Before I came to you, I was preaching every Sunday at a church in Kenbridge, Virginia—that church, Ebenezer Presbyterian, is just miles from the North Carolina border. Most of the members in that congregation were right-leaning politically speaking. The only member who was not, I think, anyway, was the church pianist.
One Sunday in October, 2012, the national election was in full swing,
The congregation is sitting in the pews, talking politics from their right leaning perspectives. I am in my robe at the pulpit, the hour is at hand. The church pianist, gets up from the piano and strides over to me. No, she is not telling me she can’t find the hymn selection, or anything pertaining to worship. In her delightful, southern drawl, she whispers to me, “Don’t you think Mitt Romney is the DEVIL?”
Her question, of course, was not appropriate to either the time or the place. It also was out-of-line. You don’t call anyone the DEVIL. That is as bad is swearing on your grandmother’s grave, cursing a handicap person for his handicap, or telling a poor hungry person who cannot afford even a loaf of bread, to eat cake instead.
In her defense, I suspect, as many of us were a few weeks back, that pianist was just really caught up in pre-election hype. I ignored her question, which I took to be a rhetorical question—a question not wanting an answer--and I commenced the service.
I mention that conversation, because today our lectionary passage has to do with truth, and when you talk about truth, you also have to talk about untruths—lies. And lying, of course, IS evil—or to put that in terms that church pianist would understand, lying is OF the devil. You see the difference. The people who lie are not devils themselves, but they are committing an evil act.
My own understanding of truths and lies, good and evil has been influenced by the book, People of the Lie. I’m telling you that up front because if you are interested in the topic, you may want to read it yourself. What I am offering you today is NOT a synopsis of the book, though. I’m also not giving you the definitive word. Each of us, me included, still has a lot to learn about truth and lies, goodness and evil. It takes a life time and then some.
Like I said, I am not giving you a synopsis, but I will give you a very brief overview. Again, the book is People of the Lie. It was written by M. Scott Peck. His name may ring a bell with you. He also wrote the best selling, The Road Less Traveled. Do you remember that one? People of the Lie was published in1983. I say that, because even though it was written 35 years ago, it is extremely relevant in the challenging times we live in.
As a devout Christian and a psychiatrist who had devoted a lifetime to the study of human behavior, Peck suggests that all evil stems from lies. People who tell lies on a regular basis, then—people who base their very lives on lies, are PEOPLE OF THE LIE. These people have delusions of their own goodness and grandeur; If they have committed a wrong, they don’t admit it, and then right the wrong and ask for forgiveness. To do that, they would first have to admit that they are not all good and pure. What they do do, is blame someone else. They are lie brokers--sowing confusion in the circles in which they live and move and have their beings—they tell lies to promote their own self-delusions as I just said, but they may also tell lies for absolutely no reason at all. That IS EVIL, isn’t it?
Re-reading portions of the book this week, I thought back on my own life, people I have met, who might fit that bill. I think I have hit on someone. I’m going to share his story with you now. I am, of course, giving him a made up name. We’ll call him Kevin.
Kevin called me four, maybe even five years ago now. He and his fiancée wanted to marry at the Boars Head Inn—which you probably know, is in Charlottesville. It was going to be a small, midweek wedding. I agreed to meet with Kevin and his fiancée, to find out more about their lives, and the plans for their service.
We met at Moe’s Barbeque, also in Charlottesville. I was introduced to Kevin’s fiancée, a lovely Filipino woman. In tow was their four-year-old little boy. Cute, cute, cute.
We ordered our lunches and sat down to eat. You know how four year olds are, though. Soon he was finished eating and off exploring. His mom chased after. We were done with the wedding service plans, so Kevin filled me in on how he and his fiancée met and a lot more. It’s a longish story, so bear with me:
Right out of high school, Kevin joins the military. He serves in Afghanistan, sustains permanent injuries and is discharged from the service. Back in this country, he becomes addicted to painkillers. He is just scraping by financially. He decides to move to the Philippines. He can live more cheaply there and continue his drug habit. He meets his now fiancée. She refuses to have a serious relationship with him though, until he gets a handle on his addiction. With her help, he kicks his habit! They begin life together.
