Consistent and Faithful

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on August 17, 2014)

Matt. 5:33-37

My wife Elaine has been watching TED talks. She’s working her way through the list of the all-time most watched TED talks. Mostly that’s a cool thing, because she’s learning a lot and she shares a lot of the cool stuff with me.

It does have its downsides, though. Like when she told me I should watch the one called, “How to spot a liar”…and then looked at me with this look, like a “You’re toast now, dude” look.

Ok I just made that up. Did you all spot that I was a liar right there?

I tried this opening joke on my family last night, and I was real good at spotting my daughter’s fake smile as she tried to humor me into thinking I’d made her laugh.

So here’s Jesus, telling us that we should have so much integrity with our lives and our speech that we don’t even need to swear we are telling the truth…we just always do tell the truth.

Here’s Jesus calling us to truth-telling, and we all nod and agree. We all hate being lied to. But then here’s Pamela Meyer on this TED talk telling us we lie all the time. All the time.

“I love your new hair!” “I’m sorry it took so long to respond-I just found your email in my spam folder!”

And of course deeper than the white lies are the deceptions that really hurt. The negative information withheld in order to make the sale. The hidden affair. The character assassination of other people, either through lies we say, or through lies we do not shoot down when we have the chance.

In that TED talk, Pamela Meyer gives some statistics: “Last year saw 997 billion dollars in corporate fraud alone in the United States. That’s an eyelash under a trillion dollars. That’s seven percent of revenues. Deception can cost billions. Think Enron, Madoff, the mortgage crisis.”  She tells us that on a given day, we’re lied to up to 200 times. That a study showed strangers lie to each other an average of three times in the first 10 minutes of meeting each other.  That men lie 8 times more about themselves than about other people.

Then there is this quote: “If you’re an average married couple, you’re going to lie to your spouse in one out of every 10 interactions. Now you may think that’s bad; but if you’re unmarried, [you lie once in every THREE interactions]”

Is Jesus saying something that is just too naive and unrealistic for the world we live in?

I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna stand with Jesus on this one. Not only that, but I long for us to create a culture here at NFC that spreads. As Elaine said to me, a culture of truth telling and lives of integrity are counter-cultural, but they can also spread; they can create a culture of truth that serves as a solid foundation for real and honest relationships.

So let’s look at what’s behind Jesus’ teaching. Let’s explore what gets in the way of living it out. And let’s see what actions and commitments we can take and make to begin a new culture of truth.

We’re familiar by now with Jesus’ pattern, using an Old Testament teaching introduced with, “You have heard that it was said.” In this case, it isn’t a direct quote of one verse from the Old Testament, but rather a paraphrase of several like Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2, and Deuteronomy 23:21. It may even be related to the commandment to not “take the Lord’s name in vain”, which is better translated, “Don’t misuse the name of the Lord.”

Breaking an oath in which you named the Lord was seen as the greatest misuse of God’s name. You aren’t being true to the faithfulness of God. To avoid the risk of breaking that commandment, people would put in substitutes for God’s name and swear by heaven or by earth or by Jerusalem, etc.

We’re also familiar by now with Jesus’ pattern of taking us farther than the Old Testament command went with his phrase, “But I tell you…” And what Jesus says obviously takes it deeper. Don’t just avoid breaking the letter of the law. Don’t swear at all! All the time, everywhere, when you say yes or no…mean it. Follow through on it.

This is how the Quaker practice of affirming instead of swearing came about.

There really is only a need to “swear” to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God…there’s only a need to do that if you admit that at other times you don’t tell the whole truth. Early Quakers worked hard to tell the truth all the time, so that they could “affirm” that they always spoke the truth.

And, history tells us that they did a pretty good job. Quakers were known for their integrity in word and deed. People wanted to buy things from Quakers because they had a reputation for telling the truth and being fair. What a great legacy to have!! Far more important, in fact, than just the testimony of saying “I affirm” instead of “I swear” on those rare occasions where we are in court being asked to take an oath.

This reputation for honesty and integrity are why brands like Quaker Oats and Quaker State Motor Oil developed. It was a positive marketing force, because hearing the word Quaker made people think of integrity and truth.

