Bear Witness to the Truth

Click here to listen to the entire service

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

Click here to listen to the meditations only

When was the last time you were interviewed by legal authorities? When were you asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?  Here, John 18: 33, in his last hours, Jesus is interviewed by Pilate.  Such a strange Gospel passage, wherein the one interviewed becomes the questioner, wherein the one accused levies accusation, wherein the one intending to interrogate, is himself interrogated, wherein not power but truth has the last word.   The Holy Scripture, the strange world of the Bible, is holy because it is healthy, and you need its nourishment, its strange teaching, far more than any other watery diet of merely spiritual meditation. 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.”

Flashing Lights

From June 24, 2018 to August 4, 2018 we had only two days of real rain.  From June 24, 2018 to August 4, 2018, we also had only two days without grandchildren, of some number and assortment and age, with us.  They were not the two same days.  On the evening of August 4 we set out with our dear friends for dinner at a nearby restaurant.  An experience of warning soon ensued.  Now and then, the Gospel itself comes in a word of warning.

In 1959 our family moved to the little college town of Hamilton, NY, where we attended seven years of grammar school, where and when grammar was taught in grammar schools. The evening of August 4 we drove over Hamilton Hill, where our scout troop once hiked.  We passed Andy McGonnis’s Farm, he who in the sixth grade starred with me in a two voice drama, ‘Brainy and Brawny’, about a strong good person and a smart bad person.  The better title might have been Brawny and Scrawny.  Andy is still farming his family land fifty years later, down the road from where my friend Bill lived as a Colgate senior.  By the way, if you happen to enter the town from the north west, as we did that night, be sure to slow down after Andy’s barn, to the legal 30 MPH limit, even though the road seems a 55 MPH roadway.  Otherwise you will contribute unwillingly, ticketed for speeding, to the township budget, funded in part by this particular passage. We moved from Hamilton in 1966 but I have been there through the summers for part of every year since.  Or, I have been there ever since.

That night the twilight gleamed and we were celebrating.  I noted Andy’s farm and with body memory slowed to 30 MPH.  Our friends who have eleven grandchildren to our mere seven, were also, for the moment, grandchildless on the lake, and ready to party.  Coming down Hamilton Hill I remembered my fortieth birthday, on the evening of which I had driven down the hill to hear my old teacher Cornel West hold 1,000 Colgate students mesmerized as he spoke without notes, but with wise passion, for 90 minutes.  After the entry to town, from this odd angle, there is a crossing onto the main street that involves a tangled intersection with one yield and one stop sign within 20 feet of each other.  I navigated the intersection and headed into town when—you will recognize in viscera the moment—red lights swirled behind me atop a local police SUV.  We pulled over.  A portly policeman about my age came to us, and you can write the next lines yourselves. ‘May I see your license and registration please’.  ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation?’ (Here, for the young, I simply note that one never says anything like yes to that query.  Your answer is ‘I truly have no idea occifer’)  “No I don’t.”  “You went right through the stop sign back there”.  (Again, for the young, I note, the response here is no response). ‘Are you aware of that’.  “Well, no, actually, I did not recognize that”. “Well, you did.”

Now.  I assume that he was right and I came to a rolling but not full stop at the aforementioned intersection.  Whether I did or not does not matter.  It is his view that matters.  A long pause ensued, during which he surveyed the audience, the driver, an aging white guy with a comb-over, as my son likes to describe me, and three other Caucasian passengers with white hair.   For once, I was delighted to be an aging white guy with a comb-over.  While the portly policeman pondered his next move, I fleetingly wondered what would have happened if I had been 28 years old, black, and with dread locks; or alone, female, and 25; or Hispanic, speaking limited English, with crying children in the back seat; or Japanese, with a newborn, and not fully sure of the ways of our people (like my daughter in law, a native of Kyoto, who had flown back to San Diego that afternoon).  Yes, this was one good time to be older, white, balding and accompanied by similar cue tips fore and aft.  “Well” said the officer “you did slow down coming into town, that was good;  but that intersection does have a yield and a stop sign; you blew through the stop. I am going to give you a warning.  Learn from it.  Have a nice evening going out to dinner.  But remember you have passengers with you and we have a town here that we want to keep safe.”With that he returned my license and registration and shook my hand. 

Hostile Environment

I come back to the warning in a minute.  As a 12 year old I left my hometown of Hamilton in 1966.  By 1986 Jan and I were in ministry with a struggling urban regional church in Syracuse, an hour north and west of Hamilton.  The church was growing, thanks to excellent lay leadership and willingness to engage the neighborhood with a new day care center, a renewed nursery school, two new scout troops, a new dance school, a new senior citizens’ program, a new student ministry, a new writers’ project, and an added second Sunday service.  People tolerated the preacher, largely because they liked his family.  One new couple, Pam and Josiah Young, a thirty year old African American couple, joined us perhaps in part because our congregation, like that at Marsh Chapel today, had become solidly racially integrated, say thirty percent people of color with 200 in worship on Sunday.  One night we had Pam and Josiah to dinner.  They later left our church, with some struggle and misgiving, because our bishop planted a black congregation in the same part of the city, and they felt that had to support him in that.  But for some years they helped lead the church, were tithing and faithful in worship, and were good happy people to have around.  She was a partner in a law firm downtown, and he taught, at, of all places, Colgate, in my hometown, in the Religion department.  Over dinner we listened to music Jan had chosen and Josiah appreciated.  We got better acquainted.  At one point, I expostulated on the bucolic joys of Hamilton where I learned to skate and play hockey, where I fished in the swan pond at will, where we stole freshman beanies off the heads of newcomers, where I pitched for the little league team, where I became a tender foot scout and camped in the woods in February, where Andy McGonnis and I became friends, and where we were enthralled by the Colgate funded fire works every year on July 4th.  Pam and Josiah listened graciously.  After the lengthy peroration, I asked: ‘Josiah, how do you like teaching at Colgate and being in Hamilton part of each week?’.  I will never forget his reply.  It was a warning.  “It is a hostile environment” he replied.   Of course, he did so with grace, and acknowledged my own experience, and was endlessly careful not unnecessarily to offend.  But he was honest, not just kind, but kind and honest. For a thirty year old black man with a beard and horn rimmed glasses, Hamilton coud be pretty hostile territory.  I knew that, sort of, but I knew it well when he said so.

As our portly officer retreated, Josiah came to mind.  What would have happened had he been the driver, not me?  Maybe the outcome would have been the same.   I know the policeman would have fully noticed my own Massachusetts license plate, and on a weekend when the Red Sox beat the Yankees four straight games at Fenway, things Boston were not popular there in the heart of New York.  But the officer forgave the Boston license, even though a ticket for an out of towner is low hanging fruit.  Maybe he would have been equally gracious with Josiah.   However, only 20 miles north from Hamilton, some years ago, our son, then with shoulder length hair and tank top, was pulled over before the policeman saw my wife, sitting next to her son (she had been slumped in the seat sleeping).  Surprised, the officer made some comment and moved on.  He had wanted to ticket a hippie, perhaps, but then mom reared her head.  He moved on. 

Words of Warning for You and Me

On August 4, I was given a needed, just and kindly warning.  Be careful when you go through that intersection again.  I took it to heart.  We had a fine summer dinner, and I drove home later at four miles an hour. Warnings matter, in the little and in the large.  They are gifts, often kindly shared, like the portly officer’s warning gift to me, like Josiah’s warning gift to me.  Be careful, says such a gift.  Stop when the sign says stop.  Stop. Look.  Look around you at what another person in the same little town, but with different aspect, might experience.  Look.  Listen. Listen for what the warnings may mean. Warnings are good things.

Jonathan Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online. He and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Alongside these principles, he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation.  How well can we honestly ever ‘see ourselves as others see us’?  All of us can learn from Haidt, to some measure.  He is warning us, like the portly officer warned me, and like the Colgate professor warned me, and now, like this sermon, we hope with love and humility, is trying to warn you.

There are at least two words of warning available to us, with the lights of John 18: 33 flashing, for a moment, this morning.  They are both for us all.  One though may be a bit more for those of us on the right, and the other a bit more for those of us on the left.  And as the Apostle would put it, ‘on this I have no word of the Lord but I give my own view’ (parallel, 1 Cor. 7: 12, 25).

For those more on the right:  You may be a 48-year-old mother living in southern New Hampshire, or a 60 year old plumber living in northern Connecticut.  A couple of years ago, and again a couple of weeks ago, driving into town, and passing Andy McGonnis’s farm, you slowed down to do your civic duty, and to enter the election season.  You obeyed the speed limit, you thought about your choice, and you acted, you chose, you, say, voted.  You came to a confusing intersection, and maybe, just maybe, you let a rolling stop substitute for a full stop.  Maybe what you thought you meant, was, you see in hindsight, not what it means.  For what it means is what it does, to others. So you see in the rear view mirror, you see in conversation with a portly officer dressed in a Sunday sermon,  a country thrust into a time of humiliation, mendacity, racial divides, diminution of women, fear of immigrants, neglect of the environment, support for the wealthy and disregard for the poor, a time of Charlottesville, Helsinki and children taken from their mothers’ arms.    So now, up comes a sermon, in uniform, and asks, ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation’?  Well, we all have our moments when we slide through a stop sign.   Here is a good news.  We can learn from our past, and we can benefit from warnings.

For those more on the left:  You may be a 50 year old college professor living in the Boston suburbs, or a 22 year old musician making ends meet in the east end.  It may be, this morning, there is warning in the morning for you:  slow down.  Slow down.  The laws are meant for us all.  We are a country of ‘laws and not of men’, as my college classmate Kiki Kliendienst’s dad, Richard Kleindienst, said in the spring of 1975, just before he went off to prison, one of the last convicted in the Watergate affair.  The laws, including traffic laws, the laws, including stop signs and yield signs, the laws, from sea to shining sea and from border to border, are for all of us.  You will not turn a 330 million person ship around in one fell swoop.  It will take a decade, or more, and that is if you really work at it.  And it will take a just regard for just law, liberty and justice for all.  So there are not short cuts, and up comes a sermon in uniform, and he asks, ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation?’ Well, we all make mistakes, and have our moments when we slide through a stop sign.  Here is a good news.  We can learn from our past, and we can benefit from warnings.

 When was the last time you were interviewed by legal authorities?  When were you asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God? Here, John 18: 33, in his last hours, Jesus is interviewed by Pilate.  Such a strange Gospel passage, wherein the one interviewed becomes the questioner, wherein the one accused levies accusation, wherein the one intending to interrogate, is himself interrogated, wherein not power but truth has the last word.  The Holy Scripture, the strange world of the Bible, is holy because it is healthy, and you need its nourishment, its strange teaching, far more than any other watery diet of merely spiritual meditation.  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.”

 

–The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean 

 

 

Tags:

Leave a Reply