October 27, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois In Exodus, the Hebrew people, set free from the Egyptians, begin to establish a new culture, and discover their identity as God’s people. Having set the people free, God gives them the means to remain free. The law, beginning with the Ten Commandments, sets this people apart as the people of God – the Lord God who brought them out of slavery to freedom. And the people of God worship and honor God by obeying God’s laws.
The law is not a punishment, a burden, or an obstacle to freedom. True freedom requires responsibility. Freedom without responsibility, without limits, is anarchy. And anarchy is the mob rule, freedom for the strong and the powerful, but slavery for the weak and defenseless.
In order to be a free people, we must be at peace with one another, able to trust one another, responsible for the well-being of one another. And God, by giving the commandments, by setting the boundaries, has provided the means for the people to remain free. If the people worship God, resist temptation, and take responsibility for one another, they will prosper and remain a free people. God fulfills the promise made earlier in Exodus: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.”
The commandment to not bear false witness is a particular command that protects society by creating a space for truth to be told. In ancient Israel, witnesses to a crime – who incidentally also brought the charges – had to testify before a court of elders. At least two witnesses were required, as stated in Deuteronomy: “Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.” If a witness was found to be lying, the punishment was the same as that given to the accused. This was when “an eye for an eye” was the rule of law. If one was accused of a crime that was punishable by death, the lying witness would have been put to death. This harsh reality ensured that the court of elders was a place where truth would be told.
Truth, indivisible from trust, is the foundation of community. The Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann says this commandment is “a recognition that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.” In order for society to function, there must be a place and time where we can trust that the truth will be told.
The commandment that we shall not bear false witness gets at the heart of our capacity to ruin ourselves and others by lies and deceit. Another theologian, the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, once wrote: “The capacity to speak… is the primary way through which we human beings express ourselves, and nothing reveals more deeply the biblical insight into the sinfulness and brokenness of human life than our verbal means of self-expression.” Speech can express both truth and falsehood.
Our words are powerful. They can do tremendous good – think of the words written by Lincoln in The Emancipation Proclamation. But our words can also do tremendous harm. Mein Kampf led to the rise of Nazism in Germany. The thoughts in our minds and the feelings in our hearts come forth in our words, and they make an impact on the world around us.
In the Gospel According to Matthew, we hear about the power of our words to do harm. “Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles… What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.’”
Bearing false witness means to lie, to give false testimony, to mislead. It is speaking with the intent to deceive. Another form of lying – slander and gossip – also bear false witness, leading us to believe in stories that are fiction born in the heart of those who would harm. False witness breaks our relationships with others, and damages our integrity.
There is a story that tells of a man who spread gossip and lies about a neighbor. When she heard the stories, the victim confronted her accuser with the truth. The man apologized and asked if there was anything that he could do to right the terrible wrong that he had done. The woman walked into the bedroom and took a feather pillow from the bed. Taking out a knife, she cut open the pillow, and then, going to a window on the second floor, dumped the feathers into the breeze so they blew in every direction. “Yes,” she said. “There is something you can do. You can go out now and gather up all of those feathers and put them back inside this pillow.” The man protested, “That is impossible. I could never recover each of those tiny feathers.” “Yes, it is impossible,” the woman agreed. “It is just as impossible as it is for you to take back all the hurt and the pain that your malicious rumor and lies have caused to me. You cannot recover the suspicion that you have sown. The damage to my character can never be undone.”
When we bear false witness against our neighbor, we deny our responsibility for our neighbor, we deny our duty to God, and we destroy ourselves as we become untrustworthy. The trust that holds the community together is broken, and without trust, we can no longer be a people. Bearing false witness brings us into the state of sin: separated from God, separated from one another, and separated from our own integrity.
We must do more than not lie. We must face the challenge of being witnesses to truth, creating a society where truth can be told, where our words are reliable, where we can trust one another. Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount about the Ten Commandments. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” Jesus requires a level of truthfulness from his disciples that goes beyond taking an oath not to lie. It is a life of truth; a life lived with faithfulness toward God and responsibility toward others. The followers of Jesus were to be trustworthy, true, and faithful, a community of God’s people bound, not by oaths, but by love, trust, and responsibility for one another.
As Christians, we are challenged to do more than not bear false witness. We have a special call to be faithful witnesses. We are the people who witness to the work and words of Jesus Christ. We are the evangelists who are tasked with sharing the good news.
Evangelism is a word that tends to make us cringe. When I hear that word, I usually think of people who want to convert me to Christianity – at least their version of it – and my blood-pressure rises. But I’m not talking about proselytizing. I’m not talking about standing on a street corner shouting that judgment day is coming and we’re all going to hell unless we believe on Jesus. I’m talking about the evangelism of speaking our truth, the truth of how God is moving in us, and through us, and around us.
Now, let me stop to say that we must take care that we do not fall into the trap of thinking that our view of reality, of truth, of faith, of God, of what it means to be Christian, is the only way of seeing things. We don’t have a universal perspective. Bishop Spong warns us:
Words can point to God, but words can never capture God. Creeds can be formed to contain truths but creeds can never be formed that will exhaust the truth. God is bigger than the human frame of reference which tries to talk about him. God is bigger than any of the words of any human being about [her]. No matter how hallowed by the ages, no matter how thin or how gilt-edged the pages which we say contain the holy words, God is beyond the understanding of the Bible. God is beyond the understanding of our holy traditions, beyond the creeds, beyond the Church itself. No human system of thought can ever be ultimate. God, alone, is ultimate. Anything less than God will be destructive the minute we elevate it to the level of ultimacy.As witnesses to Jesus, we are evangelists. However, the evangelism I’m talking about does not make the claim that any of us hold the absolute truth for all time. God is, after all, still speaking. The evangelism that I’m talking about means being a faithful witness to the living Christ that is at work in our own lives. It means bearing truthful witness, speaking the truth, even though it may be hard, even though we may pay a price for it.
Evangelism means not hiding the values upon which we base our lives and our actions, but standing up for them. It means becoming representatives of Christ, ambassadors of God to the world. It means seeing other people, every person, no matter how strange or different, as a neighbor. It means loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. It means being true to ourselves and our vocation. It means bearing faithful witness to our own identity as Christians, as the people of God.
Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
 Exodus 6:7. The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the
Used by permission. All rights reserved. U.S.A.
 Deuteronomy 19:15.
 Walter Brueggemann. “The Book of Exodus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).
 John Shelby Spong. “The Human Tongue – A Call to Responsibility” in The Living Commandments (New York: Seabury Press, 1977).
 Matthew 15:10-20 (selected).
 This story, from the Jewish tradition, I altered from Spong in The Living Commandments.
 Matthew 5:33-37 (selected).