You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:17)
The war still drags on in Afghanistan, no matter how many new restaurants open in Philadelphia, no matter how glorious the spring weather has been here, no matter how lovely each mass offered at Saint Mark’s may be. For ten years, we have sent soldiers in our names to fight a grisly war in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, whence vicious armies have previously been sent home licking their wounds.
A few weeks ago, along a road that leads through an Afghan village where children were to be seen along the side of the road going about their day happily with their parents, a suicide bomber attacked a small American convoy of pickup trucks, after which waiting gunmen fired on the Marines who had been thrown or had jumped from their trucks.
Except that one soldier, Master Sergeant Scott Pruitt, never left his truck: his injuries left him bleeding so much and so fast he did not survive the attack.
As it happens, in one of the trucks there was a reporter from the Wall Street Journal who wrote pointedly about the attack and who documented it with a series of photos. In an interview about what happened, the reporter, Michael Phillips, talked about the difficulty of recording what actually took place:
“The world explodes,” he said. “Some things I saw in my pictures, I don’t remember having seen.” He goes on to say that “the pictures themselves are more solid than my memories of what happened.”[i]
In particular, Phillips tells of a photo that you can find in the slideshow that goes with his story. In it, a Marine, Jewelie Hartshorne is seen taking aim at an enemy position; she kneels beside the mangled green pickup truck that has been hit by the bomber; and the body of Master Sergeant Pruitt, slumped forward as he bleeds to death, is clearly visible through the blasted-out, front, passenger-side window.[ii]
The reporter says that he cannot remember taking this photo, which I think is another way of saying he cannot remember seeing this happen. He assumes he must have seen it, since, after all, it was his camera and he took all the photos. But with only his own memory to resort to, it seems that Phillips would be unable to remember at least this one aspect of what happened, this one scene. Without the photo, who’s to say that it did happen? Who’s to say what else has been forgotten that was not captured by his camera? And who’s to say that the images he did collect are what they appear to be?
Who is to say what really happens in the chaos of war? Would the Afghanis whose children were on the street that day report it differently? Where is the truth to be found?
Or as the question is found in the Gospel, on the lips of Pontius Pilate: What is truth?
As I ponder the mysterious nature of truth, I find myself fantasizing that I could somehow hack into the reporter’s camera, or his computer where I’m sure the images are stored. And before he looked at all of them, before he’d published them and shared them with the world, I find myself imagining that I could go to work on the images with PhotoShop. I think of the picture with Master Sergeant Pruitt slumped forward in the truck’s cab. And I know that I could easily change this image. I could push the Marine back in his seat so he could draw breath into his lungs. I could replace the passenger seat window. I could restore the mangled truck. I could open its door and find the pool of blood at Pruitt’s feet, and I could erase it with a few clicks of the mouse. I could mend the torn shreds of his uniform, and, so doing, mend the ruptured flesh beneath it. I feel as though in doing so, I could place my cursor over his heart, and click and click and click and start his heart beating again.
I don’t feel the need to return everything to normal in the photo – this seems unrealistic to me. But I do like the idea of going this far – far enough to save this one Marine. And I imagine that I could do it without the reporter knowing it, so that when he turns on his computer and looks for the files, he will open this image up and see that Pruitt is not dead after all, and that he will soon be reunited with his two daughters. And I feel as though I could make it so, since truth is hard to grasp, since even the man who took the photo cannot say for sure that he actually saw it happen.
Why should the photo get to decide what the truth is? Why should the photo get to decide who lives and dies? If the reporter who witnessed it cannot remember taking this photo, and relies on it to know what happened, why can’t we just change the image and thereby change the truth?
What is truth, after all?
As he was preparing to go to his own death, Jesus prayed a long prayer. And in it we heard him say this morning a few things that stick out in my mind:
“While I was with them I guarded them…. I protected them…. I ask you to protect them from the evil one…. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
Your word is truth. What does this mean? And why should it matter?
It matters, because, as the reporter Michael Phillips said, “The world explodes.”
The world explodes all the time, all around us. Sometimes the explosions are obvious – as in the roadside battlefields of Afghanistan. But sometimes the explosions are a lot less obvious. Sometimes only you know that the world is exploding. Sometimes it is only your world that is exploding, but the explosion is no less disastrous for it. The world explodes.
In the interview, Michael Phillips said this, “Your notebook or your camera is a filter between you and reality. It allows you to do your job even as you should be running for cover.” But actually, his notebook and his camera proved to be more than that. They were also means by which he would try to know the truth of what happened that Saturday, April 28, in a small village in the Nimroz province of Afghanistan. His photos would show him parts of the truth he would never have remembered on his own: things he had seen but not really witnessed without some other way to claim the vision as his own. And the truth that those images impart is painful and heart-racing, and terrifying, and final. I can let my imagination run wild, but it will not bring Scott Pruitt back to life; it will not give his daughters back their father.
