Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, November 22, 2015
John 18:33-37; II Samuel 23:1-4
“Seminar” is the title of a play, recently performed in Winnipeg, that engages the audience in the questions of integrity and truth. What is considered truthful by one character is considered fraudulent by another. Is an autobiography written by someone else a brilliant piece of fiction or a desperate act of fraud? Truth can be complicated.
When Jesus was hauled before Pilate and asked if he was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied that his kingdom was not from this world. Pilate replied, “Ah—so you admit you are a king.” “You say that I am a king,” Jesus answered, “My purpose is to testify to the truth.” Pilate responded, “What is truth?”
Pilate, being a reasonable, Roman ruler, considered truth on the philosophical level, as a topic for debate. Jesus, being an observant Jew, considered truth on a spiritual level as divinely revealed and faithfully lived.
Jesus connects the concept of truth with the kingdom of God. It is not a kingdom of this world, which is why his disciples didn’t take up arms to rescue Jesus and to establish his rule in Jerusalem. But neither is Jesus’ kingdom something in the distant future—a type of pie in the sky, waiting till we die kingdom. The kingdom of God, which Jesus and his disciples preached, was in, but not of, this world. It was a way of living in this world—a way of compassion amidst the harsh Roman rule, a way of justice and integrity amidst the corruption, a way of giving amidst selfish gain. The truth to which Jesus’ life testified was a God of mercy and grace and love.
There are two things I have learned about the truth. The first is that it is complicated and requires daily discernment. It’s not so much truth-telling as truth-living. How do I remain true to God’s call of grace? Do I speak or do I listen? Do I set aside my own ideas to make room for others? When do I compromise and when do I hold fast?
Dorothy Soelle, a German liberation theologian, cautions against a type of truth-living that demands blind obedience to authorities. This is not the type of kingdom Jesus preached. Instead, Dorothy Soelle describes a discerning obedience to Jesus’ kingdom. He gives us the freedom to make choices and discern what is of God—what is truth.
A few chapters prior to our gospel lesson for today, Jesus teaches the disciples, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Sometimes freedom can be a pain. It’s easier if people just tell us what to do and paint the world black and white. But the world is a pallet of vibrant colour and we each hold the artist’s brush. Each day, we choose our blend of colours that both clash and compliment the choices of others. And that leads me to the second thing I have learned about truth.
First, truth is complicated and requires daily discernment in how we can faithfully live it. Secondly, we each hold only a part of God’s truth. “For now we see only dim reflections as if in a mirror; now we know only in part.” To live more fully into the truth of Jesus’ kingdom, we need to hear the many parts of truth that each of us has; we need to open our eyes to both the clash and complement of other splashes of colour.
This is particularly important when we are in the midst of conflict and fear. The Paris attacks have unsettled us deeply, followed by attacks in Nigeria and Mali. We fear for those living in the shadow of these attacks and we are afraid that the violence will spread here. One of my biggest fears is the violence of backlash against minorities, and we are already seeing this happen in Canada. So where is the truth in this situation? How do we, as followers of Jesus, live into God’s truth?
Because I know only a little part of the story, I must listen to others. I hear fears of rushed sponsorship of Syrian refugees that may forego security checks. I can respond with the truth I know—that the Syrian families we sponsored underwent extremely rigorous security checks. If more personnel is dedicated to security checks, it can be sped up without sacrificing the rigour. I can also respond with a story from one of the men we sponsored. He told me last week about running from the planes dropping bombs overhead and fighters machine-gunning people down. He then knelt on the carpet in front of me, lifted his head and pantomimed having his throat cut. This, he said, is what he saw ISIS doing. The refugees are fleeing the violence on all sides and they are enemies of ISIS. If the world stops receiving Syrian refugees, ISIS will have won.
I also know another piece of truth from our Christian history that I cannot forget. We, too, have a history of violence from the Crusades, of torture from the Spanish inquisition, and of terrorism from the troubles in Ireland. This history tells me that our fight is not against Islam, nor Syria, nor refugees. Our fight is against terrorism that can wear any religion it chooses to justify itself.
These are the stories that hold bits of truth for me. But I cannot dismiss the truth that other people hold, even if it clashes with my own. Their fears are real and I need to listen to them, rather than dismissing them. Hopefully, if they feel heard, they can then hear my pieces of the truth and we can de-escalate the tension. In his new book, Bob Haverluck writes, “Maybe, we get at the truth in the play, in the pull and push between one certainty and another. In the meeting of contradictions.”
There is a Greek term for this sacred meeting space called temenos (τέμενος). It means a piece of land set aside for holy purposes. No one can own it. In another era, it was a sacred spot dedicated to the worship of some deity. Within modern-day Greece, it has taken on a new meaning. When a village is founded, the elders of the community locate a place within its vicinity that they dedicate as holy ground. This temenos then becomes a place where anyone can go for healing, if they are in pain. It is also a place where people in conflict can go and sit together in peace so that their spirits become more open to the truth in each other. 
Church buildings have also offered a temenos in the form of sanctuary to those fleeing for their lives and, more recently, to those in danger of deportation. Crescent Fort Rouge offered their building as a sanctuary for a family for a couple of years until they were finally accepted in Canada. I was at Augustine when one of the Middle East conflicts broke open and we hosted an interfaith prayer meeting for Christians, Muslims and Jews. I was surprised when both the Muslim and Jewish communities named the church as a safe, neutral space for them to meet. It was, for them, a temenos.
We may all yearn for a temenos—a sacred place where we can go to heal, to be understood and to understand. When we find ourselves in conflict, may God give us the strength to resist the urge to defend our position and become further entrenched. Instead, may we have the courage and the will to walk to the temenos and invite others to join us. In this sacred place, may we be able to “hold the centre”—to protect a space in the middle of all of us, where each person can safely and respectfully name their truth, knowing that only God can know all the truth.
The ancients understood this perhaps better than the postmoderns. There is an old prayer that was found inscribed on the walls of a British cathedral that reads,
From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
From the laziness that is content with half-truths,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Oh God of Truth, deliver us.
 John 8:32
 paraphrase of I Corinthians 13:12
 Bob Haverluck, When God was Flesh and Wild: Stories in Defense of the Earth (Winnipeg: Racka Tacka Sacka Press, 2015): 79.
 Howard Friend, “Holding the Centre,” The Observer, July/August 1997.