As most of you have heard me say before, one of the most impactful experiences of my childhood was visiting my maternal grandparents on their farm in Alabama. Much of that was with my grandfather, out on the farm learning how to care for animals and crops, or in activities like catching and cleaning fish or saddling and riding a horse.

And I loved almost all of that, except for the Rev JC Austinoccasional day we would spend picking vegetables from the field. I didn’t want those vegetables when they were served to me on a plate; I certainly didn’t want to spend a day under the scorching Alabama summer sun picking them!

Picking fruit, however, was an entirely different matter. Depending on the timing of the visit, different fruits would be in season, and we would go pick them. And usually not on the farm itself, but from the patches of wild fruits that my grandfather tracked in his mind with greater accuracy than if we had had Google Maps.

Strawberries, blackberries, and figs were the ones that I remember most vividly, which simultaneously set me up for a lifetime of disappointment in most strawberries and blackberries I would have after that. I was always struck by how much smaller and how much better the wild fruit was than the ones in stores, and our harvesting efficiency was severely impeded by amount of fruit that ended up in my stomach instead of my picking pail, but we always filled up both in the end.

However, when we did get enough fruit home, we would not only have it to eat during the visit, but my grandmother would sometimes make preserves, which was a whole different experience. She started by brewing the concoction of chopped fruit, water, sugar, and a few other things on the stove.  After it cooled in the fridge, she would bring out a dozen or so Ball Mason Jars, and my brother and I helped her fill them with the preserves, and we would store them in the pantry, though we kept one open for us to enjoy through the rest of the visit.

And I can tell you, after decades of outstanding culinary experiences all over this nation and throughout the world, there are very few things better than a breakfast of my granny’s homemade buttermilk biscuits with homemade strawberry, or blackberry, or fig preserves!

Unfortunately, that also ruined my experience of almost all biscuits and store-bought jams and jellies for the rest of my life, but I maintain that was a small price to pay, both for the delight in eating them and for learning what preserves were and why they are one of those things that wildly divergent cultures all over the world invented and maintained on their own, yet in strikingly similar ways.

Long before the inventions of iceboxes and refrigerators, people made preserves so that they could have the benefits and delights of fruit (and other foods) long after they would have otherwise spoiled and/or gone out of season. That is, after all, why you preserve anything: because it is beautiful or delightful or precious in some way, but it is prone to disappear or decay without some means of preserving it.

That fact is what makes our Fourth Great End of the Church so interesting to me. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring the Six Great Ends of the Church as defined by the Presbyterian Church over a century ago and maintained to this day in our denomination as a helpful and important summary of the purposes and goals that any church should be pursuing. So far, we’ve considered the Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind; the Shelter, Nurture, and Fellowship of the Children of God; and the Maintenance of Divine Worship.

This week, we are looking at the Preservation of the Truth, which sounds like a pretty tall order no matter how you think about. But the first thing I want to note about it is that it is predicated on the notion that the truth is something that needs preserving, that it is something that is prone to decay or even rot without intervention that protects it, preserves it to last much longer through less-hospitable seasons.

That is an interesting and unusual assumption when you think about it. We tend to talk about “the truth” in very different ways from that, both in the church and in the culture. We tend to talk about the truth as something that is eternal, fixed, unchangeable, incorruptible. But the truth is, that’s not really the truth.

Now, those of you who know me well as a preacher could probably guess that there was no scenario in which a sermon on “the Preservation of the Truth” was not going to have a reference to the climactic trial scene of the film A Few Good Men, so let’s go ahead and take care of that. It has turned into one of the famous scenes in cinema history, but let me quickly explain why that’s the case. Tom Cruise plays Lieutenant Caffee, a U.S. Navy lawyer who has spent his whole lackluster career negotiating plea deals rather than ever going to trial.

He is assigned to defend two Marines accused of murdering a fellow Marine in some kind of hazing incident at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba. Initially approaching the defense with his usual lack of gusto, Caffee begins to realize something much bigger than two Marines hazing a third has gone on. His investigation leads him to discover a toxic culture of extrajudicial punishment of troops that goes all the way to the top: to Colonel Nathan Jessup, the base commander, a menacing authoritarian figure played by Jack Nicholson.

Through his investigation, Caffee discovers Jessup actually ordered one of his officers to have the now-dead Marine pulled from his bed at night and physically beaten as a punishment for his lack of performance, a practice that he used repeatedly in his command and called a “code red.” Jessup ordered the code red in this case; his officer then ordered the two Marines on trial to administer it, and in the process of them beating the Marine in question, he accidentally died from an unexpected biological reaction to being gagged.

