What a Way to End a Year
No, I haven’t disappeared. Just wading through shit (sorry to be so blunt) right now, and it’s hard enough to breathe, much less write. But I’ll go ahead and share my sermon from last Sunday, which I was excited about at the time I preached it, before other unrelated things blew up in my face and fogged my whole perspective. So now I don’t know if it was any good or not. You can tell me. (Actually, if it’s not any good, don’t tell me, as I’m feeling fragile, and I work really, really hard on this preaching stuff. I am trying to become really good at it someday, as I think it might be my special way to help the world, but it takes a long, long time to get really good at things, and I’m still practicing.) Anyway, I thought this was an appropriate way to end the church year:
(P.S. Audio here, if you’re interested.)
“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer . . .
. . . so begins Francis Bacon’s essay on truth from 1597. What is truth? It’s a question that has captured philosophers for millennia, though the skeptic Pilate scarce had the time to consider it. It was the only question he asked Jesus for which he did not care to hear an answer. He was interested in Jesus’ alleged kingship, where Jesus came from, what Jesus has done, but he did not listen to Jesus’ truth.
It was just as well, perhaps, that Pilate left the room without Jesus’ reply, because Jesus’ truth was hardly something that could be summarized and digested in a single conversation. Pilate was looking for evidence, not a whole new way of life.
When he did have room to answer, Jesus responded to Pilate’s whole interrogation in the predictable Jesus-y way: he evaded the questions, taking the dialogue his own direction instead. Jesus showed no interest in winning a debate. He came to earth to do one thing, he told Pilate: “to testify to the truth,” and such a testimony had little to do with an argument and more to do with how he lived and who he spent time with and that he healed people. His truth was embodied, not debated. He gave parables instead of lectures, because his truth was like stories that live in your heart. It wasn’t the kind of truth that could fit on a flashcard; it was the kind of truth that blew up the world.
How could all that living he had been doing fit into a measly question and answer session with Pilate? Jesus’ truth was a living, pulsing thing, which was not the solid sort of stuff an attorney could work with, but Jesus didn’t sweat over his lack of a defense. In fact, he embraced it. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he calmly told Pilate. “If it were, my followers would fight to prevent my arrest.”
And true to his word, there was no prevention, no defense, no attempted escape. The closest thing to a protest on Jesus’ behalf was the disciple who bravely or foolishly cut off a soldier’s ear in the Garden, but Jesus nipped that in the bud, healed his enemy’s ear, and told his beloved friend to put away his sword.
Here was a king without a military and a truth that could stand alone without an army. From Jesus’ perspective, his truth needed no defense. Wow. I have lost count of how many times in my lifetime I have heard the warning that truth is under attack in our country or world, and whether that is an accurate assessment of societal ills or not, I know that any attack—big or small, real or imagined—would not ruffle Jesus’ feathers a bit. He would look into our scared little eyes, gently remove the swords from our grasp, and say “There, there. Quit chopping people’s ears off with your biting rhetoric. How else will they ever hear me, unless you quiet down and let me tell my stories?”
You see, the major difference between Jesus and us is that he let people crucify him. We’ll fight tooth and nail to defend the truth whether or not the King asked for warriors. We’re so afraid he’ll lose without our help. But his kingdom is not of this world, and neither is his victory. The only way he fought back was to quietly come back to life after they beat him dead. He just lived, and that was his argument. Which is a hard game plan to follow for those of us who prefer a contact sport or an impassioned debate.
After college, when I trying to pick a seminary, I visited one campus where part of their sales pitch was to explain that if we chose their seminary, we would read more liberal theology than the liberals, so as to better defend ourselves against them. Something about that speech seemed off to me, even then. Needless to say, I did not choose that school; I opted for one where the truth was a wide world to explore rather than a battleground on which to stake a claim, where the truth was something with the power to make you come alive rather than something with the clout to make you belligerent.
Truth is less of a territory that needs defending and more like the energy that enlivens the world. Truth is the very spirit of Jesus Christ who fills you and guides you and moves you, and no one can take that Spirit away from you, so there’s no a need to take up a sword. So when you see people strutting around with the supposed truth strapped to their chest like a badge of honor, shut up your ears and run the other way, because that arrogance isn’t Jesus. Truth is not surety; Truth is patient discovery. Truth is the unrelenting willingness to transform and the ever-ready eye to see things in a new light. Truth turns you into putty, something of substance that can bend and arc and stretch and move along with the winds of the Spirit and the sudden startles of new insight. When you notice yourself growing stubborn and rock-like, that’s when you know you’re drying out and nearly empty: the truth is leaking or evaporating and you’re hardening like a lump of lifeless dogma.
