First Congregational Church
January 1, 2017
First Sunday of Christmas, New Year’s Day
“A Time to Seek”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
’Tis the season for reminiscing, reflecting, pondering and projecting. I believe those words may be a part of the mission for those who publish the Darwin Awards each year. The Wikipedia description of these prizes says, “The Darwin Awards are a tongue-in-cheek honor, originating in Usenet newsgroup discussions around 1985. They recognize individuals who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool via death or “other means, at the hand of” their own actions.”
One recipient of these awards has not yet been officially identified, but this is his story. May 19, 2014, Arizona, the mummified remains of a man discovered in a Tucson manhole tell their own poignant story. In May the manhole was opened to investigate a fluctuation in electrical power. According to records kept by Tucson Electric Power the manhole had not been opened in the past five years, so the team that entered the underground high-voltage vault was quite surprised to find the desiccated remains of a man slumped near cut copper wires. In his shriveled hand was - can you guess? - a bolt cutter.
Crime pays so little, and costs so much. This nominee not only failed and fried but also, nobody noticed, making his death both stupid and sad. An autopsy confirmed the obvious conclusion that electrocution was the likely cause of death. The date of death was set at somewhere between one and two years previous to the discovery. The mummy was carrying ID for a 51-year-old man, and DNA testing is underway to verify the identity of the crispy copper critter. (You all realize that that story was included today, just for that last phrase.)
Sometime in 1998, Michael Anderson Godwin made News of the Weird posthumously. He had spent several years awaiting South Carolina's electric chair on a murder conviction before having his sentence reduced to life in prison. Whilst sitting on a metal toilet in his cell and attempting to fix his small TV set, he bit into a wire and was electrocuted.
Also in 1998, poacher Marino Malerba, who shot a stag standing above him on an overhanging rock - was killed instantly when it fell on him.
If nothing else, the Darwin Awards are true examples that truth can be stranger than fiction. It was the word truth that caught my eye this week. I was reading a devotional piece by Steven Garnaas Holmes, and the scripture passage he was using grabbed me in a way it had not previously.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
Thank you, Cheryl. Maybe the word, “truth,” stood out because of my long held idea that there are usually three sides to most every story: my side, your side and the truth, which no one person may ever fully, truly know. Maybe it’s the backdrop of 2016 and the elections, with so many statements made about truth and non-truth - on all sides of the political spectrum. Maybe it’s the mental image I have of my mother standing in front of me when we lived in the house on 214 S. Austin, wagging her finger in my face, and practically breathing fire as she said, “I don’t care what you do, so long as you don’t lie to me.” The deepest irony of that image is that about six years ago, we discovered that my mother kept one of the biggest secrets in our lives, for about 40 years, about my youngest sister, fooling almost an entire town, and most sadly, at least two of her three daughters.
The thing about truth, is without it, we are at sea without a rudder. With lies, untruths, even misguided truth, we have nothing on which to stand when it comes to living our lives. Sometimes truth takes a long time to understand, such as the world being spherical rather than flat. Sometimes the truth is hard and ugly, like the deaths of so many innocents in any given war or point in history. Without truth, I, for one, cannot even begin to imagine how our lives would look.
So, for whatever reasons, you get an idea how this word, truth, at least at this point in time, jumped off the page this week. And then I looked at the passage a little harder, and maybe some of you noticed, too. The second sentence: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In the Common English Bible, it says “full of grace, full of truth,” perhaps so we might not miss the comparison partnering.
So why did the writer of John use the words grace and truth together - to describe Jesus? Why didn’t they use one of the myriad of other words, like peace or righteousness or healing and love? Why those two words together? And then in the 17th verse, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” There’s that pairing again of grace and truth.
If, as it says in that verse, that the law was given through Moses, and grace and truth through Jesus, then did the people before Jesus not have truth and grace? It’s a little intriguing that the word ‘grace’ - Bible-wise, doesn’t appear until the Psalms. None of the first five books of the Bible, contain that word. And the word ‘truth’ shows up once in Genesis, when Joseph - of the many-colored coat fame - was testing his brothers. The next time “truth” shows up is in 1 Kings. The concept of truth is sometimes discussed in those various non-appearance books, but the actual word - not so much.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d love to chat with the writer of this morning’s passage and ask about that line, “we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” What does they mean by that? Perhaps, even if we can’t know its exact meaning, we can take it for the mystery that it is, the gift that ours is not a shallow faith/God, but one of depth, requiring continual revelation of meaning and understanding.
