“Witnesses to Truth”
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 8, 2009
University Baptist Church
In today’s scripture, Jesus is in court. It’s the court of public opinion. He’s trying to convince his jury that his words and his witness are really from God. His cause is just and the verdict you must reach is that Jesus represents the real deal. Truth. The court is in session and Jesus calls four witnesses to the Truth.
The first is John the Baptist (vv 33-35). He comes in all dripping wet and with his leather girdle and his odd diet. He’s been on the forefront of the movement. He has spent his life telling it like it is and challenging people to turn their lives around. His audacity eventually gets him killed, just like his cousin Jesus. Jesus calls him as a witness and says, “you have sent to John the Baptist and he has testified to the truth.” The truth was that John was not the messiah but prepared a way for the messiah to come. The truth that Jesus is implying, of course, is that he is the Messiah.
The second to take the stand, or at least to be offered into evidence are the miracles performed by Jesus (verse 36). When John the Baptist was in prison, he inquired about whether Jesus was the one to come. Jesus said, “Go tell John” all of the things that Jesus has done: the blind see, the poor have good news brought to them, the lame walk and the prisoners are set free. These miracles are witnesses to the truth.
The third witness Jesus calls to the stand is God (vv 37, 38). Jesus says, “God sent me and I have been working on God’s behalf.” Now, this is a bit of a circular argument. Many of us can claim that God inspires what we do for good or for ill. Does that make it so? How is this a claim for truth? Well, it would need to be held up against the scrutiny of ethics and justice and mercy and peace. If this is the concept of God that is acceptable, then Jesus represents this God. But what if this is not the concept of God that is most popular? Then maybe that popularity is not such a great thing when it comes to living the truth. The truth of God is compassion and justice and mercy and love. This trumps violence and domination—both things that Jesus never stooped so low as to engage in. Beware of those who seek to imbue God’s blessing in a domineering and violent manner. Those who know God, know the truth and see it clear.
The final witness Jesus calls is the very scriptures themselves (v 39). Jesus points to how the law and the prophets point to a better day and a better reality for the people of Israel. Jesus quoted scripture in the Gospels, especially Matthew’s Gospel to say that his presence was to fulfill Hebrew prophecy.
Jesus made a good case. But it didn’t go very far. Public opinion was in his favor, but the judge figuratively set aside the verdict—for a time. Jesus was eventually crucified because he had the audacity to stick to the truth of his witness and his work. And his resurrection shows that he was the real deal: the ultimate truth.
How do we witness to the truth these days?
Who are our witnesses?
Mel Roy once said, “If you were taken to trial on accusation of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict?”
How do we become witnesses to truth?
The Essenes, those who likely stored the Dead Sea Scrolls, called themselves “Witnesses to the truth at judgement.”
Think of the witnesses to truth you have seen.
What examples of truth do we see?
Rebecca’s elementary school has an annual tradition for the fourth graders called Immigration Day. Each child needs to research a person who came into the United States through Ellis Island. They learned about how people were categorized and judged as they made the voyage. How if they had a job waiting they could be sent back to their country of origin because the powers that be did not want to take jobs away from US citizens. They learned that if they had a disability, they could be sent back—don’t want to mess up the gene pool. They learned how their names were changed by overworked and underpaid people at Ellis Island who arbitrarily decided how many syllables could be in a name. They learned about the people who came to this country not out of choice, but because of slavery. Rebecca played her own great-great grandmother, Augusta Eckstein who came from Hungary/Austria in 1897. In the midst of researching her story, we unearthed the seldom-mentioned statement by Kim’s Jewish father: That those in his family who did not make it to the US were all killed in the Holocaust. Now we carry on this story as a witness to truth.
Sister Tai Shigaki of UBC fame, when pushed, will tell the story of how she was interred in World War II along with thousands of other Japanese Americans. In her own self-deprecating way, she will mention how she got out of the camps because she was befriended by a Baptist minister who subversively worked the system to get her out of the camp and into a Baptist college. She would spend the rest of her professional life caring for those on the margins—the women in prison, the women in economic and familial challenge, the Asian-American. Into her mid-80’s she traveled to the third world to see how we could be better peacemakers in the world. She is a witness to the truth.
