“Saying Makes it So” a sermon by Mark W. Harris
November 11, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to worship – from Carl Sandburg (adapted)
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and our endless human yearnings for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prisms of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
Readings – I Kings 10 – Queen of Sheba story
from Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
When I was minister at the First Parish in Milton we voted on Jesus. This was not your simple thumbs up/thumbs down kind of religious preference of “I like Jesus” or not. This had to do with the affirmation of faith we said every Sunday, and the reaction to it by those who wanted the church to be less Christian. The affirmation was: “In devotion to truth, and in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we unite for the worship of God, and the service of all. While not as close as the Presidential voting in Florida in last Tuesday’s election, it was still tight. It was Jesus vs. Jesus Christ, and Christ won by two votes. It was not that the majority believed that we should be worshipping Christ rather than following Jesus. No, it was a feeling like it had always been that way, so why change it now. Then there were those uninformed folks who simply felt Christ was his last name, and just calling him Jesus was perhaps too informal. Only in a UU church would we vote on Jesus. But that said, the first line of the affirmation was completely ignored – “in devotion to truth.” What truth is it we are devoted to?
This devotion to truth reminded me that we also have our own Trinity. While not the Father, Son, Holy Ghost variety that we rejected long ago, it can be easily accessed by looking at hymn #113 – “where is our holy church, where race and class unite, as equal persons in the search for beauty, truth and right. Beauty, truth and right? Defining those terms almost makes the Trinity seem rational. Beauty is an aesthetic value concerning what we see in the world or create with our hands. In fact, Keats famously said that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, and that is all you need to know. Except that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Right seems to be about doing the right thing, like giving people a fair chance, and treating everyone with kindness and compassion. And finally, there is truth. We may say that truth is what we are devoted to, but how do we define it? Is absolute Truth the Ten Commandments that God handed down on Mt. Sinai, or is it the beatitudes that Jesus preached on the metaphorical mountain? Neither a belief in God, the worthiness of the Bible, or Jesus are things we could agree on as truths. We might say we believe in many truths, and that those come to each of us based on our own understanding of knowledge and experience of life. The hymn says we are equal persons in the search for truth. So rather than a defined truth, it is more about a free search, and in that freedom we have each taken it upon ourselves to be the ultimate arbiters of authority. What is true for me, while grounded in tradition, must be based in honest dialogue about we experience the world. Truth is neither absolute nor permanent, but to begin with, it would help if it were at least based in the facts.
I began the sermon by talking about voting up or down for perceived truths about the world. This was one continuing debate I had with myself as this election year unfolded, and was the genesis of this sermon. I often seemed to be asking myself, how can a candidate make such outrageous statements that seem to have little or no basis in truth, and then get away with it. Perhaps you are sick and tired of political discussions having been subject to countless television ads, but I am hoping this will be a post-election call for greater truth and integrity in our government and in our lives. How would you like to have everything you ever wrote, even fictional stories, be portrayed as gospel truth about what you stand for? In the 1930’s Upton Sinclair, who is remembered most for his novel The Jungle, published a fictional work called “I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty.” The book told how he was going to run for governor, be elected, and then proceed to eradicate poverty. It was a very popular work, and what was intriguing about it was his attempt to make fiction true. He fulfilled his prediction that he would win the party nomination, but he lost the election. Part of the reason he lost was that a new type of business, the first political consulting firm ever, was created to defeat him. Campaigns, Inc. employed a little army of researchers who looked up every thing Sinclair had ever written, and then fed quotes to the Los Angeles Times which ran a front page box with an Upton Sinclair quotation every day. For example, Sinclair wrote a novel about a man whose wife was having an affair, and the character wrote a heartbroken letter to his wife’s lover. The paper quoted this fiction as an accurate portrayal of Sinclair’s views of marriage: “The sanctity of marriage . . . I have had such a belief. I have it no longer.” Nothing, the New Yorker reports, has altered our political democracy so much in the last century as the creation of political consulting.
