Sunday Worship, November 21, 2021 - "Shades of Truth"


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps


Texts:  2 Samuel 23: 1-7; John 18: 33-37


         November 22, 1963, was a warm, an almost spring like day in Washington, D.C.  Morning classes had just ended and we were just walking into the Arts and Sciences building when a student ran out and shouted, “Kennedy’s been shot!”  The classrooms had televisions for remote lectures but every set was tuned to CBS and Walter Cronkite reading the bulletins of the horrendous news from Dallas. 


        We just stood there watching and then Cronkite who by that time had begun losing his composure told us that Kennedy was dead.  Almost immediately all of us began to wonder who had killed our Camelot hero.      

       It didn’t take long for the conspiracy theories to emerge.  It seemed impossible that a lone gunman was responsible, especially after Jack Ruby shot him on national television.  Conspiracy theories abounded even after -- perhaps, especially after, the Warren Commission report.  We felt that we were only getting shades of truth.


         Reaction to Kennedy’s assassination wasn’t much different from Lincoln’s assassination a century earlier.  People found it hard to believe that John Wilkes Booth was a lone assassin reacting to Lee’s surrender two days before.  Some, including Mary Todd Lincoln, even believed that his Vice President Andrew Johnson was involved.  Others believed that Secretary of War Edward Stanton was behind it because he was opposed to Lincoln’s plan of reconciliation for the South.  


           Members of the failed Confederate government were blamed as well as the Rothschilds and the Pope.  Eight people were arrested and charged with involvement in Booth’s actions and tried by a military commission convened for that purpose only two weeks later on May 1st.  Four were found guilty and hanged, including Mary Surratt, whose only crime seemed to be that she owned the tavern where Booth had stayed and met with other sympathizers to the rebel cause.  She maintained her innocence.  The doctor who set Booth’s leg and the man who helped him escape were both sentenced to life and ultimately pardoned.


         What is truth, said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.  What IS truth, especially in this day of so many possible shades of truth.  What is the truth about Afghanistan?  What is the truth about the pandemic statistics and the new pills developed by Pfizer?  What is the truth about the rates of transmission and why is it that so many people have so little faith in either science or vaccine mandates? What is truth, said jesting Pilate. No wonder not only he but we do not stay for the answers.


         However, we do get a clue from the words attributed to David by the writers of 2 Samuel.  “When one rules justly over people ruling in the fear of God, the ruler dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes the grass to sprout from the earth.”   These words of David, of course, refer to his own rule, one which was not always just, but one that he knew was supposed to be that way.  Fabricated evidence is beyond the pale but what about matters in which truth does not seem to be black and white but in shades of gray where most “truth” lies?


         There are many shades of truth, or truths, if you will, not just in our political life but in our personal lives as well.   As Oscar Wilde once said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”  If we consider our relationships with each other, with this church, with God, we know the truth of that statement.  We have no pure truths in those relationships, probably least of all in our relationship with God.  I think that’s because it’s really easy to imagine ourselves in a different place than we really occupy.


        We create images of ourselves -- indeed, true, if I may use that word, without those images we would even have a persona for interaction with others.  That very process of creating the persona puts us in a situation where we are cannot be true, sometimes even to ourselves.  It’s only by the grace of God that we are able to acknowledge this and to establish our buffer with the world, with others.  Or as Mark Twin put it more acerbically, “Truth is stranger than fiction.  Fiction at least has to be believable.” 


         Sometimes the creation of that persona destroys relationships we hold dear, such as those with our spouses, friends, children. We are always caught in a tension between what we fear we are and what we present to the world.  There’s nothing inherently evil in this, but it’s just part of being human.  Acknowledging our weaknesses, no, that’s really not the right word -- acknowledging our humanness is really difficult.  We struggle with who we are in relationship to ourselves, others -- even God.  David certainly understood that.


        One of the really wonderful thing about the stories from Scripture is that no one is perfect.  Look at David.  He starts out by killing a threat to the nation, becoming a hero, then running for his life from Saul, then as a king, he sets up a particular man to be killed in battle so he can escape his sin of adultery.   His sons rebel against him and he has to fight them.  Now that’s a wholesome family, right?  Maybe our children haven’t taken up arms against us but each of us can think about how we have not been the picture perfect parent  -- or child -- at one time or other.  And we create the truths that enable us to live beyond our difficulties.  We have to.  It’s how we survive emotionally.  If we looked “the truth” with a capital “T” in the face at all times, we could not function. 


         However, rather than looking at the word truth, I suggest that we look for truth in action -- truthfulness, or living truthfully.  Truthfulness is more the recognition of the inherent tension that we face in our daily lives and relationships with others for we have been given minds and hearts to search for truthfulness in our individual and corporate lives.  Living truthfully means to live searching for the concrete application of truth in our lives. 


        When Emerson said that justice is the application of truth to affairs, to our corporate life, he was repeating what Scripture tells us:  that God demands we live justly and treat others -- all others including the poor, the homeless, the undocumented, even people we know are dishonest -- with righteousness, which in Scripture is the same word for justice.  And Scripture has made clear what justice is and what it is not:  it is not retribution, pettiness, anger, eliminating portions of humanity from God’s embrace; it is tikkun -- making the world right in our individual relationships and in society.  Scripture makes it clear, really clear, that the two cannot be separated.  We cannot live in a right relationship with each other or with God unless we live in a right relationship with the others we do not even know. 


        That terrible day 58 years ago brought a nation together and helped it to resolve the injustices that our brothers and sisters of color experienced; the Civil Rights Act that had been stalled in Congress passed within a few months. It should not take tragedy to force us to come together as a nation to resolve issues of justice and humanity.

Let us pray:  Eternal Creator, we know that the arc of the universe is long but that it bends towards justice. Help us to see past the fears that limit us so we can help to bring your kingdom of justice to fruition.  In the name of the One who calls us to seek truth, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.