This is a sermon I preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Indianapolis, in 2017. We are still wrestling with this dilemma: “One person’s breaking news is another’s fake news. For every fact you trust, somebody else trusts ‘alternative facts’ … Is there any truth, anywhere? Can we ever get past our own echo chambers?”
These days, you hear a phrase like, “the Spirit of truth,” and you just might begin to wonder where a spirit like that might be found anymore. Truth? Really? One person’s breaking news is another’s fake news. For every fact you trust, somebody else trusts “alternative facts.” A live interview can look like a Saturday Night Live sketch, and an SNL sketch can seem disconcertingly real.
I was struck early this past week by one of those SNL sketches that’s already a bit outdated, since each day keeps presenting us with new, outrageous headlines that eclipse what was outrageous yesterday. I mean, really! This week? I’ve lost count. But try to journey back with me to what now seems a much earlier time—one whole weekend ago—when the breaking news was about an interview between Lester Holt and Donald Trump. Saturday Night Live offered their own version. “Holt” gets “Trump” to admit that he fired the FBI director because of the Russia investigation. To “Trump” “Holt” reacts, “You’re admitting that? But that’s obstruction of justice!” Then he looks at us in gleeful amazement and asks, “Did I get him? Is this all over?” But then he grabs his earpiece. He’s getting input from his producers: “No I didn’t? Nothing matters? Absolutely nothing matters anymore?”
The audience laughed. So did I. But while I was laughing I recognized a growing feeling of futility this sketch had just named. It reminded me again—what I may think of as breaking news, somebody else will dismiss as fake news. And the same applies to you. Studies are showing (though I’m sure somebody else discounts them) that, regardless of whether we lean to the left or the right, regardless of our level of education, we’re all tending to live in our own “echo chambers,” where we’re inclined to believe and share information that confirms our view of the world and just as inclined to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit. You think you’ve got unquestionable evidence, hard facts. Somebody else thinks you’re being fooled. And that’s what you think about them.
“Nothing matters? Absolutely nothing matters anymore?” Is there any truth, anywhere? Can we ever get past our own echo chambers? This isn’t just about our newsfeeds either. For over a century people have been telling us that we are hopelessly locked into our own echo chambers. Friedrich Nietzsche famously announced that what we call truths are really just illusions, lies that society makes us tell one another. And lately I’ve been seeing articles on my newsfeed about a neuroscientist who claims to have demonstrated that, thanks to natural selection, what we think of as a true observation is just a tool that helps us to survive and reproduce. It might have nothing to do with reality. I do wonder—if this guy is right and we can’t trust anybody’s observations, why are we supposed to trust his? So maybe these skeptics are going too far, but they might still be on to something. We do tend to live in our own echo chambers. We’ve caught ourselves doing that, and it’s hard not to ask if there’s any truth anywhere.
Short answer: Jesus says to us today that, yes, there is truth. We’re not hopelessly trapped in our own echo chambers. Even there, even when we’re mostly paying attention to whatever confirms what we already think, the truth, the Spirit, is in us and with us and beyond us. We’re not orphans, not cut off from the truth, the reality that brought us to this moment, the reality also known as God.
But that’s just the short answer. Jesus doesn’t mean that we’ve got the teacher’s answer book, so we can look up the answers and turn in our homework without ever having to work out anything ourselves. Don’t put it on a bumper sticker. Truth is not like that, not for Jesus, and not for God. Truth is the Spirit of truth. It’s a way of relating and being related. Truth, the Spirit of truth, is something we live into, and it can’t be divorced from us living into love and from love living into us. Spirit of God, Spirit of Jesus, Spirit of truth, Spirit of love—they’re all inseparable, and they’re all involved, not in answer books, but in a new way of living together.
That’s why today’s Gospel reading begins with living into love before it mentions truth: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And notice that this is not so much another commandment as it is a prediction: If you awaken to my self-giving love with with your self-giving love, you will be keeping my commandments. You will be loving one another as I have loved you. You will awaken to the common life all of us are sharing. “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” We are all living into this together. That’s reality, that’s truth, the Spirit of truth—us living into love, love living into us. We should do this, because it’s already being done in and with and beyond us.
Those echo chambers we’ve locked ourselves into—that’s what Jesus means by “the world”—those echo chambers don’t have the last word, because no matter how much they resist, they’re too late to lock out the Spirit of truth. When you start to notice that you do in fact have your own echo chamber, that you do tend to filter out anything that doesn’t confirm your own bias, what else is that but the Spirit of truth moving in and with and beyond you, keeping you dissatisfied with sorting the world into tidy packages labeled “us” and “them”?
When does that happen? The best place to look for it is not on a cable news channel and not on your Facebook newsfeed. And don’t bother looking for it when anybody pretends to be neutral about a burning issue—nobody’s ever really neutral about those. Look for it when you engage people face-to-face and let them engage you. Look for it when you talk and listen, not discounting where you think you are called to take a stand, but not discounting the sincerity and insight of others who think they are called to take a different stand. You and they will probably be annoyed; maybe feelings will be hurt; you will almost surely continue to disagree, sometimes passionately. But if you look deeply enough, you’ll begin to catch a glimpse of yourself in that other person who’s driving you bonkers. You’ll begin to realize that they’re not as mean or as clueless as you thought they were, and you’ll begin to realize that you’re not as kind or as brilliant as you thought you were. You’ll be waking up to the Spirit of truth, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God moving in and with and beyond you and them and everybody else, drawing us into a common life that’s still a life-in-common even when things remain restless among us.
I know, engaging one another that intensely, that deeply, is threatening, and all of us avoid it. But Trinity regularly offers a workshop for that, a safe space where you can start to overcome your reluctance. It’s called the Eucharist. Every week you gather here. You probably see at least one person in the room with a mindset totally at odds with yours. You hear words that may in rare moments thrill you but often leave your mind wandering and sometimes actually raise your hackles. Then you pray with others around you, and you greet one another, and some whom you greet are people you genuinely like, while others are people you mostly tolerate. And then we all share a meal that’s more than just a meal, feeding on Christ, on God, on the Spirit in our hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving. And even if you are not feeling fully invested in all of this, this meal is changing you, eroding your echo chambers’ defenses against the God who will never leave you to yourself.
“Nothing matters? Absolutely nothing matters anymore?” This matters. Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you”—in broken bread, in poured-out wine, and in that person who will never see things just the way you do. Let it happen. It matters. Amen.