I’m not sure what book she was reading on the plane
during our family’s recent trip to California.
I missed that detail.[i]
But Brook told me a story from her book
that was just too perfect not to pass along.
It involved a preacher, and a congregation,
And a sermon series the preacher was sharing on various sins and vices
A surefire way to fill the pews, let me tell you.
And every week the preacher would give an assignment to the congregation
To prepare them for the next Sunday.
This time, the sermon was going to be on lying. A sermon on lying.
“All you need to do is read the 17th Chapter of Mark,” he said.
“Read Mark 17 this week,
and you’ll be all ready to go for the sermon on Sunday.”
The week went by, as normal,
And next Sunday came about.
The good pastor climbed the pulpit
And prepared his papers to get ready to preach.
“The assignment last week was to read Mark chapter 17.
Did any of you have a chance to finish it?” he asked.
Not everyone raised their hands,
But several did, more than a few.
“Good,” he said, nodding gratefully at those with their hands in the air.
“Thank you. You can put your hands back down.
Mark only has 16 chapters. It’s the shortest of the Gospels.
We’re now well prepared to reflect on the subject of lying…”
We value truth telling here.
One might say that faith itself is the search for truth,
often truth about matters that, by their nature, are obscure
beyond the foundations
that we often need to tell truth from falsehood.
God is beyond our knowing, in a way,
Which complicates matters a great deal.
God is God, and is so much bigger than what humans can fully grasp.
So it is that the author of the letter to the Hebrews, famously,
Calls faith “the conviction of things not seen,
The assurance of things hoped for.”[ii]
And one of the particular reasons that we look to Jesus
Is because Jesus shows us who God is, what God is all about:
That God is Love. That God seeks Justice.
Jesus teaches us how to find our sense of purpose and meaning:
That we are to love God with all our heart and mind and strength
And that we are to love our neighbor and love ourselves.
These, we believe, are true.
They are the foundation of the kingdom of God
That Jesus is here to lead.
Living that way, believing that Jesus is the way
will save us, and give us life beyond measure.
This is what it means to say that the truth shall set us free.[iii]
We value truth telling here.
There are different kinds of truths,
Just as there are different sorts of falsehoods,
Whether we’re talking about lies, little white lies, look-you-in-the-eye lies
Or even those falsehoods we spread that we ourselves think are actually true.
Social media giant Facebook is under fire this week
Because a data mining firm used the platform
To illicitly obtain information about one in every four Americans
Which they then used to target misinformation
Stories that tempted readers to get emotionally invested
And to believe even more far-fetched ideas.[iv]
It was strikingly effective. It coined a term, “fake news”
That has itself been co-opted for another purpose
To reject news that is unfavorable as somehow biased or made up.[v]
This whole recent mess about so-called “fake news” is really a signal
That we’ve found it much more difficult to know what sources to trust
Who to believe
What voices and perspectives are trustworthy.
I think human beings have always been entangled in what is called confirmation bias[vi]
That’s the tendency to listen to those perspectives that generally align
with what you ALREADY think to be true,
or with what you WANT to be true
and the related tendency to reject or doubt evidence that challenges our beliefs
because, lets be real, that’s uncomfortable.
Sometimes REALLY uncomfortable,
when the evidence begins to get into the realm of critique.
For instance, a few years ago PBS
Put together these really moving programs
Where they would explore the genealogy of their guest, often celebrities.
They used DNA and documentation, photographs and other evidence.
It’s a fascinating show.
What’s your heritage?
Who is in your family tree?
Look: this is a long lost relative of yours. That sort of thing.
And occasionally some of the guests would discover that their ancestors
In this country, with our history around race,
This shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But we don’t always want to hear it, or understand it.
I watched a clip of one of these shows again this weekend.
The guest this time was Anderson Cooper, of CNN,
And he was shown a copy of a page
from the 1860 US census.
