On Speaking the Truth

Pre-Post-Script*: Speaking about "Truth" in a post-modern age is always risque. I had an interesting discussion about this with one of my mentors (Ryan, you might prefer the term "boss-man") last week. Because "truth" has become enmeshed with the notion of my embodied/experienced truth, can we speak about Truth in any meaningful way? What are your thoughts?

*which is to say it is written pre-the post, but it is post-the sermon which follows (below):

Sermon Preached at
Church of the Transfiguration
Palos Park, IL
July 16, 2006
Proper 10B

Truth-telling is a painful business. We try to hide the truth, confuse the truth, and cover up the truth. Sometimes we don’t even think about the fact that we are not telling the truth. For example, when I ask you, “how are you?” Most of you will respond, “Fine thanks and you?” It’s a social custom – just a courteous greeting – a formality, void of any real meaning. But, if you are like me, then at least some of the time, the answer is a lie. A fairly benign lie to be sure – but a lie nonetheless. What might it be like if we were to actually pause when someone asks, “how are you?” and then respond with the truth. What might it be like for us to speak the truth? To tell someone that you are having a bad day, that you are feeling lonely and cut-off, that you wish family and friends would visit more often – or at least call, that you are feeling a bit under the weather, that your arthritis is acting up again. Why is it, that even for such a simple question, telling the truth seems so challenging?

For Amos, speaking the truth to the priest of Bethel was not easy either. In fact, when he does speak the truth, Amaziah tells King Jeroboam, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.” The words Amos spoke were so threatening to the King of Israel that Amaziah tells Amos to leave the land – “flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” In short, Amos is told, we don’t want to hear your words here. We don’t want to hear about all our troubles. We don’t want you to give us this bad news. So go home!

Just to provide you with a little background, Amos was, in fact, from the Southern Kingdom of Judah and was delivering his prophecy to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Early in the book, Amos has told the Israelites that they had better shape up. The Israelites were enjoying a period of relative prosperity and they surmised that this prosperity was proof that God was with them. Because of this, they became complacent about the covenant with God – they abused the privilege of being God’s chosen people and were just going through the motions of worshiping God without any care or understanding for the nature of that covenant – a covenant that demanded the Israelite’s responsible actions toward their neighbors.

Because of the Israelite’s empty worship, Amos, through a series of visions, warns that God will destroy Israel. Today’s reading is the third such vision. The image of a plumb line is a bit obscure to us today – not because we don’t know what a plumb line is but because here it appears to be related to destruction as opposed to the hanging of wallpaper. But despite the obscurity of the image, the message is clear: “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” It’s really no wonder that the priest of Bethel and King Jeroboam himself were pretty adamant that Amos should return to his home in Judah. This was a truth that was too hard to bear.

As hard as it is for us to speak the truth, it is just as hard – or maybe harder – to hear the truth being spoken. We don’t want to hear the truth. We don’t want to hear that someone else is having a bad day. We don’t want to hear that something we’ve done or said has offended someone else. Because hearing this sort of message compels us to respond, pushes us to step out of our own world for a moment, stand in the shoes of the other, and respond. Perhaps the required response is only a word of comfort or a quick apology. But, it is possible that the required response will be much more and this, I think, is why we don’t want to hear the truth in the first place. Hearing the truth – really hearing it – may require a commitment from us – a commitment to do something.

In the case of Israel, choosing to hear the words of Amos would have required a radical response. No mere apology was going to do the trick. Old Testament scholar Bernard Anderson writes, “Israel’s special calling . . . does not entitle it to special privilege, but only to greater responsibility”[1] and Amos’ truth-telling was a reminder of this responsibility. But this reminder was threatening to the Israelites because if they chose to hear this truth, they would have to change their ways. Rather than choosing to reform and reorient their lives, the Israelites chose to ignore Amos and attempt to send him back to his homeland. Being willing to hear hard truths – especially when things are going well - requires hard work.

Amos had no choice about the truth he was to speak. When Amaziah tells him to leave, Amos says, “the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” Amos understands that he cannot do other than follow God’s will for him. As challenging as that is, as frustrating as that is, Amos can only speak God’s truth to the Israelites. In much the same way, the disciples are sent out by Jesus to proclaim that all should repent. And, like Amos before them, they are to understand that even when they are ignored or pushed away, they should continue on with their message and their ministry.

Jesus calls the twelve and begins to send them out two by two to proclaim the good news. And Jesus knew how difficult this journey could be. Just last week, we heard how Jesus himself was rejected by his home town – do you remember the jeers from the crowd, “isn’t this the son of the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son?” Who does he think he is to come here all high and mighty? So, Jesus tells the disciples, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” “Shake off the dust that is on your feet” – let it go and move on to the next place. It is as if Jesus is saying, don’t take it personally and, more importantly, don’t give up. Just move on . . . continue on your way doing that which I have called you to do. And so, we heard this morning, the disciples do go on and “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

In the same way, we are called to respond to God’s will for our life. We are not to be discouraged by those around us who will not hear us. No, you and I are to dust off our feet and continue proclaiming the Good News and continue witnessing by the way we live our lives to the reign of God that is continually breaking into our world. So, the next time someone asks you, “how are you?” I challenge you to answer truthfully. And the next time you ask someone how they are, I challenge you to stop and hear the answer – even at the risk of needing to respond.

[1] Bernhard W. Anderson. Understanding the Old Testament. 4th edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 1986. p. 295.