What is it that keeps us from living into this old reputation?

In other words…why do we lie?

There are lots of reasons, I know. I’m not looking for one right one…but help me with this, including the kids if you’re willing. What are some reasons why people lie? [ASK]

In that TED talk, Pamela Meyer summed it up like this: “Lying is an attempt to bridge that gap…to connect our wishes and our fantasies about who we wish we were, how we wish we could be…with what we’re really like.”

If she’s right (and I think she hits pretty close to the mark), lying is rooted in our discontentment with ourselves. If she’s right, than in order for us to do what Jesus asks, we are going to have to address and face “our wishes and our fantasies about who we wish we were, how we wish we could be.”

There are so many ways we wish we were different. We wish we were skinnier or curvier, that our hair was straighter or curlier. We wish we spoke up for ourselves more or stuck our foot in our mouths less.

We wish we hadn’t given up so easily on that dream from earlier in our lives…so we tell people that actually yes, we did play volleyball in college when we really didn’t. We wish we hadn’t gossiped about our best friend or gotten fired or been arrested…and we certainly don’t want anyone to know the truth now.

We wish we were the kind of person who could walk up to someone and start a conversation, or risk going back to school, or stand up for civil rights…so we make up a story about how we did, or hide the fact that most of our time is spent very mundanely.

We take gigantic risks when we tell the truth, when we open our real lives up for others to see.

We risk being ridiculed and ostracized. We risk having our wrongs held against us and used against us. We risk punishment, social, legal and otherwise. Lying often seems the easier path, whether lying by making up something that makes us look better, or lying just by staying silent, by hiding and concealing the reality of who we are because we are afraid of how we will be judged.

Last summer, Elaine and I had the privilege of watching our own Andy Copeland in a local theater production of Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev.Elaine and I read the novel early in our marriage, and it was one of those truly great books. I was reminded why as we sat in the theater here in Newberg last summer.

The character of Asher Lev is an artist who is also an orthodox Jew. The heart of the book is Asher’s drive to be honest and authentic with his art, his art that is already constantly in tension with his Jewish faith. His mother hates that he sometimes paints classical nudes, believing that to be improper. But there is a greater tension between Asher and his father, his father who travels the world teaching the truths of the orthodox Jewish faith with love and care…but who is tremendously harsh with and distant from his own son.

His mother is the constant buffer between, sacrificing her own emotional health and peace to try and keep the men she loves from hurting each other and forever running away. Asher’s creativity and ability to paint becomes blocked; and he finally realizes why. He has found the perfect image, the perfect way to paint the honest pain in his life; but for a long time, he can’t bring himself to do it. He knows the tremendous pain it will cause, and for the longest time he cannot take the risk.

As he resists, his creativity dries up. While the relationship with his father gets less conflictual, it does not get any closer. In fact, the distance between himself and both his parents grows. Finally, he takes the risk. He paints his father on one side, himself on the other…and his mother, torn between them, crucified between them. Taking the classical Christian image of crucifixion, he risks offending his entire religious community and bares his soul and his family’s dirty laundry in a public exhibition of his art.

It’s a dramatic, painful, gut-wrenching symbol of a truth that is woven into our world.

Our attempts to avoid honesty and authenticity, whether through silence or lying, freeze and distance our relationships. This is what I thought about as I sat in the theater just a few blocks from here. The novel and the play don’t come to a happy ending. The truth brings all the pain out in the open. But what I realized sitting there is that ignoring the pain, the way he tries to ignore it and avoid it and keep the pain in secret…that doesn’t work for relationships either.

We need truth to be in relationship with each other. Relationships and society don’t work very well when we can only believe people when they take an oath. Jesus is right to call us to something deeper. Jesus is right to call us to a world where we simply say yes and do it, say no and mean it.

When truth isn’t there…when we embellish or stretch it past reality so that someone will like us, for instance…we run two risks that ruin relationship. One, if our stretching of the truth is found out, the other person’s trust in us is broken, with damaging consequences to our relationships. But two, even if it isn’t found out-there is damage to ourselves.

