Today, we begin the season of Lent, the season leading up to the great passion of Holy Week and Easter. For the next few weeks, I’m going to preach about some of the wisdom from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It can be found in Matthew’s gospel, chapters five through seven. Jesus goes up a mountain to teach to the crowds. He begins with the Beatitudes; blessed are the poor in spirit, the humble, the merciful, and so on. Then he talks about his disciples being salt and light, which I spoke about a couple of weeks ago. He then goes on to talk about the law, love, prayer, fasting and not worrying too much about your life. It’s the kind of teaching that can easily be expanded over a whole series of sermons, which is what I plan to do.
In no particular order, I want to start this morning by talking about the Lesson of Authenticity. There’s a neat little book called Life Lessons, written by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. We know Elisabeth because of her famous writings on death and dying. Toward the end of her life she decided to write one last book about life and living. This was after she had a stroke on Mother’s Day in 1995. She had just recently moved to Arizona, when she had a massive stroke. For some time she was very close to death, but then she began to get better. She believed she had not died because she was still learning the lessons of life, and she wrote this book to talk about those lessons.
The lesson of authenticity is where she begins. She talks about how authenticity was extremely important in her life, tracing clear back to her earliest memories. It was very personal to her, because she was born as one of a set of triplets. Her experience growing up was that very often people could not tell her and her siblings apart. When she was in school, she quickly learned that it really didn’t matter if she did well on a project or not, because she was always going to get a “C”. She said that her teachers couldn’t tell them apart, so while one of them might have done “A” work and one may have deserved an “F,” in order to be fair to the three of them, they were all given “C’s”. Isn’t that interesting? She also remembers a time sitting on her father’s lap. It suddenly became clear to her that he did not know at that moment which one she was. Experiences like this made questions of Identity and Authenticity very important in her life.
The fundamental question of authenticity is, “Who am I?” When was the last time you asked yourself that question? If I had to guess, I would say for most of us it has probably been a while. We used to poke fun at people, especially teenagers, who were in the midst of an “identity crisis.” I remember telling my parents one time that I was trying to find myself. They thought that was hysterical. They said, “Oh, let us help you.” They began looking under the couch cushions and going from room to room calling my name. “Kevin! Kevin!” I was mortified.
Ever since then, whenever I’ve begun to think about who I am, I pretty much keep it to myself. It’s a shame really, because that question of identity is at the heart of virtually all our major life transitions; get a new job, get married, have children, get into a financial, health or midlife crisis, retire or lose a beloved family member or friend, it always raises the same question. Who am I? Who am I now, now that this has happened to me? To ask ourselves who we are, is to wonder about our own authenticity. It sends us off on a search for the truth of our existence?
This kind of search just seems to be part of the human experience. We are driven by a need to discover the truth about ourselves. And we come up with different answers at different stages along the way. When we’re teenagers, the question is often about what we are going to do with our lives; what we are good at; what we are leaning in the direction of. Get married, the question becomes whether it’s more important to be an individual or someone who lives a shared life. Have children, we define ourselves around putting our own needs aside for their sake. When our parents die, we wonder what it means to be an adult in our own right; to have lost that generation we used to look to for answers and guidance.
In all of our major life transitions, the identity question is the common thread. Who am I? Who am I now, now that this has happened? I’ve often found myself talking about this with people in times of crisis. Some tragedy has occurred, or someone has died, and we’re left trying to figure out what to do next. The real suffering in situations like this is often less about who or what has been lost, and more about how, all of a sudden, we don’t know who we are anymore. Who we were was defined by something or someone that has now been lost. And we are left wondering. Who am I? Who am I now?
Life, in a sense, is all about peeling away the layers of who we have thought ourselves to be at one time or another. Growing, maturing, is about getting down to deeper and deeper understandings of what it means to be “this person.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross says that deep inside all of us we know that there is someone that we were meant to be and we can feel when we are becoming that person. Of course the reverse is also true. When we are out of harmony with who we were intended to be, when who we are on the inside is not the same as who we are on the outside we begin to experience what psychology calls cognitive dissonance, a disharmony between our inner and outer selves. Life is about becoming, authentically, the person we have been given to be. It’s about learning what it means to be true to our authentic self, and it begins with being in touch with the truth of our lives, and also telling the truth.
That’s what Jesus had in mind in this morning’s passage. “You have heard it said by those of ancient times that you shall not swear falsely.” Jesus is referring to a line from the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. It says, “You shall not swear falsely. But you shall carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” In Jesus’ version however, this ancient saying gains a modern twist. I say to you, don’t swear at all by Heaven, by Earth, by Jerusalem, or even by the hairs on your head, don’t swear at all. Simply let your yes be yes and your no, no. There is no reason to swear at all.
