Sermon Archives

The Truth Crushed to Earth is Rising

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Apr 16

 

Text – Matthew 28:1-10

Last summer, I came across a line from a poem that has been simultaneously haunting me and giving me hope ever since I read it. It’s by the longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, William Cullen Bryant, who was also a poet. Bryant writes: “The truth crushed to earth will rise again!”  He wrote that line in 1873. Let me say it again. “The truth crushed to earth will rise again!” 

Truth has been a hot topic lately, have you noticed? Last week, Time magazine ran a startling three-word cover -- Is Truth Dead? The red letters and black background recalled their iconic “Is God Dead?” cover from 1966. Two weeks ago, as I was kicking back with a beer and the Sunday New York Times crossword, there was an ad on the facing page, taken out by the Times, that listed 19 statements describing what the truth is. “The truth is hard. The truth isn’t red or blue. The truth is under attack! The truth requires taking a stand!” Talk about a “Sign of the Times!” They’ve got a whole multi-media marketing campaign…for the truth, or at least their version of it, and there lies the problem, right? Whose truth is it? After all, the Oxford English Dictionary-declared word of year for 2016: “Post-Truth.” There was a 2000% increase in the usage of Post-Truth in 2016 alone!  Late night comedian Stephen Colbert said they were cheating because a. Post-Truth is two words and b. it has pretty much the same definition as his 2005 word of the year: Truthiness! or Colbert’s derivative: “Veritasiness!” Clearly, the guy saw all this coming. “Truth” these days is no longer about mutually agreed upon facts but highly individualized feelings, no longer about objective history but about selective and subjective memory. Unique as our current context is, this isn’t the first time truth has been so badgered or bandied about!  

For centuries, people, especially those in power, have twisted, stretched, bent, beaten, and buried the truth. We see this throughout scripture. Take the story that comes right before the one we just heard. All four gospels recount a trial. Jesus is brought before the Roman Governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. In John’s version, Pilate asks “So you are a king, are you?” “Indeed I am a king,” Jesus replied; “the reason for my birth and the reason for my coming into the world is to witness to the truth…” To which Pilate retorted: “What is ‘truth’?”  Jesus doesn’t answer. In one translation, Pilate’s question has “truth” in quotation marks, and Pilate doesn’t just say or ask, he dismissively “retorts.”  “Meh…what’s ‘truth’?” Sound familiar? 

It’s not just Pilate! It’s not just Trump! We all do it, in ways large or small! Why?  Because the truth is often unsettling, threatening, even terrifying. Ultimately, the truth is what holds us and others accountable which is why a post-truth world is even scarier than the truth! No truth means no accountability! No accountability means no justice! No justice means no healing, no mercy, no reconciliation, no peace! No truth means that we can hide, deny or bury the memory of the hurts we have wrought and received. It also means that we can deny ourselves the hope, healing and peace that is ours when we can, by God’s grace, face and accept our human failings! Which brings me to our story today. It’s the quintessential story of what happens when truth gets beaten down, strung up and buried for dead. Spoiler alert: the story doesn’t end there!

Let’s start at the beginning, with the women. Clearly, they know a thing or two about truth!  First, it’s the truth and the reality of their own grief and trauma. It’s the truth of the havoc wrought by human violence and victimization. Their courage was fierce. Visiting the grave of that so-called criminal? Still, they “went to see the tomb.” They went “looking for the one who was crucified!”  And just then, something happens, a tectonic shift in their reality. An earthquake, and an angel from beyond, comes to let them know that the truth as they’ve known it, the ground on which they’ve been standing, has been transformed! We might wonder if that broken earth, those fissures at the core of God’s creation, are a divine mirroring of their broken hearts and a foreshadowing of assurance that God is with them! Jesus, the crucified one, is risen! That at once the “final truth” of death and human violence, that old story, has given way to an “eternal truth,” to a new story and a new community of Christ’s redeeming, non-violent love. The truth crushed to earth has risen!

