Sunday, March 1, 2015

Saying No: a sermon

Year B Lent 2 2015
St. Thomas Episcopal, Richmond, VA
“Saying No”

There is a stage in our development that has been slapped with the name the Terrible Twos.  This baby with whom we have bonded so closely has now started saying a word, a word that they have heard several thousand times in their first year of life.  They have learned that this word holds power.  This word has authority.  They spit it out.  Often repeatedly like machine gun fire.  The word is NO.  “No.  No, no, no, no, no!”

Does this child do this to annoy us?  To drive us crazy?  No.  They do it because they can.  They have learned that they have a voice, both literal and psychological.  They use said voice, exercising their autonomy and independence.  They say No, because they are their own creature.  As much as it pains us at times and drives us crazy, a toddler screaming no is at its core a good thing.  And as an aside, please remember this parents, and even more, please remember this when you are stuck in line behind a poor parent with a child expressing his or her autonomy at a store.  This is fun for none of us.

Today we are talking about saying No, and this is a hard topic for me.  I am that type of person who likes to say yes.

I like to help people, and I like to be of service.

I have been hard pressed in recent days to emphasize my NO, however.  In fact, I need to often make saying no a spiritual discipline.

I was at an event recently, and I had someone ask if I could take on a leadership role.  I said no.  The person making the request smiled, laughed, and emphasized the need for me to do the role.  I said no.  The person got serious, and emphasized how I needed to do this.  I smiled back, no matter how I felt inside, and was very clear this time.  “I will not be doing this.  Thank you for asking.”

With a click of her tongue, the person looked at me like I had smacked her.  “HARSH!”

“No,” I responded, “honest!”

When we say yes to something, we say no to something else.  When we say yes to chocolate, we say no to vanilla.  When we say yes to going to the movies, we say no to going to store.  We cannot be all things to all people.  We cannot clone ourselves, nor can we be like Hermione in the Harry Potter series and be in two places at once.

Likewise, when we say yes to God, something has to give.  It is not that God wants us to live miserable existences, but we must make decisions.  Just like God does not want us to be miserable, neither does God wish us to be burnt out and of little good to anyone.  “Come unto me,” Jesus said, “for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Even Jesus explained it to us this way: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  

But I am not here today to discuss poverty, unless we talk about poverty of Spirit.

Most often we hear another word of Jesus from the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

It has always struck me when I have read the contemporary translation by Eugene Peterson, The Message.  He translates the “Blessed are the poor in spirit” this way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

When we let go of ourselves, or maybe our selfishness, our orientation on ourselves, we can allow our nature to be more in tune with God and God’s rule.  If we say Yes to God, there is not a space to say Yes to ourselves as well.  We choose the one over the other.

When the woman approached me about taking on another leadership role, I had to say no because I have said Yes to being a husband and a dad.  I had to say no because I had said Yes to being a priest and teacher.  In fact, as I get to know myself more and am more comfortable in my skin it becomes more and more intuitive to that which I can say Yes.

Ana Hernandez yesterday put it this way, “That really does not sound fun to me is a good reason to say no to something.”  As I grow in my self-awareness and live more fully into the call of God in my life, I can get more and more attuned to what is part of God’s call and what I need to say Yes to for God’s sake, and what will not be fun and apart from God’s desires.

Today we are presented with stories of people who said yes, and we can see the impact that it had on their lives.

Abram and Sarai wanted a child.  They were desperate for a child, but in their advanced age they had given up hope decades before.  When the visiting angels told Sarai she would have a child she actually laughed, but that is in the chapter after today’s reading.

When God promises Abram a son, he asks much of him.  Change your name, and much more besides.  The lectionary, by cutting some verses, emphasizes the name change.  But for Abram to say yes to this new way of seeing himself and being, he had to say no to the way things had been.  For Sarai to think about the possibility of being a mother, she had to rethink everything.  Everything.

Having one’s first child when she can get the Senior discount probably changes things even more.

God was calling on both of them to rethink who they were in him.  Abram means “Noble father” and he is being called to see himself anew.  He is to change his perspective to be “Father of nations.”  Sarai, “Princess,” becomes Sarah, “Mother of many.”  After so long, this was a call to a real leap of faith for the two of them.  They had to let go of their doubts, and claim their new identities.  They had to let go of their plans and scheming, and not focus on Ishmael as an alternative for them.  Even more difficult.

Saying Yes to God, and saying No to ourselves is not an easy thing at first.  Like that toddler saying No, we say it to exercise our autonomy and independence.  When we say Yes to God, however, we are letting go of those things we hold so dear, especially in this country, so much.

Abram and Sarai, cum Abraham and Sarah, said No to their old ways and their old way of seeing themselves.  They said Yes to who God was calling them to be.

In our Gospel reading, we see another story of saying No.  

Mark 8:31-33
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Peter here is doing what he thinks he should do.  He loves Jesus.  He wants Jesus to be successful and all that God would have him be.  He is even respectful.  He does not call Jesus out in front of the others, he takes him aside.  He rebukes Jesus, but in a way to show the depth of both his concern and care.  Peter, I believe, is saying Yes to all his hopes in who Jesus is.  And also, think about it, would you want to get on board a sinking ship?  If Jesus is about to be rejected and killed, would you want any part of that?  Peter did not.  He was saying Yes to who he felt Jesus was.

Thank goodness, however, that Jesus said No to Peter.  Jesus knew who he was.  Jesus was secure in his calling.  Jesus was confident in what God wanted him to do.  He had spelled out what he understood his calling as well as what the foretelling of Scripture said about the Messiah.  When Peter rebuked him, Jesus rejected the rebuke.  ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’  Jesus saw what Peter was doing, and why.  To us this sounds so harsh.  But, no, Jesus was being honest.

The Hebrew word Satan in our minds conjures up red horns and a pitchfork and evil.  The word means Adversary.  The Opposition.  And in a technical sense, that is exactly what Peter was doing.  He was being being the Adversary to Jesus.  He was encouraging him to forget and leave behind all this suffering servant stuff.  Jesus was secure in himself and in God, and said No.

He calls us to be the same.  Later in our Gospel reading, he calls us to say No, No to ourselves and Yes to God.

Mark 8:34-37
Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

As we follow Christ, we have to learn to say No, so that we can say Yes.  May God bless our following.  Amen.

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Blessings, Rock