We like to pretend that the truth is whatever is empirically verifiable in the world, whatever is replicable in the lab, whatever can be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. But actually we know that even these standards bring no guarantee of establishing the truth. Clever as we are, we are notoriously inept at truth.
If I were to say that faith is something like a filter between you and the world that allows you to live your life even as you should be running for cover, you might say that by such a definition of faith I am admitting it is just a form of denial of the reality around me. But if a reporter uses the very same phrases in reference to his notebook and his camera, then we’d say that they are tools in service of the truth.
But why should a camera get to decide who lives and who dies? Why should that sad image be the final arbiter of life and death? Why should its pixilated images get to spell out the truth?
I’d rather trust God to do these things. I’d rather let his word speak the truth.
And God’s word has truth to speak into that image that the photographer cannot recall taking, just as it has truth to speak to you and me, and to two young girls who lost their father on April 28th, and of course to their father as well.
It might sound something like this:
I formed you, my child, with my own hands; I made you out of clay and dust. I shaped not only your limbs, but the intricate works that make you who you are: that send the blood running through your veins, the air running through your lungs, and the ideas running through your head.
I made you in my own image. And when you were made, then I leaned over my workbench and blew my own breath into your nostrils so that you would have life – a gift that only I can give.
I gave you talents, and looks, and limits, too. I gave you being. And I looked at you and saw that you were marvelously made, and that it was good.
I have loved you since before you were born, while I was creating you in the inward parts of your mother’s womb. I have desired for you only joy; but I know the realities of the world into which I set you. I know that you are a sheep in the midst of wolves. This is the nature of my creation – it is complicated, too complicated for you to understand, but it does not mean I love you any less – knowing this is the beginning of wisdom.
I have sought to protect you always with my whole being. I have been your Father; I sent you my Son; you have been given my Holy Spirit. Like the creation I made, I am complicated too. Does it surprise you that the Mind from which all things sprang is complicated? That the Life from which all life comes is complicated?
Let me try to simplify it for you. You cannot see what I see. You look at death and you see an end. I look at it and see a new beginning. Which of us do you suppose is right? Which of us can see on both sides of death?
Do you think you know the truth? Do you think you have captured it in photographs of dead people? What does this prove? You cannot even remember taking the photos. How could you know the truth on your own?
But I have sanctified you in the truth; my word is truth.
This means that I see what you cannot, but that I have given you the lens of faith to help you see the truth.
Mostly this means that I have helped you see beyond the veil of death, though the world explodes.
You hear people tell you that they can show you the truth all the time. The truth, they say, in that silly, rhyming slogan, is that might makes right. They don’t use the slogan any more but they live by it.
They tell you that this war is truly necessary. They have told you that wars can truly be won. They have told you that they would rather not do it this way, but they must for the sake of the truth.
These are lies. But the picture has been so altered that they appear to be true. And since you cannot remember that far back, you cannot see how drastically the picture has been changed. You cannot remember what joy and peace and mercy were supposed to look like. You believe them, but you doubt my word. And the world explodes.
But I have sanctified you in the truth; my word is truth.
This means that what I see is true, not what you see. This means that Scott Pruitt is dead to you, which makes sense, since you killed him.
But I have sanctified him, and thousands upon thousands of others like him; I have sanctified them in the truth; my word is truth.
And this is the truth from above: that he is dead to you, but alive to me; that he could not survive in the world that you have made of my creation, but he breathes new life in the world beyond the grave.
You search all the evidence you can for proof, and you can only prove that he is dead. Which is exactly the wrong conclusion to reach, even though you killed him.
Because you thought your might was true, you can repeat the results over and over again, they have been reviewed by your peers, who approve, more or less of your ways, your experts will testify that the life had left his body, which was just too full of holes to go on living. And this looks true to you. Because the world explodes.
But I have sanctified him in the truth; my word is truth. When you were done with him, I took him again into my hands, I breathed again into his bloody nostrils, I filled him again with the spirit of life that I intended for him from the moment of creation.
And he lives today with me, where he will be forever. He is not dead; he is alive. Even while the world hurtles ever more furiously toward death.
You think you know the truth, but I am telling you, you are only looking at the pictures. You can only see what you think you can see. But there is more.
And my word is truth.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
20 May 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] “Here and Now” on NPR, 18 May 2012, reported by Alex Ashlock,
[ii] Phillips, Michael M, “Under Attack” in The Wall Street Journal, 12 May 2012