Can you see it? This is more than a story about God’s love and power over death. This is a profound moment when God overturns the usual cycles of de-humanizing violence, and the usual reaction, vengeance! Here’s the thing: it matters profoundly that the central symbol of our faith is a mechanism of brutal torture and state-sponsored execution. If we avoid or side step this fact, we miss the punch line of the whole narrative. For notice what Christ doesn’t say upon his return! He doesn’t come back and say “How could you?” Christ doesn’t return with judgment, nor with demands to go and string up all the people who let him down and cast him out! He doesn’t say “I’m gonna need a minute to process what just happened to me!” Instead, he says in Matthew: “Greetings!” The Greek here is chairete, which means “Rejoice. Be glad!” In other gospels, the Risen Christ appears with words of peace and love. In John, it’s “let’s have breakfast on the beach. Now, where was I? Oh right, Love your neighbor! Love yourself! Love your enemies! And by the way, count me as living proof that demonizing those who do you wrong will only lead to a spiral of deeper pain and misery, it will keep us all in the tombs of our own lies, thinking that we’re good guys and they’re bad guys!”

Is it any wonder that the angel assures the women to not be afraid, and Jesus himself repeats the same words?! We think it’s because they’ve seen a ghost. Maybe so. But what if it’s also because they were anxious and worried, as we all so often are, worried about whether they could have done more to save him, or even just to be better followers, better friends. Think about it! Imagine if Jesus himself were to stroll in here right now, to stand silently before us, to take a good look around at this relatively privileged, not-nearly-as-diverse-as-we’d-like-to-be crowd. If you’re like me, you’re squirming at the very thought. You’re nervous that he’s going to see the real you and judge you and tell you all the things you could be doing differently! But what if his “do not be afraid” is intended here to reassure the women, and us, that “it’s gonna be ok.”  “This pain, this trauma, this violence of being human, it’s not all your fault!” “If you’re willing, as the saying goes, to take up this cross, God and you and me, together we can work some of this out! It’s gonna take some truth telling. It’s gonna require some potentially painful remembering, maybe some tears, but I know we can get through this ‘come to Jesus’ moment, because God loves you and I love you more than you can possibly imagine.” By the way, scripture tells us the Risen Christ “met” the women. He actually came to them! And he comes to us now in love!   

Can we feel that truth of God’s love for us rising in our midst this Easter morning? Can we begin to imagine that relief, that weight lifted, that freedom given? Oh….but there’s an important rule that comes along with all this good news. We can’t take it all on ourselves, no!  But we can’t blame it all on others either. Not Judas. Not Pilate. For God’s sake, let’s not blame it on the Jews, though Christians from the beginning have tragically missed this fundamental message. If Jesus were still in the grave, he’d be rolling over constantly! While we’re at it, we can’t blame it on the Muslims or the immigrants!  We can’t blame it on the evangelicals. We can’t blame it on Trump. No. For truth to be the truth, it’s gotta be the truth for everyone! This peace the risen Christ extends to everyone! It can’t be about shame or blame or comparing ourselves to the dude in the next pew because you thought you saw Jesus eyeing him longer. It’s about unflinching honesty, self-awareness, and it’s about deep and loving mutual accountability which cannot be coerced! Ultimately, it’s about the reconciliation and healing that is ours when we can accept we are all creatures, all broken, all beloved by God! How and when will we let that precious and desperately needed truth and love rise in us?

 Recently, I had the privilege of leading our high school youth group, with my own kids included, on a civil rights tour of the south. Among the amazing historical sites and some damn-fine BBQ, a highlight for me and the kids was a visit to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. EJI was founded by Bryan Stevenson, who wrote the best seller Just Mercy. Their work is stunning- among the most fierce and honest I’ve witnessed! They offer pro-bono legal aid to death row inmates. They advocate for an end to mass incarceration and excessive punishment. And, they’ve also recently launched two profound, long-overdue public remembrance projects that will commemorate the over 4000 African Americans who were lynched between 1873 and 1950.

