"Why Truth Often Lacks Vision"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 12, 2006
Psalm 22:23-31; Mark 8:31-38
So many of the problems between people have to do with their individual perception of truth that can be very different. This is why Democrats and Republicans are split on many issues of national interest. This is why Republicans are currently split among themselves on their support of our President. Spouses are frequently in conflict. Many teens are absolutely positive that their perceptions are accurate of what is happening in their peer group or with their parents.
The chief problem of truth since the dawn of civilization is that it remains an abstraction that everyone has the freedom to define. Very seldom does truth evolve into a common understanding that everyone honors. For example, currently two major streams of Islam in Iraq have co-existed peacefully for years. Since the recent bombing of an historic mosque, the two groups are now using their defining labels to stress their differences. The two streams may be on the brink of civil war. As each focuses on their truth, they remain blind to a possibility that the insurgents are manipulating both sides.
As Baptist churches burned in the South, instantly the authorities labeled the work of arsonists as hate crimes or the work of persons angered by Baptist fundamentalism. Suddenly a different truth emerged when it was learned that several young men were burning the churches as a joke, not once but ten times. A joke? What truth had caught their attention that associated the total destruction of ten churches with some form of humor?
Our truth is as compelling as it is convincing. For example, a neighborhood was alive with very brazen thieves who were breaking into homes and looting during the early morning hours while most people were sleeping. One homeowner had had enough. He decided to take action because, from his perspective, the police would drop by the crime scene, take the report and give people a case number for insurance purposes. Very little was being done by the authorities to apprehend the smash, grab and run thieves.
Early one morning while it was still dark, he heard a noise caused by someone opening his front door. He opened his upstairs window and shot several times, killing the perpetrator. He and his wife instantly called the police. A greater truth came to light creating a nightmare the community would never forget. The homeowner had killed their young paperboy who was thoughtfully placing the morning paper behind the storm door because it had started to rain.
Such illustrations give us insight into why Jesus was rebuking Peter in our lesson today. Jesus said, “Your thoughts do not come from God, but from human nature.” Jesus was correct; most of our responses come from our human nature. Truth materializes in front of us because of our definitions, our labels and our perceptions, all of which took years for us to create.
For example, if we feel abused by people, the world will be a very cruel place. If we believe we are constantly being victimized, we will find it very difficult to trust doctors, real estate agents, banks, credit card companies or our spouse. Truth will depend on our orientation toward the world. These are images and judgments that we created.
In our lesson today, Jesus is making a very clear distinction between truth, as it is defined by our world, and Truth that remains timeless. This distinction is what separates people who live by faith from people who only make claims of faith or have none at all.
For example, what would Christianity look like to the world’s people if Roman Catholics and Protestants fought in the streets, destroyed each other’s worship centers and used their respective pulpits for inflammatory rhetoric? Jesus would say, “Get away from me, Satan! Your thoughts do not come from God but from human nature.” Jesus would be speaking the Truth!
This morning Jesus provides incredible insight into Truth, the kind that is timeless. In essence Jesus said, “If you want to live on my level of understanding, you must first learn to forget yourselves. You must refuse to respond with anger when life is other than what you would prefer. And regardless of what happens to you, you must always follow me.”
Then to assure that the intent of his words would be very clear to his listeners, he added, “If your only interest in life is to experience what is best for you, you will not grow in your relationship with God. If, instead, you decide to make visible what I have taught you, your lives will radiate what is timeless. Besides, what will you gain if you have all your material desires met and even have the power to control the populations of the world and yet never found the time to develop the qualities of spirit that will be useful to you when you die?”
Jesus had just one message he delivered in different forms throughout his ministry: “Love one another.” As he had done so many times during his ministry, he was using every symbol and metaphor he could think of to communicate, “Where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also.”
Jesus knew that his disciples could not make claims of having divine inspiration while engaging in tactics and strategies that belong to this world. All religions have been guilty of believing in truth that lacks vision ever since the various belief systems became organized around their respective dogmas rather than the timeless wisdom of God.
Last Sunday’s Style section of the Washington Post carried two interesting articles side by side on the front page above the fold. The one featured the musician Grace Griffith who has created numerous CDs of her music while carrying Parkinson’s disease in her body. The importance of that article to you is that Gracie is Fred Sisson’s sister. Gracie, no doubt, will be here when we celebrate Fred’s life after Dee Dee comes home in remission from her leukemia.
The second article speaks more about the difference between the truth of this world and the timeless Truth from God. Dr. Bart Ehrman is the author of a book entitled, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. It is currently number 16 on the New York Times bestseller list. In it Dr. Ehrman chronicles his movement from being a Born Again Christian to becoming an agnostic. He currently chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. His lecture halls are packed with students eager to learn what few Bible teachers have had the courage to teach.
