A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, July 22, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:33-45
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Four high school boys were late to their morning classes one day.[1]  They entered the classroom and solemnly told their teacher they were delayed due to a flat tire.  The sympathetic teacher smiled and told them it was too bad they were late because they had missed a test that morning.  But, she said, she was willing to let them make it up.  She gave them each a piece of paper and a pencil and sent them to four corners of the room.  Then she told them they would pass if they could answer just one question:  Which tire was flat?

When I think about stories or examples about truthfulness and lying, three come to mind.  I think of Aesop’s fable of the boy who cried wolf, I think of George Washington and the cherry tree, and I think of stories about good ol’ Honest Abe.  You heard me tell a version of Aesop’s fable to the kids just a moment ago.  It is, of course, told as a story to teach a lesson, not as a record of an historical event.

The story about George Washington and the cherry tree is a myth about our first President created, apparently, by an early biographer, Manson Weems, to express how honest Washington was.[2]  Does anyone else find it interesting that a book written to tell the facts about someone’s life would include a made-up story – perhaps we can even say, a lie – about that person to show how honest that person was?

There are many stories about Abraham Lincoln that led to him having the moniker “Honest Abe” – most of them apparently rooted in historical events.  Like the story of him closing the story he was managing to return a few cents he had overcharged a customer.  Or taking the extra tea he had under-weighed (because of a problem with the scales he later discovered) to another customer.[3]  Or the time – well, there are many stories like this.

I’m not sure what it means that only one of the three that came to my mind was true – at least in the sense of it being factual.  I’ll let you ponder that while I change subjects.

I had a wonderful little vacation.  I went to Denver with the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus (the chorus I sing with) to be part of a big choral festival.  6,000 singers, 175 choruses and small ensembles, some 200 performances – a gathering so big they had to run concerts blocks simultaneously in the opera house, the theatre, and the concert hall.  With rehearsals and catching up with friends from other choruses, it meant that I only heard about a quarter of the event.  It was a busy five days in Denver – that I extended a little to be a tourist because, after all, I was in Denver.  Yet, somehow I did manage to find the time to watch maybe three or four hours of television while I was there.

Having done away with the cable TV at my home back when I was on sabbatical, I’m not used to watching live TV.  I’ll catch a few shows on the computer and I’ll watch a few old series thanks to Netflix.  But generally speaking, I don’t have to put up with much TV advertising.  Well, I was in Colorado, a so-called “battle ground state.”  You know what that means:  Political advertisements and plenty of them.  Ladies and gentlemen, I can declare without equivocation, we have entered the season of half-truths and lies.

Consider this ad[4] – I’ll attempt to describe it:

We hear a man’s urgent voice:

“America is in crisis.  It feels like we’re coming apart.”

Shots from a hand-held camera – blurry, indistinct.  Angry citizens, protests.  Close-up on a bearded young man, his face distorted by rage.

“We face unprecedented challenges.”

Cuts of lonely farms, small houses with for-sale signs.  A little girl with pleading eyes.

“Is this any time for inexperience?”

A tattered flag blows in the wind.

“One candidate has silky words, but what do they mean?  What do we really know of him?”

Video shot from behind a candidate who stands at a podium.  We see his back, the jerky movement of his arms.  We see faces in the crowd – confused, shaking their heads.  Are they being deceived?

“His backwoods chatter can’t hide the facts.  He’s never had a college education – or any education at all.  He claims he read the classics at night, by candlelight.  But that’s not really what the frontier was about.”

Cut to a raucous bonfire – frantic dancing, men and women, drinking.  An hysterical laugh pierces the outer darkness.

“He says he’s for the little guy.  Why is he hiding the fact that he’s a big-time lawyer who sold himself to the highest bidder?”

Archival film shot:  a saloon table, a wad of bills gathered up by a fat man’s hand.  Gleaming cuffs, cufflinks, ruby ring.  In the background, a woman’s chuckle.  Somehow we know her name is Belle.

“He served just one term in the House – one.  And wasn’t re-elected.”

Blurry photo of a man.  We’re not sure who it is.  Slowly it begins to come into focus – stark face, rude cheekbones, slick black hair.  Now cut to close-up:  his irregular eyes.  One pupil is more dilated than the other.  He’s cockeyed.

“He ran for the Senate, and failed.”

Video of torches being extinguished.  A slump-shouldered voter walks away, alone.

