“What is Truthiness?”
I was running this past Tuesday. I found myself running up the appropriately named Highgrove Dr. – a steep hill every bit as punishing as the hill on Hillsborough Street that was in my last sermon. I had just summited the hill and so I stopped to walk and catch my breath. And then I hear a voice calling out from the van driving past me “WEAK SAUCE MCLAUGHLIN!”
The voice belonged to somebody in this Church – somebody who usually sits in the 4th pew on the right side. Somebody that I am staring at RIGHT NOW! His name rhymes with Madam Glove Shady. Let it be known UPC– call me out on the street – I’ll call you out from the pulpit!
That’s my weird way of saying –
I missed you all last week. I was honored to preach at the installation service of a dear friend from our previous church. While serving as her pastor, Linda discerned a call to ministry and enrolled at Union seminary and has now been called to serve as an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Lexington KY.
This meant that I was preaching in the heart of Big Blue Nation. So I did what any self-respecting Tarheel would do and – mid-sermon – I draped a Carolina flag over top their pulpit paraments. They loved it.
It was all for a purpose – I needed them to get in the head space of rivalries because Scripture contains rivalries far deeper than anything we can conjure up around an orange bouncy ball.
After the boos subsided I stuffed the flag back into the shelf under the pulpit and continued with the sermon. When the service ended all of the worship leaders recessed down the center aisle and out the back of the Sanctuary.
I immediately looped back to the Sanctuary to retrieve my papers and my flag. But it was already gone! In the 90 seconds that it was out of my sight – somebody took it! I have a sneaking suspicion that I just supplied First Pres. Lexington with the raw materials for their next Ash Wednesday service.
At any rate, our reading today also centers around a rivalry. A contest of wits and wills between two very different kings.
One tiny disclaimer I feel like I often have to make when reading from the Gospel of John – when Jesus speaks about “The Jews” – he’s not talking about ALL Jews. It’s John’s shorthand for the Jewish elite who had become pretty cozy with Rome. With that said, a reading from the 18th chapter of John, the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate.
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” 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.”
Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” The Word of the Lord. Thanks Be To God
His pretend Dad sighed and took hold of his chin: “it’s high time I taught you how to fight, son. Every man’s gotta know how to defend himself…Now put up your fists,” and (then) he thumped Chuck’s forehead. “You have one job: to keep me from doing that. Understand?” he asked, and though Chuck’s head hurt he nodded.
Chuck moved his hands around in front of his face. He imagined that he was the Flash and had super speed. He imagined that he was a robot with steel hands. It didn’t matter – his pretend dad kept thumping his forehead. He was a lot faster than Chuck, a lot stronger. Sometimes he came from the left, sometimes from the right.
“Show some muscle,” he told Chuck, “Stop jellyfishing around.”
“Come on,” he said, “what’s the matter with you?”
“Dodge and parry!” he shouted, but what did that mean?
After a while, Chuck quit believing he could stop him. This was just what the world was like. This is how the rest of life would be. He was the boy who couldn’t defend himself. The boy who stood outside waving his fists around. The boy whose pretend dad would not stop poking him.
Eventually he realized that the poking and shouting had stopped. His pretend dad was gone, and he was alone again. His forehead hurt with the sting of a hundred taps. His bruises were glowing, beating like hearts through his clothing.
That’s a passage from a novel called The Illumination. It’s a story with a subtle Science Fiction premise: The world is like our own in every single way except that at 8:17 pm one night everybody’s wounds begin to emit a brilliant light.
Every bruise glows bright, every cut leaks luminosity;
Every broken bone and every disease shimmers underneath the skin with an incandescent flare. Every ache and pain on display for the whole world to see.
The story jumps from character to character as they react to this phenomenon – which comes to be known as “The Illumination.” The question raised by this novel comes into focus: If we knew how other people were hurting; if we knew how much our actions hurt others and ourselves, would we change?
Call it cynical; call it a sad commentary on human nature – but nothing changes. Terrorist bombs still explode; teenagers still cut themselves; wars still export casualties; homeless people are still abused and children like Chuck are still bullied at school and at home.
The world is every bit as frightening as the one we live in. What’s different is how this strange phenomenon now underlines, underscores and highlights all the ways we harm ourselves and harm one another. All of the pain is illuminated.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s the day when we confess that Jesus is King – not because Kanye West says so but because periodically we need to remind ourselves what kind of a King we are about to welcome with Christmas carols in the coming weeks.
In 1925 – Pope Pius XI called for a day to celebrate Christ’s unique Kingship “as a way of combating the destructive forces of this age.”
Consider what was happening in that historical moment. Radical breeds of nationalism were on the rise…movements that would come to be known as Fascism. Christ the King Sunday emerged as a counter-testimony to the strong man, authoritarian rule emerging at that time.
Nearly a century later, here we are reading this story where Jesus stands before a strong man, authoritarian governor named Pilate. But this is John’s version.
John begins his Gospel with the words “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
So right off the bat, Jesus is the light and true life of creation.
If you want to know what it means to be alive – look at Jesus.
If you want to see clearly, it is Christ who illuminates.
If you want to hear the truth, you best listen to what Jesus has to say.
John’s account of the Trial is designed to strike a contrast.
On one side, just a breath away from his crucifixion, we have Jesus. By all appearances he is a disgraced Jewish peasant, beaten and bloodied, whose movement had failed and whose followers had abandoned him. That’s how it appears.