This particular page revealed that Cooper’s fourth great grandfather
Was killed by a rebellious slave,
Beaten to death with a farm instrument.
That ancestor, Burel Boykin, owned 12 people, actually.
There isn’t record of what happened to the other 11 people
The one who killed Boykin was summarily executed without a trial.
Cooper was rather reflective about the whole thing
Curious about these people from his past,
and what they reveal about our collective history
About Race in America
As well as his own specific history, including the dark moments
some would maybe rather not uncover.
This was all very healthy. Cooper was interested in the truth.
The show is called Finding Your Roots.[vii]
A somewhat sanitized and safe space for people to explore these issues
For us to watch as people we know and maybe respect confronted them head on.
That’s not easy work.
I’ve done some genealogy work.
I don’t have access to all of those census pages
But there is enough evidence that my forebears owned people.
All of this intersects with my life story.
Maybe it does with yours too.
Or maybe your ancestors were owned, not the owners.
All very difficult, and still very true realities for us to understand.
The PBS show continues to this day.
Apparently the last one to air was back in December December
With guests that included comedians Amy Schumer and Aziz Ansari.
I kind of really want to watch that one.
But I particularly remember the big controversy the show found itself in
Back in 2015
When Ben Affleck was the guest.
According to The Washington Post,
When Affleck agreed to be on the show
He was hoping to find “the roots of his family’s interest in social justice.”[viii]
They found a lot for him to be proud about:
A mother who was active in the Freedom Riders
An ancestor who fought in the revolutionary war.
But they also found Benjamin Cole, his great-great grandfather
Sheriff of Chatham County, Georgia in the 1850s and 1860s
And owner of seven slaves.
And, in what Affleck would later apologize for,
The actor pressed the producers to leave all that bit out of the show.
Just leave it out.
And in a moment of weakness, the producers relented.
When it aired, Cole wasn’t mentioned in the episode at all.
News got out, however.
Someone leaked internal emails.
“We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found.”
The executive producer, Harvard Historian Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., wrote in an email
“[But] he’s a megastar. What do we do?”
The cat was out of the bag.
Affleck admitted his actions in trying to shape what was revealed about him.
He was “embarrassed” he said, by his slave-owning ancestor.
Of course he was.
“The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”
In the end, Finding Your Roots received a very embarrassing reminder
about what it means to cover over the truth.
It was suspended for around a year before PBS brought it back.
It takes work to be honest about ourselves, our pasts, and our present.
To be open to things that don’t seem to fit, or that we would rather not fit.
And we often don’t have the mental or spiritual energy for it, if we’re being candid.
So we shape things to fit our own narratives,
or we turn away from things we don’t want to see or know.
That’s confirmation bias.
It’s a major stumbling block to learning, or change, or compromise.
One way to look at Holy Week is that its God’s assertion of what is true:
That God loves us. That God would give everything for us
To learn how to love one another
And to care for this world that God has made.
Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday
With Jesus triumphantly marching from Bethphage and Bethany
Bestride a colt, with branches covering the road
Details that echo back
to the foreshadowing of Zechariah[ix] and the Psalms[x]
throngs of people there to see and to hear and to shout
Which means: Save us, God.[xi]
This week that starts there, with that moment
Itself a sort of “March for Our Lives” rally in Jerusalem
Where the hurting and the hungry
Come out to assert their desire for safety and for life.
Save us, God. Hosanna. Hosanna.
The moment quickly turns, just a few days later,
When Jesus sees the powers that be
profiting off of the faithful yearnings of the people
And so Jesus overturns the tables in the temple
Cementing the opposition of the priests and the
High council who depended on that income
And who were looking the other way at the graft[xii]
The moment turns then Jesus rejects the appeal of the people
to sanction violence
In the pursuit of God’s kingdom[xiii]
It turns when his followers join him to pray in the garden
But he is betrayed, arrested, flogged
And brought to trial
A trial, do you remember
where Jesus reasserts that he is here to speak the truth
To witness to the truth
And Pilate, laughingly, asks him “What is truth?”[xiv]
Before he sends him away to his execution.
