Sermon
March 26, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings
John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  But he was speaking of the temple of his body.  After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 Psalm 69   (selected verses)

Save me, O God,

for the waters have come up to my neck.

I sink in deep mire,

where there is no foothold;

I have come into deep waters,

and the flood sweeps over me.

I am weary with my crying;

my throat is parched.

My eyes grow dim

with waiting for my God.

More in number than the hairs of my head

are those who hate me without cause;

many are those who would destroy me,

my enemies who accuse me falsely.

What I did not steal

must I now restore?

O God, you know my folly;

the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.

Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me,

O Lord God of hosts;

do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me,

O God of Israel.

It is for your sake that I have borne reproach,

that shame has covered my face.

I have become a stranger to my kindred,

an alien to my mother’s children.

It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;

the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.

At an acceptable time, O God,

in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.

With your faithful help rescue me

from sinking in the mire;

let me be delivered from my enemies

and from the deep waters.

Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good;

according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.

 Do not hide your face from your servant,

for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.

Insults have broken my heart,

so that I am in despair.

I looked for pity, but there was none;

and for comforters, but I found none.

They gave me poison for food,

and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

But I am lowly and in pain;

let your salvation, O God, protect me.

I will praise the name of God with a song;

I will magnify him with thanksgiving.

Let the oppressed see it and be glad;

you who seek God, let your hearts revive.

For the Lord hears the needy,

and does not despise his own that are in bonds.

Let heaven and earth praise him,

the seas and everything that moves in them.

For God will save Zion

and rebuild the cities of Judah;

and his servants shall live there and possess it;

the children of his servants shall inherit it,

and those who love his name shall live in it.

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Sermon

 This morning I want to speak with you about truth.  This might seem like the most straightforward topic in the world, but I have found it somewhat elusive.   I admit that at the beginning because I feel that if my topic is truth, I will never get close to it unless I am truthful.  And besides, “It is always the best policy to speak the truth, unless of course you are an exceptionally good liar.”

 You would think that as a preacher I should be familiar with truth, but I sometimes feel great sympathy with a sentiment expressed by Mark Twain: He said:

Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it.

 Or perhaps you can take a step further into the dark vision of the Irish American writer Flannery O’Connor who said:

I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s. But behind all of them there is only one truth and that is that there’s no truth.

 I wonder if Pontius Pilate had that view in mind as he interrogated Jesus:

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “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.”  Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

 Jesus does not answer Pilate’s last question, nor do we know if it was asked with the expectation of an answer.  And if Jesus does not answer it, I’m not certain I want to try.  But I will take a stab at an easier question: What is the trouble with truth?   What happens when truth asserts itself, when it disturbs illusions, confronts complacency, undermines the foundations of power, brings light to shine in the darkness and illuminates the path to new possibilities.

 Let’s begin looking for an answer in the story we read this morning of Christ overturning the tables of the merchants and moneychangers in the temple.  There they were, respectable members of religious society, comfortably ensconced in their place in the temple, making a few bucks off the religious traffic, when in comes this whirlwind of a man who upsets everything. 

 Now individually those merchants and moneychangers might not have been bad people.  They probably had families to support; they weren’t the fat-cats of the world.  But they had their privilege and power and comfort as part of a system that was designed to exploit the many for the benefit of the few.  They were scraping up the crumbs of a culture that took what was intended to be a holy place and turned it into a den of thieves.  And the truth about all this, when it asserted itself in the form of a visit from Jesus Christ, was upsetting.  It upset their tables, it upset their business, it upset their complacent acceptance of a world that gave them status and livelihood.

 It was, as we know now, prelude to a bigger drama, setting the stage and foreshadowing terrible and wondrous events yet to unfold.

 To Pilate Jesus says: “for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  In this statement he echoes something said earlier to the disciples, although he does not give to Pilate the promise he gives to the believers.  To them Jesus says:

John 8:31-47  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

 From what will the truth set us free?  Sometimes the answer is quite clear. 

 Sojourner Truth is a name you will find in every middle school history text today.  She was never mentioned when I was a child, but in those days we had a different version of the truth of American History - and it didn’t include much in the way of stories involving women or African-Americans. 

 But today - there she is.  Sojourner truth was a woman born into slavery who became a champion of abolition and equal rights in this country.  Freedom was something quite concrete for her.  And, as her name implied, she was truth incarnate.  Her truth wasn’t fancy, but it was powerful, as you can tell from this brief excerpt of a speech she gave in 1851 to a Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio

 Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?  That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

 Sojourner Truth spoke the truth - the truth of her life, the truth of her strength, the truth of her suffering, the truth of her hope; she spoke it at a cost, but she was willing because she believed that the truth, in time, would set her free.

 The freedom that comes from truth may not always be so clear and concrete.  Or at least the path to it can sure not feel like freedom, especially when it is an unpleasant truth about ourselves or about those we love that asserts itself and demands our attention.

 I recall an incident that happened in the first year of my work in ministry.  It was on Staten Island, and I was asked to visit a mother whose son had been arrested.  It seems that he had fallen asleep while waiting at the toll booth at the bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island;  when they opened the door to wake him up he just fell out of the car and continued to sleep right there on the pavement.  The mother confided to me that her worry was that her son “might have a problem with drugs.”

 As others came to visit a sister of the boy asked me to step into the kitchen.  She said: “Might have a problem with drugs!?!?   How can she even question this!  He’s wrecked two cars, been arrested three times.  He comes home stoned every night.  He steals from my mother.  But she defends him, she won’t see what is going on.  Nothing is going to change around here until she opens her eyes and admits to the truth.”

 Sometimes we are forced to confront upsetting truths about those we love, but until we do we cannot help them.  Sometimes we are forced to confront upsetting truths about ourselves, but until we do we cannot be healed.  The freedom we need is not from external oppression but from our own illusions.  Without that freedom we cannot take hold of hope.

 Now here we get to the heart of truth as proclaimed in the church - the higher truth that all truth is called to serve - the truth of hope for redemption, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

 Here our search for truth is not an end in itself; it is a step on the road to unity and reconciliation with God and with one another.

 The classic prayer of lent, Psalm 51, offers a concise guide to this journey:

      Have mercy on me, O God,
        according to your steadfast love;
    according to your abundant mercy
        blot out my transgressions.

    You desire truth in the inward being;
        therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

     Create in me a clean heart, O God,

        and put a new and right spirit within me.

     Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

        and sustain in me a willing spirit.

 Truth in the inward being - a turning point on the path to joy and salvation.

 In the end we find the courage to confront the truth, no matter how difficult, no matter how upsetting.  We find it because we have heard the promise of freedom and forgiveness.  We find it because we know that there is a brighter truth on the horizon - the truth that God knows us as we are, God loves us as we are, God waits for us as we are, God offers us healing and reconciliation as we are. 

 Christ did not overturn the tables of the merchants and moneychangers because God wanted to punish those people.  To the contrary, God was preparing the way for the greatest gift of all - the gift of true light, true bread, true worship, true life with God and peace with one another.The truth, it turns out, is well worth the trouble. AMEN

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