But seen through the eyes of John – this is the truth-telling Jesus who is going toe to toe with Pontius Pilate – an agent of the truth-denying, reality-defining Empire. This trial is going to illuminate the very nature of Empire.
What ensues is a contest of questions – a battle between Christ’s Truth and Empire’s Reality.
Pilate begins “Are you the King of the Jews?” In other words, “Do you pose a threat to Rome?”
Jesus answers with his own question: “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?” Translation: “do you think I’m a threat or are you letting other people dictate your decisions?”
Pilate retorts “I am not a Jew, am I?” Translation – “how dare you suggest that I am being played by my own subjects. I’m in control here.”
At this juncture Jesus makes a declarative statement: “My Kingdom is not from this world.” This is a huge statement for Jesus to make in this moment. He does have a kingdom – it’s just not like any this world has seen before.
And then Jesus underlines, underscores and highlights the difference: “If my Kingdom were of this world,” he says, “my followers would keep me from being handed over.” In other words, “if my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be every bit as violent and abusive as you are.”
The interrogation continues, but I imagine Pilate is a little off balance now – “So you are a King?” he asks.
If I may paraphrase Jesus says “You say that I am a king…but that word means something different to you than it does to me. So let me be clear – I’m here to tell the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice…as they would listen to the voice of their King.’
Those who do not belong to the truth – those who do not listen to my voice – they’re the ones who do all the talking and interrogating, the wounding and the crucifying…I am not that kind of King.”
It’s as if Jesus holds a mirror up to Pilate – to his unfailing commitment to the Empire, asking: “Do you like what you see?”
The flustered governor has one final question – and this is the one that hangs there unanswered. The question that rings out in eternity: “What is truth?”
It’s been 15 years since the first episode of the Colbert Report aired.
Lampooning the proliferation of designer news networks –
News that specializes in confirmation bias;
News that ensures we never need to confront facts or opinions that are contrary to our worldview…whether right wing or left-leaning,
To poke fun at all of this, Stephen Colbert coined the term Truthiness.
Truthiness is the belief we hold that something is true because we feel that it is true….it’s convenient for it to be true.
“We’re not talking about truth,” Colbert explained, “we’re talking about something that seems like the truth – but is really just the truth we want to exist.”
If I understand this text – Pilate is a champion of Truthiness, but he is oblivious to the Truth.
He’s an incredibly privileged, powerful man. And even if his post in a backwater Roman province with problematic subjects isn’t the most plum position – he lives a life of relative ease. Nestled comfortably in middle management, what use does somebody like Pontius Pilate have for Truth when his reality is pretty darn comfortable?
And here we are – most of us relatively comfortable, well-educated, middle to upper class folks – most with the skin tone and socio-economics ensuring we are people of privilege – what use do we have for the Truth Jesus proclaims when our tailored Truthiness will do just fine?
Perhaps Pilate’s final question was little more than a condescending shrug of the Empire’s shoulders.
Perhaps – even in asking it – Pilate recognized that whatever truth Jesus proclaims is nothing when compared to the reality-defining, truth-confining power of Empire.
Perhaps – like that young boy in the novel – Pilate recognizes that “this is just what the world is like” and no amount of truth is going to change that.
Whatever the case, Pilate scorns the truth and retreats to his reality…to the world as it is rather than the world as it should be.
But his questions does linger. All these years later and we’re still wondering “what is truth?”
We don’t know if or how Pilate finally answered that question. But I wonder – I wonder if Pilate found himself standing inside those Roman headquarters – in that outpost of Empire – haunted by this routine exchange with what seemed like just another Judean troublemaker.
I wonder if Pilate paused for a moment and wondered – who is this Jesus who has me re-examining all of my assumptions…my assessment of what is real?
It’s the same question that comes to those of us who follow Jesus. How is it possible that this peasant Jew from Palestine has me questioning everything that I know to be true about this world?
How is it that the leader of this failed movement has me still wanting to join in?
How is it that his ethic of love, spurned by nations and markets and empires alike, is something I yearn to adopt as my own?
Just a few verses later, Pilate brings this broken would-be King out to the people and he mockingly says “This is your King.” Today, we’re gathered here in this place to say the same – Like it or not This is our king. This is the truth to which we belong.
This is the one whose life forces us to question our every assumption, until we, too, see truth through the eyes of a Jewish peasant who celebrated his nativity on the very margins of society.
the Galilean who broke bread until the hungry and impoverished had their fill;
the friend of the poor who upset polite company to plead their case at the tables of the rich;
the peacemaker who believed that the only way to stop violence was to refuse to participate in it.
We don’t live in a world where wounds glow with white-hot light. We don’t live in a world where the harmful consequences of our actions are constantly on display with a supernatural glow.
But we are the ones who say that Christ is king.
We are the ones who claim that his wounds illuminate once and for all the truth about any and every Empire.
We are the ones who hitch our lives to this disgraced Jewish peasant who said I am the way, the truth and the life.
And yet he really is a most inconvenient truth, isn’t he?
But it’s time to get our wreaths and candles out…it’s time to unpack the nativity set and order the poinsettias.
It’s just about Advent
Ready or not – here comes our King.
 The previous two paragraphs are adapted from a paper by my friend and colleague Elizabeth Cole Goodrich.
 The section beginning “As for Pilate, we don’t know how he finally answered that question” through to the footnote is
adapted from a paper by my friend and colleague Andrew Foster Conners.