“They said they loved his speeches, but what were they beyond words?  His wife?  Imperious.  His address?  Impeccable.  As for the family he came from, he left them in the backwoods when he went to the big city.”

Shot of sad, impoverished family in an empty field.

Then quick shots:  An honest American worker in front of a tool shed.  Yearning families on farms and in cities.  A little girl holding a flag, which droops on her shoulder.

“This is a time of crisis – and he’s telling jokes.”

Screen goes black.

“They call him ‘Honest Abe.’  But he’s just another Springfield insider.”

Then, another man’s voice:

“I’m Stephen A. Douglas, and I approved this message.”

All of the ad is true.  And all of it is a lie.

It’s easy for me to throw brickbats at political advertisements.  Maybe it’s even a cheap shot.  And Jesus would probably suggest I look at the plank in my own eye before I complain about the speck (or plank, for that matter) in someone else’s.

The most frequent charge I hear against my shop, against Christianity, or perhaps more specifically against the church, is that it’s full of hypocrites.  To which I think, “Of course it is; it’s full of people.”

No one ever taught me to lie, but I certainly learned how.  I suspect no one every taught you to lie, either, but you learned how nonetheless.  Lying is something we humans do – out of a sense of fear or anxiety or convenience.  And one way to look at hypocrisy is to see it as a form of lying.  People say they believe in something or that they hold some value and then they behave in another way.

And yet, Jesus calls us to integrity.  “I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’”

This is an interesting thing for Jesus to say.  “Don’t make any oaths.”  This is not the same thing as “Don’t make any promises,” for covenants, a cornerstone of our faith, are a form of promise.  No, this admonition not to make oaths has to do with calling upon a god or the gods to be a witness and enforcer of the promise.  And to call upon Yahweh to enforce an oath is tantamount to taking God’s name in vain, a violation of one of the Ten Commandments.

You know what the fish said when he swam into a cement wall.  “Dam.”

That was without an “N” because to include the “N” is a prayer or a curse.  To damn something is to banish it from God.  And to say, “God damn,” is to ask God to do that banishing.  Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t say things like “God damn” or “Cross my heart and hope to die.”  Just tell the truth.  Let your “yes” mean yes and your “no” mean “no.”

This got me thinking about going to court as a witness and being sworn in.  “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“Yes, but your inflection is wrong.  I promise to tell the truth, the whole trust and nothing but the trust, so, [pause] help me God.  Help me to keep this promise.”

Jesus realizes (as should we) that God witnesses every word we say anyway, so we should be able to tell the truth without having to call God as a witness of the truthfulness of what we’re saying.  Jesus teaches that all oaths invoke God’s witness equally.  It doesn’t matter whether we swear in the name of God or God’s heaven, earth, or holy city of Jerusalem, or even the hairs on our heads (if we’re lucky enough to have them).  All of it is God’s and infused with God.  All oaths implicitly call God to witness, because everything that exists is God’s.  Because God witnesses every word we speak anyway, we should simply speak the truth.

When I was a chaplain in the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall years ago, I learned the importance of saying what you mean and meaning what you say.  The kids who were locked up there, in addition to being people who victimized others through their crimes, were also victims themselves, at least of inconsistent parenting and often of much worse.  If I said to a kid, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I had pretty darn well make sure I was there the next day to see that kid.  It was so easy to lose their trust, and trust was the foundation of my work.  They were so used to being let down by adults that it was the expectation, and following through on a statement that wasn’t even meant as a promise was vital to building that trust.

The stakes may not be as great in our everyday lives.  But that doesn’t make integrity any less important.

Ted Engstrom gives a succinct definition of integrity:  Simply put, integrity is doing what you said you would do.[5]  When you said you’d be faithful to your mate, integrity says you’ll stay with that person no matter what – for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.  When you said “yes” to God at your baptism or confirmation or when you renewed your baptism when you joined the church, integrity means you keep following Jesus no matter what happens in your life.

We are stewards of our “yeses” and our “noes.”  So let your “yes” mean yes and your “no” mean no in every aspect of your life.
Amen.


[1] This story is attributed to Paul Harvey by Jeffery Anselmi in Integrity, http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/integrity-jeffery-anselmi-sermon-on-christian-values-39109.asp (21 July 2012).

[4] Peggy Noonan, “How Honest Is ‘Honest Abe’?” The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204880404577227600618441484.html (21 July 2012).  I have only slightly modified what she wrote.

[5] Cited by Jeffery Anselmi, op. cit.

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