"Burying Your Head in the Sand is Hard on the Eyes"
Isaiah 55 and Luke 13
The Rev. Fred G. Garry
"Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About" is a raucousy, gritty morality tale. The story follows the saga of a wife who discovers her husband is having an affair. The wife is a well-to-do socialite in the South whose family is big into show horses; the husband is a lawyer we are soon to discover who is not involved in his first act of infidelity. Putting aside all cheap shots on lawyers and socialites, this is a rather straight forward story, nothing ground breaking in this plot line. That is the case until one moment in the movie. The wife is sitting in a ladies club- a meeting of Charleston’s finest- discussing a soon-to-be-published cookbook for charity. She sits there and listens until she can’t take it anymore.
"I have a question," she says interrupting the details of recipe collection. "I need to know who here has slept with my husband?" There is a moment of shock and silence. Someone tries to suggest this is not the time nor the place which our woman scorned countered by revealing that this woman’s husband was unfaithful as well. Then it was as if someone yelled fire. Accusations, long standing suspicions, grudges it all starts to fly around the room. Women start to flee the gathering as someone says, "this is the best meeting I think we have ever had."
Have you ever sat in a meeting or listened to someone and just wanted to say, "stop, stop. I can’t take it anymore, I have to say something? Have you ever just wanted to spill your guts, put it on the table, however messy "it" is? Just get it out, just speak the truth- have you ever wanted the freedom to be honest? I dare say it is probably one of our greatest desires, one of our most unmet needs.
How many of have bent the ear of a friend or the mirror, though, only to remain silent when the moment came? We desire the truth, the honest to goodness truth, sometimes more than anything else; yet, at the same time there is nothing that causes more fear, more dread. It is a great wish and great fear at the same time. For what happened after the wife had her cathartic moment of truth is what we fear, everything will fall apart, the truth will cause hurt, or go too far, or get out of hand. The truth is both glorious and dangerous.
About three years ago I had a former pastor who was going to be in town fill the pulpit while I myself was on vacation. His name will remain anonymous, but some details are important. He had been retired for quite awhile, had a rather up and down relationship with some churches, and was known, I came to find out later, as being a bit inflammatory. Well, true to form when he filled the pulpit, he managed to offend just about everyone, firing scattered shots at every cultural battle, denominational struggle, and even traditions most Christians hold dear- I think defaming the Bible pretty much cast the net for all present; he didn’t disappoint.
Outraged, many parishioners asked me to listen to his sermon on tape having returned from vacation and offer some feedback- not my hoped for return to the office greeting. Listening to the tape the pastor was not only inflammatory but inaccurate and sloppy with a lot of details. Muckraking doesn’t always worry about such things and so it was with his remarks. I met with the parishioners who were most disgruntled and worked through some of his claims and pretty much just let them vent about being unprepared for an assault in their sanctuary. They were justified in being angry.
Now in most instances such could have just been chalked up for experience and we could have moved on. This would have happened if it were not the church’s centennial which was to start in a few months and this pastor had already been invited to attend for one of the occasions. Make a long story short, I had to call him and tell him the pulpit was not open to him; essentially I had to tell the truth which would offend him as much as he had offended the parishioners. He had crossed the line and there were consequences.
After some hemming and hawing, caught between my desire to tell the truth and the ugly aftermath that was sure to follow, I called him. The conversation was stilted and vague until I said, "look you really torqued people off. Which might have been alright, been part of a challenge, if you had you then stayed for a few years and talked people into putting away their tar and feathers, their torches and pitch forks. But your sermon was a drive by shooting and that wasn’t right."
He was quick to offer a response I believe he had most likely made before, "you can’t tell me what to preach." "Yes," I said, "I can’t. But I can offer you the courtesy of why you won’t preach here again." This was not a positive step in our conversation; it got ugly after that.
He believed he was keeping it real, speaking the truth that needed to be heard; I believed he was feeding his ego by being bombastic. Somewhere in between, most likely, was the real truth. It’s hard to say though for the conversation ended.
The conversation ended as most confrontations do: silence. Most challenges end in a stand off, a desire to never speak to the person again; most debates don’t end well. This is not only my opinion I have come to find out, but a well documented area of research into how organizations, business, corporations, work or in this instance, don’t work. Companies, and here you can easily read churches, don’t handle conflict well, don’t debated well, don’t argue divergent beliefs artfully. In other words it’s hard to tell the truth when you believe it will be a moment of controversy, if your perspective won’t simply be received or adopted, let alone if your claim is critical of someone else.
