Lies, Honesty, Love
May 21, 2017
Gen. 3:1-12; Mt. 5:8
g ago, there lived a King who was particularly fond of gardening. Everything he touched bloomed. In particular, he was very fond of flowers and all through out the palace ground, there were hundreds of beautiful flowers over acres of garden.
The King was aging and needed to pick a successor for him. But how to decide who should succeed him? After much reflection on the subject, he decided to let his flowers help him in his effort.
He sent out a decree to all of the children in the land, and invited them to the palace, with their parents.
Now there was a young girl named Serena who heard the proclamation and she was very excited about seeing the palace first hand. She begged her parents to go and they did. When they got there the whole palace was completely crowded, it seemed as though everyone in the realm had come to hear the King.
The trumpets blew, the King entered, the crowd fell silent. The King began walking around the crowd, putting something in the hands of all the children. It was a box and inside the box was a seed. The King said, “It has come time for me to begin grooming someone to take my place on the throne and rule over our realm. I have decided to make a contest for all of you. Whoever can grow the most beautiful flower in six months, I will train to follow after me. I will see you all back here in exactly six months.” And with that he left.
Serena got her box and her seed. As soon as she got home, she got out a pot, filled it with the richest soil, put the seed in, watered it every day, and every day prayed for it to grow.
A couple months go by and nothing happened. She changed the soil, put the seed in a bigger pot with richer soil and watered it every day. A couple months go by. Nothing. Now she is panicked.
But the day comes for them to return to the palace and her pot has nothing in it at all. Now she was confused. She didn’t want to go to the palace but the King ordered all of them to return and she didn’t want to disobey his command.
To make matters worse, when she starts out for the palace, she sees a group of girls from her village and they all show off their beautiful flowers. Now she feels terrible about herself and frustrated that nothing will break her way.
Getting to the palace, the place is teeming with pots and beautiful flowers. She just shrugs and pulls back to the wall. The King enters and admires one beautiful flower after another, complementing the children on their gardening skills and their fine work. Finally the King draws near to Serena, looks over to see her pot empty, and parts the children so that he can come over to speak to her.
Serena cringes with dread and looks at the ground. “My child” says the King, “why did you bring me an empty pot?”
“Your Majesty” said Serena, “I planted the seed you gave me and I watered it every day, but it didn’t sprout. I put it in a better pot with better soil, but still it didn’t sprout. This is the best I could do”.
With this, the King smiled a broad smile. He took Serena by the hand, leading her through the crowd. She was confused and mortified with embarrassment. The King turned to the crowd and said, “I have found my successor- the person worthy of ruling our realm.”
Serena stammered, “but I have no flower”. “Yes I know” said the King. “The seeds I gave everyone last year had all been roasted. It was not possible for any of them to grow. Where all these flowers have come from I do not know. But you Serena, have the more beautiful flower within you. It is the courage and honesty to appear before me with the truth. And that is precisely the quality that we need in a real leader.”
It is important for genuine leadership because the more we invest authority and power in our leaders, the more they have to operate “in good faith”. When they do that produces trust, the basis from which we can develop consensus. Alas, so often in politics, we live through seasons like we are living through at the moment, where that trust is broken, reputations are tarnished, suspicion predominates, consensus proves ever more elusive, and the common good suffers.
Most of us have a point in our careers when we realize that reputation is all that we have and when that starts to shred, you can’t ever get it back.
I like that story for a lot of reasons, not least of which it faithfully renders the biblical understanding of why we humans have such a hard time being honest with ourselves and with others: left to ourselves, we have a deep seated fear that if we stand with what we have we might stand alone; and we combine that with a deep seated anxiety that we are not good enough and we don’t measure up; and we combine that with a sense of shame that we might do something wrong in public and be called out for it; and we combine that with a motivation that is driven by rewards and privileges rather than intrinsic spiritual value.
When the bible speaks about our penchant for dishonesty, they use primordial saga, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel… That is because there is something that manifests itself in our children before we are even able to educate them about right and wrong, there is something duplicitous about our human nature that skirts responsibility and makes ourselves look better from the earliest age.
In the bible Cain kills Abel out of jealousy that God will like Abel’s gift more than Cain’s. God sees Cain and says to him, “where is your brother?” Of course, Cain’s brother is now dead, so Cain just throws it back at God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He doesn’t lie, but he doesn’t tell the truth either. He changes the subject (a tactic that has become so familiar of late that it has become tiring).
There is something primordial in our nature that deflects attention from ourselves to protect ourselves. There is something primordial in our nature that tries to shape the situation so that we put ourselves in a less damaging light, so that everyone becomes implicated and we don’t stand out. Honesty does not come naturally because we are relatively sure that we won’t measure up. That is true for us as children before they ever learn right from wrong, shame or virtue.
