“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah 1:5
Hyde Park in London used to be a magical place, especially on a Sunday afternoon. I say used to be because the drama I am about to describe to you no longer takes place there and lives only in my memory of it.
It was way back in the mid-sixties in the autumn of the year. The trees were shedding their leaves and there was a refreshing briskness in the air that brought with it its own sense of excitement. One corner of Hyde Park was known as Soap Box Corner, a veritable bastion of free speech. People would advertise their topics in the Saturday paper and the time when they would be speaking; and it was not uncommon to find a dozen people standing on their soap boxes waxing eloquent ~ and not so eloquent ~ surrounded by throngs of curious spectators and interested participants.
The whole experience was interactive. I remember one man decrying the woes of married life, and some who listened cheered him on, bearing witness to their own unhappiness, while others argued with him and tried to defend the virtues of marriage. And when the sentiment of the crowd began to change in favor of married life, the one espousing the virtues of marriage replaced the first speaker on the soap box, and the crowd cheered him on as well.
That was only one public conversation that day. Within earshot there was someone shouting out a message about the futility of the Vietnam War, and another voice not far away was calling attention to the damage that industry was causing to the environment. And, as you might suspect, there was a man dressed like a prophet from the sub-culture with a huge sign, strolling among us all, announcing the end of the world and the need for us all to repent.
It was wonderful, colorful, fun-spirited and honest ~ well-meaning people putting their truth out for public examination and evaluation ~ people with the courage to risk having their truth measured by the cynicism and the wisdom of their time.
Many years later I was back in London and wanted to revisit that cherished memory; but when I asked the hotel clerk if she had the list of topics being discussed on Soap Box Corner she gave me the biggest blank stare I think I’ve ever received. “You know,” I said, “the Sunday afternoon forum in Hyde Park.” But even that brought no response. “Well, is there anyone on the staff now who worked here back in the 60s,” I asked. “Yes,” she said, and pointed to an elderly gentleman in a bright uniform greeting guests at the curb and opening the door for them. When I explained what I wanted to know, he said, “Yes, I remember Soap Box Corner; but during the Vietnam era we had to stop all that free speech because we were afraid of violence.”
What a tragedy, I thought, free speech denied for fear of violence. Violence is what happens when people stop talking about things that really matter. Violence is what happens to dialogue when words lose their meaning ~ or have their meaning intentionally distorted for ideological purposes ~ and reason surrenders to chaos, and anger wells up to replace intelligence. Violence is what happens when human communication resorts to madness instead of striving for insight; and therefore the best way to prevent violence is to keep honest dialogue from self-destructing, to guarantee free speech, and to rekindle the once-honored art of truth-telling.
Our two readings from the Bible challenge us to believe that like Jeremiah and Jesus, we too were once visions of truth in the mind of God waiting to be born, and that when we were born we became messages of truth happening, and that we are most authentic when we discover our truth ~ the truth for which we were born ~ and find the will to speak it and the courage to live it.
Jeremiah was very much like that character in Hyde Park with the sign announcing the end of the world. His calling in life was to tell the nations of the world what they did not want to hear, that God had a vested interest in nation-building and that God’s will could only be ignored at their peril. It was a most unpopular vocation; but when his message went unheeded, Israel fell from its golden age, suffered moral deterioration, and political exile in Babylon.
Yet the Bible wants us to see that even before God formed Jeremiah in his mother’s womb that truth was in the mind and heart of God, and that the life of Jeremiah was the temporal incarnation of that truth. He was that truth waiting to be delivered, and therefore the only way he could ever be authentic was to speak and to live that truth.
The Gospel lesson reminds us of a moment in the life of Jesus when he went home to worship with his friends and neighbors at the synagogue in Nazareth. So long as he read the lesson and stayed within the comfort zone of the congregation they thought he was wonderful; but the moment he spoke his truth ~ the very truth for which he was brought into the world ~ they drove him out of the synagogue and tried to kill him.
So much for freedom of speech in Nazareth! But the reading ends with the recognition that those who listened to him in Capernaum marveled that he spoke as one who had authority ~ in other words. as one who was authentic, who was in touch with his truth and was not afraid to speak it and to live it.
We are living through a time when the art of truth-telling is needed more so, I think, than at any other time in history. Truth is in short supply, and in large measure because we have ceased to see ourselves as messages from God that need to be infused into society, and have allowed ourselves to become as spectators.
The greatest loss to freedom of speech is the fact that we have willingly surrendered our truth for the sake of conformity.
Society has its own ways of trying to silence truth-telling; and the best illustration I can think of is from my first parish along the Jersey Shore. Do you know how they do crabbing? They take a wire mesh bucket and put some bait in it, tie a rope around the handle and then tie the other end of the rope to a post on the bridge and leave it there. The crabs crawl in and eat the bait; and the amazing part of the whole process is that there is no lid on the basket. The crabbers just come back and pull up a bucket full of crabs. And do you know why there is no need for a lid? Because every time a crab tries to climb out, the others pull it back down again!
It is a paradigm of what happens in society whenever anyone tries to speak his or her truth, when one dares to be different ~ to be authentic. Society just pulls them back down, preferring conformity and solidarity to truth-telling.
Soap Box Corner may be a distant memory, and America is impoverished to the extent that that same drama of free speech is relinquished here. But if church truly represents the God who made us all, then the freedom of the pulpit must always be honored, and every sermon discussion group must always be a place where free speech is guaranteed, and every fellowship group a place where truth-telling is practiced.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that so many churches are built on street corners ~ a sign perhaps that in American society the church is a place where God’s children can discover their truth ~ the truth for which they were born ~ and find there the will to speak it and the courage to live it.