A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
February 12, 2017
[Several years ago the German news magazine] Der Spiegel published a disturbing interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In it, the president suggested to the somewhat bewildered interviewer that the existence of the Holocaust should be a matter of debate and “impartial” research. As shocking and outrageous as such statements always are, what was almost more disturbing about the interview was the clever way in which the Iranian leader managed to imply that by accepting the Holocaust as historical fact, the German journalist was somehow rejecting the ideals of open debate, rational inquiry, and intellectual freedom. “We are of the opinion,” he declared, “that the truth [about the Holocaust] will be revealed all the more clearly if there is more research into it and more discussion about it…. An impartial group has to come together to investigate and to render an opinion on this very important subject.” Ahmadinejad cloaked his own anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism in the guise of the values that so many Westerners hold dear – impartial inquiry and the need to give equal hearing to all sides of the debate. 
Stunning as the Iranian leader’s comments were at the time, today we might shrug our shoulders at them. We are living in a culture that has made of truth a relative thing, a time when misinformation and deception are favored means of countering truths we find inconvenient, which is to say that we live in a time when lies are acceptable tactics and truth is a regular casualty in public speech. The incapacity to distinguish truth from falsehood is a precarious step on the stairway toward the inability to tell right from wrong.
As obvious as it may be in our day, such incapacity is not a new phenomenon. The situation in the time of Jesus apparently was no different, as we learn from the words about oath-taking we encounter in today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount. In the Hebrew tradition, out of which Jesus came, oath-taking was a matter of serious consequence. In the absence of voice recorders, notary publics, and juries, God was often invoked to confirm and judge what people said, and to affirm their intention to perform duties they had promised to fulfill. Over time an elaborate system of oaths of many varieties developed, for use in a host of situations. And not-so-surprisingly, apparently there also developed an equal number of deceptive schemes for getting around the implied obligations of the oaths. Some ancient Jews devised a shifty scheme by which certain pious-sounding oaths were not binding at all.
So, it was over against all such casual use of oaths, over against deceit and falsehood that Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount, positing his own command of truth-telling. Old Testament law condemned false oaths, that is, promising in God’s name to do something and, then, not doing it. But Jesus swept away oaths of every kind. Since everything you say and do is said and done in the sight and presence of God, he said, let everything you say and do be honest and truthful. Jesus warned against the double-standard of truth which oaths themselves imply. We always live and speak in God’s presence, he said; and thus the integrity of speech and the keeping of pledges in life is always our obligation. His message then was clear, and it is still clear. Even in a time of moral complexity, this command of Jesus stands out for its relative simplicity. Live by truth. Tell the truth. You are given power over your own words, so when you mean yes, say, “yes;” when you mean no, say, “no.” Truth-telling.
Some of you know the story of the four high school boys, sorely afflicted with spring fever, who decided to skip school one morning. They finally wheeled into school around lunchtime, and, to their dismay, promptly ran into their algebra teacher. She asked where they’d been, and they told her that their car had had a flat tire and that it had taken them all morning to get the spare fixed and put on. Much to their relief, the teacher said, “Okay; no problem.” But then she added, “You did miss a pop quiz this morning, but I’ll give you a chance to make it up rather than receive a zero, if you’ll take it right after school today.” The guys weren’t thrilled, but they agreed, and so they came at the end of the school day. She spaced them apart in the room, and asked them to take out a sheet of paper. Then she said, “There’s really only one question: which tire was flat?”
That teacher knew something about deception, but also a way to get at the truth. As I consider our world today, I believe one of the most discouraging signs of our times is the dishonesty and deceit that we have come to accept in public speech and public lives, and our difficulty in finding a way to get at the truth. Disregard for truth may be a problem far older than our own memory, but in our own day we can surely sense a wanton disregard for truth-telling and a calculated pollution of language, the misuse of language to deceive, to obscure reality, and to inculcate fear.
Surely we have witnessed such distortion in the political arena, where word choices often seem to have little or no basis in reality. To be fair, of course, imprecise and nebulous speech has long been a necessary tool of the political trade, to allow politicians to light-step around sensitive issues. I’ve shared here more than once my favorite case-in-point – a letter sent sixty-some years ago now by Florida’s then seventh-district congressman Billy Matthews to a constituent who wanted to know Matthews’ stand on the issue of liquor control. Mathews wrote:
My dear friend,
I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun a controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it may be.
You’ve asked me how I feel about whiskey. Here is how I stand on this question. If, when you say whiskey, you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty… then certainly I’m against it with all my power.
But, if when you say whiskey, you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good [friends] get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes… if you mean the drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold billions of dollars which are used to provide tender, loving care for little crippled children… to build highways, hospitals and schools, then certainly I’m in favor of it.
This is my stand, and I will not compromise.
