What is truth? In the age of Russian interference, fake news, and alternative facts, Pilate’s infamously nihilistic question, “What is truth?” takes on a different sort of feeling for us. Pilate was a gloomy philosopher who was wondering out loud – rhetorically and sarcastically – if there was any such thing as truth. We believe that there IS truth. We have a bigger problem than a world without truth. We live in a world where the truth seems pretty obvious, but half the whole world seems hell-bent on disbelieving that truth that seems so plain to us. We don’t have a truth problem – truth is truth, fact is fact – we have a people problem. We know that we can trust the truth. But we don’t have much faith in most people to accept and act upon the truth in a way that will make the world a better place.
What’s interesting in regards to Pilate is that despite basically saying to Jesus that there is no such thing as truth at all, a little later in the day, as it’s looking more and more like Pilate is going to have to crucify Jesus, he drops the too-cool-for-truth act. He has one more question for Jesus. He’ll ask him, “Where are you from?”
Pilate doesn’t mean, where’s your hometown? He doesn’t mean, what street did you grow up on? He doesn’t mean, which hotel are you staying in? Pilate is suddenly desperate to know – Tell me, Jesus, where your truth comes from. Jesus already told him, “My Kingdom is not from this world.” But suddenly, as Pilate’s decision gets harder and harder, he’s not rolling his eyes at the idea of truth anymore. If Jesus’ Kingdom’s not from this world, if Jesus’ truth is not from this world – where, exactly, should we be looking for it then? Pilate is looking for a little direction. And so are we, I think.
Late Wednesday evening, after a miraculously smooth few hours of Thanksgiving eve travel, Bonnie and I had just finished dinner with my mom and dad in Rhode Island. Dad was prepping the turkey for the morning and telling us about the new guy at church. Their new pastor, TJ, started in September and he’s doing a great job. Everybody really likes him. And he’s already attracted a number of new families with kids to Sunday services – and it’s great to feel a little more life in the old place.
This is the church I grew up in and the church my dad’s been going to since he was five-years old, so he cares about it and he cares for it a lot. He told us how he spent most of the summer, with some other men from church and a few buddies he recruited, getting the church ready for the new pastor – renovating the church office and all the Sunday School classrooms. There hadn’t been many kids at all using those classrooms for the last few years, but this was their way of saying to their new pastor on his very first day of work – we’re ready for you. We’re ready for everything you’re going to bring to our church. And we’re going to do whatever we have to do to be a part of your team and to help you succeed.
I don’t think there’s a room in that church or anywhere on the property that my dad hasn’t had some hand in making better. And there’s not a room in that church that doesn’t hold some deep memory for my dad – memories of his mom and dad, memories of childhood, memories of his wedding day, of his children’s baptisms. Ask my dad, “Where are you from?” the way Pilate asked Jesus, and one answer would be Woodbury Union Church. Ask my dad, “What is truth?” and he’d think it over for a while – probably while mowing the lawn, or fixing the boiler, or installing new windows at church.
The turkey was half stuffed when my dad got a call from his friend Bill. Bill’s a church friend who had a stroke a little while back and my dad takes him a couple times a week to his physical therapy appointments. He thought something might be wrong, so he took the call. “Are you joking?” dad shouted into the phone. “Can I do anything?” he asked. “What’s wrong,” we wanted to know after he hung up. “The church is on fire,” dad said.
It’s a little more than a 20-minute drive from my dad’s house to church. The whole way over he was proving just how well he knew every nook and cranny of that church by running through every possible trouble spot in the building where the fire could have started – the old fuse box downstairs, the kitchen maybe, they’d been rewiring some things upstairs. He was quiet for a minute. “I just hope it wasn’t set,” he said. “You mean an arsonist?” “Yeah. That would really be hard.” Yeah. An old fuse box, a kitchen accident, some improperly installed wires – these are things the truth of which we can come to terms with. It’s people and what they do that troubles us. It’s people who can really get inside and tear us up. You can forgive a bad circuit breaker easier than you can forgive someone setting a match to a place you love the night before Thanksgiving.
