Sermon for May 16, 2021
A couple of months ago, near Boston, two people went up in a hot air balloon and all of a sudden they were enveloped in clouds so thick, that they didn’t know where they were. They drifted about for what seemed like hours. They could have been over the Atlantic Ocean, Vermont, or Connecticut. Of course, they were very distressed. Finally, the clouds parted, and down on the ground they saw a man standing beneath them. One of the men in the balloon yelled down, “Where are we?” The person on the ground looked up, looked around, looked up again, and said, “You’re in a balloon!” The two men in the balloon looked at each other in amazement, and one called down again, “Are you an Episcopal priest?” The man on the ground yelled back, “Yes!” The other man in the balloon said, “How in the world did you know that he was an Episcopal priest?” “Easy,” the other responded. “I don’t know of any person in the world who could give you an answer so quickly, that is so logical and tells you so little about where you are and where you want to go.”
In this conversation, the man in the balloon speaks first, then the man on the ground responds to him. How well do you listen when someone speaks to you? How carefully do you hear what someone else has to say? On what level do you respond? How does the Lord God speak to you, and how do you respond? In this morning’s gospel, which is part of Jesus’ farewell words to his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus prays to God: “ I speak these things in the world, so that [my disciples] may have my joy made complete in themselves. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Therefore, this morning I would like to reflect with you briefly upon listening for God’s truth, upon discovering God’s truth, and upon living God’s truth.
In George Bernard Shaw’s play, St. Joan, Joan of Ark is put on trial and questioned by her interrogators. At one point they turn to her and ask, “How do you mean, voices?” St. Joan answers them, “I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.” The interrogator says, “They come from your imagination.” And St. Joan replies, “Of course, that is how the message of God comes to me.” In and through our imaginations, God does speak to us, I am sure. But that is only one way in which he does so. There are many. Our complicated natures operate on so many different levels, that we do not always know on what level we should be listening. There’s also something to be said for the old observation that “we hear only what we want to hear.”
Auditory scientists tell us that we spend 70% of each working day in verbal communication. That breaks down to 9% in writing, 16% in reading, 30% in talking, and 45% in listening. Listening occupies most of our time, yet, oddly enough, it is the area in which we are least efficient. Tests conducted by the University of Minnesota over a period of several years show that on the average people listen to only about half of what they hear. For example, during the 20-minute sermon, you hear around 3,000 words, but you wind up listening to about only half of them. Now that’s pretty depressing, if you’re the preacher. Such a low rate of return can be especially costly not only in business and industry, but also in our personal relationships, and in our spiritual life, as well.
The well-known Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, puts it another way, when he says of our lives, “We live on two simultaneous tracks, like railroad tracks. There is a track of faith and there is a track of reason.” Many times, in your life and mine, faith appears to run contrary to reason and doubt, and so a tension is created. Frequently, we tend to ignore one of those tracks, to ignore one half of our nature, so that no listening and no response can occur. Our task, your task and mine, is to hold together in tension these two tracks, the one of faith, the other of reason, since both are gifts of God.
Jesus prayed for his disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth.” And so along with Pilate, we, too, must ask, “What is truth?” What is this truth that Jesus is talking about? In the old marriage service that we used to use, the one that was found in the 1928 Prayer Book, the bride and groom at the end of their vows to each other would conclude by saying, “And thereto I give thee my troth.” No one ever knew what the word troth meant. So we would always have to tell the couple that it was an old English word that meant truth. And back then it meant everything about a person; a person’s whole being was that person’s truth. And so you pledged your entire self to another person in marriage. Over a period of time the word has now come to mean simply a person’s pledged faithfulness, or fidelity. Jesus understood God’s truth to be God’s being–everything about him: his ways, his purposes, his love, his very self. And he prayed that his disciples would be set apart, or immersed, in the very life of God himself, so that they would come to understand that which was most real, most vital in their own lives. “Sanctify them in the truth.” Sometimes we think that we have a corner on the truth, that we know everything there is to know about someone or something, as God would know that person or object, only to find out that we are wrong. We are misled by the misrepresentations and perspectives of ourselves and others.