Sincerely, Your Congressman
Tact is clearly important in every profession and every relationship, and we suffer these days from political leadership devoid of tact. But there are many times when speech is designed not out of thoughtful consideration of others, but for the simple purpose of hiding one’s deceptions. Then the results are anything but humorous. As one British observer noted,
it is hardly as though politics has ever been synonymous with truthfulness. “Those princes who do great things,” Machiavelli informed his readers, “have considered keeping their word of little account, and have known how to beguile men’s minds by shrewdness and cunning.” …. Lyndon Johnson misinformed the American people about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, thus getting the country into Vietnam. In 1986 Ronald Reagan insisted that his administration did not trade weapons for hostages with Iran, before having to admit a few months later that: “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.”
The next year, in his testimony in the Iran-Contra hearings, Oliver North denied lying before Congress, arguing instead that he had merely provided “input radically different from the truth.” And, of course, there was Bill Clinton’s much-heralded, self-serving hedging on “what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” Today we’ve taken public dishonesty to a new level. Our public speech is chock full of “alternative facts” – a worrisome euphemism for outright lies – not to mention distortions and half-truths. When untruth becomes the norm, the very foundation of our society is in peril.
The American poet and social critic James Russell Lowell wrote a provocative anti-slavery poem in 1845 that referred to that national struggle as a titanic battle of truth over against falsehood. Entitled “The Present Crisis,” the poem became the basis of the hymn we will sing in a few minutes. Lowell lamented that truth seemed “forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.” But that scaffold sways the future, he said. That scaffold sways the future.
The battle still goes on, leaving casualties of lies and deception all along the way…from the halls of power to the personal computers of cyber-bullies or fake newscasts. Jesus said it didn’t matter what the arena is, whether sacred or secular. He said it mattered not whether the speech was common word or pious oath. All speech is uttered in the presence of God, and thus is worthy of truth-telling. Say what you mean, let your yes be yes; and mean what you say, let your no be no.
Well, let the church, at least, do so. Let us lead the way. Let us do our part. Jesus calls us to choose truth over falsehood, to work for the sanctification of language. Lack of integrity of language leads to the loss of integrity in every sphere. It denotes separation from God and one another. Repentance begins with the recovery of the integrity of our language. Speak the truth. That might be a place to start in learning how to live the truth.
I’m here to tell you today that Christ offers a path to the redemption of our lives that starts with the shattering of the lies we have come to accept about ourselves and our world. Remember the story of Jesus before Pilate, when Jesus said that he had come to bear witness to the truth, and Pilate asks, “What is truth?” Frederick Buechner once said that like so many political leaders, instead of truth,
Pilate had only expedience. His decision to throw Jesus to the wolves is expedient. Pilate views [mortals] as alone in the universe with nothing but [their] own courage and ingenuity to see [them] through.
Pilate asks, what is truth? And for years there have been politicians, scientists, theologians, philosophers, poets, and so on to tell him. But the sound they make is like the sound of empty pails falling down the cellar stairs.
Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question. He just stands there.
Honesty is a virtue our world so sorely needs, one that is at the very heart of life as followers of the One who spoke of himself as “the way, the truth, and the life.” Grace gives us the courage to start the journey. And to fortify us for the trip, Jesus binds us together in a supportive community of faith, in which truth can be taken seriously, even in a world that seems to embrace lies and deceit.
A friend this week shared a story about two pastors in the Cajun-speaking region of south Louisiana. Pastor Boudreaux was the part-time pastor of the local Cajun Baptist Church, and Pastor Thibodeaux was the minister of the Covenant Church across the road. They were both standing by the road, pounding a sign into the ground that read:
Da End is Near
Turn Yo Sef ‘Roun Now
Afore It Be Too Late!
As a car sped past them, the driver leaned out his window and yelled, “You religious nuts!” Just seconds later, from beyond the curve in the road they heard screeching tires, and a big splash . . . The Reverend Boudreaux turned to Pastor Thibodeaux and asked, “Do ya tink maybe da sign should jus say ‘Bridge Out’?”
Of course, the crisis of truthfulness in our land, friends, is deeper than a matter of clarity, and is far more serious. Jesus said: say what you mean; let your yes be yes. Mean what you say; let your no be no. He spoke of the very foundation of faithful living: Tell the truth. At all times, tell the truth.
What a crazy, radical idea!
 Carter Phipps, “Whatever Happened to Truth?” Enlighten Next magazine, Issue 32, republished April 30, 2009, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carter-phipps/whatever-happened-to-trut_b_191925.html.
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 61.
 “Yes, I’d Lie to You: The Post-Truth World,” The Economist, September 10, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21706498-dishonesty-politics-nothing-new-manner-which-some-politicians-now-lie-and, accessed February 1, 2017.
 James Russell Lowell, “The Present Crisis,” Poems, 1844.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, New York, Harper and Row, 1973, 94.