I wasn’t only debating the truth or falsity of the pastor’s sermon, I was telling him his method, his practice was bad: drive by shooting is not a well received model of sermon delivery. And yet, such is the case with so much of our attempts to speak the truth today. Part of the former pastor’s outrage at me was justified: everyone does this sort of thing, why should he be singled out as wrong. Turn on the news and listen as careers are ruined in sound bites, a company’s stock value will plummet because of a quip or random claim; get ready for the presidential campaign for this will flood our lives for months.
How many of us don’t sound off, take swipes, jabs at people, policies, orgaizations? Are they fair, are they true? No time to check, no time to consider such things because we have moved on to the next thing that bugs us. I do this all the time, make quick assessments and cast judgment, speak with much more confidence than sense all the time.
Faced with this truism, for it was just as true in ancient Palestine as it in Watertown today, faced with such a truism Jesus tells a parable. The people come to him and wanted a sound bite, a comment on Herod’s cruelty and a likely target for blame. Sound familiar? Jesus can you give us a comment on rumors of Herod’s evil ways? To his credit he deflects the question with another and then offers up one of the most beautiful pictures to ponder.
There is a garden with a fig tree bearing no fruit. The owner comes through and says, this tree isn’t working, isn’t doing what it is supposed to, cut it down. To this the gardener says, one year. Let me tend to it and then we will see. A parable is supposed to be like a profound painting- the longer you look at it the more you see. Let me offer you a place to sit. The owner tells the truth, this isn’t working; the gardener creates a place for the truth to become redemptive, let’s give it one more chance. Truly there is an endless array of insights to enjoy, let’s start with two.
We need to both speak the truth and be patient. Usually we do one or the other. Usually we go off half-cocked and blurt sound bite size truths, drive by shootings as it were; or, we bury our head in the sand, and say things like, "let’s hope for the best." Hoping for the best is good if all is well; hoping for the best when things are broken is nothing more than magic or a lack of courage. I may have sounded smart on the phone with the former pastor, but inside I was dying. Stepping into the mess of confrontation is not something I like to pencil in on my calendar. It is easier, much easier, to just bury your head in the sand.
Another vantage of this parable is the picture of God. The early church would have seen this not so much in terms of our ability or inability to speak the truth, but in terms of God being vengeful or patient with the world, and with us. For them this was a kind of reality check that God doesn’t ignore our shortcomings, our sins, our lack of fruit. We often think of sin as what we do wrong as opposed where we decided not to do what is right. Sin is not part of our parlance today; it is not a popular word. Yet, we miss something if we fail to see that the fig tree wasn’t producing bad fruit, it wasn’t doing something wrong; the fig tree wasn’t giving fruit, it wasn’t doing good.
Preachers have probably failed more times than not on this and destroyed the reality of sin simply by telling people how bad they are. We are good at that, beating up the sheep with litanies of woes and wrongs, telling you how sinful your soul is. Do we do the wrong things? Yes. Did the wife in the movie have cause to be angry when she found out her husband was adulterous, did the wrong thing? Yes. But as the story unfolds the audience sees the real problem was how little the two of them did what was right for each other.
I don’t want to pastor a church that spends its time telling people how bad they are, or how wrong they are, or how much better my beliefs are than others. Yet, I also don’t want to stop calling a spade a spade. Adultery is wrong; it is sin. No two ways about it. Yet, most marriages struggle not with wrong doing, but with how little we try to do right by each other, how we begin to forget the dignity and beauty of the other, or how little we care to live a good life for the other.
A church needs to be ready to say, "hey this isn’t working." And, a church needs to be patient enough to say, "Okay, let’s see if we can fix it this year." Quite frankly it’s easy to do either/or, but not both/and. It’s more fun to be fast and belligerent, just as it is safer to be obtuse and what we like to call open-minded.
The truth isn’t in the middle; it’s not a mixture, or a bit of both. The truth is we need to be profoundly seeking the fullness of each. Imagine if both truth and patience were in your work place, in your house, in your family. Imagine if you were able to live a life with both truth and patience. Such is the prayerful following of Jesus Christ. Such is a church that would really be something to talk about. Amen.