Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Truth Will Set You Free - Sermon

The Truth Will Set You Free
         The truth will set you free. At least that’s what we have been told many, many times. I selected this title because we are focusing on truth this month. And honestly, I needed a title and a topic for a sermon a little over a month ago. So I embarked on writing about honesty. If we could just be honest with the world about who we are, then we would be freer to live our lives with dignity and pride.
         Simple, and clean isn’t it. Tell the truth and you will be free. Well it’s not quite so simple. As I began writing and thinking, it became very clear that the much more challenging piece of this rule is finding the truth in the first place. Even about ourselves.

         June is just around the corner and it is gay pride season again. Last weekend in Long Beach and this weekend in West Hollywood, actually at this moment, thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are gathering in celebration of their sexual orientation and gender identity. They are putting their truth out their, and reveling in the freedom that comes with being out. Every year in the month of June gay pride is celebrated. Just as the name suggests, it is about being out and being proud of who each person is.
         But there’s more to coming out than simply being honest. To come out, you have to know that being out is an option. To come out you have to face the incredibly daunting reality that perhaps you are not what everyone else had assumed and told you that you are. You see, coming out as gay, isn’t just about one day deciding to fess up to the truth. For most people it’s a much more complicated internal struggle of first coming out to one’s self.
         Although this reality is changing, until relatively recently most GLBT people didn’t understand that there were other people like them in the world. They didn’t know that there were amazing supportive loving and healthy communities that they could be a part of. They didn’t know that having a loving relationship and living an open, honest life with a partner of the same sex was an option. For many of us, the concept just simply wasn’t a part of our known universe.
         It’s amazing how difficult it is to know something, if the option doesn’t exist within your realm of possibilities. I remember the first time I said the words, “I’m gay,” out loud. I was in middle school. I had watched the HBO movie called “And The Band Played On.” It was a documentary about he AIDS crisis and it was the only meaningful depiction that I had ever seen of gay people. That evening when I had the house to myself, in the midst of watching that movie I locked myself in the bathroom and said the words out loud for the first time. “I’m Gay.”
         Until I saw that film, which is horribly sad by the way, being gay was just not something that existed in the realm of possibilities. It didn’t exist as a possible truth, until one night, thanks to HBO, it did. Like I said, that experience is changing rapidly as depictions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are more and more common. But for my generation and the folks that came before me, finding the truth was just as difficult as telling other people about it.

         I often use quick phrases for titles of sermons, and I don’t always know where they come from. That’s part of the fun in my work-week, finding where these commonly used phrases come from. That has been especially true this week. I know you have heard this many times, especially associated with justice movements. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” I knew it came from the Bible, but I didn’t know the context at all.
         It comes from the Gospel of John. It is part of a very long dialog between Jesus and a group of Jews. The whole long conversation is Jesus explaining to this crowd of people that he was the true teacher and that they should all be following him. Of course they were observant Jews and explained that they were children of Abraham, and because of that, they believed in the one true God. Jesus then clarifies to them the he actually is closer to that same one true God than even Abraham, and they should follow him, because he is the truth.
         The crowd gets more and more angry and the story ends with them attempting to stone Jesus. But he escapes. As many times as I have heard these words, “The truth shall set you free,” I had no idea that this was the context of the story. The story is about the total rejection of the messenger. That’s a pretty important piece of the statement.
         I should give a quick political disclaimer here. The Gospel of John is a notoriously anti-Semitic book of the Bible. And this passage in particular paints the Jews in a bad light. That is one very obvious understanding of the story. But the other important understanding of the story is the way a crowd responds to a new message. They argue, and eventually persecute the messenger.
         In the very next passage in John, Jesus performs a miracle of healing and individual blind man. We UU’s aren’t very fond of miracle stories, but healing the blind seems to be a pretty clear metaphor for opening someone’s eyes to see the truth. What we see in these stories together is important There is one of a crowd defending itself in group-think and persecuting the messenger. And in the second story we hear about an opportunity for an individual to find wholeness and healing from the same messenger.
         Often our inability to see, hear, understand, or accept the truth is simply the fruit of being part of a group. It is very hard to see something that your peers reject; it is incredibly difficult to hear a truth that your culture ignores.

