May 23, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Revelation 22:12-21

“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

Sermon: The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!

Any of you who pay close attention to the back of our bulletins might have noticed how the reading from the book of Revelation was kind of chopped up this morning – the suggestion was to read verses 12 -14, 16 -17, and 20 –21 from chapter 22. However, when I looked at the reading, I realized that among the verses being edited was this one: “if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

It seemed the better part of caution not to have any part in editing that verse out.

The author of the book of Revelation obviously did not want others fooling around with what he wrote – he knew there were observations in his writing that others might find hard to hear, but he wanted them to face what he understood to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

I picked that familiar phrase as the title of this sermon on Tuesday, not knowing I would hear it echoed the next morning when I turned on the television to watch the 9/11 hearings from New York City and saw former Mayor Rudy Giuliani raise his right hand and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

I was riveted by the Mayor’s opening statement and his description of his actions and decisions on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was moved by his characterization of the firefighters who risked their lives to help people inside the towers of the World Trade Center. He said that firefighters and police stood their ground and gave people the confidence to make an orderly exit. He said the firefighters were interpreting an evacuation order the way a brave rescue worker would interpret an evacuation order, which is to first get the civilians out and then get yourself out.

It sounded so right and so true that it was a bit of shock when people in the audience began to raise their voices in protest and shout:

“It’s lies. Lies.” “Let us rebut him.” “One sided. One sided.”

I could not understand exactly what they were saying, but it was all explained the next day in the newspaper. Jim Dwyer, for the New York Times, wrote:

For all the power of his voice and stature, Mr. Giuliani's account must compete with a substantial and diverse body of evidence that flatly contradicts much of what he and his aides say happened that day.

On the loss of at least 121 firefighters in the north tower, Mr. Giuliani suggested that they stayed inside the trade center because they were busy rescuing civilians -- never mentioning that they could not hear warnings from police helicopters, that many of them never learned the south tower had collapsed or that they were having serious problems staying in touch with their own commanders.

Mr. Giuliani was correct that some firefighters and other rescuers were helping civilians. Eye-witness accounts suggest that at least six people were unable to move on their own, and a handful of the firefighters were involved in helping them.

However, other firefighters were resting, witnesses said. Three New York State court officers, who had come to the north tower to help, stopped on the 19th floor as they were leaving. They said they found scores of firefighters -- one of the court officers said at least 100 -- taking a break.

"The hallway was filled with firemen," one of the court officers said in an interview. "Some of them were lying down. Ax against the wall. Legs extended. Arm resting against their oxygen tank. Completely exhausted. It led me to believe they were not hearing what we were hearing."

The court officers, who had heard the orders to get out over a police officer's radio, said they shouted to the firefighters. The firefighters replied that they would be coming right down. The court officers, who had begun their descent from the 51st floor, said they got clear of the tower less than a minute before it collapsed.

So what the Mayor said may have been true in part, but the families of those fire fighters who never heard an order to evacuate want the whole truth – they want it even if it makes the story more complicated, less morally satisfying, and less flattering to the Mayor.

And that is always the problem when you seek the whole truth. Reality is more complicated than the storyteller’s version – especially if the storyteller is hoping to draw a moral lesson from the tale, to identify the good guys and the bad guys, the righteous and the evildoers.

Will the 9/11 Commission ever know the whole truth? Not to say that they won’t discover facts which cry out for change and demand a plan of action - they will certainly distill that kind of information from their hearings. But it is much less certain that they will ever be able to give a full and complete story of what led us down the path to that terrible day of terror three years ago – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Contrast that with the claim of some in the Christian church and in other religions as well that they have the full and complete story of what will lead us on a path to salvation based on events that took place a thousand, two thousand, or three thousand years ago.

All religions agree that in God is the fullness of truth – God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. And Christians confess that the fullness of God came among us in the person of Jesus. But at the next step we see a divergence of paths, because for some in every faith the confession of God’s fullness leads to a sense that they themselves possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, while for others an awareness of the awesome fullness of God leads to a sense of their own incompleteness and the partial nature of their knowledge and insight.

I don’t know that I need to give examples of the arrogance of belief that takes upon itself the mantle of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – just pick up your newspaper and you can see the consequences in the headlines from every corner of the world. But a religious faith that acknowledges the fullness of God but maintains a humble acceptance of its own limitations may be harder to find, because it does not raise its voice quite so loudly or express its opinions quite so vehemently. But a good example is found in a well known passage from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

Paul begins, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” and goes on to contrast other gifts with the gift of love. Then, at the end, Paul writes: For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

This sense of knowing only in part did not immobilize Paul – among all the apostles he was the most active in spreading the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. It did not immobilize him, but it kept him from becoming arrogant, demanding, insisting upon his own way, thinking his thoughts were God’s thoughts.

In a world of confusion, can we admit that we know only in part and yet still be effective agents of God’s salvation? In the midst of voices that proclaim their own fullness, that want clarity between the righteous and the evildoer, that only see in the dim mirror their own moral superiority, can we have a religion where an awesome awareness of the whole truth keeps us humble and open to our neighbors in love? I pray we can, for without it I have no hope that we can overcome the bitterness of these times and come to witness the dawn of reconciliation and peace.