What caused Dr. Ehrman’s faith to stumble was his discovery of a new truth. He had based his faith on the Scriptures as being the infallible Word of God. Since he became fluent in ancient languages, he began to read the 5,700 ancient manuscripts that form the basis of the New Testament. He and a host of scholars before him have found over 200,000 differences in those texts.
In summary he says, “There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” Further, he found countless places where it was clear that scribes edited these manuscripts centuries later as they were being copied and recopied. The Church and the early scribes had a political stake in maintaining control over the quality and consistency of the story line that was being taught to the masses.
With all this information in a bestseller book, where is Truth? For many Christians, the Scriptures contain the whole truth and nothing but the truth about God and God’s plan of redemption for humanity. And yet as most of us realize, the Scriptures can communicate many things to different people.
For example, some Christians handle poisonous snakes because of the Scriptures. Some Christian men look upon their wives as needing to be subservient to them because of the Scriptures. Some Christians stress the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as being the defining mark of faithfulness because of the Scriptures. Because of the Scriptures, many people believe that only Born Again Christians will be welcomed into eternity. Many outsiders wonder why there are so many fractures in the Body of Christ if the Bible they follow is so iron clad in its truth.
Through the centuries a good number of the faithful have missed what Jesus taught. “Love your neighbor” is timeless. Compassion is timeless. Patience and kindness are timeless. Understanding and forgiveness are timeless. The Scriptures provide excellent guidance for each of these qualities of spirit and Jesus gave up his life to demonstrate his understanding of the difference between the truth of the world and Truth that remains timeless. He demonstrated, “If you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you choose to lose your life for the sake of what I have taught, you will save it.”
Dr. Ehrman found his faith crumbling because he found errors in his written road map. What Jesus taught was not based on the New Testament. Such a body of literature did not exist. Further, Jesus never became a Christian; he remained a practicing Jew until the day he died. He would not have understood a concept like Christianity.
Jesus sowed seeds that he hoped would alter the flow of history by changing the hearts of men and women one at a time. He prayed that we might be one. Somehow that Truth is still aloof and distant from so many of us who call upon his name.
In every language, “love your neighbor” translates exceedingly well. Your neighbor could be a member of the Islamic or Jewish faith. Your neighbor could be Dr. Ehrman. We love not because the Scriptures tell us that we must; we love because that is who we are underneath our body’s very individualized features. The fact that many of us cannot love has nothing to do with the Truth Jesus brought, it has to do with who we are and the truth we have created from our experiences.
Jesus said, “Get away from me, Satan. Your thoughts do not come from God but from human nature.” We cannot be a willing light in darkness, if we are afraid of such places. During these Lenten days, dare we think of what would happen to our world if our thoughts came from God?
A number of years ago, a white Physician’s Assistant chose to bring 20th century medicine to Africans who chose to live in the bush. These people were very proud and chose not to pursue the opportunities that prevailed in the more populated cities that had been organized around the guidance of former colonial authorities. Their distrust of white people was well founded. They remembered stories of white traders who kidnapped members of their families and deported them to the Americas.
Hannah was not liked when she entered their tribal village because of the truth she represented to them. Sometimes when her back was turned a stone would find its mark and she would bleed. Even though she had gone through the tribal protocols of approval to be there, no one socialized with her. However, the children were innocent and had not yet been taught to hate. She played games with them and lovingly treated them when they were sick.
It took a long time for her to stand in the darkness of their distrust. There were times when she wrote in her journal, “It remains a challenge to love these people. They do not understand what I am bringing to them. I now know what Jesus must have experienced as he ministered among his own people.”
One afternoon she brought an infant into the world during a very difficult delivery, one that could have ended the life of both the mother and baby had she not been there. Something happened that day to the members of the village. Eventually adults came for treatment as the ghettoes within their minds began to dissolve. They were able see Hannah Gilchrist for who she was. They were able to set aside the truth of their human experience to see that all the while, love had been standing in their midst and they were unable to see it.
Paul once wrote, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” The Truth is, love never does end. On that you can stake your life!
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We are conscious, O God, that we come from an over stimulated world. Our senses are bathed in words from radios, televisions, computers and publications. So many aspects of life are persuasive in molding our values and opinions. We often comply willingly without giving you equal time. We easily march to the drumbeat that everyone hears, neglecting the better map and the superior script that Jesus brought. As we seek many of the rewards within our world, help us to remember what is timeless, changeless and of more infinite value. Lead us, O God, so that our destiny will be shaped more by our relationship with you than by our neediness for more material comforts and security. Amen.