Truth Be Told

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 04/19/2015

Today’s service has a mix of influences and origins.

To start, this month’s worship theme is “What Does it Mean to Be a People of Revelation?” And I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word, revelation, usually the next word that pops into my head is “Truth”…as in, “the truth will be revealed.”

In congregational settings, truth is often revealed, or it attempts to be revealed, by the teachings of the religion itself. Right? People come to church looking for some sort of ultimate truth, and most religions are more than happy to tell them what their truth is, and try to convince them to believe it.

In this church, and in Unitarian Universalism in general, we believe that each of us holds or knows a part of the Ultimate Truth. This is the truth that we try to convince you of each Sunday: Each person in this room knows a part of what is really True. You know a bit of it, and you know a bit of it, and you know a bit of it. That’s why we need each other. People who want to know the whole Truth need to hear the Truths that people around them hold, so we can all get closer to the whole. We reveal truth to each other, all the time, if we take time to pause and we’re able to listen with open hearts.

The second influence on today’s worship service comes from H.P. At our church auction a year ago H. bought the right to pick a sermon topic from me, and so she has lent me a book of hers called Women’s Reality, by Anne Wilson Schaef. There is a chapter in that book where Schaef talks about Truth, and how we develop and change in our constantly evolving understanding of what is true. For this service, H. wanted me to reflect on what Schaef writes about Truth.

I’m hoping to take these two influences today and weave them together. I want to ask: How is Truth revealed to us, by each other? How does this process of revealing truth to each other help each of us grow? How does it confuse us, or even make us mad at each other? And if we do need to rely on each other to find or develop the truth, how can we facilitate that process so that each of us grows as much as we can, as gracefully as we can, over the course of our lives, in community?

Let’s talk about the ideas of Anne Wilson Schaef for a few minutes, and how she sees truth is revealed.

I didn’t agree with all of what Schaef says in this chapter, but she has some ideas that are certainly thought provoking and helpful and that I’ll be pondering for a long time. An easy way to sum up her ideas can be found in of her later statements, which is this: Wisdom is in itself a process, not a product. Wisdom is a process, not a product. (p.158)

Schaef believes that acquiring truth, or evolving in our understanding of something, is a path that occurs in stages along a continuum. She points out that often, we think of truth more in binary terms of right and wrong, true and false, and therefore, good and bad. When she says that gaining understanding is a process, I picture it as being more like a hike up a trail, where you learn a bit at a time, and keep seeing different perspectives, rather than a jump into a pool of Truth where you’re either wet, or you’re not. True, or false.

Schaef says that every issue has its own multiple levels of truth, and as we’ve already said, “those levels of truth move in a progression, from the more superficial to the more profound.” She points out that “when a person is operating from a particular level of truth, that level is “true” for him or for her.” (p. 152) That might seem obvious, but I think it’s something we forget when we find we disagree with someone.

Schaef notes that it is easier to sympathize with other levels of understanding if one has passed through those levels her or himself. And, most importantly, Schaef says that “unless one is able to understand and appreciate different levels of truth, she or he will not be able to communicate effectively.” Perhaps you yourself have had conversations with someone where you could see why they thought the way they did, and that helped you create a bridge where the two of you could start to understand each other.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." When we think we are on the same page, we tend to talk and act as if whatever we think or understand is obvious and shared. When we start out by knowing that every person comes from a different viewpoint and understanding, then we tend to work for that spark that forms the beginning of real communication with more ease.

Our congregation has affirmed this concept in our Covenant of Good Relations, the set of principles and practices of how we wish to treat one another here at church. You can find copies of our covenant in our great room during coffee hour.

In our covenant, we state that we strive to “create a joyful community founded in love and caring, accepting of who we are while supporting each other’s growth, and in which each member feels as secure and as free as possible to be engaged, honest and vulnerable.” So when Anne Wilson Schaef writes that “We must remind ourselves that true wisdom involves helping persons through their own levels at their own pace,” that might sound familiar to us Sugarloafers.

Let’s get back to the why of this analysis of Truth and how it is revealed. Why does it matter how Truth is revealed? Why does it matter if it’s all or nothing, or a little bit at a time? Why does it matter if we can see eye to eye on stuff, or remember that we all start from different places?

It matters because we all hold at least a little bit of the truth. This might be where I deviate from Anne Wilson Schaef a little bit, because I get the sense from her writing that she’s implying there is one answer, one ultimate and correct truth, the one top of the mountain, so to speak - and she is talking about how we might get along with ourselves and others as we all move towards this one truth, this ‘correct’ understanding of reality.

I’m more interested in what happens when all the Truths are right, for the person who holds them. Remember how Schaef says “when a person is operating from a particular level of truth, that level is “true” for him or for her.” She puts the word “true” in quotes, as if, sure, the person might think that thing is true, but you and I know it isn’t.