We could see the emergency lights flashing from way down the road. We had to park a few blocks away because traffic was blocked off. As we walked up the road we could see that most of the church’s roof had collapsed, the steeple had been knocked down and was still smoldering, the windows had all been smashed out. Three firetrucks were raining water down on the smoking ruin of the church. It was a pretty emotional moment.
And then there were other people from church all around us and the neighbors were all out too, watching, and talking, and parishioners and pastors from other nearby churches came out to see what they could do. There was nothing we could do, really, except be there with one another. And so that’s what we did. The arctic snap was settling in and people had rushed out their doors without the right gear on, so we all huddled together on the sidewalk – hugging, crying, sharing information, and theories, and handwarmers someone had stashed in their car, and photos on our phones of fire filling the sky over the church. There were other kids home for Thanksgiving who came out with their parents – friends I hadn’t seen in decades – and we caught up on one another’s lives while the flames leapt back up on what was left of the steeple and the fire department turned the water back on.
The local news trucks were all there. And they interviewed the new pastor, TJ. “We’re going to be fine,” he said into the cameras. “The church isn’t a building. It’s the people.” He was right. For the moment, this was the Kingdom of God – a shivering crowd of friends and neighbors sharing the sidewalk and their lives together while the whole world changed. What good does truth do you when the church is on fire and you see your history and your home and all your work going up in smoke? But a few friends gathered together? That can make all the difference.
We asked the fire fighters about the damage inside. The fire had gutted most of the sanctuary and upstairs offices, most of the roof had collapsed, and there were now seven feet of water standing in the basement fellowship hall and meeting rooms. It was looking like it was going to be a total loss. And it got awful quiet.
And then a line of firefighters started coming out of what was left of the church dragging out 15 big black cases holding one of the congregation’s biggest treasures and investments – the handbells that have been used ever since I was a kid in the handbell choir. The cases were covered in ash and soot, smelled like fire, and some were pretty waterlogged, but the bells seemed OK.
We leapt into action, loading them up into cars and trucks to store our rescued bells in a nearby congregant’s garage. My dad wondered if we should just leave the bells where they were – to let the insurance adjustor see them – but that wasn’t going to happen. People needed to do something, for themselves and for each other, they needed a sign – a symbol.
So, we stacked the cases up in the Tarring’s garage and people snapped photos and texted them out to the whole church wherever they might be for the holiday. Here, for this moment, was the Kingdom of God that they had been serving all these years: 15 singed, smoky, soggy cases of bells. Where were they from? From the burnt-out music room of the church. And before that, from a workshop in Pennsylvania somewhere. But in this moment, we didn’t see it that way. Salvaged from a fire, they were no longer from this world. They had become suddenly priceless, they had become suddenly the ringing heart of a community that had been brought to its knees – here was all of our history, here was our right now, and here was the hope for our future, the hope that the truth we had built our church upon – that God is God and God is good and God always was, and is right now, and always, always will be – was still the truth as long as we as a church were able to believe in that truth. In a moment like that, there is no such thing as truth, unless somebody takes faith in it and takes up the cause: All evidence to the contrary, we were saying, even this is going to turn out all right, even this is an opportunity to serve.
Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world. But it is in this world. And the stuff that happens in this world does matter. But as Christians, we know, that even when the church burns, you can’t burn down the Realm of God. Jesus’ Kingdom is within us and among us – all of us. And while its feeling harder and harder to trust anybody, the fact is that we get closer to God’s kingdom and closer to truth when we are in community with other people. I felt that truth coming in to the world this week. I felt it at the Thanksgiving potluck we held with one another last Sunday. I felt it at the baby shower we celebrated on Saturday for a dear friend getting ready to give birth to her first child, I felt it huddled on the sidewalk with my dad and with old friends watching our church burn, and trusting, trusting – this is not the end. Even here, even now, Christ reigns in the Realm that is not from this world, but is in it, is in it with us. Amen.