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what is truth?

sunday's sermon--Is the Bible True?

Baruch attah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of eternity. Amen.

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[black slide]

So, today’s topic in our Lenten Journey series called Rooted is, “Is the Bible True?” [change slide—is the Bible true?]

Um…[change slide—yes] yes. Yes, it is.

[Alice sit down, as though sermon is done.] beat…

[Alice back to pulpit.]

I guess you wanted more than that. Ok. Yes, the Bible’s true, but [change slide—how is it true?] how is it true? In what way does the Bible give us Truth? [change slide—top portion wipes away] That’s the real question.

So, let’s consider that. [change to black slide] One of my favorite books is Moby-Dick—you know, the book about an obsessed ship’s captain chasing after the white whale? Yeah, I know, long, boring, smartypants kind of book—I’m a nerd, what can I say? It really is good though. And, as one of my professors once said, you can be reading along in one of the many chapters on whale anatomy entitled “The Whale’s Forehead” or something, and you’re learning about the average dimensions of a blue whale’s forehead and what’s behind it in its big skull and how, because its eyes are on the sides of the head, once it gets within a certain distance from something, it can’t see it at all anymore—I say, you’re reading all about the whale’s forehead, and you suddenly realize you’re reading about your own life and about the vastness of God. It’s bizarre. And it’s just so…true.

But, of course, that story didn’t happen. Captain Ahab and Ishmael and the white whale and everything—completely made up. Not factual at all. Well, the chapters on whale anatomy are probably factual, but not the story. So, if it’s basically false on some level, how can it be true?

In this book we’re reading as a congregation, Making Sense of Scripture, the author talks about the fact-value split, and this is exactly what he’s talking about. He’s saying there are facts—things we can prove or look up or verify with someone—and there are values, truth—what those facts mean, what we believe about those facts. So, something like Moby-Dick has the facts of the story which we know didn’t happen, but those facts mean something. Or something like a history of the 30-Years’ War has the facts of the battles which we know did happen, but those facts mean something. They mean more than a listing off of events. Does that make sense? So, say, something like the creation stories in Genesis—yes, I did say stories plural—have a listing off of events, a list of facts if you will. Now, the point of the stories is not the order in which things were created or that it took a certain amount of time—those are all interesting and important things to discuss—but the truth behind them is, what? That the creation was created, that everything we see has the breath of God running through it, that God saw what God had made—what we see outside these walls and in the faces of those around us—and God called it all good. This is meaning and truth which is much bigger and more powerful than facts.

Here’s another way to look at it: this is a clip from the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers. They’re fantasy films set in Middle Earth about an epic fight against evil. A whole lot of stuff has happened by this point, some of it good, most of it violent and disturbing. And our heroes—Sam and Frodo—are at a low point. Can they go on? Should they? What’s the point? Let’s watch…

[change slide to LOTR clip--Sam's speech about stories and holding on to something]

[at end of clip, change to black slide]

Good stuff, right? There’s at least two truths going on here: (1) there’s what Sam is saying—that we’ve been through so much individually and as a people and we continue on because we’re holding on to something good and true and hopeful and (2) there’s the truth of the entire story—it didn’t happen, it’s not factual. Middle Earth didn’t really exist and those battles and journeys are made up for the story. But they’re deeply true. They’re about friendship and commitment and pity and sacrifice and good fighting evil and seeming to fail and yet refusing to give in.

Are you seeing this? The difference between truth and facts?

Before the crucifixion, the Roman administrator charged with dealing with Jewish criminals, a man named Pontius Pilate, spoke with Jesus and famously [change slide] said, “what is truth?” Was he a seeker of some kind, asking earnestly for an answer: “what is truth?” or was he bored and just dabbling in philosophical conversation: “what is truth?” Who knows, but his question is our question—“what is truth?” [change to black slide] What makes something true?

I suppose it might be that it is factual [change slide—orange and blue Venn diagram]—something like gravity. We can test it and have facts about its consistency and how strong it actually is. And it means that we don’t float off into space—facts are a kind of truth, but don’t tell the whole story. I bet there are other kinds of truth [change slide—more blue dots]—like our experiences, like our relationships, like the beauty we experience in art and the natural world—things that can’t be reduced only to their component parts but which have deep meaning and the power to transform us in themselves.

So, [change slide—what is truth?] what is truth, really? How do we tell [change slide—how do we tell?] if something’s true?

This is where the church comes in, and this is where we have a great blessing to share with the world. [change to black slide] We aren’t a place where things have to remain the same for centuries, we aren’t a place where one person tell us what The Truth is period. We are a hospital for sinners. We are a lab for experimentation. We are a dinner table for conversation. How do we tell if something’s true? We wrestle with it here in Christian community. There is no real rule of thumb I can give you that will answer all your questions and will point you unerringly on the path of truthful Biblical understanding. That’s not how it works—we do this as a group, a group which includes God, I hasten to add.

Well, maybe there’s one rule of thumb. [change slide—love] It’s love. God created the world with love. God chose the Israelites with love and guided them and freed them and got angry with them and forgave them for love. God became human in Jesus and lived and died and rose again because of love. We keep coming back to hear the stories because of love. And we are transformed by that love. We can’t figure it out on our own, we need one another. [change to black slide]

Now, this doesn’t make it easy—in fact, it makes it harder. For one thing, having to work out truth with others requires us to pay more attention than maybe we’re used to. And, for another, we can’t ignore texts we don’t care for—there’s truth and transformation there as well.

BUT God’s moving in all of it somehow, God who is the answer to Pilate’s question. And so we keep coming back—because another part of truth is our faith that God is speaking through all kinds of surprising things. Truth is slippery and sometimes it is beautiful and sometimes it appears threatening, but it is always, always, always the love of God working to open our eyes.