As young people, we are just as vulnerable because we are rarely any more secure. We need an edge to do better than others on tests. We need a break in the rules to get the goal that puts us over the top. We need some cosmopolitan enhancement to be attractive enough to woo the opposite sex to think we are beautiful. We are anxious that we are not competitive, we are not good enough… You get the picture
And then we enter the marketplace with even more pressure to make enough to float and the marketplace is routinely guided by a ‘kill first’ ethos and our young workers are just trying to fit in and show that they are part of the team. They are anxious and vulnerable, protective of their weakness, and open to suggestion about just what constitutes legal deception versus outright fraud.
2300 years ago the philosopher Diogenes walked through the cities of Corinth and Athens with a lamp burning in the middle of the day to guide him. When the good citizens of these Greek cities asked him why he needed a lamp in broad daylight, he replied that he was looking for a single honest man. He too lived in a spiritually dark time in mid-day in the principal cities of commerce and Politics in Ancient Greece.
The last 400 years of the Roman Empire developed duplicity to something of an art of sorcery. Romans would regularly greet their partners with fawning praise, all the while consulting diviners to invoke a curse upon them, looking for ways to do them in.
I call to mind one famous scene, Julius Caesar, who was greeted with enthusiastic praise by his Senators in the last week of his life. As he was headed to the Senate one day, a group of conspirators walked with him and suddenly stabbed him to death, all of them actually taking a turn to drive the knife in his chest so that none could later deny responsibility and betray the others. His famous line, looking to a long time friend, his parting words, “Et tu Brute”. And you too??
No, our wider cultural ethos in politics and commerce has never been conducive to the development of honesty and so we live much of our lives in contradiction with what we know to be our highest calling.
Yet honesty is actually critical for our spiritual development. Unfortunately, most everyone here knows all too well how difficult it is to develop spiritually in a dishonest world, with duplicitous people.
Spiritually speaking, growth happens when you can be genuinely honest. Frankly, we need a place where we can be honest and be around people who are honest with us. We need to know where we really stand and who we really are.
Of all the graces that we have in this life, an honest relationship in love is unquestionably one of the most important when we have it. People that will tell us what it is that we do well, people that will encourage us. People that will not let us fall into our triangulating behaviors, people who have the authority and our trust to not only tell us what our issues are but help us work through them too.
That is what we savor about this life isn’t it? One of my first days at the ER, we had a simple man brought in from a terrible crash. His wife was walking beside him. He obviously wasn’t sure he would make it, so he says to her, “I’m so grateful to you for everything, just everything.” I went to see them the next morning and they were holding hands. Love has that kind of fundamental security about it that is so life giving. It is what we are driven to find and the last thing we want to give up.
Isn’t that what we really want? Don’t we want a group of people that will really know us deeply, in love, not accepting all of our bad habits, but helping us to work through them? Don’t we want to be around people that will help us overcome those parts of ourselves that we wish were already healed?
The truth is this, we need to create spiritual places in our lives where we can be honest with ourselves with others. Honesty is part and parcel of being open, being caring and compassionate, becoming vulnerable and intimate. It is how we become humane and loving and it is the only way we develop authentic trust.
I used to do an exercise with our youth groups. We have all the kids kneel in two rows and lock arms. Then we have one person stand up, close their eyes with their backs to the two rows of kneeling people. And they have to fall backwards. It does not come easy.
Some of your children have trust issues, let me tell you. Others are too trusting, almost a bit reckless… but they won’t be for long. Soon enough, they will have that sense of trust replaced with wariness and distance. Too much of our world breads that into us.
The spiritual antidote is honest, respectful, supportive trust. When you get that going you don’t want to leave it no matter how good another offer might be somewhere else. That has intrinsic worth spiritually and you feel it in a way like nothing else.
Last week I heard the political correspondent from the Wall Street Journal talking about his Washington friends. He said, “they are people that won’t outright lie to you… at least not knowingly.” We are surrounded by way too many acquaintances and colleagues that are no better than that either.
My hope for you, my prayer for you, is that you can plumb deeper this year, that you can find people that will really let you be you. People that will not only not lie to you but will tell you the truth in love, people that will have authority for you, people that will help you to trust and become real. May the Spirit move in and around you through others. Amen.
I got this story from “Living Values Activities for Young Adults” ed. By Diane Tillman (Deerfield: Health Communications, 2000), pp. 371-371. The story has many variations and is and old European fairy tale. You can also visit the website www.livingvalues.net. I’ve abbreviated the story to fit in a sermon frame work and altered the moral slightly to fit the point of the sermon more tightly.
These two examples were brought to mind by Bill Bennett’ “The Book of Virtues” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), pp. 600-601. Bennett does a nice job of collecting poems and legends on Honesty. He also conjoined Diogenes and Jeremiah, oft cited but important.