Mary Houck, Decatur, GA

Warm-up Question

  • Name something you once believed was 100% true that you’ve since learned is untrue. 
  • Do you and your friends have any “fun” things you like to argue about (e.g. sports teams or favorite players, favorite musicians, foods you like or dislike, etc.)?

A Matter of Perception

It was almost 9 years ago now, but you may remember a controversy that erupted on the internet in February of 2015. There was a picture of a dress.  Some people swore it was white and gold; others were adamant that it was black and blue. For days, people went around showing the picture to friends and acquaintances who hadn’t seen it yet, asking what color the dress was. 

Depending on the answer, debates ensued about whose perception was correct, both sides passionately certain they had it right. How could it possibly be that two people looked at the same thing and perceived it so differently? Of course, it was not possible for everyone to be correct since it was a picture of a real dress, and eventually the truth was revealed: the dress is indeed blue and black. 

It took vision scientists two years to explain what happened and confirm their findings. As it turned out, the different color schemes had to do with how each viewer perceived the photo as a whole.  Was the lighting natural or artificial? Was the dress in shadow or in light? The colors a viewer sees even correlates to whether they are typically a morning person or a night person— which affects our assumptions about light sources and shadows. Basically, our way of perceiving the world causes certain assumptions when looking at the picture, which affects what colors we see. 

Discussion Questions

  • What do you do when a disagreement arises that is not just a difference in taste or opinion (country vs hip- hop), but a difference in understanding what seems to be a clear truth about the world (gravity exists).
  • What sources do you go to when you want to find out the truth about something? Is it a person you trust? A news source? The Internet? How do you tell whether a source of information is trustworthy or not?
  • Are all opinions equally valid?  What distinguishes “fact” from “opinion”?

Reformation Sunday

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Romans 3:19-28

John 8:31-36

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year A at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

This week we celebrate Reformation Sunday, remembering when Martin Luther started the Reformation movement in Germany by sharing his 95 theses. At the time, the Roman Catholic church dominated all of Europe. It had turned into an organization that often used the faith of the people to accumulate power, influence, and wealth instead of walking alongside them in a life of faith. 

The church had set itself up as an unquestionable authority: anything the church said was the truth. Luther, who was teaching the Bible to men training to be priests, thought he saw discrepancies between the Bible and church teachings.  The 95 theses, based on these perceived discrepancies,  were assertions which Luther wanted to debate with other theologians. He hoped to correct errors which had crept into church teaching and practice.

Luther’s goal wasn’t freedom from the church. He first tried to reform the church from within. His primary concern was to free people from what felt like slavery to sin. Luther felt deeply oppressed by his own sin, never feeling he had confessed enough or been penitent enough. It was through God’s word that Luther found freedom in the truth that we are saved by grace received through faith, not through works (actions we take to try to make up for our sins and earn God’s forgiveness).

Today’s gospel is a perfect one for Reformation Sunday. Jesus tells the disciples that they will find the truth by continuing in his word and that the truth will set them free. In typical disciple fashion, they still don’t understand him and think he’s talking about literal slavery. (I can’t help but imagine Jesus face-palming or at least letting out a big sigh. After all he’s shown them, they still don’t get it) Jesus patiently explains that he’s talking about freedom from sin. 

However, in order for the truth to set us free, we have to be able to identify the truth. In today’s world people assert as truth all kinds crazy conspiracy theories and bigoted opinions about people who are different from themselves. Looking for a way to describe the American popular understanding of truth, comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to describe “what you feel to be true, rather than what the facts will support.” Others say we are living in a “post-truth” era, when there is nothing more than opinion and appeal to emotion is more important than objective facts. 

So how do we figure out what the truth is? We turn to God’s word, but of course the Bible was written a long time ago and cannot speak directly about current events or issues. There are no Bible verses about whether the dress is blue or gold. And, even more confusing, the Bible can become the dress in a way.  Different people read the same words of the Bible and come to completely different conclusions about the truth.

Just as we all made unconscious assumptions when looking at that dress, our individual ways of seeing the world affect how we read the Bible. Paying attention to our unconscious assumptions about the Bible and truly listening to others with open minds as we study it helps. Martin Luther had another tip as well: Look for what “shows forth Christ.” Does this interpretation look like Jesus? How does it urge me to act like Jesus? Does it reveal to me the love and grace of god in Christ for the whole world? These are the truths that will set us free.

Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of a time that the Bible answered a real-life question for you? How did you find the truth in the Bible?
  • The controversy over the dress was fun because it didn’t have any bigger implications. People enjoyed arguing about it because it didn’t really matter who was right in the end. However, many disagreements about the truth have much bigger consequences for people’s lives. For example, the recent terrorist attack by Hamas and massive response by Israel has intensified the ongoing debate about Israel and Palestine. Is Israel a peaceful nation that is the victim of terrorism and violence from Hamas? Are Palestinians the victims of an oppressive Israeli government, which routinely takes away their land, homes, water, and freedom? Is there truth on both sides?  Can you think of similar controversies where each side make legitimate arguments ?
  • Are there times when knowing the “truth” and being “right” are less important than finding ways to create reconciliation?  How might that preference for reconciliation be related to Reformation Sunday?  What was the great “truth” which Luther thought most important?

Activity Suggestions

  • Play Two Truths and a Lie: each player states two things that are true about themselves, and one that is untrue. The rest of the group has to guess which thing is untrue. 
    • Discuss: Who gets to be the ‘authority’ on the truth about us? Does everyone hold their own truth which should be treated as valid, or do we have to fit into the story our culture tells about us? 
  • World View Interviews
    • Come up with a list of questions you’d like to ask people to better understand how they see the world. 
      • Choose questions that are open-ended, and which do not pressure someone to answer a particular way. For example, don’t ask “you’re a Republican, right?” Ask, “do you identify as a member of a political party?”
      • When you ask, listen carefully and non-judgmentally. You are there to learn about the person, not judge them. If one of their answers surprises you, however, you can ask follow-up questions to learn more. 
      • Some examples might be:
        • Where were you born?
        • What was your first language?
        • How many places have you lived?
        • What did your parents teach you about money?
        • Have you or your family ever served in the military?
        • Do you have a favorite sports team?
        • What do you like to do with your free time?
        • Do you identify as a member of a political party?
        • What foods do you like to eat?
        • Have you lived through any wars? How did they affect you?
      • Interview each other, other people in your faith community, or even your own family. You are certain to learn new things, even about people you think you know well.

Closing Prayer

Gracious God, we thank you for your truth which sets us free, and for the example of our brother Martin. Help us to discern the truth when the world is confusing. Open our minds and hearts when we struggle to understand someone else’s view of the world. Give us the courage to speak the truth even when it is unpopular. Amen.