         Whether it is about which teachers to listen to, who we should love, how much money we should have or what the color of our skin means, the communities that surround us deeply influence our access to truth. There is a particularly powerful exploration of this in a book called “Learning to be White.”
         This is a book by the UU a theologian named Thandeka. It came out back in 2000 and created quite a stir.  In the book she explores the process by which human beings with lighter skin are inculturated to be “white.” As the title suggests, we do in fact learn to act within the norms of our culture. Just like within any culture, white people are shaped to behave in particular ways based on the color of their skin.
         To get at that process of how we learn appropriate behavior, Thandeka asks participants some of the ways they first learned what was expected of them to maintain and participate in white culture. Not always but usually those lessons came through shaming and painful experiences. The stories are about children being told explicitly or implicitly who was safe and who were appropriate friends. And later youth were instructed by their white peers what areas of town were safe, how to dress, dance, and eat.
         The really shocking thing about these stories, when they are told in detail, is that we realize the each time, these stories of teaching whiteness do a great deal to limit the learners natural curiosities and inclinations. From the time we are born we are instructed through implicit messages about how we are supposed to behave. And that behavior, that culture is based on the color of our skin. Most importantly, those lessons, those hard lessons that limit our full humanity come from within our own community. It happens for white people, and Black people, and all sorts of people.
         And as we learn how to behave, power structures within our society are reinforced. From the day we are born we are instructed on playing a role in the wider society. We are instructed based on the color of our skin to be of a dominant culture or an oppressed culture. And seeing any truth outside of those structures is an incredibly hard journey.
         But this is exactly what her goal is. Thandeka believes, and I think it’s true, that one very important step to enter into meaningful cross-cultural dialog, is to understand how each and every one of us, including white people, have been molded into our cultures. When we know that, we begin to see a deeper truth of how each of our cultures, including our own, can limit, or enhance our fully capacity as human beings.   
         She came up with a brilliant way to help people see the truth of their environment. It reminds me of another famous community organizer who has created a model to empower oppressed communities around the world.
         Hopefully it’s pretty clear by now that it can be incredibly difficult to see the truth that is around you every day. It’s much like the old adage, sometimes showing people the reality of their lives is like explaining to a fish what water is. We take for granted what we have always known. It can limit the possibilities for our individual lives, and it can limit the potential for marginalized communities to create change.
         There’s a particular model of community organizing that has always fascinated me. It’s the idea spread by the social change guru, Paulo Friere. One of his key missions was creating methods for oppressed communities to better understand their situation and the possibilities for change. And he did this in an amazingly simple and creative way.
         Rather than swooping into a village and telling them that they had problems that should be changed, Friere did long exercises with whole communities, in which they would sit together and draw the village. They would draw every day scenes of work life and home life. What their housing looked like, how they used transportation, the experiences of children and elders. They worked together to create a picture of the village life. And then, when it had all been drawn in black and white, he invited them to talk about things that they might want to change about the picture.
         And at that point, when people are able to take just one step back from their daily lives, they are able to see the problems they faced and the resources they had. It’s like taking the fish out of its bowl to see the water it swims in. It doesn’t take much, just an opportunity to take one step back.
         And then, when a community has identified what it wants to change, Friere helps them along that path, one small challenge at a time. But the first step is the critical one. Taking the step back to see the truth is what enables a community to identify the changes it wants to make, and to seek out a better way.

         I have a hunch, that if we take the time to do something similar on an individual level, we too can see opportunities to make our lives better. At the end of the day, I deeply believe that the saying is right, and the title of my sermon is dead on. The truth will set you free. But I learned a lesson from that passage in John. I’m not fond of public stoning. And even if I were, I don’t think this kind of truth is something that we can be told.
         My mission today is not to deliver to you a truth that will set you free. What I want to offer instead is an invitation to take some time, take a step back and look at your every day life. If you are inclined maybe you want to draw it, or write it down in words, but really think about the day to day. What could be better, not miraculously perfect better? What about your life could realistically be changed?
         It’s kind of a scary question because taking it seriously means making changes. It’s not easy, but when and if you are ready, take a step back and take a look at your life with an eye toward possibility, an openness to ways of being that you had never imagined before. And the truth might just set you free.


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