Oh Lord, uphold thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
I don’t know about you, but every time I have received a statement in the mail from my broker for at least the last two or three quarters regarding my humble portfolio, I throw it right in the trash. I don’t open it, I don’t read the reports, I don’t even want to hold the envelope for very long. I leaf through the mail and when I see it, it is one easy motion from the top of my desk to the bottom of my trash can. I was telling a friend in the investment business about this new habit of mine and he said, “Well, in this market I guess a little denial is a good thing.”
I don’t know whether or not it is a good thing, but he is right – I am in denial. I know the market is bad, I know my portfolio is way down, but if I just ignore it then maybe I can make the problem go away. Denial – it is a powerful defense mechanism. Humans have this amazing ability to deny the reality of that which is painful or difficult in the hope that if we don’t have to confront whatever it is we are in denial about, then it will go away and we won’t ever have to deal with it. Out of sight, out of mind – the problem will take care of itself. Melissa says I have the ability to deny the existence of dirty dishes or the reality of dirty clothes in the middle of the floor. While she is right, in this case denial works; if I walk around them long enough surprisingly they take care of themselves. However, then I have to live in denial about the fact that my wife is mad at me.
We all know about denial. We all know about our ability to disbelieve facts because we think our disbelief is easier to take than the truth. Whether it is blaming our tightening pants on those who plot against us at the dry cleaners by shrinking our perfectly good clothes, or rationalizing our way into believing that our families actually need that third TV; denial is an everyday fact of life. And while small denials might seem harmless, many of us are in denial about far larger problems in our lives, problems that can have very destructive consequences.
There is story about a man named George who went on vacation to the Middle East with his family, including his mother-in-law. During their vacation in Jerusalem George’s mother-in-law died. With the death certificate in his hand, George went to the American Consulate to make arrangements to send the body back to the United States for proper burial. The Consul told George that to send the body back to the U.S. was very expensive. It could cost as much as $10,000.00. In most cases, he was told, the remains are normally buried in Jerusalem. That would only cost him $150.00. George immediately told the Consulate official that he did not care how much it cost, his mother-in-law was going to be sent back to the United States. The official replied, “You must have loved your mother-in-law very much to spend this kind of money on her now that she is gone.” “Well, not exactly,” said George. “You see, I know of a case many, many years ago of someone that was buried here in Jerusalem. After three days he rose from the dead! I just can’t take that chance.” (Should I be in denial about the fact that my mother-in-law sent me this joke?)
In our gospel for today, the tenants in the vineyard believed they couldn’t take the chance that the landowner might come and reclaim the vineyard. It was a great place to live and work and they wanted to keep it for themselves. Every year they worked hard to make the vineyard produce the finest grapes and they thought the harvest ought to be theirs and theirs alone. No matter how many emissaries the vineyard owner sent to the tenants imploring them to turn over to him a fair share, the tenants always refused. Instead of listening to the truth of their situation that they were only tenants and tenants have responsibilities to pay rent, they instead killed the messengers. Clearly, the tenants were in denial. They were in denial about who actually owned their vineyard and they were in denial about their responsibilities to share the bounty of their harvest. They fooled themselves into thinking that if they got rid of all those sent to collect for the owner then they could keep the vineyard and the produce for themselves. Even when the owner of the vineyard sent his own son to shake them out of their illusions, they killed him too, deluding themselves into believing that with the son’s death now the owner would leave them alone.
Jesus told this parable as a scathing condemnation of the religious leaders of the time whose sole reason for being was to speak God’s truth. However, Jesus believed these leaders were less interested in truth and more interested in protecting their institutional bureaucracy. These leaders were supposed to serve God, instead they used their power to control the faith, often in service to themselves. “You are living in denial,” Jesus was telling them. “These are God’s people, not your people, give God his due or face the consequences.”
Jesus was very fond of the truth and truth telling. He was adamant that all those who search for God must face the facts about their lives. Jesus called Peter Satan when Peter tried to deny the truth that the Messiah must suffer and die. When the woman at the well tried to dance around the facts, Jesus called a spade a spade lovingly pointing out that while she wanted the water of life she was not willing to deal with the truth that she was involved in an adulterous relationship. Are we living in denial too? Are we more like the tenants in the vineyard than we might like to admit? While some acts of denial, like the reality of our expanding waistlines, might seem harmless and other acts of denial, like our inability to come to terms with the death of a loved one, might act as a short term coping mechanism protecting us from the pain of a tragic reality, most denial makes a lie out of our lives and keeps us from God. Anyone who has ever been or who has ever dealt with an alcoholic knows that the almost endless power of the alcoholic to deny that they have a problem can destroy individuals and families. The truth about ourselves is sometimes very painful and we would rather avoid pain than confront the truth. How many times have we gone to bed leaving a major fight with our spouse unresolved only to wake up in the morning believing that because it is a new day it is perfectly fine to forget about what happened the night before? How many times have we denied the truth of our own unhappiness because it is easier to fake the smile than it is to fix the problem? How many times have we (especially the men among us) hidden the symptoms of disease because we are too afraid to go to the doctor’s and face the truth? We delude ourselves into believing that if we wait long enough our symptoms will simply take care of themselves.
Our faith teaches us that God is love. We should also know that God is truth. God is present wherever there is love and God is present whenever we struggle with the truth – the truth about ourselves, the truth about our families, the truth about our world. We can live in denial if we want to, but we should know that we cannot live in faith at the same time. As Jesus said to his followers, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;  and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” John 8:31-32 Amen.