Jesus Christ: so called King of the Jews.[xv]
What a powerful, amazing, tragic week.
A week where God asserts what is true:
That God loves us. That God would give anything, will give everything
for us to learn how to love one another
And to care for this world that God has made.
I wonder, sometimes, why we struggle with the truth so much.
Why we have such a hard time accepting the “Yes” of God.
There’s so much hurt we do to ourselves, or to our neighbor,
Because we don’t accept the love of God and we don’t share it with others.
But the good news is that God’s persistence doesn’t stop.
It is steadfast, the love of God.
It continues to confront us with opportunities to choose the true over the false
The loving over the spiteful
The peaceful over the violent
The compassionate instead of the selfish
The hopeful instead of the hopeless.
I don’t know about you, but when I see millions of people
across 800 cities coming together to say “enough” to gun violence
In a movement led by 15 and 16 year olds with eloquent voices
And passionate concern
I see an opportunity to affirm the truth
that God is doing something amazing there.[xvi]
When I see signs that the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr
Is being observed through the reaffirmation of the Poor Peoples Campaign
That he was leading at the time of his assassination
I see hope.[xvii]
When we gather our resources, along with Presbyterians and other people of faith
Around the world,
To try to feed the hungry with good food
To help the poor lift themselves out of poverty
To respond to natural and human crafted disaster
With acts of care and healing and support
I see God.[xviii]
When I see good people, who disagree on so many things,
Sitting down and affirming the humanity of each other
By breaking bread, by talking honestly
By humbly confessing their faults and their sins
and their needs and their worries
by worshiping together and turning together to the God
who made and loves them
I see the witness of Jesus Christ alive in the world.
Do you see it?
There is so much afoot. Much ado about the realm of God.
God is on the move. And God wants us to come along for the journey.
As we enter this holy week with songs of celebration, with palms waving high
We know that this will be a hard week for Jesus, and for us.
I’m exhausted by how often Hosanna has been on my lips lately: save us, God.
But even so, I’m aware of how fortunate I am,
how others have been shouting Save Us too, and how I need to hear it.
I’m aware of my own tendency to confirm my own bias
And God’s constant voice, there to remind me,
To look beyond it, to SEE what God is doing
And to put my energies there.
This is a holy week because it affirms the truth
That God loves us. That God would give anything
for us to learn how to love one another
As we enter this holy week together
May we remember that this week
teaches us God’s Truth for a broken world.
And gives us opportunities to work together to mend it back together.
We have work to do. Lets get to work.
[i] Turns out it was Leah Weiss’s If the Creek Don’t Rise: A Novel (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Landmark) 2017. This illustration is found elsewhere online. For instance, see https://www.cleanjoke.com/humor/Mark-17.html.
[viii] Most of this is from the Washington Post article by Sarah Kaplan of June 25, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/06/25/after-omitting-details-of-ben-afflecks-slave-owning-ancestor-finding-your-roots-is-suspended-by-pbs/?utm_term=.d880be982396 (accessed March 24, 2018).
[xi] This has been well noted, including by me in previous Palm Sunday sermons. This reference was brought to my attention by a Facebook post by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Co-Moderator Jan Edmiston: “#MarchForOurLives on Palm Sunday weekend is perfect. Greek ὡσαννά (hōsanná) is from Hebrew הושיעה־נא, הושיעה נא (hôshia-nā’) related to Aramaic אושענא (‘ōsha‘nā) meaning “save, rescue,savior.” For 1000s of years, God has called us to march for what we believe. And then serve.” See https://www.facebook.com/jledmiston/posts/10155968457060991.
Image source: shared by Jan Edmiston on her facebook wall (accessed March 25, 2018), a modified version of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, Hippolyte Flandrin, 1842