|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
April 14, 2017
Good Friday Service – 7:00 p.m.
Every year the publishers of the Oxford Dictionary select a “word of the year” which they believe best captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year. Their choice for word of the year in 2016 was “post-truth.”
Post truth (adjective): relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
The folks at Oxford say that use of the word post-truth has increased by approximately 2,000% between 2015 and 2016. Post truth is the idea that to feel something is true is enough for it to actually be true, and to want something to be true can make it become true in your own mind. Post truth cast such an enormous influence over politics and governance in the past year that it feels like it’s a new phenomenon. But the reality is that post-truth has been around for a long, long time. In fact, the story of the Passion, and Jesus’ interrogation by Pontius Pilate is a story about the battle between truth and post-truth.
At the time of his trial, Jesus stands before the Roman governor in charge of the region, Pontius Pilate, as an alleged criminal. The religious leaders in Jerusalem claim that Jesus is an inciter of rebellion – a revolutionary who threatens the Roman peace and their religious customs. Yet Jesus has no army and no weapons. The leaders say that Jesus is a criminal, but they offer no specific charges against him. And when Pilate questions Jesus, Jesus doesn’t claim to be a king. He speaks of his kingdom, but he also rejects violence and says that his followers will not fight. In fact, the only thing that Jesus will say is that, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
And so, Pilate asks a question, the question that I believe is at the heart of this Good Friday: “What is truth?” It’s a simple question with a lot of edges. Maybe Pilate is being completely sincere, perhaps he’s honestly grappling with all the facts to determine what is true. Maybe the question is sarcastic, an off-hand dismissal of anything this pathetic prisoner could say. The question is certainly self-serving, because Pilate is the one who will both determine and define truth, deciding whether Jesus is a Messiah or a misfit, an innocent man or a criminal. In the end, Pilate chooses to believe what he wants to believe. He chooses what is convenient and expedient over what is real and before him. In the end, Pilate chooses post-truth, and so he condemns Jesus to die.
The irony of this decision is, of course, that Pilate asks “What is truth?” to the very one who embodies truth. John’s gospel begins by teaching us that Jesus is the eternal Word of God made flesh, who lived among us full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Elsewhere Jesus says, “If you are my disciples, you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (John 8:31-32).” And Jesus even connects his own identity with truth, saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6).” Pilate looks truth in the eye, and chooses post-truth instead. Pilate stands in the presence of the way, the truth, and the life, but chooses the convenience of post-truth spin. Pilate has the opportunity for the truth to set him free, and instead chooses the bondage of cruelty and lies.
It is easy to vilify Pilate – to believe that, if we were the ones faced with the choice between truth and post-truth, that we’d know what to do. It is easy to believe that, if Jesus were standing before us, we would obviously choose him, no matter what. But, if there’s anything that the Passion story reminds us, it’s that discerning truth from post-truth is harder than it seems. After all, the same crowds who shouted Hosanna to Jesus as he entered Jerusalem are the ones who shouted for his death. On Good Friday, we must be humble enough to recognize that there are times in all our lives when we are weak enough to fall into the post-truth trap, with all of its convenience and expediency. And we must also remember that choosing truth, choosing for the truth, takes every ounce of faith and courage that we can muster; it demands the full measure of the divine image that resides in the core of our being. Choosing truth is hard and costly and dangerous.
After France fell in June 1940, the German Army set up a puppet government in the city of Vichy that quickly began cooperating with the Nazis in their work of rounding up Jews for the internment and death camps of eastern Europe. Most of the occupied French populace complied with the new Nazi-inspired laws and efforts, but not the people living in the tiny town of Le Chambon. On the Sunday after France fell to the Germans, Le Chambon’s Huguenot pastor André Trocmé stood up to deliver a sermon to his anxious and fearful congregation. “Loving, forgiving, and doing good to our adversaries is our duty,” he said. “Yet we must do this without giving up, and without being cowardly. We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the Gospel. We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hate.”
