“Bound by Truth”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 3, 2019
University Baptist Church
We made it through the polar vortex. That’s some serious bragging rights. Of course, we need to mention that the vortex displayed some truths, if we are willing to look at it. Scientists tell us that the warming of the polar ice caps has shifted the equilibrium of the atmosphere. So what is usually hovering over the north pole settled over the Midwest this past week and it’s destined to return soon. The 70-80 degree shift in temperature is the predictable result of human-influenced warming. So, while the vortex killed some serious Emerald Ash Borer, it also points us toward rising sea levels and more volatile weather events in the coming years. This is an inconvenient truth because it means that if we want to slow this down, we need to make some serious changes in our individual and collective behaviors.
Truth, that’s the name that sister Sojourner gave herself. It was a name that she owned. She knew that her calling was to speak the truth. Jesus said you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. We know that if we tell the truth too often, we will be seen as odd. What truth do we own in our bones?
Isabella Baumfree was so persuaded by the truth of the Gospel of liberation that she took the search for that truth as her own name. Plenty of people who followed in her wake were set free because of the work of Sojourner Truth, be it because of her work for the abolition of slavery, for women’s rights, or just her plain audacity. She helped people to find their own voices and claim their rightful place in God’s creation. She was a teller of the truth and a purveyor of freedom. Her words set people free.
John’s gospel speaks about the truth setting us free. And it is true that words and concepts are freeing. They help us to imagine new realities. But are intellectual assents enough? I think action and practice undergird the foundation of truth. Truth is what we know by experience and practice. It’s not just being told something. It is experiencing and practicing something that you know to be true. That’s what sets you free.
There’s a saying in the recovery community that Action+time=trust. We need to experience things to keep them real. And as we take action—good action we build habit and can trust that our truths will set us free.
But will just any truth do? I mean, plenty of folks talk about truth, say they know the truth, but does it set you free? The Bible says that God’s truth is the one that sets everyone free.
So, all of you academics out there, what do you know to be true? I’m not talking about mathematical formulas like F=MA or E=MC squared. I’m not talking about what you might find on politifact (remember that?), where candidates statements are rated on the truth-o-meter. Statements are true, mostly true, sometimes, true, false or pants-on-fire false. Remember when people making false statements couldn’t get elected?
Truth can be a tricky word. It’s different from a fact—a recording of what actually happened. A truth is mingled with our own sense of self, our core of being, our world-view. It is influenced by so-called facts, but those facts are filtered through our own stories and life experiences. Truth is what is so core to you that it resonates in your bones. It influences the decisions you make. It reproduces itself in the way that you live into your truth. What do you know to be true? Your truth can change over time and experience. Sure. But certain truths stick with you.
In this day when lying is an art form, and facts are discounted, where do we find truth? I think our president believes in a worldview, a truth so blindly that facts that challenge that truth are called untrue. The liar in chief calls those who oppose him liars.
But hear again the words of Malachi:
“I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely (that’s people who lie), against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien (that’s another way of saying those who oppress and imprison the immigrants), and those who do not fear me, says God.” (Malachi 3:5). God’s judgment is on those who lack compassion. It’s a good thing we are always compassionate, right?
I went to an event on Friday night where we sang songs from the Justice Choir Songbook, some of which we have sung here at UBC. One of the curators of the book, Tefsa who now teaches at St. Olaf told us that we ought to not use the term “woke” so freely. It’s a thing to be “woke”, meaning paying attention to the larger social implications of our work. We are woke to privilege, to cultural appropriation, to the inconvenient truths about this culture where inequality reigns supreme. But, said Tefsa, we need to make sure that proclaiming yourself woke does not become a sign of smugness or arrogance or superiority. He suggested that we should call ourselves in a process of being woke, or awakening. And we need to be constantly sensitive to new truths that might cause us to reconsider old ways. What’s that song say? “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”
What are your truths? What do you know deepest in your bones? What shapes your way of being in the world? We have a talk-back forum to discuss this.
While you formulate your own truths, I’m going to share with you a few of mine. I’ve shared this list before, but I’ve added a few.
1. There is a power greater than ourselves that is benevolent and wants us to live in health and ease. I call this power God. This God is manifest in community, in beauty, in action, in acts of mercy and compassion. It’s why we’re here.
2. There is also great evil in this world. It manifests itself in selfishness. It manifests itself in violence. And when it is corporate, then it is very daunting and powerful. But it is not as powerful as God. One of evil’s cruel jokes is making people believe that it is all-powerful and even speaks for God. But if it says it speaks for God and does not respect the integrity of others, then it is not God. Jesus said to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Love is more powerful than hate, as Martin Luther King, Gandhi and other peacemakers have said.
