July 11, 2021
"Doing the Right Thing"
Rev. Scott Landis
If you listened closely to the gospel lesson for today, you might be thinking to yourself, “I wonder where he is going to go with this one?” It’s a very good question. This passage is gruesome. It’s hard to read without wincing and may cause you to wonder why in the world it was even included in the bible.
My first inclination was to ignore the passage entirely and focus on the epistle lesson for today from the book of Ephesians. It speaks of the inclusive nature of God who welcomes us “no matter who we are or where we are in life’s journey” – and happens to be one of my favorite preaching themes.
Or better still, I could have focused on the poetry of the Psalm for the day that described “Steadfast love and faithfulness meeting. Righteousness and peace joining together and kissing each other,” as we read together our call to worship. What a beautiful image. It’s fun to preach on pleasant things. But there is more to the Bible (and to Jesus’ teachings) than just pleasant things.
These “nice parts of the Bible” are all important aspects of what it means to be a child of God – a person of faith, but I would be remiss if I ignored the more difficult story and the lesson buried in the text in this horrendous tale of King Herod and the beheading of John the Baptist.
The story begins as a flashback of sorts as Herod thinks he is seeing John, once again, but this time he thinks he may have come back to life in the person of Jesus. John had been a gnat in Herod’s life – especially in his personal affairs. He thought he had gotten rid of him by quietly “locking him up” thereby keeping him away from the eyes and ears of the public. And that plan would have worked perfectly – that is until the nightmare of that fateful birthday party which only made matters worse. As we know now, the “Truth” in this instance, just kept bubbling to the surface – and in the strangest ways.
That’s the way it is for prophets - like John. They speak Truth with a capital “T.” And, in this case, Herod didn’t like it one bit.
The role of the prophet was to do just that – “To Speak Truth to Power.” Prophets didn’t “predict” the future. That’s what we often mistakenly believe or attribute to them. Prophets go much deeper than that. They have a way of seeing through situations and addressing them from the perspective of God. The prophet, in essence, was the mouthpiece of God – and they were heard from much more often when corruption was evident. The situation that haunted Herod was a case in point.
Herod had, obviously, participated in the egregious sin of adultery with Herodias, his brother’s wife. John the Baptist did not hold back – calling out Herod for his sin – he also announced it to his constituents. That’s why Herod quickly put him away and thought he had solved his problem. But, like I said earlier, Truth has a strange way of resurfacing. Ultimately, it cannot be contained nor hidden. [Pause]
We have all heard it said that “Powerful men can do whatever they want”– AND they can get away with it. We see this repeatedly in the biblical text. We’ve seen it throughout history. And, we’ve seen it in our own day. But I hold fast to the belief that Truth will ultimately prevail – like a cork it keeps rising to the top.
Herod was trapped in this situation. A double whammy of sorts. He not only committed a wrongful act and tried to cover it up, but in his bravado, he got himself into deeper trouble by making a promise that only made matters worse. And, in order to save face by publicly keeping his word – AT ALL COSTS – he had to go so far as to behead an innocent man. [Pause]
It has also been said that “Power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But it’s Truth – Jesus said – that will set you free. Truth shines light on corruption. Truth exposes sin and evil practices. And Truth is vital to civil discourse and essential for genuine relationship and authentic community. So, without Truth – we cannot be the church. But it really requires even more of us. [Pause]
Kahu Danette Kong passed along an interesting article to me this week written by Richard Reeves, Sr. Fellow of the Brookings Institute. In it Reeves concludes, and I quote, “Truth is empirical, but truthfulness is ethical. Truth is the end product; truthfulness is a vital element in its production.” Perhaps it’s helpful to describe it this way, “Truth is the noun – Truthfulness is the verb.” Or “Truth is the end, the goal, the result – and Truthfulness is the means – the way we live our lives.” We cannot know truth without cultivating truthfulness – in our lives and in the lives of all in our `ohana.
Our problem today is a loss of virtue – specifically the virtue of truthfulness. To risk “speaking the truth,” that is, to embody truthfulness is what is lacking AND what is sorely needed in our world today. And, I often find myself wondering, how did we get here? How did we end up in this place where truthlessness has become the norm?
Some would argue it is the proliferation of what has been referred to as “fake news” often promulgated from unknown sources and whose sole intent is to deceive. Listen to it often enough – and guess what? You begin to believe its baseless claims.
Others have speculated that this is all the fault of social media: twitter, Facebook, and various other virtual platforms that speed up communication and allow little time for personal reflection – that is little time to “think before we speak.” This form distant or electronic communication actually promotes outright attacks on others AND their ideas since communicating by computer eliminates the intimacy of personal contact.
I’m sure the reason for our slippery slope from pure truth – to a white lie – to outright deceit is complicated and multifaceted, but we cannot throw up our arms in despair or look the other way as if it’s not really happening. Regardless of what might tempt us off track, as haumana of Jesus Christ we have a sacred obligation to pursue Truth through intentional acts of Truthfulness. We must do this in our words and in our actions – AND we must teach this way of pono – righteous living – to our children. [Pause]
Perhaps the thing that breaks my heart more than anything else in church-life today is when I see various forms of corruption that have needled their way into what should be a wholesome and holy community. This does more damage to our collective reputation as Christians than anything else as more and more folks turn away rather than toward the church declaring in disgust the hypocrisy that is evident.
This rarely involves deliberate acts of injustice – but sometimes it does. Typically, it begins small – even through an egregious mistake – as Herod discovered – a lie needs to be covered up – an action needs to be concealed. And before you know it, more and more people are involved, and the Body of Christ is irreparably damaged.
We must return repeatedly to the simple yet powerful words of Jesus. “You shall know the Truth – and the Truth shall set you free!” Furthermore, Truth can only thrive in an atmosphere of Truthfulness – and that is the kuleana – the responsibility – of each one of us.
You may have seen the bumper sticker on my car that, for me, is a prayer – “Make America Pono,” truthful, righteous, just. We don’t need to be “Great” in fact we will never be “Great” unless we are “Pono” embodying truthfulness in all our ways.
Keawala`i Congregational United Church of Christ is a place of Truth. You have been shepherded for years by a Kahu that exemplified that in “thought, word, and in deed.” It is up to us to foster that same ethos – which is the essence of the beloved community – as we look to a future with hope and aloha – truth and truthfulness – from generation to generation.