Just a few months later, a Jewish woman appeared at André Trocmé’s door. She was fleeing arrest and deportation, and had heard Le Chambon was a welcoming place. The Trocmé’s took her in, and not long after, more Jewish refugees began showing up, including hundreds of children ferreted out of a nearby concentration camp by a group of Quakers.
A year later, a Vichy government official traveled to Le Chambon as part of an effort to set up youth camps like the Hitler Youth camps in Germany. At a big public event in the middle of the town, where the youth were expected to parade and demonstrate their love of country and love of their government, a group of Le Chambon youth instead came forward and presented the official with a letter. It read in part:
“We feel obliged to tell you that there are among us a certain number of Jews. But, we make no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. It is contrary to the Gospel teaching. If our comrades, whose only fault is to be born in another religion, received the order to let themselves be deported, or even examined, they would disobey the order received, and we would try to hide them as best we could. We have Jews. You’re not getting them.”
It was, therefore, no secret that Le Chambon was welcoming and hiding Jews. Between 1940 and 1942, enrollment in the local school went from 18 to 350 students. Each week, villagers doubling as aid workers would welcome dozens of children and walk around the town knocking at doors until all of them had a home. This was all plainly illegal, and the penalty was terrible, yet these Christian people understood their mission to stand for the Gospel in the face of brutality and evil, and that meant the threat of punishment was not enough to dissuade them from standing for the truth. Magda Trocmé, Andre’s wife, said that when that first Jewish woman showed up at her door, it never occurred to her to say no.
The people of Le Chambon knew, plainly and simply, that their duty as Christians was to help these people, no matter what, even while their neighbors in surrounding villages and all over France and throughout Europe, were perfectly willing to swallow the post-truth of the Reich, with its violent disregard for the humanity of Jews. Their actions may seem obvious to us today, given what we know about the ultimate scale of the Holocaust, but it is extremely difficult in the face of daily exposure to post-truth to hold fast to what you know to be timelessly and eternally true, to not let go of what you know to be the goodness and rightness of God. When all you see is subverted and twisted, after a while you can begin to think that nothing is true, that nothing is timeless or eternal. You can become resigned to post-truth.
But the people of Le Chambon knew differently, and they were ready to die for what they knew to be the truth. They knew Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life, and they knew he revealed his divine identity most perfectly as he hung upon the cross. They knew that Jesus was the embodiment of God’s truth, and that he was a living rejection of any post-truth that denied the humanity of others. They knew that to follow Jesus as Lord meant they had to love their neighbors as themselves, no matter the risk, no matter the cost. And so, in obedience to the truth, this tiny, seemingly insignificant little village saved the lives of 5,000 Jewish refugees, most of them children.
If we believe in truth, in the truth – in a timeless, enduring reality established by God at the dawn of Creation – and if we choose to follow the one who is truth, then it means we have to choose to be obedient to it. Even in hard places and dark hours; even in the valley of the shadow of death; even as it leads us to the cross. But our obedience to the truth means we are on the side of God, rather than the side of convenience. We are on the side of eternity, rather than the side of expedience. And that empowers us to resist our post-truth age and step farther onto the arc of God’s transformation and salvation of all things.
Pontius Pilate stood in the face of truth, but he chose post-truth. The people of Le Chambon were bombarded with post-truth, yet they chose truth. We, too, every hour, every day, are faced with this most important choice, and choose we must. Good Friday forces us to come to grips with the truth:
- the truth that sin is real and has consequences;
- the truth that God’s grace is not cheap, but comes at a tremendous cost;
- the truth that reconciliation with God requires not only God’s forgiveness but our repentance;
- the truth that hate cannot drive out hate, and violence cannot stop violence;
- the truth that mercy and compassion are at the very heart of God, and must be at our heart, too;
- and the truth that in the end, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What is truth? We don’t need to wonder—we just need to look to the way, the truth, and the life, who stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.
 From Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013), p 264. Also see Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (New York: HarperCollins, 1994).
 Gladwell, 266-267.