Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Truth is a Story to Tell

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 4th Sunday in Lent (March 18, 2012):  John 3:14-21

But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Lead us, Holy Spirit, into truth that sets us free.

          We have opened each Service during Lent with the prayer: “Lead us, Holy Spirit, into truth that sets us free.”

          That is a prayer in the language of John’s Gospel.  Jesus promises us in chapter 16 (v. 13) of John’s Gospel that the Holy Spirit, whom he calls “the Spirit of truth,” will “guide you into all the truth.”  In chapter 8 (vv. 31-32) Jesus had said,

If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.

          These words are near and dear to our tradition of Christianity; indeed, they are the words that appear on the seal of the Anglican Communion:  “The truth will make you free.”

          This word “truth” is very important in John’s Gospel.  In fact, the words “truth” or “true” are only used once in Matthew’s Gospel, twice in Mark, three times in Luke, but 45 times in John.

          So what does Jesus mean by “truth” in John’s Gospel?  You may recall this is the very question Pilate asks Jesus as Jesus stands before him on Good Friday.  Jesus tells Pilate (18:37),

For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

          Pilate answers dismissively, “What is truth?”  In some ways, the entirety of John’s Gospel is the beginning of an answer to that question.  I say “the beginning of” remembering that Jesus says in this Gospel that the truth will continue to be revealed by the Spirit of truth.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.

          There is a clue in this morning’s Gospel reading as to what Jesus means by the “truth.” He says

But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

          That’s as close as you can come to making “truth” a verb.  It is an odd expression, “to do what is true,” “to do the truth.”

          This is incredibly powerful and important!  If you have not listened to anything else I have said over the last eight years, please listen to these three short sentences:

The truth that we have to tell, the Good News of Jesus, is not a set of propositions.  The truth is a story.  The Good News is not a proposition, it is a story.
          And that story is not just the story about Jesus of Nazareth.  That story is the story of God that takes in all stories, including yours and mine.

          Yes, that means, that your story is part of the truth that sets free. Another way of saying that is that you cannot be set free outside of your own story.

          Proof that we do actually believe this is me standing before you.

          Who have been the storytellers in the Episcopal Church over the last thirty years?  Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (not exclusively, of course, but predominantly).  A man named Louie Crew, the founder of Integrity, began it in 1973.  He told his story to the church and encouraged others to do so.

          Almost 25 years later, as the President of Integrity, I was still going around the country encouraging people to tell their stories, and to tell them with the conviction that they were stories of the Holy Spirit at work among us. They were stories of faith. They were stories of the truth that sets free.

          I have been in the thick of the debate in our Church about the place of LGBT people for more than twenty years and the answer to a constant conundrum has just occurred to me.  I have heard more times than I can count, something like, “Show me where the Bible says homosexuality can be blessed by God.”  Or the complaint, “You have not done the theology.”

          I have had lots of ways to come back to those concerns, but I wish I had said what came to me this week, “Our story is ‘the theology.’  We have been doing what Jesus said to do:  bring your story (your “deeds”) into the open (into “the light”) so it can be seen whether or not you “do what is true.”

          And that is the basis on which our Church has decided through its processes of public discernment and democratic decision-making that I, poor sinner though I am, am worthy to stand before.

          Of course, LGBT folks were not the first to do this.  Women did this in their quest for equality in ordination and other matters of the church.  African-Americans have a long and rich history of storytelling, and through that history know that storytelling is serious business. It is a matter of survival.

          It is.  I have become convinced that it is for the church as well.  For the Christian Church. For the Episcopal Church. For the Church of St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene.

          I believe that 10-12 years from now when I am ready to retire, whether or not I will leave a church that is thriving or one that is figuring out how to close up shop, will depend on if we—all of us—have developed the practice of telling our story, our story which is also the story of what the Holy Spirit is up to among us.

          Hear carefully what I am saying.  We want this to be an attractive place, a place that will draw people to worship here.  But if that is the only card we have to play, our death is inevitable.

          What we must do to have a chance at a long future is to hone our individual and collective ability to find out what God is up to in our lives, in the lives of our families, neighbors, friends and all the other people with whom we cross paths.  We must build relationships with people—even the most unlikely people—that include an openness to spiritual curiosity that can lead to greater spiritual engagement on all our parts.

          We must learn to tell our stories as stories about how the Holy Spirit leads us into truth that sets us free.

          A last word:  nobody is going to do this for us.  Yes, I would love for the Episcopal Church as a whole to come up with some brilliant way of making itself better known, or come up with some magic program that if we follow six steps we will turn everything around.  Same with our diocese. 

          But ultimately folks, it depends on us.  All politics is local.  This parish will thrive and the Episcopal Church will thrive, when you and I stop sitting on our butts waiting for people to show up and see how wonderful we are and, instead, take our wonder to the streets, where we will meet the God who is up to things out there.  And we will build relationships and some of those relationships will include a joint encounter of the spiritual, and that joint encounter will deepen and result in the desire for spiritual community. That is how we will re-build this church.

          Lead us, Holy Spirit, into truth that sets us free.  Help us, Holy Spirit, see and hear the truth in our stories. Inspire us, Holy Spirit to be and do what is true.

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