Speaking the Truth in Love

"Well, it's like you said--the good news is that we're all sinners, right?"

My friend's active listening skills provided just the mirror I needed to realize that my own feeble witness to the Gospel had landed a bit askew.

We had been talking about black and white race relations in America, a couple of young white clergy grabbing a quick dinner before heading to a local gathering called, "Doing our own work: white people working to end racism."

Of course, we are all sinners, and I'll even allow that misery loves company, so I guess, morbidly, I'm glad that we're all in this thing together, but the ubiquity of sinfulness surely isn't the *good* news. Is it?

Well, it is the news brought to us by Jesus in our Gospel reading this week. Here in this seventh chapter of Mark, Jesus' ongoing confrontation with the religious leaders is rekindled, and the Pharisees and some of the scribes from Jerusalem provoke Jesus' most assertive response to date. Without apology, Jesus tells the religious leaders that their hypocrisy is the fulfillment of age-old prophecy. Their worship is mere vanity. In fact, they have altogether turned from God's commandment and cling now, pathetically, to schemes of their own devising.

Jesus' main frustration seems to be the religious leaders' lack of understanding or acceptance that the seat of the sin and evil in our world is the human heart. It is from within our own hearts that evil intentions come, and no amount of ritual cleansing can transform our hearts, nor trick anyone but ourselves into believing otherwise.

When Matthew's parallel passage to this week's Markan text showed up late last summer in the lectionary, renowned Lutheran preacher, Pr. Nadia Bolz-Weber, took to twitter in the midst of her own sermon preparation, with this gem. Her tweet began with a quote attributed to Jesus:

"For out of the (human) heart comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander"--Jesus #Ihaveabigheart[1]

The preacher's eloquent commentary was only a hashtag. Hashtag: #Ihaveabigheart. Out of the human heart comes all manner of evil? "I have a big heart," confesses the truth-telling preacher. We are all sinners, says Jesus, and we best not forget it, nor bother pretending otherwise.

So the ubiquity of sinfulness certainly looks to be the thrust of the text, but is it the *good* news? No. I don't actually think Jesus is proclaiming the good news in this Gospel reading. I think he's setting the stage for it.

Because while the fact that we are all sinners is certainly not the good news, it is the truth; and the thing about the Gospel is that it always meets us in our truth. It is us, as we actually are, and not who we pretend or present ourselves to be, that Jesus comes to save. And Jesus is insistent that we know that.

So I thought today I might spend a little time trying to speak some truth. Actually, I think I'll speak the truth in love. And while that seems to be an old standby for many of us Christians, I'm hoping that it might sound a little different today than what you're maybe expecting based on our usual deployment of that phrase.

You see, oftentimes when I hear somebody say that they want to speak the truth in love, what they really want to do is tell another person what's wrong with them while couching it in a thin veneer of having the other person's best interest at heart. You know, "If you were a little more like me, or at least a little more the way I think you should be, it'd really be to the benefit of us all. I tell you this because I love you." Isn't it just wonderful when folks love you enough to tell you that?

Well, I recently heard it said that we have forgotten the Gospel of grace when our sister's or brother's sin bothers us more than our own sin. So while I have been rightly formed as a preacher to remember that nobody finds me nearly as interesting as I find me, I think on this particular occasion it is best to speak the truth about myself, in love.

The truth is--

I am in the privileged majority of nearly every societal category out of which we operate in America. I am a white, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian, cisgendered male whose mental and physical functioning meets society's normative standards.

The truth is--

Every one of those things probably has an awful lot to do with why I have always been afforded education and opportunities and advantages that somehow led to a prestigious preaching award along the way, which is why you're hearing my voice today.

The truth is--

My many-times-over privileged status probably makes my voice among the least urgently needed voices proclaiming the good news of God's love for all people--the love that always seems to be gathering us up in Christ from the margins in.

The truth is--

I'm only barely beginning to recognize some measure of my privilege. I'm only starting to think that maybe life everlasting is waiting for me this very minute on the other side of these dividing walls that have for so long preserved my privilege, advantage, comfort, and relative ease of life. I'm only beginning to see that these walls haven't only kept some of the standard struggles out, but that they've also perhaps kept me in, safely tucked away from the harrowing prospect of life lived in the Triune God who has drawn near.

