Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
February 16, 2020
Texts: 1 Kings 17:1-24; Mark 4:1-9
We’ve all heard the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. A cute story but not true, actually invented by an itinerant minister and bookseller known as Parson Mason Locke Weems. The good Parson, anxious to create an image of Washington as pure and honest as be believed our new Nation was, invented the story to show the importance of honesty, a singular virtue he attributed to our George (not “Fat George” as the colonists called him).
Weems’ biography sans the cherry tree published in 1800 was an instant best seller. It was not until 1805 that the cherry tree appeared. Needless to say, this cherry tree story made its way into drawings, prints, and paintings of little George confronted by his father, telling the truth with his little hatchet in hand, of course. Later editions of Weems’ book had the classic 1867 engraving by John C. McRae. That’s the one most associated with the story.
Washington did not grow up at Mount Vernon but at a place in Stafford along the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, about 45 miles from Mount Vernon, the place most associated with Washington. So, if there ever was a cherry tree, it was at the boyhood home called Ferry Farm because one took a ferry to cross the river to Fredericksburg.
Although Weems had George’s father praise little George for telling the truth, leaders generally do not respond to truth telling, especially when it comes in the form of confrontation as in this morning’s reading. By this time, Jeroboam’s great-grandson Ahab was king of Israel.
Enter Elijah the Tishbite. What’s a Tishbite? Most scholars believe the word means that Elijah’s birthplace was the village of Tishbe in Gilead, a mountainous region east of the Jordan River in modern-day Jordan. Be that as it may, the Lord tells Elijah to predict a drought, a really severe drought because of Ahab’s sin of doing “what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” worshiping foreign gods.
Evidently Ahab was not happy and the Lord tells Elijah to go to the Wadi of Cherith, a ravine with a small brook in the uplands of Gilead. But, of course, as the text tells us, even the small brook dried up because there was no rain. And like others who have confronted those in power, Elijah needs to relocate and the Lord sends him to Zarephath where he meets the widow and her son.
As Eli Wiesel wrote in a small essay, “Elijah appears from nothing and galvanizes a whole nation.” It’s a very different approach than we find in some political leaders of today; anxious to impress others, they just cannot stop from making sure they appear from at least something.
Truth telling. There was a time in our not so distant national past that truth telling was considered a virtue. And this is not a partisan issue. Nor is it just a political one. Take the world of law and lawyers, for example. There was a time when it was important for lawyers to tell the truth.
This past week two men were released from prison after serving 25 years – listen carefully, 25 years – for a crime they did not commit. What took so long after the Innocence Project had demonstrated through DNA tests that they could not have possibly been the murderers? The refusal of prosecutors to admit to either error or the pressure they felt to execute a fast conviction.
The prosecutors anxious to solve a crime grabbed these two and fixed a little here and a little there and voila! They were at the scene of the crime. And these prosecutors had taken an oath to do justice. The question remains whether the prosecutors here in New Jersey are legally culpable for their actions.
Last summer the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecutors who lie and fabricate evidence do not have absolute immunity shielding them from civil lawsuits that could result. In that case, a man was in prison for almost twenty years due to fabricated evidence. Truth telling. It’s not just important; it’s vital.
Most of us, however, do not face those kinds of situations. More likely, we fall into what is called the little white lie trap. We call them fibs. We usually tell them to protect ourselves from unpleasant situations. We think we don’t want to fail someone else, but the reality is we don’t want to fail ourselves usually by showing our limitations.
Sometimes we call it softening the truth. I know as an immigration lawyer people look to me to give them a softer version of the truth. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to tell a family member that the person they love will be deported. “But you’re a lawyer,” I hear. “Why can’t you do something?” is the usual response. And often I feel that I’ve failed.
Sometimes I feel a little like Elijah sheltering himself in the ravine, but without God’s direction putting me there. Elijah after confronting Ahab must have felt like he had failed. I know often I feel like I have failed. Knowing that Sessions and Barr have scuttled the law really doesn’t help when I see the look in a person’s face when an asylum claim is lost or a family member is deported.
Truth telling is part of buttressing our relation-ships as painful as the truth may be. It is important to realize, of course, how to talk to someone about a truth. Part of it entails moving out of our own preoccupations with ourselves. It means entering the space of another person, communicating with that person on his or her own terms, in his or her own framework.
It’s not easy to do that, to be sure. It means listening, really listening to what the concerns of the other person really are. This kind of truth telling is different from what we now see in the current political madness that is gripping our Nation. We are experiencing a barrage of half-truths, not to mention outright lies, in order to secure a hold on power. And our social fabric is suffering.
Now, in light of all the talk and anxiety over Russian meddling in the 2016 election, three radio stations in Kansas, yes, Kansas, have agreed to broadcast Radio Sputnik, a Russian state owned radio broadcasting service, for a fee, a very hefty fee. Talk about moving out of the range of truth-telling! RS, as it is called, will broadcast music and so-called news.
When I was a 14-year old, I was curious about the old Soviet Union, and, unbeknownst to my parents, I subscribed to a glossy magazine called Soviet Life. But even at that age I could tell the difference between propaganda and the truth. RS is far more subtle than the boy meets tractor and girl meets power-plant stories ever were. We’ll see if those people in America’s heartland can tell the difference.
There are many ways to tell the truth. When the civil rights demonstrators called for equal access to drinking fountains and the voting booth, they were met with fire hoses and beatings. Those images on our television screens told a truth that Americans did not want to admit but were forced to.
Ahab’s response to Elijah was another way of telling the truth just as the response of palm oil producers in Mexico to monarch butterfly protectors in Mexico. Two weeks ago Homero Gomez Gonzalez and Raul Hernandez Romero were killed because they opposed development in the butterfly reserve. The truth there is that money and corruption reign.
The response of those who want to bury the truth usually end up in violence, sometimes just in tweets. As Christians, we should examine the claims of those who say they are doing x, y, and z for our own good. When those in power say they are making decisions for the best, we should ask for whose best.
Let us come to God in prayer: God of truth, help us not to shirk our responsibility to always discern the truth and to have the courage to tell it. In the name of him who was faithful to the truth, even unto death, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.