While politics as business may be new to the world, hiding or masking the truth, intrigue and manipulation of words are not new. They are all used to keep the office holder in power or help him or her take power. Our manipulations of truth or words may have personal implications as well. We all deal with politics in the various organizations we belong to or jobs we hold. What are you willing to say or not say to the boss? Or in a church, how do you handle a person’s feelings so they don’t threaten to quit if they don’t get their way? At work, do you tell the boss exactly what you think despite the possibility of termination? Do you tell the volunteer if they can’t abide by certain civil rules of conduct, then they should go ahead and quit? There is probably no more famous story about the confluence of politics, religion and marital infidelity as that of Henry VIII, and his attempt to woo Anne Boleyn. Hilary Mantel tells about Thomas Cromwell’s struggles in Henry’s court in Bring Up the Bodies, where Anne Boleyn meets her fate. Mantel asks the pointed question, “What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is blurred because of various rumors and twists, but truth more often than not is found whimpering at a back door if it is not pleasing to the ear. Who took Katherine’s virginity, the church asks? This is a fact they and we will never know, but a truth that was lost to political expediency. As they say, we all tend to believe what we want or need to hear.
Upton Sinclair was beaten by a manipulation of truth that he referred to as the Lie Factory. There was another Lie Factory centuries before, as described by Poggio, a secretary to the Renaissance Pope, Boniface IX. This scribe made an amazing discovery when he saved from oblivion a narrative poem from the first century called On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. This story was recounted last year in the book, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. Lucretius described a universe of atoms that were randomly moving through space. It was a universe without a creator where the main truth for human beings was to enjoy the pleasures of living. Imagine this truth vs. the truth that the church taught 2,000 years ago. The Lie Factory in 1430 was a room at the Vatican where all the papal secretaries would tell jokes, and the butt of these jokes was often the pope himself. To retain their sanity, these employees would reveal their gossip and snipes. Poggio told stories that may not seem unfamiliar to us. For example, you bring the boss a document, and he says fix it, it’s all wrong. Later you bring back the same document, and he pronounces it perfect. Most of the stories are about sex. He tells about monks who hear confessions from women who all report being faithful, and then confessions from men who have all committed adultery, and wonders who are the women these men have sinned with. Where is the truth? Who is boasting about what they have claimed to have done? Poggio wondered why churchmen were especially prone to hypocrisy. Is there a relationship, he asks, between religious vocation and fraud? Poggio wanted to know how to identify hypocrites. He concluded that they bear such attributes as being excessively pure, want to be called good without actually doing anything good, want to make sure you know how much they fast or pray, and especially be wary of those who seem too perfect. Who wants to be affirmed in his/her goodness Well, clergy want to please everyone, and politicians want to please everyone, too. They want to be loved and/or voted for, but when can they say what they really think without political ramifications? Is it about getting flies with honey rather than vinegar, but where is the dividing line between too sweet and reality? I’ll try to say what I think you want to hear.
What are ways in which truth is violated and how can we guard its sanctity? I think it is good to have memory invoked and also some sort of perspective on how things were. My colleague in ministry David Boyer recently said, “I am so old that I can remember when liberals were liberal.” While I am old and times have changed, I was often offended in this campaign when certain candidates in their efforts to woo the right wing referred to the President’s plans for America as a “hard-core left agenda,” that has taken the nation “very far left, very fast.” Since when have we lived under such a leftist? You would think Castro himself were in office. This President proposed tax rates on the wealthy and a health plan that were more conservative than what Richard Nixon once supported, and his radicalism is decried? When it comes to truth we always need some perspective. Having this perspective helps us say, that person is really not what you are calling him.
Second, this also helps us to understand that a person’s truth may be calculated for effect. As we use to say, you are just saying that to get a rise out of me, or you want to provoke me for your own gain. The important lesson here is to call people on their methods, and say “stop that”, or I know what you are trying to do. This was not a good election for facts. Candidates said or implied things that had no basis in reality, or they said them as if their opponent had said something to the contrary, even if they had not. For instance one candidate said, I won’t take God off the coins. This implied that the other candidate had said they would remove “In God We Trust” from the coins. Was this ever said? No. But in making such a definitive affirmative statement you imply that you are responding to something the other said, even though they never did. What is so critical here is the need to stand up for truth, and keep calling the other on their deceptive methods. Two aspects of the Romney campaign shed light on this. First, the refusal to release tax returns. The refusal might have indicated that there was something to hide, but no one continued to indicate that this was a problem, and if they did, they soon found they were a lone voice crying in the wilderness. So the concern died out, and he never had to own up to this earlier refusal to comply with being transparent. The lesson is that when someone is lying; don’t let them get away with it, but instead insist that they be forthcoming.
