February 6, 2011

"Just Say, 'Yes'"
Jason Crosby, preaching

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Words are powerful tools.  The right words arranged in the right way by someone else may move us to understand ourselves and our world more clearly.  Wendell Berry’s ability to use an economy of words to capture a thought astound me.   In one of his lesser know poems he writes:

Best of any song

is bird song

in the quiet, but first

you must have the quiet.

In one sentence, using just seventeen words, Berry transports me to another world so that I can see my world differently. 

Yet, words can be confusing.  When the words we speak don’t match the sentiment we wish to convey the result is often confusion and frustration.       

The right words can change our perceptions of the world for the better.  Jesus uses words to reframe others’ perceptions in the Sermon on the Mount.  Blessedness is not a right reserved only for the righteous, joyful, and powerful as conventional wisdom tells us.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, says Jesus.  Not only are you broken people blessed, but you are salt and light in the world.  You will be the people who build God’s kingdom in this world.  By making such statements, Jesus transforms for the better broken people’s understanding of themselves, their God, and their purpose in this world. 

Yet, words can be destructive.  Cruel and abusive words can have a crippling effect on a person’s view of the world. 

Words also are valuable tools that can remind us who we should be.  The words that comprise the oaths and pledges we make to ourselves and others serve as markers that help us be who we claim to be.  I hear the promises and pledges I made to my wife during our wedding ceremony on nearly a daily basis.  Those words continue to help me be the partner I claimed I would be.  Likewise, the oaths and pledges we take as we make our spiritual journeys may help us find our way as we travel the spiritual road.  The promises I made at my baptism and when I was ordained continue to direct me.  Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises we would never be able to keep our identities, we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of every person’s lonely heart.” 

Yet, the words we use to form our promises have their shortcomings too.  Sometimes we use pledges and promises to play pious.  Sometimes the very words that we intend to help us walk in the way of Jesus end up being stumbling blocks that preclude us from doing so.

The full range of implications of the lofty oaths and pledges we take usually do not become fully apparent until a later time.  It is only when we face a challenge that tempts us to be someone other than who we pledged to be, that we begin to understand the implications of the oaths we have taken.  In other words, it is when times get tough that we see if we can really be, who we want to be. 

My parents are not the kind who doled out much unsolicited advice.  They take a mouth closed approach to parenting.  That’s why when my father and I pulled up to high school for my first day as a freshman my ears perked up when he said, “Jason, I have one suggestion for you.”  He said, “be nice to everybody.”  In typical fourteen year old fashion, I remember replying, “Sure, sure. Okay. Now, don’t embarrass me by honking the horn or yelling something corny out the window when you leave.” 

I brushed those words off at the time.  However, that seemingly innocuous moment changed the course of my life in ways I am still discovering.  Those four words acted like seeds planted deep in my soul that took root and continue to grow and grow.

It wasn’t too long after that first day of high school, that I decided that my father’s advice might be worth heeding.  I quickly learned that simply being nice to everybody can really be advantageous for a skinny, short freshman.  Soon, I was liked by jocks and nerds, band kids and outcasts.  Once I realized the perks of just being nice, I began silently repeating “be nice to everybody” before the start of school each day.  When it was time to head off to college I recall telling myself that I would be nice to everyone no matter what.  That phrase became my mantra.  Those words became words I pledged that I would live by.

Once I ventured beyond the relatively friendly confines of high school, it soon became apparent to me that being nice to everyone was going to be much more difficult than I first imagined.   It was going to be more difficult because I began meeting people who were very different than me.  It was real easy being kind to other young people who looked, thought, and acted a lot like me.  The objective became much more complicated when people of different races, ethnicities, ideologies, religious perspectives, and experiences were thrown into the mix.  As I moved into a more diversified and complex world, my narrow perspective made it harder for me to express kindness.  What I thought to be a kind gesture, was not perceived to be an act of kindness by another.  I had to learn that not everyone lights up when greeted with a jovial “Merry Christmas.”  I had to learn that not everyone’s spirits are lifted by a pork bar-b-que sandwich as much as mine.   

Another obstacle to extending genuine kindness was the fact that I was playing by a set of hidden rules that placed me, as a straight, white, man in America, in a position of power.  In that position, I am not discriminated against because of my sexual orientation.  In that position, I enjoy greater access to educational opportunities than people of other race and ethnic groups.  In that position, I enjoy higher pay than woman for doing the very same job.  Until I could understand what silent signals I sent out, then it did not matter how kind my words or actions were.  As long as I blindly played by a set of hidden rules that put me in a position of power above others, then I could never really be kind to everyone. 

In a crude manner, “be nice to everybody” captures one of the - if not the - basic gospel message.  The golden rule, and much of the content delivered in the Sermon on the Mount, can be roughly summarized by the phrase “be nice to everybody.”  Be nice to everybody is one of the fundamental tenets of other religious traditions as well.  The Dalai Lama once said, “My religion is very simple.  My religion is kindness.”  Niceness, kindness are mandatory ingredients for loving a neighbor or an enemy.  It’s really hard to love someone that you are always insulting or criticizing.  Anyone, who professes to be a follower of Jesus, by default pledges to be nice to everybody.

