‘The Curse of the Truth-teller’ | ‘The Curse of the Truth-teller’

Jeremiah 20:7-13; Matthew 10:24-39
I know that some of you, like me, are big fans of the comedy series “Rev”
which recently came to the end of its third, and final, run.  For those of you
who haven’t seen it, it’s a comedy series with a serious undertone, the
seriousness coming from the truthfulness of its observations about the clergy
and parish life.  These observations can be quite painful. The Vicar of Dibley
it is not.

The central character is the Revd., Adam Smallbone played by Tom Hollander.  He
is vicar of an East End church which has a peculiarly ill-assorted
congregation.  There’s middle-aged Adoha who fancies Adam and rather hopes
his wife would one day fall under a bus; there’s Colin, the scabrous vagrant
who befriends Adam and is constantly trying to help him out of his financial
difficulties with all sorts of scams that are almost certainly illegal; and then
there’s the lovely Ellie, the Head Teacher of the C of E primary school and
for whom Adam has the hots.    Finally, of course, there is Alex, his
long-suffering wife who is supportive, but inclined to outbursts of exasperation
at the impossible demands made on her husband.

What makes the series so truthful – aside from the brilliantly observed
wackiness of parish life – is Adam’s honest doubt.  He’s constantly
asking where God is in all this mess and confusion, and he’s never really sure
at all.   But every time Adam seems ready to throw in the towel he’s pulled
back by his sense of vocation. There is something entirely involuntary about
this.  For all its stresses and difficulties, being a parish priest is integral
to who Adam really is. To walk away from that calling would be to deny his own
identity at the most fundamental level.

You see precisely this sense of compulsion in today’s reading from Jeremiah.
Jeremiah was in a far worse position than Adam.  Being the archetypical Old
Testament prophet, he foretold violence and destruction for Israel, so far had
God’s chosen people departed from his ways.  Jeremiah is met with derision
for his efforts.  He desperately wants to walk away from it all but he simply
cannot:

“If I say ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’ then
within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary
with holding it in and I cannot.”

When we use the term “prophet” we usually do so referring to someone who
predicts the future.  That’s true of biblical prophets but we are not talking
crystal ball-gazers here.  Whatever insight they have about the future comes
from a deep understanding of the truth of what is going on in the present.
Prophets are truth-tellers above all.  It’s precisely because the truth
causes discomfort that truth-tellers are generally unpopular. This is something
acknowledged by Jesus in today’s gospel when he talks of the divisions and
disputes that break out wherever the gospel is preached. While we usually
associate the prophets with the bible, we find them in the secular world as
well, where they are often known as “whistle blowers”.

Julie Bailey, the health service campaigner, is a good example.  She was so
appalled by the terrible treatment her dying mother received at Stafford
hospital that she started an ultimately successful campaign for a public inquiry
into its failings.  As she did so, more and more stories like hers came to
light. This was a huge achievement and the findings of the inquiry truly
shocking.  It was, however, achieved at great personal cost.   Such was the
unquestioning attachment of some to the NHS in general and the Stafford hospital
in particular, that Julie found herself abused in the street, hounded out of her
home and – most shocking of all – her mother’s grave desecrated.  A
modern day Jeremiah, indeed.

Margaret Heffernan has written a book called “Wilful Blindness” which asks
how it is that we can so often ignore the truth that is under our noses.  Her
research suggests that there are a few common characteristics amongst these
prophet-whistle blowers.  Although they become the awkward squad they begin as
conformists, as true believers.  In Jeremiah’s case, it’s precisely because
of his love for Israel and its covenant relationship with God that causes him to
speak out so boldly when he sees it departing from the standards required of the
covenant.  In Julie Bailey’s case, it was the hospital’s departure from the
NHS’s core purpose, principles and values that caused her to speak out.
These prophets are optimists rather than cynics – people who believe that
things can and should be better than they are.

The fate of prophets like these should have us all on our knees praying that
this cup may pass us by.  And yet, there is a sense in which we are all called
to be prophets, albeit not in such life-changing, high profile ways such as
these.

At the heart of our faith is a belief, expressed by Jesus that the truth sets us
free.  In other words, that whenever falsehood prevails we will always be held
back from growth and from realising the full potential of any situation.  Where
falsehood triumphs – even at the most mundane level – life is denied.

My work in the secular world of business confirms this. We work in organisations
to overcome the obstacles that get in their way.  As often as not, failure to
reach full potential isn’t because of faulty products or strategy, or people
not doing their jobs properly, but because there is a lack of honesty, because
the truth is not being spoken or acknowledged in some way.  Our job is
therefore very often to allow what’s not being said to be said.  It is
amazing how the most seemingly intractable problems become readily soluble once
the truth is out.  And as Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, nothing that
is covered up will stay that way forever.  It’s just that the longer the
truth is suppressed, the greater the damage done.

This is the reason why all organisations and institutions – including the
church, most definitely – need people whom the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr
refers to as being “inside the edge”. These people play the role of
mini-prophets.  They work within the institution and are fully committed to it,
but at the same time they maintain the stance of an outsider on the inside –
someone who consciously stands back to reflect on and critique what’s going
on.  And it’s their very commitment to the institution and belief in it that
compels them to do this and to tell the truth as they see it

This requires not just guts but also the ability to stand back, and that is
easier said than done.  Most people I come across in organisations – be they
commercial, public sector or voluntary – work under great pressure.  They are
so wrapped up in what they are doing and so time-pressed, that taking the time
to stand back and reflect seems like the most impossible luxury.  And yet,
without the perspective and truth this brings, institutions are inclined to lose
any real sense of where they are heading.

“The truth will set you free”.  If we are to live and work as Christians we
need to see the truth and tell it.  This is not easily done – but it is
essential we do it.  So it’s a challenge for each and every one of us to
think about where in our lives we can serve others by seeing and telling the
truth by being “inside the edge”. It may be at work, in our neighbourhoods
or in our families.  It may even be in this church.  Tough as this challenge
may be, there is comfort in the prospect of knowing that we’ve done the right
thing.  Margaret Heffernan says this of those latter day prophets:

“… they have all found themselves more powerful with the truth than without
it. The mother who discovered child abuse in her family found in herself a
stronger, more capable parent than she knew she was. The executive who dared to
resist the power of silence in a meeting can look back at a problem fixed
instead of buried. The bystander who wasn’t passive, the soldier who could not
obey, all take as their reward a comfort in knowing that they did what they
could and did not choose to look away.….what such individuals gain is the
knowledge that, whatever else happens, they can live ‘together with
themselves’, continuing in their minds a dialogue that is neither
incriminating nor soporific but dynamic and alive.”

Amen