As this is New Year’s Day, and one might expect a pastor to mention something about New Year’s resolutions, rather than making those that are easy to measure, perhaps we might think about seeking after the meaning of things that perplex us, not that we would “master” them, but be richer by them. More specifically, what if we made - if we were going to make any at all - resolutions about making time to seek the things that make us - really - go hmm? When we explore those sorts of deeper questions, we have to make sure to include a wide variety of resources, so we can try to appreciate how those who don’t think like us - think. We may not like some of our discoveries, but our world will definitely be much wider and broader and higher and deeper. I thought a few words from other individuals might tantalize your brain buds.
German poet, novelist and playwright, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, wrote, “It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.”
Émile Zola was a French novelist, and he said, “If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”
Author Dan Brown wrote, “Truth has power. And if we all gravitate toward similar ideas, maybe we do so because those ideas are true ... written deep within us. And when we hear the truth, even if we don't understand it, we feel that truth resonate within us ... vibrating with our unconscious wisdom. Perhaps the truth is not learned by us, but rather, the truth is re-called ... re-membered ... re-cognized ... as that which is already inside us.”
Beatles guitarist and songwriter, George Harrison said, “You can be standing right in front of the truth and not necessarily see it, and people only get it when they're ready to get it.” American author, Susan Sontag, said, “The truth is balance. However the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.”
I thought German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts very interesting. “Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self evident.”
Speaking of self-evident, when speaking of truth, we shan’t forget one of the truths upon which this nation was built, declared on July 4, 1776. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Sophocles said, “What people believe prevails over the truth.” The great Lutheran priest and scholar, Martin Luther, wrote, “Peace if possible, but truth at any rate.”
English cleric and eccentric, Charles Caleb Colton, said, “Truth can hardly be expected to adapt herself to the crooked policy and wily sinuosities of worldly affairs; for truth, like light, travels only in straight lines.” (Sinuosities - now that’s a $25 word!) He also said, “The greatest friend of truth is Time, her greatest enemy is Prejudice, and her constant companion is Humility.”
I’d never thought about truth as an art, but Russian and Soviet writer, Maxim Gorky, suggests it. “To speak the truth is the most difficult of all arts, for in its "pure" form, not connected with the interests of individuals, groups, classes, or nations, truth is almost completely unsuitable for use by the Philistine and is unacceptable to him.”
When you think about him, it is not really a surprise that Mark Twain wrote a fair bit about truth. One that has kept my life a lot simpler is actually his. “If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.” He also said, “Often the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict truth.”
I don’t know what kind of proverb it is, but you gotta love this one. “Tell the truth and then run.” There is a Greek proverb that says, “A truth spoken before its time is dangerous.” That is an interesting thought when you think about the timing of Jesus’ birth and death and resurrection, why then and not now, or before his days….
Also unknown is this line: “Beware of the half truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.” German-Swiss-U.S. scientist, Albert Einstein, wrote this, “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as judge in the field of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods.” He also wrote, “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” U.S. educator, Horace Mann said, “Scientific truth is marvelous, but moral truth is divine and whoever breathes its air and walks by its light has found the lost paradise.”
British author, Aldous Huxley said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.” Irish poet and dramatist, Oscar Wilde: “The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Harry S. Truman is said to have said, “I never gave anybody hell! I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.” Going back to Mark Twain, “No real gentleman will tell the naked truth in the presence of ladies.”
And so we should pray. Wise and prudent God, we thank you for the gift of all your days, this one today, all those in our past, all those that lie before us. Help us to walk in your truth, the truth that stands the test of time, the truth that sets us free. Thank you for giving us an example to follow, in your Son, the Way and the Truth and the Life. Help us to be aware of those times you give us to contemplate the bigger picture of life, that paints with brushes of truth and grace from the palette of your love and hope and joy. For all that is good and truth in this world, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.