It can be difficult for Christians and churches made up of Christians to live up to who they claim to be too.  In their eye-opening book, What Every Church Member Should Know about Poverty, Bill Ehlig and Ruby Payne highlight some of the barriers that churches often unintentionally construct that make people feel unwelcome.  They note that many impoverished individuals may not feel welcomed in churches where formal attire, rigid worship order, and heavy dependence on elevated language are the norms.  Sometimes, even in our attempts to be holy, we end up doing more harm than we realize.

It can be real hard to live up to the seemingly most simple of pledges – to just be nice to folks.  Inevitably, our reals will fall short of our stated ideals.  Even our best talk is still cheap talk.

So, Jesus says, let’s not spend too much time worrying about words.  Let’s invest the bulk of our time doing what needs to be done to channel God’s love to our world.  What really matters is not who we say we are, but who we are.   What matters isn’t how we speak, but how we act. 

Although words have their place, a very important place, the kingdom that Jesus has invited us all to help build, ultimately, won’t stand on a foundation of promises, pledges, and oaths.  Rather the work of building God’s kingdom necessitates that we use our hearts, hands, and feet; blood, sweat, and tears, more than our words. The kingdom Jesus envisions will be built by those who respond to the invitation to follow him by first simply saying “yes.”  Jesus doesn’t not seek an elaborate, well-crafted, poetic response.  Jesus simply hopes that those who hope to follow him will say “yes” when his unconditional love knocks on the door of your heart.  Saying “yes” to Jesus means saying “no” to other ways of being.  Saying “yes” to Jesus means saying “no” to a life where one’s primary objective is moving up the ladder or acquiring wealth and power.  Saying “yes” to Jesus means saying “no” other ways of being that compete for our allegiance. 

And, once you say “yes,” let your “yeses” be yeses, and your “nos” be nos.  Eugene Peterson translates these words as, “don’t say anything you don’t mean.”  Don’t say yes to following Jesus and then live a life that is not ultimately characterized by unconditional love for all.  Don’t say yes, if you’re planning to talk about Jesus and not work to help make the beautiful vision that God has in mind for our world a reality.   

A couple weeks ago I got a call from a life-long friend of mine.  We grew up together.  We went to school together and grew up in the same church.  He was a very gifted athlete.  He was a very accomplished tennis and basketball player in high school.  Soon after high school he had a daughter and went to work.  College wasn’t in the cards for him.  Since he was so physically gifted, he made his living with his body.  He framed houses and did other construction work.  A few years later he took a city maintenance job.

Through the years he has always been activate in one church or another.  But recently he became very involved in a large church that meets in several different venues.  He told me that the church was in need of a maintenance director and that he was contemplating taking the position.  He expressed reservations about doing so.  It would mean a pay cut.  He felt like he lacked the educational background that he thought could be helpful.  He worried about how some of his friends would perceive him if he were to assume the new role.  Despite his concerns, he told me that the opportunity was one that he just had to say yes to.  He took the job and without fanfare, pomp, or circumstance, this past week he went to work. 

That is the kind of response that Jesus hopes to build his kingdom on.  Just say yes, and follow Jesus with all your heart, mind, body, and soul loving people as you go and God’s kingdom where peace and love ultimately reign will come.

As I survey the scene that is this sanctuary this morning, I see the limits of words on full display.  Many of people in this room this morning, literally, do not speak the same language.  And, ironically, as I’ve been rambling on about the limits of language, a lot of folks present this morning have not understood a word I’ve said.  Even those who technically speak the same language, however, may not be able to communicate with one another.  Many people who speak the same language live in worlds that are so different that they just don’t know what to say to each other. 

What I also see is a group of people trying their best to do just what Jesus asks his followers to do – that is – to move beyond words and do what needs to be done to demonstrate love for one another.  By sitting with someone in silence, smiling at someone, giving someone a hug, shaking a hand, opening a door, preparing a meal, we are saying what we need to say much better than we ever could with our words.  Even if you feel as if you have not done a great deal to transcend the limits of language here, you are here.  Your simple presence says that you care about those you gather with this morning.  In this place, through you people, whether you realize or not, God’s love is picking up where our words fall short.  By saying yes to God’s call and doing our best to love one another, God is building a microcosm of the greater hope he has for our world on this corner.

Whereas words can be just as divisive and exclusive as they can be reconciling and inclusive, in every language and culture the table overwhelmingly serves as a symbol of hospitality, kindness, and love.  This table sends a message more loudly and clearly than words ever could, that everyone who wishes to meet Jesus’ love and grace is welcome here.  No elaborate reply is required in response to this unconditioned invitation.  Simply say “yes,” and come and partake.

Wendell Berry.  Leavings.  Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010.

Bill Ehlig and Ruby Payne.  What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty.  Highlands, TX:  aha! Process, 1999.