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‘Jesus is truth,’ says Frank A. Thomas, warns against lens of ‘preferred’ truth

MARY LEE TALBOT – STAFF WRITER

The Rev. Frank A. Thomas, director of the Ph.D. Program in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric at the Christian Theological Seminary, delivers his sermon “Did Heaven Make A Mistake” Sunday, July 25, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“My mentor, Michael Charles Leff, said people are looking for a universal definition of the truth. People want truth to be true at all times, in all places. Truth should be solid, faithful in all cases,” said the Rev. Frank A. Thomas. “Instead, what we live is preferred truth.”

Thomas preached at the 9 a.m. Thursday, July 30 worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “What is Truth?” The Scripture reading was John 18:33-38a.

Truth, as described by Leff, lives at the macro level. Thomas told the congregation, “We have the audacity to live our preferred truth at our specific, personal level. What is our personal truth? It is living in a way that is different from universal truth; it is the truth we speak.”

The founding documents of the United States say that “all men are created equal,” but the nation has lived a preferred truth — that not everyone is equal, Thomas said. 

Thomas told the story of Jesus’ arrest and his trials before Annas, Caiaphas and Pilate. Pilate wanted the Jewish leaders to try Jesus by their own law, but they reminded him that they did not have the power to execute Jesus.

When Pilate asked Jesus directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus asked him, “Is this your own idea or did others tell you this?” Jesus asserted that his kingdom was not of this world, and Pilate replied, “So you are a king.” 

“You have said it,” answered Jesus.

Jesus said the reason he came into the world was to testify to the truth. Pilate then asked his famous question: “What is truth?”  Pilate could find no fault in Jesus, and wanted to let him go — but the community leaders would not allow him to do so.

Thomas asked the congregation, “What holds everything together? What can you bet your life on? What gives you hope for your whole life?” This is the question of a baby crying for its bottle, young people feeling the power of a first kiss, a single person looking for a life partner, people facing infertility, cancer and death, he said.

In these situations, Thomas said, people do not speak ex cathedra, from the chair of truth, but from their preferred truth.

“This is a dangerous thing to say in a post-truth era. What we live is our preferred truth; what we speak is aspirational,” Thomas said.

He illustrated this idea with the book How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, a collection of essays by Kiese Laymon. 

One night, Laymon was having dinner with a friend who told him that he was the kind of person he claimed to despise. The friend spoke the truth to Laymon — that he mangled the possibility of radical friendship with others. Laymon defended himself to his friend.

However, when Laymon got home, he realized for the first time that he had been slowly killing himself and others close to him — by killing the love he was offered, and killing his body with his lifestyle.

“He was living his preferred truth when his family was screaming that he was running into disaster,” Thomas said. “We are all more like the people we despise than we would like to admit.”

He told the congregation, “We use the lens of preferred truth, and if we accept it, then we block the truth. If we believe that white skin and culture is more valuable than Black skin and culture, we block the truth. We say that Black people liked slavery and block the truth. We say that we Christianized Black people and block the truth. We made up the boogeyman of critical race theory and blocked the truth. We blot out the truth.”

Thomas said that someone he loved broke his heart, because she kept trying to tell him the truth but he could not hear. 

“She had to scream in pain,” he said. “She was saying my behavior was killing her. While I was preaching the love and mercy of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone, my lifestyle was killing her.”

He continued, “There is universal truth, but we live our preferred truth in our behavior. It is only when we face our fear that we come upon the true truth. I had been killing people that I loved with my lifestyle. If I can’t face that truth, how will I face Pilate’s question?”

Thomas searched in many places to find truth: as a philosophy major, a scholar of Afrocentric life, in seminary, in the church, in counseling. “I could find degrees of truth, but not rest for my soul.”

As a child, Thomas lived in a neighborhood that was experiencing white flight. An elderly woman, Mrs. Earl, did not leave the neighborhood, but taught Sunday school to the Black children.

“The church had a gym, and in order to play basketball, you had to go to Sunday school,” Thomas said, “She gave me my first Bible, and she said, ‘Truth is a person and his name is Jesus.’ Truth is a person and his name is Jesus. Jesus is truth, not preferred truth.”

Thomas continued, “She gave me the ability to face the truths I was running from. Like Pilate, I examined Jesus thoroughly, and I have lived with him for almost 50 years. I find no fault in Jesus. Amen.”

The Rev. Paul Womack presided. The Rev. Steven Simmons, a retired teacher of preaching and homiletics at the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, read the Scripture. The prelude was “Alla breve,” from Trio Sonata in C, by Johann Joachim Quantz, performed by the Motet Consort: Barbara Hois, flute; Debbie Grohman, clarinet; and Willie La Favor, piano. Members of the Motet Choir sang “Come My Way,” with music by Harold Friedell and words by George Herbert. Joshua Stafford, who holds the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and is director of sacred music, played an improvisation for the postlude. The Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion provide support for this week’s services and chaplain.

Tags : Frank A. ThomasJesus is truthJohn 18:33-38amorning worshippreferred truthWeek Five
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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A lifelong Chautauquan, Mary Lee is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her stabyhoun, Sammi.