"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."
Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness, today we will be discussing the 9th commandment, thou Shall not bear false witness. On the surface this can seem like an edict against lying, but in the fullness of God’s love, it becomes something more like encouragement, to trust God, and live into a whole truth, a fuller witness, which is to strive to see a totality of an event or a thing, to listen, to take in all the contractions, to overcome the dualisms, to see past one’s bias and prejudices, past one’s blindness, to allow God to open one’s eyes and see in the way God sees, with radical love and compassion.
Before we get too much farther, lets face facts, Lying and truth are slippery things, take for example something that happened at my house this past week, my oldest son, who is just about three, started calling out to me after he had already gone to bed. I went in to investigate, and he was complaining about a mosquito bite and was asking for "bite cream". The problem is that the "bite cream" was in our other son's room, and he is five months old, and the last thing i wanted to do was to go in there, and start rooting around for this tube of cream and wake him up. So instead, i went downstairs, got some moisturizer, got a dab on my finger and went back into his room, and told him it was bite cream and he thanked me, and went back to sleep. I had just lied to my son.
Now in the the the strictest sense of law, there is a fairly specific intent to this commandment, looking at the hebrew, bearing false witness is intentionally trying to deceive someone with malicious purpose, its a commandment that has a lot to do with intent. In the case of my son, I wasn’t trying to deceive him for malicious purposes, so technically it looks like I am maybe on the right side of the Law.
But the commandments aren’t about legalistic dualisms, that there is always one right way and one wrong way, rather, the commandments are a promise, a Promise of God’s love and embodiment of God’s enduring Grace, looking at it from a gospel point of view, it is encouragement to live into the kingdom of God, something all followers of Christ must constantly strive for, and only achieve through being open to the help of the Holy Spirit.
So, Thou shall not bear false witness shouldn’t just be an edict against lying, but rather encouragement towardsstriving to live into truthful, honest witness.
But, hold on one second, being a witness, that is difficult, that is challenging…
Think of a crime scene, where there are witnesses say there is a shooting, and multiple gunshots were fired, a scan of immediate witnesses immediately following the event will provide any number of various counts of gun shots, one might say 3, another 5, yet another 4. Who is telling the truth. Most are telling their truth, most fully believe their account, and many might even be willing to fight for it. This is a reality of criminal investigations, witnesses are notoriously unreliable because the human mind plays tricks, remembers things in odd ways.
But to think that this difficulty in witness stops at seemingly concrete events, think of a baseball game, think of this past year, take the LA Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, the Dodgers being easily the most dominant team this past year, the padres easily being one of the worse, think of a game pitting the two against each other, towards the end of the season, the Dodgers have already made the playoffs, the padres have been out of contention for weeks, and yet, somehow, in the 9th inning, one run behind, the padres manage to get a hit, someone on at first and then the next batter hits a homerun and the win the game. After the game, the dodgers fans all brush it off as a few bad pitches, a forgettable lose, but the padres fans, see a great victory, a testament to what they might be next year, a defining moment, an unforgettable victory, one that gets talked about for years, which fan base is more honest, which fan base is telling a more accurate truth in that moment?
Or what about the way people see NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, there are some folks who see those men kneeling as flag haters, people who disrespect the country, and the people who died to protect it. At the same exact time others see them as proud patriots, living into the tradition of protest that is built into america’s DNA from day one. And there are so many stops in-between.
Truth can be a slippery thing, honest witness can be difficult, taking in the contradictions of an event, Or take John Calvin, who is foundational to the Presbyterian understanding of God, who in one moment can talk about being loved into freedom, a beautiful description of faith, and the next can be talking about pre-destination, the whole truth is hard to wrap one’s head around.
And being a witness, there is an aspect of Justice to that isn’t there. A few years ago, I found myself in New Orleans a few years after Hurricane Katrina, and I was surprised by how much rebuilding was still left, I was almost offended by the level of injustice that still existed in that city, and I sought to do something about it, I started to volunteer for an organization called Saint Bernard Project, and I started rebuilding homes and getting trained as an electrical. I started on a purely volunteer basis a few days a few, and soon I found myself on an americorps term full time, making essentially minimum wage, and then I was hired by the organization, making just a touch above minimum wage, all the while progressing as an electrician, eventually driving my own van, and leading volunteers and heading up projects. We were fixing homes of folks who had simply ran out of funds, most had been bamboozled out of their FEMA money because of shady contractors, or for a myriad of reasons, had just run out of funds, or never gotten enough funds in the first place. And Saint Bernard Project was the only organization working in Saint Bernard parish because organizations like Habitat and Rebuilding Together had given up on the local government, decided it was too hard, too much red-tape. And the vast majority of the people’s homes we were rebuilding, they were good people, and they were thankful, they just wanted to get home and had run out of options. Seems simple enough, right? It was justice in process right?