Now, there’s a possibility here for some confusion. We usually think of swearing as, well, swearing. If you’re like me, you may have grown up in a family that tried to discourage the use of certain four letter words. My grandmother, especially, made this very clear to us growing up. She caught me swearing one time. She looked me in the eye and said, “That doesn’t become you dear.” I can still hear her voice all these years later. But a lot of water has gone over the dam since those days. Today, swearing is so common it’s often simply ignored. TV shows, pop songs, people on the street … it’s basically everywhere. I saw a cartoon once that featured two golfers, headed down a fairway talking to each other about their game. One says to the other, “What part of your game has improved the most?” The other replies, “The swearing part.” That sounds a lot like the golf I used to play.
But, swearing, as in using bad language, is not really what Jesus was talking about. The passage is about taking an oath. It must have been fairly common, in Jesus’ day, for somebody to say out loud, “I swear by Almighty God…, or I swear by the temple in Jerusalem…, or I swear on my Mother’s Grave… before going on to say what it was they were swearing to. If you think about this for a minute, it seems a little weird. If we swear like this, it suggests that we are trying to emphasize that our words are trustworthy. But it also implies that what we say when we’re not swearing might not be so trustworthy? If I invoke the name of God in order to back up what I’m saying, then what does that say about those times when I don’t bring God into it?
This sounds a lot like what we do in our court system. A witness walks to the front of the courtroom, places a hand on the Bible, raises their other hand, and says, “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God.” Then the witness takes the stand and begins their testimony. I’ve never seen it in person, but if the movies are right, we’ll occasionally see the judge or one of the lawyers leaning over the witness box and say, “Remember that you are under oath.”
What does that really mean? Well, we know that it doesn’t mean people are necessarily going to tell the truth. People lie in courtrooms all the time. Even if they swear on the Bible, taking an oath doesn’t automatically make people truthful. What it does, is change the consequences. If we lie without taking an oath, we’re guilty of doing something we might call immoral. But lying under oath is more than immoral, it’s illegal. We can be thrown in jail. Taking an oath doesn’t mean people aren’t going to lie. It means there are legal consequences. With this in mind, what Jesus was saying is that all our words, whether they are under oath or not, should be as truthful as we can make them. If our words are trustworthy, adding an oath won’t make them more so. If our words are not trustworthy, adding an oath only adds to their deceit. So, he says, why don’t we all just cut it out.
Of course, lying, like swearing, is something we pretty much take for granted these days. We presume that our politicians, our business leaders, our TV personalities are going to spin the truth in ways they think are good for them, regardless of what the real truth might actually be. An awful lot of people have become so focused on their own immediate wants and goals that they feel fully justified in lying if it gets them closer to where they want to be. What we need to understand about this, according to Jesus, is that whether or not we can be thrown in jail for this kind of duplicity, there are still consequences. When we take lying for granted, we undermine people’s trust. We teach them that there is no such thing as the truth. And we diminish our own authenticity and identity. We become not people of truth and authenticity, but, as Scott Peck put it, “People of the Lie.”
Pam and I had a very powerful experience along these lines one time when we went to a Forum weekend up in Maine. For those who don’t know, the Forum is a self-help, self-actualization workshop, a sort of kinder, gentler version of Warner Erhard’s EST program, which was popular in the seventies. I well remember the way the weekend began. Right after all the participants had found their seats, the leader started in with a little speech. “Before we begin,” he said, “you need to be very clear that we can’t make good progress here unless we operate together under a contract where we all agree on some basic things. So here are some things that are just bottom line for us.” He mentioned several rules like, no talking among yourselves while the sessions are in progress. No note taking, and so on. Then he said, “We need to have everyone agree on these things. If you agree on them, then fine. If you feel that you genuinely can’t agree to these things you need to say, ‘Well okay I am not ready for this.’ We will give you a full refund and you are free to go.” Well after this speech, everyone in the room raised their hands and promised to abide by the rules.
But, not fifteen minutes later, people were chattering away to each other and taking notes, snapping photos … doing every single one of the things we had just said we were not going to do. It was striking. All at once, the leader snapped out at us. “Look at you! Look what you’re doing,” he said. “You are breaking your promise. You are demonstrating that your word is not trustworthy.” Let me tell you, you could have heard a pin drop. A profound silence settled over the room. The leader let that silence stretch out uncomfortably for a bit. Then he went on. “You need to understand,” he said, “that your integrity depends on you doing what you say you are going to do. If you don’t do that you are not a person of integrity.” There was something like a wave of energy that went through the room. It was a very powerful moment.
Throughout our lives, over and over, we keep coming back to this question of identity. Who we are cannot be something we use to deceive people. It is not something we just make up on the fly according to whatever might serve our current purposes. It is a matter of discovering that place of authenticity within ourselves where the truth of our lives is in harmony with the truth we are living. It may sound funny to say it out loud, but we can’t find the truth of ourselves apart from the truth. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The path to that truth begins with simply letting our yes be yes, and our no, no. That is the lesson of authenticity.