Because the truth is--

I've always considered myself a pretty good guy, and I'm starting to think that's not really the point. In fact, at the local "Doing our Own Work" event my friend and I attended, one of the presenters shared a compelling analysis in which the most racially biased 1/3rd of a large North Carolina city's police force was removed from the stop and search data completely. After removing an overly generous share of possible "bad apples," those who remained--the "good guys," the least racially biased 2/3 of police--were still 70% more likely to search a stopped driver if that driver was African-American instead of white. Our speaker summed up the point clearly: the good guys are the problem.[2] The "good guys" are the problem. The problem is mine. Do we gather at an anti-racism event called "Doing our Own Work" to seek healing for what's outside of the room or what's inside?

There are countless ways to illustrate this, but here's one. Earlier this summer, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston that left two esteemed alums of my own seminary and many dear friends of my dear friends martyred in their house of worship, while still other black churches around the south were burning, one of my closest friends invited folks to check their implicit racial bias by visiting checkyourbias.com and taking an Implicit-Association Test (IAT) offered by Harvard University. As much as I adore the African-American sisters and brothers whom I count among my most treasured friends and colleagues and as life-giving and beautiful as are various African-American cultures into which I have been invited, the results confirmed my fears. The test showed me to have the strongest possible automatic preference for European Americans compared to African Americans. Sin is insidious. As a child of the American South, even one raised with anti-racist parents and other mentors along the way, even one who strives to be himself anti-racist in his own societal navigation, I have not escaped deformation at the most automatic, subconscious levels. It is from within me that evil intentions continue to come into this world. Surely this is to my own detriment but, much more significantly, it is to the detriment of all of the more richly complected children of God around me. The problem is mine.

The problem of devaluing my sisters and brothers based on their shade of skin is mine. Racism thrives on people like me. The good guys are the problem.

Of course, this is but one dire example. The problem of sin in all of its myriad manifestations is mine. This is the truth. But it is the truth spoken in love.

For it was before the foundations of the world that God chose me and all sinners like me, in Christ, to be holy and blameless before God in love. It has been God's plan for the fullness of time since even before the creation of time, to gather up all things, things in heaven and things on earth, in Christ. God's saving action in Christ did not establish a system of worthiness. It was a statement of worthiness. You, me, all people, all of God's creation are of incalculable worth to God. Always have been. Always will be. Every last one of us. Just by being alive.

This is why we can speak the truth, as ugly as it may be: because we are already loved. Creation is nothing if not sustained by the cruciform engine of Godly love. We speak the truth knowing that Jesus is sure to meet us in it. It is sinners like me, eating with defiled hands, that God chose to accompany as he walked the earth. Jesus, you see, hangs out with the grubby-handed ones. No, I don't think Jesus is speaking the Gospel in our Markan reading this week, but I do think that, in addition to setting the stage for it, he's also already embodying the gospel. God with us, just as we are, accompanying us, loving us, leading us on the journey home.

Before anything, after everything, we are simply loved.

This is the claim and promise of baptism. This is our identity as the beloved of God. Sin can do a lot of awful things, but it cannot touch God's love for us.

And that, my friends, is freedom: that life is never about earning or preserving our belovedness. Life is about coming alive in our belovedness . In our own belovedness and that of every last person around us. Maybe especially those most unlike us. This is surely the meaning of Christ.

That must be why God's Spirit keeps drawing us together. It is certainly why, when God does draw us together, we speak the truth about ourselves, in God's love. We name our sin. I name my sin, my perpetuation of racism because naming our sin is the occasion to confess our God, the one we know in Jesus, who always meets us in our truth, as we really are and then re-members us by his Gospel of Grace, forgiving us and even making us new.

Let us pray: God, out of the human heart comes fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly, not to mention insidious racism. We have big hearts. Ritual cleansing cannot touch them. You can. Inspire us to name our sin and then confess you, because yes, our sin is real, but so is your resurrection. Our sin is doomed. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and by your Spirit bring us alive in our belovedness, alive to each other, alive in you. We ask that you would you do it again and again. As many times as it takes. In Jesus' name. Amen.


[1] https://twitter.com/Sarcasticluther/status/500380265920098304

[2] The presenter was Bay Love, COO and DoD for the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC; the city was Durham, NC.