Most of us have a tendency to judge the world by our experience and by the limits of our own understanding. We, therefore, have to realize that we do not always have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It just can’t always be that way. In a Peanuts cartoon not too long ago, Snoopy was lounging on his dog house in a pensive mood. As Snoopy watched Charlie Brown and Linus walk by, he reflected to himself: “I wonder why some of us were born dogs, an others were born people? Is it just pure chance, or what is it? Somehow the whole thing just doesn’t seem fair.” Then, he hopped down off of his dog house, and trundled away, while saying to himself, “Why should I have been the lucky one?” Our perspective may not always be one that contains the entire truth.
Or then, at other times, people misrepresent themselves to us, and we are understandably misled into thinking that we possess the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the fall of 1989, Princeton University admitted Alexi Indris-Santana to its freshman class. Admissions officials believed that they were getting a diamond-in-the-rough based on Santana’s unconventional background. Completely self-educated, Santana claimed to have devoured great literature while working as a ranch hand in Utah beginning at the age of 15. He trained for track by running barefoot through the Rocky Mountains and his application included newspaper clippings of track results that evidenced outstanding speed for an 18-year old. He also had authentic SAT scores of over 1400. During his first year-and-a-half at Princeton, Santana developed a wide circle of friends, was a serious student with good grades, and had a heavy course load. He struck many of those who knew him as an embodiment of Rousseau’s noble savage, and seemed to hark back to a time when men born to unfortunate circumstances pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made something of their lives. But then, at the Harvard-Yale-Princeton track meet in February, someone from Santana’s past recognized him, and the hoax was over. Alexi Indris-Santana turned out to be James Arthur Hogue, a 31-year old ex-convict with a shady past, a fugitive who had broken parole in Utah. Hogue was charged with five crimes, including his acceptance of $40,000 in financial aid, which counts as theft by deception. James Arthur Hogue is a good example of how hard it is for us sometimes to separate truth from fiction, and just when we think we have a handle on the truth, it eludes us.
God’s truth--- the truth that we have from God, about his life, his love, about ourselves in relationship to that life and love, has been implanted by Him deep within our souls. Our task, your task and mine, is to discover God’s truth in our lives, and once we have discovered it, we are called to help others find it also. We are called to seek life and hope in those around us. That is what living God’s truth is all about.
Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent [my disciples] into the world.” In other words, as I have been sent to help people discover your truth in their lives, in the profoundest moments of their existence, so, now, I have commissioned them to do the same in my name.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident who is renowned for his writings about human freedom, was the recipient of the 1970 Nobel prize for literature. He tells this story about how effective a simple gesture can be. While imprisoned in Russia, a fellow prisoner of Solzhenitsyn’s once helped him to find life and hope, and gave him reason to go on living. Solzhenitsyn was working twelve hours a day at hard labor. He had lost his family and had been told by doctors in the Gulag that he had terminal cancer. One day he thought to himself, “there is no use going on. I’m soon going to die anyway.” Ignoring the guards, he dropped his shovel and sat down and rested his head in his hands. He felt a presence next to him and looked up and saw an old man he had never seen before, and would probably never see again. The man took a stick and drew a cross in the sand in front of Solzhenitsyn. It reminded him that there is a Power in the world that is greater than any empire or government ---a Power that could bring new life to his situation. So, he picked up his shovel, and went back to work. A year later Solzhenitsyn miraculously was released from prison, and went to live in this country. That fellow prisoner, that old man whom he never saw again, had helped Solzhenitsyn find God’s truth in his life; he had caused him to discover new life and hope in the deepest moments of his despair. Once you and I have discovered God’s truth in our lives, we are called to seek new life and hope in others, and to become for them God’s living truth.
So, as this Easter season draws to a close, let us remember that God is forever speaking to us on many levels and in many different ways. We must be attentive listeners. We must hold in balance the dual elements of reason and faith, which are a part of our natures. You and I must live as men and women whose sensitivity is attuned to God’s calling and God’s creation. Once we have discovered God’s truth implanted deep within our souls, we are called to seek new life and hope in those around us. We are called to share what we have found in ourselves of God and his ways, and thus to become his living messengers of truth in the world. “As He has sent me, so I, now send you.”
Preacher: The Rev. Philip Stowell
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