Speaking the Truth Is Difficult
Preparing for the Fourth Sunday in Lent: Three Days before Sunday (Year A)
Psalter: Psalm 23
Old Testament: 1 Samuel 15:10-21
Gospel: Ephesians 4:25-32
God of the living, through baptism we pass from the shadow of death to the light of the resurrection. Remain with us and give us hope that, rejoicing in the gift of the Spirit who gives life to our mortal flesh, we may be clothed with the garment of immortality, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
So then, putting away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with your neighbor, for we are members of one another (Ephesians 4:25).
One of the books I’ve read multiple times over the years is Reinhold Niebuhr’s, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. It contains his journal reflections as a young pastor. It is my favorite work of Niebuhr’s. In one entry he writes,
I am not surprised that most prophets are itinerants. Critics of the church think we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are economically dependent upon the people of our church. There is something in that, but it does not quite get to the root of the matter. I certainly could easily enough get more money than I am securing now, and yet I catch myself weighing my words and gauging their possible effect upon this and that person. I think the real clue to the tameness of a preacher is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love.
My purpose in this post is not to ask what kind of preaching is prophetic, though I cannot omit referring to it. I am interested in speaking truthfully which I understand as necessary to the prophetic, but larger. I am not even sure that most persons can given an intelligible answer to that question because I fear most preaching labeled as prophetic is nothing more than the promotion of the political platform of the DNC or the RNC with a thin veneer of Jesus thrown in for support.
Nevertheless, Niebuhr speaks the truth when it comes to the difficulty of speaking the truth, because while the truth must be spoken it must be spoken carefully, but not be so qualified that the force of the truth is lost in domesticated nuance. To speak the truth is necessary but serious business. In speaking the truth we should not be afraid to spare individuals their feelings, but neither should we trample all over them with sloppy and unsophisticated rhetorical verbiage that seeks more to score points then to consider and persuade. Even further, the truthful word should not be offered as the final word, but a word that fosters and furthers the discussion necessary for the church itself to be a prophetic witness, and allow for the laity to speak prophetically to the clergy. Pastors are not the only prophets God has called; neither are they the only ones who can speak the truth.
There indeed seems to be a reason why most biblical prophets tended to come from nowhere and then go away to nowhere when the word was dutifully delivered. It should also be noted that the earliest Christians referred to their traveling evangelists as prophets (Didache 11). But for those of us stationed as pastors of a flock, we still find that we must be prophetic even if we prefer not to be. And it can be so difficult to speak the truth to people we have come to love and respect greatly... because in knowing them... we experience personally the cracked image of God in each and every one of them.... In other words, we come to realize that they are just like us. It may be necessary, but it is also dangerous for sinners to speak the prophetic word to fellow sinners.
Those called to speak, “Thus saith the Lord,” also need to heed those words as well.
And that too can be difficult.
PRAYER: Discerner of hearts, you look beneath our outward appearance and see your image in each of us. Banish in us the blindness that prevents us from recognizing truth, so we may see the world through your eyes and with the compassion of Jesus Christ who redeems us. Amen.
Learn more about Reinhold Niebuhr here.