing Ruth and as best you can remain on the side of Ruth, because just maybe this Ruth will set you free.