SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
“Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No;’ anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Matthew 5:34-37.
How often haven’t you heard some one say, “Well, frankly….” Or “To be perfectly honest with you…” Someday I will work up the courage to say, “Wait! You mean you haven’t been frank with me for the last ten minutes? You mean that, ordinarily, you are less than honest with me, but now you are deciding to be “perfectly honest?” If and when I ever pull a stunt like that, I suspect the response will be that, no, my conversation partners are not implying that they are being dishonest. They only mean to say that what they are now telling me is important, that they are making a strenuous effort to be accurate and that I should pay close attention. Be that as it may, should we not always strive to be accurate? Should we not always pay close attention to each other? Is any communication so unimportant that we can afford to be less than scrupulously truthful?
I do not believe Jesus is suggesting that oaths requiring truthful answers under pain of perjury are wrong in themselves. Oaths required by law are designed to put those taking them on notice that false or misleading statements are subject to criminal prosecution. Jesus seems to be making an oath like statement when he appeals to the testimony of his Heavenly Father. John 8:17-19. I took an oath to defend the state and federal constitutions when I was admitted to practice law before the courts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the United States. The problem comes with invoking the name of God on one’s own behalf, which is a tacit admission that without the oath, one’s representations would be less than credible. Disciples of Jesus should have no need for such oaths. They should know that everything they say is said in God’s presence and under God’s judgment. They should know that the truth matters, whether it pertains to matters great or small. “Yes” or “no” in their mouths always means yes or no in the presence and hearing of God.
Playing fast and loose with the truth is sadly common place in our civil discourse. Who can forget former President Bill Clinton’s rationalization to the grand jury attempting to explain why he wasn’t lying when he said to his top aides that, with respect to Monica Lewinsky, “There’s nothing going on between us.” Here’s what Clinton told the grand jury according to footnote 1,128 in Starr’s report:
“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the—if he—if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. … Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”
Lame as this linguistic gobbledygook surely is and as preferable as “coming clean” with the truth may have been, give the man credit at the very least for understanding that lying is wrong and something about which one ought to be ashamed (along with a good many other things). Furthermore, a fib over one’s sexual indiscretions pales in comparison to the over thirty thousand lies told by former President Donald Trump who, when caught, simply doubles down, repeating them more loudly and emphatically. But the prize for most outrageous prevaricator goes to newly elected Representative George Santos who sold himself to the voters as a self made millionaire, grandson of Holocaust survivors, honors graduate of a prestigious college and the grieving son of a mother who perished in the September 11, 2001 attacks. Of course, it is now known that he was neither rich, Jewish or a college graduate. Nor did his mother die in the 9/11 attack. Nonetheless, Mr. Santos was seated in the house of representatives, thereby demonstrating that the truth is now entirely without value in our government.
The church, the Body of believers in Jesus, are called to truthfulness in the extreme. Truthfulness that begins with ourselves. After all, the most dangerous lies we tell are the ones we tell about ourselves to ourselves. That is perhaps the source of all dishonesty. If you have a false view of yourself, that colors the way you understand the world, the way you form opinions about others and the way you express yourself. Honesty begins with learning to know ourselves as we are known by God. We call that repentance, something we cannot do on our own. To see ourselves as we really are-as we are seen by God, we need to see ourselves through the eyes of others, particularly those who live with and observe us, those who can point out our blind spots and those we have harmed. There is no other way of getting a clear picture of ourselves. Until that happens, there is little hope for change.
What applies individually also applies corporately. The church has much over which to lament and repent. We need to understand our instrumentality in the cruel legacy of colonialism. We need to recognize the grip of white supremacy and patriarchy that have permeated so much of our ecclesiastical life. We need to acknowledge the shameful presence of predatory behavior in our midst and our long held practice of covering it up and silencing its victims. We need to confess our demonization, exclusion and complicity in the hatred, violence and persecution of LGBTQ+ folk. It is tempting to deny all of this, minimize it or pretend that it is all in the past and that we can march into the future as though it never happened. To that, Saint Paul has a blunt response: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” Colossians 3:9-10. One could say that truthfulness is the foundation for all Christian ethics. Unless we get that right, the rest will be hopelessly skewed.
Can a community as fragmented and morally compromised as the church really be “salt” to the earth or a “light” to the world? My answer is a qualified “yes.” I believe that the church, like every individual, is capable of redemption, reform and renewal. When we can stop imagining ourselves as the righteous few preaching to a sinful world and instead see ourselves clearly as recovering sinners struggling for our own sobriety, we will finally have something of value to say to that world. But it begins with each baptized member, each congregation and the leadership of each ecclesiastical tradition taking an honest look within, making a fearless inventory of our sin, corporate and individual, and openness to being made new-however painful that process might be. Until we address the sin in our midst, until we are ready to be the change we call for in our many social teaching statements, the rest of the world will continue to dismiss all of our bold, well articulated ecclesiastical proclamations as preachy screechy moralism. Again, in the words of Saint Paul, “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Ephesians 4:25.
This being Black History Month, I plan to post poems of Black American poets for the next severa weeks so that we might begin to see more clearly ourselves, our nation and our churches through their unique artistic perspectives. Perhaps that is a good place for learning truthfulness to begin. Here is one such poem by Langston Hughes.
I Look at the World
I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.
I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!
I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.
Source: Source: Poetry (December 2008; c. by New Haven: Beinecke Library, Yale University). Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.” Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).
 To be precise, the New Jersey oath allows one to “affirm” rather than swear. That might alleviate the consciences of some who are uncomfortable with the biblical language. But it is really a distinction without a difference. In either case, you are representing your awareness that if the statements you make turn out to be false, you are subject to legal prosecution. In other words, you are saying, “OK, now I am really telling the truth.”
 House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy rationalized the seating of Mr. Santos by pointing out that, after all, the voters elected him and, if they find his behavior offensive, they can deal with it in the next election. In my view, that is a little like telling the victim of a scam perpetrated by someone claiming to be an IRS agent that the scammer should not be prosecuted because, after all, the victim willingly paid him money. Just as the victim paid the scammer because he was convinced he was dealing with the IRS, so the voters thought they were electing a self made millionaire with a compelling story of heroism and achievement. What both actually got was a shameless scammer.