“Sure, they like me because I told them I lived in Thailand for 6 months to work against the slave trade. But if they knew the truth, if they knew who I really was, they wouldn’t like me at all.” When we lie, our relationships can be damaged from OUR end, because we have this nagging sense that if they really knew us, we wouldn’t be accepted.

It is a huge risk to be people who speak and live the truth, who are authentic and real with the good and the bad of who we are.

It doesn’t always “work”. But let me turn that around. When relationships work for the long term, when safe communities are built, it is always because truth and authenticity are a value and are present.

Martin Buber, philosopher and theologian wrote: “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” (Quoted in Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, p. 150) Community and relationships become what they were meant to be when truth wins over lies and hiding, when realness wins over a crafted image.

I can’t help but be drawn back to where we have been so many times in the last year. We find the strength to take the vulnerable risk of authentic truth when we accept the fact that God loves us for who we are, not what we do or how we behave. We can risk being real and truthful when we know down deep that God chose to love us, as Paul wrote in Romans, “while we were still sinners.”

The truth doesn’t surprise God! We don’t have to craft an image in order for God to save us! If we will let God’s unconditional love sink in…we can risk living in truth. If we are real with God about our flaws…if, as I John says, “If we confess our sins…he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This real, authentic truth makes us free!

All through the bible, the key to intimacy…whether with God or in the most intimate of relationships between husband and wife…the key to intimacy is to be known. To be known in truth and reality.

The risk of authenticity and truth, the risk of speaking and living the truth with all of the good and the bad…it is worth it, I believe.

Two brief stories from my high school days to illustrate. My parents both worked, and so in the summers I was home alone. The summer before I was in high school, I was dating a girl, and I was told by my parents that getting together during those long, unsupervised summer days was not allowed.

One day I did it anyway. I rode my bike to a park and met my girlfriend there. I vividly remember the conversation with my dad that evening. Evidently my parents had called home several times in the day, and I hadn’t answered. So they wanted to know where I had been.

I didn’t come clean. I didn’t speak the truth. I lied and said I had met my friend Bob and gone for a bike ride. My dad said, “So if I called Bob right now, he would tell me the same thing?” And I had a chance again to come clean, but I didn’t. “Yes, he would.” My dad looked at me…my heart is pounding…and he said, “Well, I don’t have to call him. I trust you. You’ve always told the truth and I believe you.”

Oh man I hated that! That hurt, that internal tension knowing my dad trusted me and the trust was completely misplaced. Oh, it didn’t hurt enough for me to confess. 🙂 But that vivid feeling of breaking trust, of knowing I could be caught; it was a weight.

Four years later I’m a senior in high school. Our senior skip day was a trip to Seaside, and I had a blast. Riding mopeds, ice cream, hanging out with friends on the beach…a great day! At my school, if you were 18 as I was at that point, you didn’t need your parents to write you a note to excuse an absence. You could do it yourself, and that’s exactly what my friends did. They lied and said they were sick, and that gave them the little yellow excused absence slip. All the teachers just smiled and knew the truth.

I had one of those simple moments of proud integrity. I wrote my own note, too. I wrote something like, “Gregg had a great day at the beach on senior skip day.” The attendance secretary laughed out loud, and said, “Are you sure?” I said yes, and I got the little pink unexcused absence slip. That meant I didn’t get the chance to make up the quiz in one of my classes, and it meant that I had to stay after school for detention.

In a weird way, sort of a prideful way now that I look back on it, it felt really good to sit in detention. I liked living the truth. I liked having integrity and paying the consequences for the fun day I’d had, even if I could have gotten out of it. I liked it even though my baseball coach walked by, did a double take when he saw me in detention, and yelled down the hall to his fellow teachers: “Hey! Check this out! Koskela’s in detention!”

I share those two little stories because I know you have ones just like it too, examples of the difference between what it feels like to hide and lie, and the freedom that comes from living the truth.

May we be people who risk speaking and living the truth.

May we be counter-cultural and avoid lies, resist the desire to prove our worth by presenting an untrue image.

May we know the love of God that knows no limits.

May we create a culture of truth and authenticity in this church, create a culture that rewards vulnerable and real sharing of even our failures and sins.

And may the truth of Jesus Christ spread throughout our community and our world!

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