Unfortunately for Caffee, Jessup laid a careful paper trail to cover up what happened, and he has no eyewitnesses to testify to what actually happened other than the accused. In the climactic trial scene, Caffee goes for broke and puts Jessup on the stand, skillfully baiting him into a confrontation in which Jessup wants to defend his actions as not only defensible, but worthy of praise. “You want answers?” Jessup finally growls at Caffee from the witness stand. “I think I’m entitled,” Caffee replies with provocative smugness. “You want answers?!?” Jessup repeats, his voice rising. “I WANT THE TRUTH!” Caffee demands.

“YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!” Jessup roars, and then goes off on a monologue in which he derides Caffee for having no idea how the real world works for Marines on the line in a hostile location like Guantanamo Bay, that it requires either reforming or removing subpar Marines by whatever means necessary to keep them from endangering others by their inadequacy, and that Caffee and people like him should just thank him for doing the job that they won’t do themselves.

He concludes by adamantly confessing that he did, in fact, order the code red, thus exonerating the Marines on trial for murder (though not for misconduct) and getting himself placed under arrest, for which Jessup is both shocked and outraged, not even able to comprehend that he has done something that is not commendable, much less criminally wrong, and he has to be physically restrained from violently attacking Caffee right there in the courtroom. As it turns out, it is Jessup who can’t handle the truth.

“You can’t handle the truth!” almost immediately entered the general cultural discourse and is routinely on the shortlist of the greatest lines in movie history. What tends to get lost is the depth of how that scene addresses “the truth.” Despite his claim, Jessup’s monologue defending his actions in this case and in using extrajudicial violent punishment against his own troops is not “THE truth.”

If it was, the military court would have agreed with him, commended his actions, and thanked him for his service, not placed him under arrest. What Jessup calls “the truth” is only what he wants to be true, what he even believes to be true. But “the truth” is far from obvious; it is contested, and it is finally established not by Colonel Jessup’s personal opinion, but by the evidence he gives along with other evidence, and it is preserved through the judgment of the court.

The truth is not something that is simply discovered, like a hidden vein of silver in a mine. It has to be established and then carefully preserved, and that is always a communal task, not an individual act, even if the community is just two people. It has to be, because the truth is always under threat.

When we talk about “preserving the truth” in the Church, that’s what we are talking about. It is a communal act of preservation, predicated upon a communal act of discernment to establish it in the first place. And that requires careful and constant attention because there are always forces threatening to corrupt it into something very different, so that it decays or even rots into something that no longer provides joy or satisfaction or even sustenance.

“We must no longer be children,” the author of the letter to the Ephesians warns, “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” That’s kind of a weird mixed metaphor when you think about it. The Greek word for what we must no longer be really means infants or babies rather than children, for starters, but none of those are regularly at risk of being tossed around and blown about by the wind unless you’re a very inattentive parent. But the point seems to be that we should no longer be infants in terms of our faith development, because that places us at risk of being confused or manipulated by people scheming to deceive us.

And unfortunately, that is a common problem, though not in the way that many U.S. Christians tend to talk about it. The problem that the letter to the Ephesians is warning about, being tossed around by false teachings, isn’t coming from the surrounding culture, it’s coming from inside the Christian church itself. It is coming from people who are teaching things that confuse and deceive because of their own schemes and agendas.

And the antidote to that, the letter tells us, the way in which we can grow up in the faith and not be threatened by such things, is this: “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” This is the very essence of how the church preserves the truth.

First, it is a communal act: WE are to speak the truth in love; we must grow up in every way into Christ. Second, we are to speak the truth in love; we are to grow up into Christ. Those qualifiers are absolutely essential. If we think we are speaking the truth and we are not doing so in love, we are not speaking the Christian truth, but something else. If we are growing up in faith but not growing into Christ; we are not growing in Christian faith, but something else. Any time that teachings that are supposedly Christian are being used to divide, or oppress, or exclude, or reject people; any time such teachings delineate those who have special or exclusive access to God’s love and others who do not, they are false teachings. 

If you cannot reconcile Christian teachings with Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God’s relentless love for humanity and this world, then it is the teachings that are flawed and must be amended, discarded, or resisted. And yes, there are some Christians who simply can’t handle the truth when it comes to that. But even those of us who believe it often find our actual grasp of it is tenuous in the real world.

The truth is, you and I never truly possess the truth, God’s truth. If we think we do, then it is already not the truth, and is probably already in a state of corruption or decay, because God’s truth is by definition never small enough for us to possess. But together, as the church, we can and must dedicate ourselves to preserving it, and in the end not so much because the truth itself is fragile, but because we are. Like Colonel Jessup, we are so prone to confusing the truth with what we think the truth is, what we want the truth to be, that we are constantly in danger of sliding into self-delusion about it, and our understanding begins to rot quickly when we make that mistake.

The only way to stop that, the only way to preserve our awareness of the truth, is with and through each other as we speak the truth in love to one another so that we can all be built up in the truth of Christ’s love for each of us and all of us, trusting in God’s Holy Spirit to lead us, to sustain us, to preserve us in the truth so we grow into Christ’s body, and grow ever stronger in embodying Christ’s love in the world.