May 19, 2024

Our scripture reading this morning relates a remarkable tale. The disciples were visited by a great windy noise, tongues of flame resting on their heads, and strange languages spoken that allowed all those who gathered around from every nation known on earth to hear and understand in their own language what was spoken. This event has been regarded through the ages as the birth of the Christian Church. But there is a little voice that crops up in the backs our heads when we read about it. Some of us allow the voice full reign, while others try to tamp it down. The little voice asks, “Is this really true?” That’s a larger question than we might imagine; it lives deeper in our hearts than we might think; and it is our question for this hour: Is it true?

The question that persists in the back corner of our minds is larger than simply: “Did these things really happen? Were there really tongues of fire and strange languages spoken?” At ground level, isn’t it the question with which each person walks through the doors here every Sunday morning? We talk about the life and teachings of Jesus, of his miraculous acts; we speak of the Almighty Lord of the Universe, preexistent and eternal; we offer prayers in the expectation or hope that they are effectual; we acknowledge a Divine Spirit dwelling among us and moving through our fellowship. And yet, every Sunday morning and perhaps through the week that little voice pesters and teases: Is it true?

But there are many different things that question can mean. We might each bring to it different notions of what truth really is. I’m reminded of the scene where Jesus appears before Pilate who interrogates him: “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 [famously] asked him, ‘What is truth?’” Jesus leaves Pilate, and us, hanging; he famously did not answer.

On the campaign trail it seems that truth is whatever a candidate wants to tell us, an awful lot of which boils down to what Steven Colbert once termed “truthiness”. So, we have blogs, Internet sites, TV news segments, and talking heads all devoted to rating the veracity of campaign rhetoric. My personal favorite category has always been “pants on fire”. But truth-telling isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. In the movie Liar, Liar, Jim Carrey plays a guy who all of a sudden has to tell the stark, naked truth in every situation. I haven’t seen the movie but I understand that he spends the entire time being slapped, beaten, and humiliated by everyone he deals with. I came across an online article titled, “I think you’re fat: This story is about something called Radical Honesty. It may change your life. (But honestly, we don’t really care.)” So, truth can be cruel, which is why, I suppose, we often opt for avoidance, or subtlety, or even “little white lies”. And maybe that’s why preachers avoid questions like the one posed this morning; they’re afraid of disturbing people with the honest question that lurks in the back of all our minds.

But I tend to think we avoid the disturbing question for a deeper reason: because, as Jack Nicholson suggested in the movie A Few Good Men, we can’t handle the truth. What’s true about Jesus, and God, and prayer, and the Spirit is too large and too powerful to neatly fit into a given Sunday morning from ten to eleven. Jesus said that if we knew the truth it would set us free. Here’s the question: do we really want that freedom? Do we want to be free of our preconceptions and prejudices, free of our dependable failings and miseries, free of the security structures in which we house ourselves to ward off the familiar fears that we keep conveniently howling around us, free of the false gods of pride, and place, and possessions to which we regularly bow down? Knowing that which would free us from all this is a truth we can’t handle. So we speak around the edges of that truth. We use words like “grace” and “love” and “salvation” and “forgiveness” and “faith” as if we really understood what we were talking about. And, not so far removed as we like to imagine from our remote ancestors who sat watching shadows on the cave walls, we show up here on a Pentecost morning to hear a familiar tale of fire, and wind, and strange tongues. And what do we find? If we’re lucky we find something akin to what they found: awe. Awe, of course, is not an answer. It’s a state of mind. Or rather, a state of spirit.

But that frightening, freeing truth of which Jesus spoke – what of it? If we’re lucky enough to find awe here, perhaps we’re at least trying to touch the white-hot truth of Jesus. And maybe trying is what it’s about. Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, writing in The Christian Century commented about “. . . the journalistic who-what-when-where-how that we grandchildren of the Enlightenment think comprises truth.” She contrasts this desire to pin down the facts with the willingness to have one’s life changed before understanding fully what is changing it. Then she writes, “Actually, this is the only way life ever really changes. You won’t understand marriage until you’ve been hitched for a while – maybe not even then. You’re not going to know what it’s like to have a baby until you have one. You don’t even know your profession until you’ve been in it a while. Nothing in life is obvious immediately. It all grows on us.” You have to admit, she’s got a point. And it just may be the beginning of an answer to our question. Maybe the answer is . . . well, growing on us.

We come here together on Sunday mornings singing and praying, and rub elbows downstairs with cups of coffee and bits of conversation. We sit in meetings, and occasionally sit at table and share meals together, or wash dishes, or take food to a food bank. Sometimes we plow the same old ground in conversations; sometimes we, as a colorful old acquaintance of mine once put it, “pee on each other’s shoes” but somehow, nonetheless, don’t give up on each other. And someone looking in from the outside might see all this and imagine it all to be such a waste of time. But they don’t see inside. Inside, something is stirring. It’s hard to put a name to really; we might call it Spirit; we might call it “abundant life”; I choose to call it an answer – growing.

You see, the disciples came together on Pentecost and in their coming together something happened that astounded them and allowed them to see one another as if lighted up by some divine, flaming halo. And in the Spirit of their fellowship the barriers of communication fell like scales dropping from blind eyes and suddenly they could all understand one another’s language. That was magic! Did it happen literally as described in the book of Acts? It really doesn’t matter, because I’ve been in such situations. I’ve seen the holiness dance on another person’s head, real communication suddenly break through the usual jabberwocky, and I know it’s true. I know about the abundance in living that Jesus spoke of that transcends agendas and resolutions, wells up from hearts engaged in prayer and song, fills moments of coffee and conversation with grace and joy. Boris Pasternak is quoted as saying, “What is laid down, ordered, factual is never enough to embrace the whole truth: Life always spills over the rim of every cup.”

Each week, we stumble into this sanctuary with a question rumbling around in the recesses of our hearts. Each of us eager to find out if this is the day – the day when our secret yearning will finally find its answer: Is it true?
I was in the ministry for a little over forty years, and I’ve been going to church most every Sunday for over a quarter century longer than that. I’ve studied theology, and studied the Bible. I’ve sat with people through some of their most trying days, and ushered more lives in and out of this world than I can tally. And what have I learned from it all? Frankly, not a lot. But I have learned this much: Is it true? You bet your life it is.

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