In the 1980’s a group of largely Christians formed a brigade team called Witness for Peace. Seeing the lies perpetuated by the Reagan administration to fight war in Nicaragua, these delegations went south to stand alongside the Nicaraguan people, hear their stories and accompany them on their journey toward peace. They were witnesses for peace who sought to show the truth that all US citizens did not want war in their country. They also brought the truth of the Nicaraguan lives and struggles to the United States. Witness for Peace and several other parallel organizations, most of them Christian, were the only ones bringing truth to and from Nicaragua. They succeeded not only in slowing the progress toward war. They also fostered companionship, accompaniment and mercy to would-be enemies. Their witness helped us establish a sister-church relationship with Second Baptist Church of Leon. They were witnesses of truth.
We value people who tell the truth. We need people who help us understand the truth. Many of us have been recipients of prayer shawls lovingly and prayerfully knitted or crocheted by UBC folk who know the truth that we all need prayerful support from time to time. Amidst difficulty, pain and trauma, we receive warmth and comfort from those who offer prayers on our behalf. And whether our body is healed or not, we know that we have more strength and courage because of those who have stood by us. We are witnesses to that truth.
We know that there have been those who have felt left out and left behind because of who they choose to love. In the name of the sanctity of marriage folks pass laws to outlaw the sanction of love between people who happen to be the same gender. And yet we witness to the truth that people can love whom they choose and be an even greater asset to church and society. We know that the truth is that we are to love one another and that is how we will be judged in the end.
Tina, you are a witness to the truth. You have bravely done what some people wish they could do but few people do. You confessed your commitment to the truth. And then you made the symbolic example of that commitment. You let the waters encompass all of you. May your life also include that same kind of all-encompassing bathing in the Spirit of God which will lead you toward the truth. But not only that, may it help you to stick to the truth when people try to make truth a relative term.
Sisters and brothers, think of the places where you have witnessed the truth. Does that truth not inspire you to seek the truth? Doesn’t it make you want to go and find some more of it?
Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery in 1797 in New York State. Since this is Women’s History Month and Friday was Women’s history day, her story begs repeating briefly. She was bought and sold several times. She was forced to marry someone she didn’t love. She was beaten and raped repeatedly by those who bought her. She escaped slavery in 1827, found the truth of liberation in the words of Jesus, became a Methodist, a preacher and a brilliant orator of freedom and liberation and abolition and women’s suffrage and justice for all people. In 1843 changed her name to from Isabella Baumfree to a name that represented her life as a traveler on the road to freedom for all people. She called herself Sojourner Truth.
In 1851, she and others had been shushed one too many times by white Christian men who said that women ought to keep their place and not be so uppity in their struggle for justice. Here’s what she said in response:
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne five children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
…Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them.
What a witness to the truth.
Sisters and brothers, as people tell their stories of oppression or blessing, hear their truths. But tell your own truths, too. Your truth might be a hard truth. It might be a truth of how you have been wronged. It might be a truth of how you have been silent in the face of wrong. It might be a truth of your own sinfulness. These accusatory and confessional truths are important, but they can’t be an end in themselves. God’s truth envisions and imagines a better future. It encompasses the vision of peace for all people. Witness to the truth as a way to achieve peace which is God’s ultimate truth.
We can be and we are witnesses to truth. We are more than bystanders in the world. And we can sort out fact from fiction, if we are brave enough, astute enough, wise enough.
What truths have you witnessed?
How have you been encouraged or changed because of these truths?
What truth begs to be told, so that another will be set free?
As witnesses to the truth, may we make our case with the courage, audacity, compassion and clarity that comes from God—the Truth of our lives. Imagine how you can be a witness to the truth you have in your life. What’s your evidence? Who are your co-defendants? Your witness to the truth is Good News, indeed.
As we imagine truth during this Lenten season, may we cling to those life-giving truths that draw us closer to God’s mercy and grace.