But the longer I spent there, I noticed two interesting trends. Week after week we would get volunteers come in for a few days from all over the country, and a lot of these volunteers, it didn’t take to long for them to figure out that these homes we were rebuilding, they weren’t particularly well made to begin with, and secondly, the area was still at risk of flooding and certainly at risk of hurricanes, as Nate strolled into those neighborhoods last night I might add, I am reminded of this reality. More than a few times, I was confronted with volunteers who wondered why we were rebuilding these homes, chances are in 10 or 20 years they would need to be rebuilt again, it seemed like a waste of resources to them, and many left disillusioned. On the other hand, I remember going into the local electrical supply shop, and I remember getting a bit harassed, the guys that worked there were convinced someone in that organization was walking away with a big chunk of money in their pocket, and as I spent more and more time in the parish, 11 months total, I began to learn that a lot of the locals saw us as nothing more than carpet-baggers, come from beyond the borders of the parish to take away good earning jobs.
I was trying to respond to injustice as I saw it, I was trying to be a good witness to the whole situation, but it took me months to start to appreciate the complexities of all the sides. Was the organization I worked for, was it really doing the right thing, was their a better way to rebuild? Was there a better way to bring witness to those folks in Southern Louisiana?
Truth is a slippery thing. Being a witness is a difficult thing. There are times when all are called to be a witness, whether in a legal sense, or in a broader more justice oriented sense, its hard to really see the whole picture, perspective changes so much, false truths pepper reality and become pervasive. With all these very real challenges, how does one truly avoid bearing false witness, particularly in cases of Justice?
I guess if one digs just into the legalistic aspects of this commandment, it is, at some level, talking about falsity onlyin an intentional sense, but if one is to take this commandment as instruction and not just prohibitions, does it not also inspire those aware of God’s love to address falsity in an unintentional sense? Think of the world today, ripe with fake news that makes it hard to figure out what is honest…ripe with such opposing view points that trying to sort through it all is almost practice in absurdity! How does one take this commandment seriously, as not only a prohibition against
I don’t claim to have the answers, I don’t have specifics how how to bridge the divides of the kind of intense political divides that exist across the world today that proclaim quite drastically different truths
I guess the only thing I can offer is that trusting in God is paramount, God clearly sees the whole truth, more than any one person will ever be able to appreciate, and the better one tunes into the Holy Spirit, and allows oneself to be sent by god to the places God is calling them, then a wholer truth begins to emerge.
This means outreach, service beyond the walls, that the first goal of that service is not to fix things, if one trusts God, God will fix things through a person’s gifts whether they want to or not, but rather service, mission outreach, witness, and this witness part is important, listening, building relationships, learning, that becomes the important part.
I want to make our way towards the end of this sermon with one more story, When I was in college, I went with my church youth group to New York City to take part in a program called the Youth Service Opportunities Project. It was a week long program, we were sleeping on the floor of a church in the upper west side of Manhattan, and the goal was to spent the week visiting various soup kitchens and food pantries and various other support services across New York City. On the third night, we were set to make dinner for a group of homeless men from a local drop in shelter, but the goal wasn’t just to make a meal for these guys, but the goal was to eat with them, to make a meal of all of us, and over the course of the meal, get to know a little bit about these guys, to learn about their life, their situation, to just get to know them.
I tell you what, that experience changed the way I see homelessness forever. All of a sudden, I knew a few faces of homelessness, I had built a relationship with these men, I had learned something from them, something not just about them, or about me, but something about the world. I was witness to a larger truth than I was prepared for, or even aware of. When a moved to New York City a few years later, I ended up working part time for the organization, leading groups through dinners and through volunteer experiences, and it just changed me more and more. It was more than just charity, I was getting to know homeless guys, see them week after week, keep up with their lives, learn their stories, see where they stayed, and I was getting to know service providers and the their experiences and their challenges and their successes, the picture was ever broadening.
I mention this because I think as Presbyterians, there is some anxiety around the word witness, maybe not here, but I have sure run into in other churches, witness has come to mean something akin to persuasion, but if one is not listening, how can it be true witness, rather I think true witness, the kind this commandment leads the faithful towards, has little to do with persuasion, but rather much more to do with listening, and coming to learn larger truths, and to be witness different experiences.
Again, if one trusts God, its not about trying to do what is right, but rather about trying to be led to the right place at the right time. God will use a person in subtle ways, but mission should never be a one way street, if I can be so bold, if the missionary is not learning anything in the mission field, then there is a failure to heed this 9th commandment, the missionary is failing to seek a truthful witness, allowing god to lead them, to guide them, to transform them.
Witness ceases to be a practice in persuasion, and a practice in listening and retelling, picking up the gentle whispers of the Holy Spirit, about finding the gospel in the most unexpected places, I have more one short story, about one of the homeless men I got to know working for YSOP, he had spent a good chunk of his life in jail for theft, and he told me about how he found a wallet on the street, and he could have taken it, no one would have been the wiser, and I am sure few would have judged him for it, considering he was homeless, but instead, he managed to track down the owner of the wallet, and return it, with all the money in it, that is the spirit at work, that is the gospel in action, that is a person transformed. Hearing the story is witness, retelling it here is witness. And if you ask me, this is the best kind of mission, the unexpected lessons, found by just being in the world.
In the end, maybe it makes more sense to try and avoid false witness instead of trying to hard on honest witness since truth can be so slippery, but the reality is, there is one who can be trusted, and that is God, through prayer and service and fellowship and outreach and meditation and study and worship, that trust with God can be strengthened, and it becomes less about being right, but instead about being in the right place. The Whole truth, it is found in God, in trusting in God and following God and in seeking God, that’s were honest witness becomes a reality. What wonderfully Good News we recieve! Amen.