Kevin had always wanted to try his hand at writing. He writes a memoire—although it is marketed as a novel. Guess what? It becomes a minor hit! (Now here I should just say, that after our conversation, I looked up his book on Amazon.com. He was telling the truth! It’s there. It’s now in paperback--awesome)
He and his fiancée have a baby together. Since they have some money, they decide to move back to the US. When I met with them, they had only been in the US a month or so. They were renting an apartment, but they were looking to buy a house.
Pay attention here, because this is the cincher. They have plenty of money to buy a house with, because Kevin now has a steady, lucrative income. He had been contacted by some organization, and he didn’t tell me what organization, but he had been contacted by some organization, to write political news and disseminate it on social media. The news had to be made up, though, what we call today, “fake news.” He told me, it could be about either political party. The only qualifier was that his made-up news had to be near enough to the truth that people would believe it.
Now remember this is four, maybe five years ago. Back then, no one, including me, knew what we know now. But the story sounded odd, definitely unforgettable, and wrong, wrong, wrong.
Kevin had portrayed himself as a kind of Luke Skywalker at the beginning his tale, but now I saw the man sitting across from me as more in the line of a Darth Vader.
The first words out of my mouth? “What are you telling me? Are you telling me you sold your soul?” That’s exactly what I said. Tell me you agree with me here. I hope you agree with me here.
Kevin defended himself. The United States had done him wrong. He had no loyalties to our country any more. The United States was ultimately to blame for his decision to work for a business that pays him to disseminate lies.
My head was swirling. I was confused. Back at home after our meeting, I had to decide: should I still perform the service? Maybe to my discredit, I did marry the couple. We had already signed a contract, so I felt I had to follow through with it. Kevin and his bride invited me to dinner after the service—they were new to the area. They had no friends. Under normal circumstances, I would have taken them up on it, but I wanted out of that relationship and as soon as possible. M. Scott Peck says that evil is so repulsive that our first instinct is to flee. That’s what I did. I fled.
Maybe also to my discredit, I have not done anything with the information Kevin shared that day. Should I have contacted the FBI, or the CIA when it became evident that the Russians were infiltrating our social media with lies? Maybe? Probably?
And now I will leave off Kevin. Let us turn to scripture.
Pilate asks Jesus, “What IS truth?” He has put his royal finger on what is at the base of so much evil in the world. “What IS truth?” The Roman guards lean in to hear Jesus’ response. The owls stop their hooting, the wolf stops its howling. All of creation is silent—waiting for Jesus’ response. But darn it all, Jesus doesn’t say anything.
Why not? Maybe he doesn’t answer because truth is one of those definition-defiant concepts. Here’s the not-very-helpful google definition of truth. “Truth: the quality or state of being true.” Excuse me? That’s not a definition. You don’t define a word by using the word itself! Everyone knows that. That’s like defining a bicycle as a thing with bicycle-like qualities.
But YOU try to answer that question, “What is truth?” It’s not easy. Very quickly you move into the realm of theology, don’t you?
I share this theological definition with you, one of my favorite because it is short and sweet: “Truth is the self-expression of God.” That’s exactly it, isn’t it?
Of course that definition has its own problems. It works for us, we who are believers. We have no problem agreeing that Truth is the self-expression of God-and, further, that that truth is Jesus Christ. That definition doesn’t work for atheists, though. And it wouldn’t have meant anything to Pontius Pilate. For him, God was the Emperor Augustus Caesar. The sad reality is, Pilate was face-to-face with Jesus and he didn’t recognize the Truth, how very sad.
And, also sadly, still today people like Kevin populate our world. Unlike Pilate, they may actually know the truth, they just don’t have a high regard for it. For that reason, some of them will sell their very souls. They aren’t the DEVIL. But they they have embraced evil. People of the Lie.
M. Scott Peck’s book, though, ends on a hopeful note, and so will I. People can change. People are free to choose a different way. We do what we can to help people find their way to God. God is at the ready to accept these stray sheep back into the fold. We who are believers, must never give up hope.