November 25, 2018
All Saints’ Church
Last Pentecost, Year B
Every once in a while the preacher has no choice but to force the congregation to indulge him in a bit of self-reflection. For my sins and yours, I’m afraid this is one of those Sundays, so please bear with me.
If you know me at all, it won’t be hard to imagine that as teenager, I was, well, unique. My friends and I were incredibly studious and over-achieving…but at the same time we thought that school—and along with it the underpinnings of the society in general--was absurd. I was as straight edged as a razor, and yet somehow I still managed to get into trouble. But no bother; I had it all under control. One day in my senior year of high school, I got a pass to go see the assistant principal. I thought maybe I was going to receive an award or some other sort of honor. So I was shocked to learn that, apparently, all the unexcused absences from my first hour class led the administration to think they could suspend me from school. I don’t know what came over me, but without flinching, I just looked the assistant principal in the eye and said, talk to any teacher here and they’ll tell you I don’t have time to be suspended, so thanks, but I’ll take a pass. And I walked right out of the office!
In short, I was a jerk. But as I’ve learned to appreciate since then, my adolescent struggle with power was rooted in a deep anxiety about what it means to live a dignified and meaningful life in our moment in human history. My school friends and I were a little bit too bright for our own good. We looked around at what was on offer and thought, there has to be more to life than this. The political leaders seemed small and ridiculous. The rewards of material wealth looked ultimately cheap and gaudy. Social status was given out arbitrarily to people who didn’t deserve it. Earthly power wasn’t really something to aspire to, because it was obvious it was built on the weak foundation of insecurity and pettiness. Where was beauty? Where was love? Where was TRUTH??
Ultimately, it was these questions that led me to be a Christian. When I first encountered the Gospel, I thought, wow, here are the answers to the questions I care about most. Jesus lived a life worth living and then gives us all that same life. It turns out that beauty IS love IS truth, and all these things rest in God.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus stands before the judgment seat of Pontius Pilate. What is Jesus’ crime? Healing the sick. Proclaiming freedom to the captives. Loving everyone he meets. Giving God to everyone. This was entirely too much for the rulers of his day. Because someone who is truly free will never allow themselves to submit to an unjust power. A person who has been set free by the Gospel can never become captive to the powers and principalities of this earth, never get trapped in the false temptations of wealth and status. Jesus said, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. The truth is that you and I—we have all been created in the image of God, and once you have discovered this fact, your dignity can never be stolen from any earthly power, no matter how powerful it pretends to be.
This is why Pilate feels threatened by Jesus. He knows that he has no power at all compared to Jesus. “So you are a king?” he asks Jesus. 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.”
Every one of us belongs to the truth. We are citizens of heaven, and in that place, Christ is Lord and ruler of all. The pettiness of power in these times has no sway over us. There are so many voices talking about power right now. They pontificate and babble on and on and on, 24 hours a day. But they are restless and easily distracted. Do not let them distract you. There is a higher voice, and that voice speaks the truth. Listen to that voice, and you will remember what power really is—that power is gentleness, that power is mercy, that power is rarely understood in this world. Jesus tells us what power really is: listen to his voice.
Back in my teenage days when I was wrestling with these questions, I read George Orwell’s book,1984. It’s a bleak vision of what society becomes when earthly power controls truth. The main character is a man named Winston Smith, and he has a job at a government agency called the Ministry of Truth. Like every organ of power in this dystopian society, the name of the agency is the opposite of what it really does. The job of the Ministry of Truth is to control the truth, because the people in power know that if you can control the truth, you can get people to do pretty much anything. They create a new language called Doublespeak with slogans like “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength.” As an ultimate sign of control, the Ministry of Truth tells everyone that 2+2=5. When Winston begins to question these so-called truths, the powers that be force him back into submission. There’s a terrible scene in the book where Winston finally becomes fully brainwashed and accepts that 2+2=5 when power tells him it is so. In that moment, Orwell writes, Winston “accepted everything. The past was alterable. The past had never been altered. Anything could be true.” And then he writes: “God is Power.”
But God is not power. God is truth. We must never forget the difference.
1984 had a profound impact on me, as it has on so many people. But reading it all those years ago, I never imagined I’d be living in a time when the truth would be up for grabs the way it is today. I never imagined that this country would be vulnerable to revisions of the truth spread by the Russian government. I never imagined that the truth of the crimes of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation would be up for debate. I never imagined that a government by the people would try to “erase” its own citizens. I never imagined that people would start to believe whatever power tells them just because power says it.
Earthly power will always in some way want to control the truth—but in Jesus we have a heavenly ruler who is himself the truth. 2+2 does not equal 5, and God is not Power. 2+2=4, and God is love. Why? Because Jesus is pure love. The powers and principalities may win the day. They may do it with lies and falsehoods and half-truths. They may convince us from time to time that we are not the children of God. But a victory won without the truth is a flimsy one. The truth will always prevail, because God is truth, and that truth is eternal. Truth came down to heaven to dwell among us, and that truth will set us free. Thanks be to God.
These are such strange times, and these days, it seems as if there is a prophet of some kind everywhere you look. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the messages. So if you ever question whether something is true or not, Jesus gives us a simple way to test it. He says, “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” We must listen to that voice. We must heed its call to love God and to love our neighbor with everything that we have. When we do these things, we belong to the truth, and there is no power that can ever separate us from the love of God. Listen to his voice. It is the voice of reason. It is the voice of compassion. It is the voice of God. And God is truth. Amen.