I had to learn some of this the hard way on my journey to become a pastor because I had this call from God, and it was something I knew in my gut, but there were lots of people who didn’t believe me, and I could do nothing to prove it to them. Girls couldn’t hear a call from God to preach; it just wasn’t done. I knew it wasn’t done, and I’d never been one to rock the boat. But yet there was this stirring of truth inside me that countered the status quo. So I took that stirring and examined by every means I knew how: I prayed, I studied Scripture, I asked advice, I read books and articles and commentaries, I journaled. But having a good answer or the most-well documented research or the best logic wasn’t enough to convince my old church, my friends, my family. So I slowly began to learn that the Truth didn’t need to be defended at all. I don’t have to defend my vocation, my calling, my life to anyone; I don’t have to defend the truth. Because Truth is something inside me, and my job is to live it, not prove it. I don’t debate the truth; I seek to embody it such that you couldn’t kill the truth without killing me, because I think that’s what Jesus did. Truth was more than idea to him; it was an identity, a way of being in the world, and that was strong enough to stand on its own, without an army.
Truth isn’t really something you can diminish into a packaged defense—I mean, you can try, but you will always lose something of Truth when you reduce it like that. Fortresses are such puny holding grounds for Truth; the splendor will explode past the walls every time we try and contain it, so who are we to try and dig trenches?
I think this is why Jesus was reluctant to own up to his kingship when Pilate asked; he didn’t want to give the wrong idea about who he was. It’s hard to understand the kingdom of heaven when the heavenly kingdom is so dramatically different from all the kingdoms of earth. If we call Jesus King, we might get the wrong idea that King means something we’ve seen before—a dictator, perhaps, or someone who feeds off power, someone who demands, hoards, and wars, someone who conscripts labor for the sake of advancing his empire. So instead of explaining how he was different, Jesus showed us. This isn’t a King who needs defending; a God whose glory will be diminished if we don’t toe the line. This is a God with glory to share, glory to spare, glory he will allow to be smeared on a cross and hammered with nails. It is a truth-telling rather than a stance-shouting kind of glory. It doesn’t need to be brandished or flaunted or paraded or forged.
When they drug him away to be crucified, Jesus said, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” In other words, this is what God allows to happen to his truth-bearer. This is a King who allows his glory to be trampled and mocked without ever raising a fist. Who are we to think that we deserve to be believed in the world? Who are we to think we have a right to stand up and fight, when Jesus himself laid down and died? Mind you, I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus gave up on the truth. I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus ever subjected himself to the empire. I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus ever compromised an inch of who he was. But he radiated his truth in such a nonviolent, such a non-egotistical, such a non-domineering way that only the most sincere saints of God have ever come close to emulating his truth-bearing.
Miraculously, God entrusted us with the truth, entrusted us to pass it along the same way Jesus passed it along. But it didn’t take long in human history before soldiers would place the sign of the cross on their shields in hopes that God would help them win a battle, which is perhaps the most sacrilegious use of the symbol of the cross ever. And to this day, we find ways to decorate our shields with crosses, to use truth like a prop to bolster our opinions and give us a sense of superiority over others. But this isn’t the way of the Kingdom, and if we’d listen to Jesus, we would know what kind of King he really is, and by following him we’d become citizens of this strange, strange kingdom.
On my way out of the library this week, I stopped in front of a piece of art titled, “Thanks and Praises.” It depicted a circle of African-American women in long, flowingly, brightly colored dresses-yellow, orange, gold, green, blue red. With arms raised high above their heads, they were dancing, worshipping. Behind them, the background started dark then gradually turned to light, from left to right as if their story was one of light breaking into darkness. And it occurred to me that women who have known the horrors of human slavery do not offer praise and thanks, unless the Light that has come into their world is wholly different from the slave-owner. They pay homage to no king unless it is a King who sets them free. They dance for no owner, no master, no chief, no commander. They dance for the Truth that brings freedom.
It is toe-tapping Truth, this coming of Jesus into the world. You don’t worship him for his power, because he doesn’t wield power over you. You worship him for laying his power down in order to set you free. By God, this is a King like none other.
This is a King like none other. King is almost the wrong word, isn’t it? ‘Cause we’ve never seen anything like this before. We’ve never met a king like this One before. What is truth? How bewildering to discover Truth is a person, Truth is a spirit, Truth is that thing which won’t stop living even after you kill it. We’ve never seen anything like it. It’s enough to make you dance your praises. It’s enough to make you humble. It’s enough to change everything.
All praise and glory be to Christ our King, the bearer of Truth. Amen.