Like the women in our story, they are going to the site of victimization and violence! Hundreds of volunteers, from local communities and across the country, are working with EJI to collect soil from lynching sites throughout the South, 800 in Alabama alone. The jars of soil are part of a growing exhibit that tells the stories of lynching victims. As Bryan Stevenson has said, "In this soil, there is the sweat of the enslaved. In the soil, there is the blood of victims of racial violence and lynching. There are tears in the soil from all those who labored under the indignation and humiliation of segregation. But in the soil, there is also the opportunity for new life, a chance to grow something hopeful and healing for the future." (1)

 Friends, we saw it as a youth group. The truth crushed to earth is rising again!

What’s more, EJI is also working on a national lynching memorial to be opened next spring! Check out the video at EJI.org, we’ll post a link on our First Church FB. From their website: “This memorial will consist of 800 columns - one for each county where EJI documented racial terror lynchings. When visitors enter the memorial, the ground drops and perception shifts as visitors realize that the columns that appeared to be holding up the structure are actually monuments suspended from above, evoking those lynchings that took place in the public square.” (2)

The truth crushed to earth is rising!

But it doesn’t end there. This particular memorial? It’s not just “a static monument. Just outside the main memorial structure will be a field of identical columns,” again one for each county. EJI, bless them, will be inviting each of these counties to retrieve their county's monument. The video literally shows these monuments, being raised out of the ground, then it shows future locations, in town squares, under a gorgeous willow tree where hung that “strange fruit” of which Billie Holliday sang!

Friends, the truth crushed to earth is rising, through these works of just mercy, through this work of public memory and accountability given to healing and reconciliation. “Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.” (3) How long will it take? Years? Maybe decades? But oh what freedom, what healing, so long avoided and denied, is yet possible! What hope, still, for the soul of our nation! 

The truth is rising! And I can’t get that John Prine song out of my head: “Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery!”

And just imagine similar public remembrance projects on Native American tribal lands, the soil on which we stand right now that holds their blood, sweat and tears, those sacred truths crushed to earth. Imagine churches across the land recommitting themselves to rolling back the stones of denial, telling the story, as we’ve begun to do here, of enslaved persons on our own membership roles, letting those still raw wounds of 4000 crucifixions breathe, calling forth all stories of abuse in any form, together confronting ourselves and one another without violence or vengeance, but with a steadfast commitment to non-violent love, with understanding that this is all our shared problem, our shared grief! 

This is not about a brow-beating guilt trip! This is about holding ourselves accountable to haunting memories and the healing hope that Easter brings!  Imagine not just the temporary relief of this happy Easter day, but the deep joy, the deep freedom and truth that God promises us on this morning of mornings!

We need the courage of those Gospel women to remember and go and look for the ones who are crucified in our midst! We need to dig in that soil. And we need to go back to Galilee, go back to our home town and counties and tell it like it is, with the love of the Risen Christ in our hearts! You see, resurrection is all about re-membering, a communal re-membering, and re-configuring our disfigured lives and disfigured world in light of God’s love. Our nation is suffering an amnesia we can no longer bear, a denial of our history, our ongoing impact on one another, even on Creation itself. In the end, Easter invites us into a human project of public remembrance in love! Christ is now, as ever, calling us to be a community of haunting memory, searing truth and healing hope! And know it or not, Jesus has been giving many of us practice with it since we were kids— every time we confess, every time we come to this table, every time we get a taste of the resurrection in that bread and cup, every time we gather and say his words: “Do this in remembrance of me!” Do this in remembrance of my truth-telling ways, my self-giving love, my just mercy and peace!

 

Say it with me, once last time,

so I know you can take it with you:

Truth crushed to earth is rising,

Truth crushed to earth is rising,

 

Right here and right now!

 

The truth is rising

Freedom is coming!

Deep joy is ours today!

 

For Christ is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

Amen!

 

 

1) http://eji.org/national-lynching-memorial

2) ibid.

3) ibid.