Yes and No
A sermon based on Matthew 5:33-37 (The Message version)
Being clear about our own truth and our own boundaries, allows us to be more loving and is more of a service to God, to the other person, and to God’s Realm.
And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and then never doing it or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say “yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.
For the Word of God in Scripture
For the Word of God among us
For the Word of God within us
Thanks be to God
Think of a time when you said yes to someone, but you really wanted to say NO. Or, a time when you said NO, but realized you really wanted to say yes. It might have been a small thing like going to a movie or getting ice cream or a big thing like taking a job or buying a house. You might have known your true answer in the moment or perhaps later.
This morning we are moving into our Annual Congregational Meeting and will be asked to say yes or no on matters of the congregation. So it seems appropriate to name and to know that Jesus speaks to us about matters of discernment and declaration. He seems to want us to be truthful and clear and to know ourselves as we declare our yes and no.
My sense is that Matthew’s Community has Jesus teaching about this in the important Sermon on the Mount because being clear about our own truth and our own boundaries actually allows us to be more loving which is more of a service to God, to the other person, and to God’s Realm. The Beloved Community is a place where community building covenants are made, and made well, and therefore kept. I think Jesus understood that community, real and worthy community that finds its way to justice and peace, is based on truthful, sincere and appropriate covenants. And relationship covenants are based on good boundaries of yes and no.
In a church I used to pastor, one of the three simple questions of new members that I asked during the ritual of membership was “Are you willing to say both yes and no?”
I must admit that I have often not been free and willing to do that because I was afraid that my authentic answer would affect the relationship negatively. Jesus challenges me and us in calling us to be authentic and in a way that builds relationships and strengthens community.
I have an idea about that and a process I want to share with you. Here’s what we often don’t realize or remember:
I believe that this positive No is at the heart of how we clarify and ground the oaths and covenants that build loving and just relationships. A positive No serves relationships by building them on the clarity and truth of what is and by minimizing the likelihood that whatever covenant has been made will be broken because a lurking unexpressed resentment or disagreement or disrespect. Let’s explore….
What do people do that is not a positive NO? Or, you could say, what is a negative No? Three things: accommodate, attack, or avoid.
A positive no honors both parties in that it empowers you to be true, to not hurt yourself or the other, and it keeps respect for the other and openness to the possibility of another agreement and to the ongoing relationship.
So how can one do this?
In most sacred traditions, including ours, there is the presence of a symbolic Tree of Life. That Tree can serve well as an image for how we can find our positive No which empowers us to follow the teaching of Jesus in being clear about our yes and our no.
Let’s divide that tree into three parts; roots, trunk, and upper branches and leaves. There are three parts to a positive No that can correspond to the tree image; an internal yes, our external No, and another external yes.
Let’s start with the roots.
If we are to have a positive No, we must go inward, down into our own roots and know what is important to us. What do we truly want? Where are we trying to go? What are we trying to do? What vision is calling to us? This taproot is our deep yes, our basic values and commitments.
For those following in the Christ Way, we are asked to say yes to some basic understandings
This place of the Yes, of the “roots” is the also the place to know who we are individually, uniquely, deeply.
What are my values? What do I want ultimately? What is mine to do? How is my unique life going to express God’s Yes to me and to all life?
This is the place to find our deep yes!
We can often miss what is true here because we are unaware of our unconscious motives and commitments. This inquiry into our deep roots is critical to working through our yes and no.
OK, now to the trunk of that tree.
This is the No that we identify and express. Out of our roots where we find our deep yes, comes the identification of what then does not serve that Yes. If I have made time commitments and affirm that I am only one person with limits of time and space, I might have to say NO to a request for volunteering or working overtime or giving my time up to television or continuing a destructive behavior like an addiction.
Setting a NO boundary is being faithful to our deeper Yes.
We might disappoint someone else, but we cannot really agree to something with integrity that we are asked unless we actually see the yes in it. Saying yes to things that we know are not the right thing for us in that moment leads to resentment and sabotage of that covenant later on, even unconsciously or passive-aggressively, or it leads to a loss of self-respect or a depression that hides anger. We can punish ourselves or another person (often both) for not being true to our deeper Yes.
When discrimination or hatred or insult come, if our deeper Yes to God’s Grace and our making in the divine image is to be served, we must reject messages or treatment that says we are less than that. The civil rights movement was and is a giant positive NO movement. Speaking up and saying Black Lives Matter is a positive No to all that does not honor equally the lives of black people. Speaking up and acting against the discrimination and hatred of gay or lesbian or transgender people is positive NO to all that does not honor equally the lives of LGBTQ people. These positive No statements are based in a deep Yes to seeing all of us as God’s children and worthy of love and respect.
OK, now the third part of the tree, the canopy of the upper branches and leaves. After expressing our positive NO, we not only honor and protect our own deep Yes, but we can then be open to another positive Yes in relation to the other. We can come from a place of self-knowledge, self-respect, and self-confidence to offer what is an acceptable agreement in relating to the other. Like those branches, we can reach out to the other, offering other possibilities, not this but that. I can’t go with you now or volunteer now, but perhaps I can reconsider in two months when my schedule changes. We can make an offer to the other person that honors our true connection or commonality with that other.
So there are three parts to a positive NO; a deep Yes, a specific No, and the offer of another possible yes.
Here’s how it might look.
A boss comes to you and asks you to work on Saturday on an important project. You know that this would score points with the boss and possibly advance your career, but you are also the coach of your daughter’s soccer team and promised that you would spend more time with her. What do you do?
To the roots: Where is your yes?
How does your career figure in what you want in life? Is it most important? Is family life and presence more important? Can advancing your career support your family life or have told yourself that before only to see it doesn’t work out this way? Maybe your boss has a way of using people in this way and doesn’t really come through or return the favor. While life is complicated and we might want to know more about how family is going in terms of money and relationship, and more about the boss and your history with her, let’s just say that you know inside that the thing you really know you want to do is to be there for your daughter and to coach the soccer game. You want to say yes to more family time. It will lead you to the life you value, to living out a value of children and family that you believe in. You may see that God calls you to human relationship more than money, and that you are called to respect yourself as much as the other person.
To the Trunk: Expressing your No.
Now you have to draw on the inspiration of connecting with your deep yes to family and to self-respect. This is the time to express your NO and say to the boss, “I can’t work this weekend. I have a commitment to family time that I want to honor.”
To the top of the tree: Another yes to the relationship.
Adding another possibility to the equation that would work for you and showing respect and appreciation for the other keeps the relationship open and keeps you from a negative no. It might sound like this:
“I can’t work this Saturday. I have a commitment to family time that I want to honor, but I really appreciate you thinking of me with this important project. I can hear that you would like to get it done ASAP. I know that the project is important for the company and I would be willing to work on it Sunday evening from 6-9pm. How would that work?”
How did that feel as I was telling it? Did anyone feel any butterflies in the stomach or anger when the request was made?
You may already see where this process is most difficult for you:
Mahatma Gandhi said
A ‘No’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.”
While there is much to learn of this process and more that could be said, I hope the tree image is a helpful way for you to remember and to identify your true yes and no.
Jesus teaches that it is important to have your yes be yes and your no be no, to be true to others requires being true to yourself. This is one Way to the Realm of God, to Beloved Community.
This, I believe, is what Jesus teaches.
This is the Path we are challenged to follow.