I would rather not put it in quotes. When a person is operating from a particular level of truth, that level is true – NO air quotes. It is a piece of the Truth. It’s a piece of the Real, for that individual at the very least, and also for you, because it’s there whether you like it or not. And for a people who affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, it is fitting that we listen carefully to viewpoints far different from our own. That is what brings us closer to ultimate Truth. Hearing all the Truths in the room helps us all see things more clearly.

“Famous feminist Gloria Steinem once told the story of when she was studying geology and on a field trip saw a large turtle that had hauled itself out of the Connecticut River, up a couple of embankments and was now on a trajectory towards the road. Fearful for the turtle, Steinem turned it around and pushed, shoved and hauled a now very angry amphibian back to the river.

It was at this point that her geology professor came by and informed Steinem that the turtle had probably spent weeks of exhausting effort getting up those embankments and now, just as it was near its nesting spot Steinem had turned it around.

When Steinem told the story, she said, ‘I realized that this was the most important political lesson I learned, one that cautioned me about the authoritarian impulse of both left and right. Always ask the turtle.’”

Always ask the turtle, because turtles have a wisdom you don’t know anything about. Sure, you, like Gloria Steinem, might know about the dangers of roads and traffic patterns. But don’t assume that’s all there is to know in a given situation. The turtle knows what she knows, and she may well be doing exactly what needs to be done. Don’t assume. Ask the turtle. Ask the kid, for that matter, when the kid is freaking you out with his artwork. And don’t ask for the turtle’s benefit. Ask for yours.

Rev. Forrest Church wrote a piece years ago describing Unitarian Universalist theology. He described a “Cathedral of the World,” and I think his images are so beautiful and appropriate that they can lead us into our meditation, which I have decided to drop right into the middle of the sermon this week. I invite you to get comfortable in your seats, place your feet on the floor and your hands in your laps. Close your eyes if you’d like to. Breathe.

Rev. Church wrote:

The Cathedral of the World
Imagine the world as a vast cathedral. This cathedral is as ancient as humankind; its cornerstone is the first altar, marked with the tincture of blood and blessed by tears. Search for a lifetime — which is all we are given — and we shall never know its limits, visit all its transepts, worship at its myriad shrines, nor span its celestial ceiling with our gaze.

The builders have labored in this cathedral from time immemorial. Daily, work begins that shall not be finished in the lifetime of the architects who planned it, the patrons who paid for it, the builders who construct it, or the expectant worshipers. Nonetheless, throughout human history, one generation after another has labored lovingly, sometimes fearfully, crafting memorials and consecrating shrines. Untold numbers of these today collect dust in long-undisturbed chambers; others, cast centuries or millennia ago from their once respected places, lie shattered on the cathedral floor. Not a moment passes without the dreams of long-dead dreamers being outstripped, crushed, or abandoned, giving way to new visions, each immortal in reach, ephemeral in grasp.

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number — some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational, some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the Light shines through. [This is light with a capital L.]

As with all extended metaphors, this one is imperfect. The Light of God (or Truth or Being itself) shines not only upon us, but out from within us as well. Together with the windows, we are part of the cathedral, not apart from it. Together we comprise an interdependent web of being. The cathedral is constructed out of star-stuff and so are we. We are that part (or known part) of creation that contemplates itself.

Because the cathedral is so vast, our life so short, and our vision so dim, we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the whole creation. We can explore but a handful of its many chambers. Our allotted span permits us to reflect on the play of darkness and light through remarkably few of its myriad windows. Yet, since the whole is contained in each of its parts, as we ponder and act on insights derived from even a single reflection, we may experience self-illumination. We may also discover or invent meanings that invest both the creation and our lives with coherence and meaning.

Let us spend a few minutes in silent contemplation of this Cathedral of the World. And to come out, the choir will lead us in singing the short round – from you I receive, to you I give, number 402 in your gray hymnal, you may join in when you are ready.


Let me finish what Forrest Church says at the end of this essay.

“A 21st-century theology based on the concept of one light (Unitarianism) and many windows (Universalism) offers to its adherents both breadth and focus. Honoring many different religious approaches, it excludes only the truth-claims of absolutists. This is because fundamentalists — whether on the right or left — claim that the light shines through their window only. Skeptics draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshipers, they conclude that there is no Light. But the windows are not the Light, only where the light shines through.”
Forrest Church

How is truth revealed? In as many ways as light shines in this world.

How are we to know the Truth? Ask the turtle. Ask the playing child. Look at all the windows you can see from your vantage point. Feel grateful when someone points out a new one. Accept that there is always more to know, and you aren’t yet at the top of the mountain no matter how far you climb.

And while you do all of this, remember that the sparks of understanding that finally do fly between human beings when we understand each other and connect is indeed the holy stuff that saves the world. When communication does take place, when we do remember to ask, when we do understand someone even when we don’t agree: that is the raw material that leads to holy magic.

In hopes that your life is full of holy connected magic, I say Amen.