The third aspect of this truth telling is not only speaking up, but also asking for more detail. When I was a teenager I tried to live my lies by being vague. I would say, “I am going into town.” This meant never really saying where I was going or what I was going to do. I was asking for trust and understanding where it was not really warranted. In this campaign, not only did Romney refuse to follow any kind of expected disclosure, he also refused to be specific about details. How could his tax cuts put the nation back on a sound economic footing? Vagueness means that you do not have to reveal specifics that would give others the information they need to base a decision on. This particularly became difficult to apprehend when we witnessed his transformation in the last month to someone we should believe in simply because he said so. This is what the New York Times referred to as a path to secretiveness. This is a way we lie by non-disclosure of facts, information or truths. I think my parents path made more sense. They were like Detective Joe Friday, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Tell us the truth. Where are you going, and with whom, to do what, and with politicians, just how are you going to do that? The bottom line here is for us to pay attention not necessarily to what is said, as it is to what is not said.
We all know that people manipulate data to serve their own truths. What was striking in the campaign was how the politicians were often in full attack mode, so that their opponents were increasingly villainized. They would have us believe that their opponent was going to drive us off the cliff they are so horrible and ineffective. When the attacks are so fast and furious it is hard to find objective truth about the other. It seems like it is all fabricated. Objective truth about the common good seems to be sacrificed for the personal truth of one candidate’s mission to be elected. These then are the things politicians do to establish the truth of their position and person with respect to their opponent. They lie by attacking the other, when they could be less vindictive, and more respectful. They lie by withholding the truth, when they could be more forthcoming. We help them lie by not holding them up to a forthcoming standard. They lie by misleading us as to reality, and we need to look back and have some perspective. They may persuade us that our situation is normative, when it is not. We could teach politicians a lot about how to live lives that reflect personal integrity – to be respectful, to be forthcoming, to be assertive, to have knowledge, memory and perspective on what really is true. As Emerson once said, “ Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth.”
Finding truth in this apprenticeship of life is not easy. People once believed that God established the ultimate truth, and the Bible contains the revelation of this truth. When people learned to read that book for themselves they saw there were different ways to understand that truth. Even as Protestantism flourished, and our faith was born, people were less and less likely to know a shared truth about the world they lived in. There was no longer one world truth to believe in. Historically we have believed in hierarchies of truth. As we learned about other religions we saw some as being more or less worthy than others, or even more full of the truth. People tend to believe that their faith is the truth that will save the human race. We have a different vision of truth, and it draws on some of those life lessons of creative interchange with the opposition that I spoke of earlier rather than vilifying them as an enemy or at best a perpetrator of false truth.
If you grew up in a traditional western faith you heard stories about the famous Queen of Sheba. She was the rich Queen from the book of I Kings who visits King Solomon. The story is typically used as a way to exemplify the greatness of Solomon, and yet Sheba is clearly shown to be a woman who is clever in word and deed, wealthy and powerful. In I Kings, they test each other, with hard questions, and both are proven worthy. She is also a figure who is mentioned in both the New Testament and the Koran as well, and so she appears in all three western traditions, one of the few women to do so.
Here one can see all three faiths coming together to reconcile difference and discord, rather than bullying the other to follow one truth over another, and or in deceiving one another with lies or with vagueness or withholding, which is often what we do in fear of expressing a truth that someone might disagree with. Interfaith reconciliation is a way to prevent mutual destruction, but is also a way for us to see that we must be honest with one another about our own personal experiences.. To find common truth that will allow the world to continue in peace means that we take the inner world that we have learned from our culture and family and journey to a new land, an outer world that will expand our horizons. We will not teach a truth that we demand the other will grasp, but rather we live a truth that allows us to learn from each other, listening and engaging, to understand what the other’s truths may be. Truth for us is based in the integrity of the person and the transparency of the relationship. Truth is not what I say, but who I am and who we are together. The truth in our hearts is not to conquer another, or to deceive another, or to withhold from another, but the heart’s journey is to go to the other, and share what is in our hearts, trusting our instincts that being honest and forthcomng with one another will lead us to something greater together. I want to listen to what you have discovered to be true, and learn how you live that truth every day of your life.
Closing Words – from Ralph Waldo Emerson
Nothing is secure but life, transition, and the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath, no truth is sublime but it may be trivial tomorrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope.