August 9, 2015

“Truth is not Enough”
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

The individual is capable of both great compassion and great indifference.
He has it within his means to nourish the former and outgrow the latter.
–Norman Cousins

My mother always told me to tell the truth. As a parent myself, I have pointed out to my children that telling the truth from the get-go avoids having to try and remember the story that you told to avoid the consequences of that truth in the first place. Not telling the truth is sometimes rooted in avoiding either punishment or pain, pain inflicted by that truth.

And that is why the truth is sometimes very hard to tell. The consequences of telling it can be less than desirable.


People can get mad at you. Anyone, in any significant relationship, knows this. Your significant other is getting dressed in the morning. They ask, “how does this look?” This is, of course, a subtle variation of “does this make me look fat.” And this is one instance where telling the truth can be the source of friction in a relationship.

The truth, even in the most self-evident situations, can be misinterpreted. I was in Boscov’s or Kohl’s, I don’t remember which, and I was being the dutiful husband, waiting outside the dressing room while my wife was trying on a garment of some kind. There was another guy there, twiddling his thumbs too. I thought to myself, so this is what it has come to; standing in the mall waiting for our wives, holding their purse. His wife came out first. She said, “how does this look?” He said, as far as I could tell, truthfully and enthusiastically, “Great!” She pouted and said to him, “you are just saying that.” “What are you saying,” he pleaded. “You’re just saying that so you don’t hurt my feelings!” “No I’am not!” “Yes you are!” She said, “I knew when I put this on it didn’t look good.” He muttered, to me I guess, “well, why did you ask me?”
There are times where brutal truth telling is all that is left. Speaking the truth to power, so that the powerful cannot claim “I didn’t know” is one time when the harsh and unadulterated truth should be told. When the Cushite tells King David of Absolom’s death, he does not say it straight away, but there is no mistaking the truth of the situation. A better example is the prophet Nathan from last week’s reading who tells, first, a parable of a rich man who takes advantage of a poor man by basically stealing his meager resources when his own resources could have easily sufficed. King David identifies quickly the gone-wrongness in this situation. It’s a little harder to accept when Nathan tells David “you are that man.”

And often, telling the truth is an excuse for venting our own frustrations or hurts, which may or may not be beneficial to anyone. The truth of some small matter can be so hurtful if told the consequences far outweigh the benefits. The truth of large matters is sometimes not told because it horrifies everyone.

In the movie “A Few Good Men,” An enthusiastic, inexperienced, Navy lawyer named Kaffee is called upon to defend two marines who are up for court martial, indicted on murder charges. While on the stand, the Base’s CO, Colonel Jessup, under intense questioning by the young defense attorney is finally unnerved. The Colonel says, “You want answers?” Kaffee says, “I want the truth.” Jessup shouts, “you can’t handle the truth.”

A FEW GOOD MEN, A, Jack Nicholson, 1992, (c) Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection

A FEW GOOD MEN, A, Jack Nicholson, 1992, (c) Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection

I have a colleague who selectively pares down this scripture, who snips out the parts they don’t like, to make Paul’s words support truth telling in a way that makes it a weapon. I called him on it. He quoted that old saw, ‘the task of the gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ I replied, ‘yes, but it doesn’t say to afflict everyone.’

The letter to the Ephesians insists that we are members of the same body, and therefore we have a responsibility toward one another. And that applies as much to the way we speak to and about one another as to any other facet of life. From this perspective Ephesians says that our words should convey “truth” and “grace” to each other. By “truth,” I don’t think it means a theoretical approach—it’s not about a courtroom inquiry, or academic research, or philosophical contemplation.[Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 512] Rather “speaking truth is a practical matter. And by practical, I do not mean practical in the same sense that Colonel Jessup understands it. From this perspective, “speaking truth” is a way of fulfilling our commitment to relate to one another in ways that promotes peace and justice. When that is the case our words “convey grace”, they “become a vehicle and demonstration of the very grace of God.” [Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 520]

The truth of our existence is that we really are each other’s keepers. We have an obligation to one another—particularly in the context of our mutual faith—to relate to each other with love and kindness and compassion. Make no mistake: it grieves our loving creator when we fail to do that. It grieves our creator when we act in ways that positively destroy the fabric of humanity that the Spirit weaves among us. [Alan Brehm, August, 11, 2009]

At the present moment there are multiple conditions present in our society that call for truth telling.

If people have no sense that there is a truth larger than themselves, their individual self interests reign supreme; without ethics the social fabric of society deteriorates, and random violence and polarizing rhetoric, sexual obscenity and public incivility, rampant greed and disregard for the common good escalate; without a workable truth [philosophy of life] beyond themselves people find no lasting meaning;

without truth [purpose] there can be only increasing anomie and passivity and rage that erupts in more violence. [Dawn, Marva “The Sense of the Call” Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006, p.4.]

But ‘telling the truth is not necessarily a solution to anything.’ For me, the polarity of thinking evident in the public sphere, on racism, marriage equality, gun violence, trophy hunting in Africa, is exemplary of some of the problems of ‘just tell the truth.’ Anger, even death threats, are shot like canon volleys across lines. So each camp circles the wagons a bit tighter, draws clearer lines around their version of the truth, and digs in.

I am not suggesting that there is no truth to be told. I am not supporting the idea that, in every case, some sort of ‘situational ethic’ be employed to define our reality. What I am suggesting, as is St. Paul, that there is no way forward for humanity if we insist upon killing one another (figuratively and actually) over the truth. Truth, as we experience it alone, is not enough for God’s people.

In this case, Paul is using the word truth in a very specific way. Truth is not some evidentiary fact. Here it has to do with the truth of God’s love and grace shown in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ. By its very nature, truth cannot set free anyone without its companions, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. Without these qualities, even this truth is just another tool the jailer uses to hold others hostage.

Recently we received an ‘anonymous’ letter from a ‘long term member,’ who voiced displeasure over the suggestion of and process for the welcome center/elevator project. This letter was full of inaccuracies about how our campaign progressed and how certain funds were used. The letter suggested that moving ahead with the project would cause us to lose more members.

I told one of our leaders that I am unwilling to respond to anonymous complaints of any kind. Why? Because anonymity does not allow for any relationship. Compassion, kindness, and forgiveness, cannot be exercised universally but are qualities of specific relationships. I cannot be compassionate for the poor in Haiti in general; I can be compassionate if I advocate for them and donate to them specifically. I cannot forgive in generalities; I can forgive someone who, because of differences of thought or belief has derided my character. But none of these gifts of the Spirit can be exercised outside of some sort of relationship, apart from a commitment to community.


That is why I have been feeling pretty down, nearly wanting to cancel my newspaper subscription, and turn off the tv. My strong introvert personality is begging me for isolation and withdraw. But I have an ever stronger force tugging at me; I believe the gospel, I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, because they remind me of the kindness, compassion, and forgiveness God has given me.

And still, those five words at the beginning of chapter five, they intimidated me. “Be therefore imitators of God.” They intimidated me until I realized that that is all I am ever asked to do, to be a once off imitation, to do my best, to marshall up what limited amounts of compassion and kindness and forgiveness I have, to be an imitator. That is what disciples of Jesus do, after all.