3. Everyone has a piece of holiness in them. Therefore, we must seek to respect and live in peace with everyone.
4. The Bible is not the infallible, inerrant, final word of God. But when this book is read with the Holy Spirit as the guide and the community as the sounding board, we find the living word of God for our lives. Having devotion to just the book is what I call Bibliolotry. We need to take the Bible seriously, paying attention to its truths and its contradictions.
5. The Gospel is a book of liberation. Jesus stood with the outcasts and oppressed and resisted the impulse to insult a poor person. When people come together in this light, then transformative things can happen. This is where the abolition movement had its roots. It’s where the Civil Rights movement had its roots. It’s the truth that the dignity of all people is central to God’s plan that encourages people to take action for justice. When joined with Christ in this movement, there is no stopping the movement of the Spirit.
6. In the wrong hands, the Bible can also be misused to support awful un-Christ-like things. We have seen this in the Ku Klux Klan and movements that seek to suppress the rights of minorities. If they wear a religious face, then they are harder to argue against. But here’s another truth.
7. For every obnoxious blowhard there are hundreds of people who quietly wish that such a person does not speak for them. And the true church’s work is to point us in a better direction, to amplify the voices of the good, to establish and maintain a moral center. There’s a Dutch church in the Hague that is housing a family that faces arrest and deportation. There is a law that the government cannot arrest someone while a church service is going on. So, for the last 96 days, the church has had a continuous worship service, using congregants, local clergy and a slew of volunteers who know that sanctuary is central to who the church is. The three-month long service ended when the government changed the law and guaranteed safety for the family in sanctuary.
8. Love is a powerful force. It makes people do crazy and redemptive things on behalf of others.
9. Grief is a form of madness. It is spiral, not linear. It messes with your equilibrium. It can be contained for a while, but needs space to be unpredictable. Many of us know this too well. So, be patient with those in grief. Ypou have been patient and wise and supportive when I have experienced grief. Sometimes there is no right thing to say. But showing that you care by a note, a meal, a prayer, is so much better than a platitude.
10. Good music renews my spirit. Bad music grates on my ears. Whether music is good or bad depends upon the hearer and artist. Music hits our subconscious. It dances in our soul and it touches something we can’t always put into words. A world without music is a lonely one indeed. Today, my mom is being recognized for her service in the church choir at the First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland. She retired from the choir at the end of December after singing in the choir for 73 years!
11. We are put on this earth to be in community. None of us can survive on our own. So choose the communities that give you life and leave aside those that suck at your spirit.
What are your truths? What do you know in your bones? What has defined your life? Are you open to new truth?
Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth because she knew that Truth was what we got on the journey. Her old truth was that she was a victim of slavery, of sexism, of a society that counted her as expendable, as a piece of property to be bought, sold and discarded when she was no longer useful. But this was a cruel lie. And the nation was seduced by this lie. It could be lulled into this lie as long as no one spoke out against it. But Sojourner knew the Gospel of liberation. She knew it in her bones. She was bound by that truth. She knew that the God who created her had better hopes for all of us. She knew that she had a responsibility to God, to herself, and to her people—white and black, male and female, rich and poor to break free of the shackles of this world-view that had imprisoned and oppressed everyone. She decided that the prison of slavery was too much for her. She would instead be a prisoner of hope. And the truth that she sought to spread was that there was hope.
Hope in an equal future.
Hope in a new day dawning.
Hope for an end to discrimination.
Hope that we can use our wits and our humor to point out the idiocy of small-mindedness.
Hope that people would see the folly of their ways and embrace the liberating ethic of the Gospel.
Every time that she was insulted and put down and refused to back down and shrink away, she was living the Gospel. She was suffering like Jesus, hanging on that cross so that people could see what their abuse would bring. Every time she did not back down, she rose up like Jesus did on Easter Sunday. She lived the truth that love was more powerful than hate, that we were put here to water the garden of the earth with beauty and equality, not poison it with insults and hard heartedness.
About seven years ago, we had banners up here on loan from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. One proclaimed that we are called to be prisoners of hope. We wondered back then if we could be similar prisoners of hope, bound by a truth that set us free.
Sojourner Truth chose to be a prisoner of hope. She chose to live into the truth that Christ came to set us all free. And she could really only do that because she was supported by a community of people who believed that too. That’s what the church is about. When we are tempted to be prisoners of despair and defeatism, we come here, read the gospel of liberation, pray alongside people similarly persuaded and remember the truth that fear and oppression and defeatism is not the final word. We come here and wonder in our prayers and in our actions, ain’t I a prisoner of hope? Ain’t I not alone? Ain’t there more to this life than defeatism?
Jesus smiles down and says, yes, yes, yes. You are prisoners of hope. You are my hope for this world. And together you can move mountains. That, my friends is the truth. If you believe it, it will set you free. And if it sets you free, then it ought to set the rest of the world free, too.
So ask yourself. Who are you? Maybe with Sister Sojourner, your can respond. “I’m one who is Bound by a Truth.”