“As for Sarai, her name will now be Sarah, ‘Noblewoman.’ I will bless her, and I will give you a child by her. I will bless her, and she will become nations; rulers of peoples will come from her.” Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Is a child to be born of a man who is 100 years old? And will Sarah bear a child at the age of 90?”Genesis 17
At Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, GA, for the Lenten season this year, we’ve chosen as our theme Resilience. Each Sunday we have selected two words that begin with Re-, words that reflect on our overall theme. For the second Sunday of Lent, the Sunday I preached, the words were Reject and Regenerate, and the scriptures were the stories of Abraham and Sarah hearing that they are going to have a son, and Jesus’ rebuke of Peter.
Reject = to throw back; as, to toss a fish that is too small back into the sea, or yarn that is dry-rotted or musty back into the bin.
Regenerate = to make again; to take something pre-existing and bring it to life, but not the same as before: to transform it into something different, something new, something better.
Is this what God intends by renaming Abram and Sarai? The renaming happens alongside the promise that they will be the progenitors of many nations, generations too numerous to count.
However, in order for Abraham and Sarah to accept the call to regenerate, they have to reject the plan they had for the end of their lives, let go of their preconceptions of what old age would be. I can’t imagine that Sarah received the news joyfully. I mean, the woman is 90! I’m 67, and if I got news like that, I’d say, “You gotta be kiddin’ me!” And Abraham falls on his face, he’s laughing so hard.
Isn’t someone who has lived that long entitled to some peace and quiet? But instead, a child! The process of birth is all by itself a huge risk for mother and child, and if they both survive the birth, then there is this son to raise, to bring up right, to rejoice in, to weep over. Because although Isaac’s name means Laughter, we all know it won’t be a laugh a minute. There are going to be plenty of tears. Abraham and Sarah have to let go of their preconceptions about their future.
They have to say No to their plans for retirement, if they are going to say Yes to what Godde is inviting them to.
But turning and looking at his disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”Mark 8: 33
A young carpenter is called to go to the river to be baptized by his cousin: a brilliant and affirming experience, a benediction! But immediately he is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit and shown three alternative ways that he can proceed. And they aren’t bad things he is shown. As master preacher Fred Craddock said, they are three excellent offers. And why not? Why shouldn’t he turn stones to bread? or leap from the pinnacle of the temple? or seize political power? People are suffering, they are hungry, they are wandering around in profound confusion, they are like sheep without a shepherd.
The problematic thing is that each temptation involves a centering of the ego, a dramatic gesture that will center Jesus as the Star of the Show, the Hero of the Hour. But Jesus sees that these offers do not speak to his authentic ministry, his authentic self, the self he is called to be, so he says No to those stirring visions in order to say Yes to his authentic call.
All through his life Jesus is continuously having to reject the preconceptions that other people, and even his closest friends, have about what it means to be Messiah. Even Peter, who Jesus proclaims will be the rock on which the beloved community will be founded, tries to turn Jesus’ face away from Jerusalem. And Jesus rebukes him, “Get behind me, get out of my sight! You are thinking the way mortals think, not the way God thinks!”
Jesus has to say No, quite emphatically, in order to say Yes.
The passage that follows the rebuke of Peter is one that troubled me as a child and as a young woman.
Then Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it.”Mark 8: 34-35
The problem was not the passage, it was the interpretation I picked up somewhere along the way. I thought that “denying myself” meant rejecting what I loved, and that rejecting what I loved most was what was required to do God’s will. I loved music: singing, and playing the organ, playing piano, immersing myself in the performance of some symphony. I loved language and writing: forever jotting down little poems and starting a novel at age 8. So I decided it would be a true sacrifice, a true denial of self, to give up music and writing, the things I loved most, in order to do something that disgusted me. What disgusted me most?
As children, every week my brothers and I had chores. One of those chores was to clean the bathroom. I hated cleaning the bathroom. So when I had the “revelation” that God wanted me to reject everything I loved and take on “the cross” of something I hated, it came to me that what God was calling me to do was go door to door in the West End of Louisville, KY, with a pail of cleaning supplies and offer to clean people’s bathrooms.
You may laugh–in fact, I hope you are laughing!–but I was serious. The adults in my life would have been alarmed had they known what I was thinking, but wasn’t it the logical extension of everything I had been taught? I just followed the line of reasoning I had been given, and that’s the conclusion I came to. Happily for me, I didn’t end up “sacrificing” music or writing (although I have cleaned a few bathrooms along the way), because I began to see, with the help of my preacher Dad, that God just might be calling me through the very things I loved most.
By the way, Jesus’ refusal to turn the stones into bread did not mean that he rejected the call he felt to feed the poor. Craddock points out that, “…On the contrary, in the course of his ministry he did feed the poor, he did perform wonders among the people, his ministry did have and continues to have enormous political impact.”
But Jesus was called to feed the poor not by simply turning stones into bread. He was called to feed the people in a way that was transformative. He took them out to a hillside and taught them about God, and fed them there in a way that empowered them to feed each other, demonstrating for them the abundance of God’s kin-dom.
When I was studying to be a classical singer in New York, Mahon Bishop, my voice teacher, would say to me in my lessons, “Honey, those who lose their voice will find it, and those who save their voice will lose it.” He said this to me repeatedly, with a twinkle, whenever I would tie myself in knots to perfect some instruction he had just given me.
What was Mahon telling me? That I had to lose my voice? No, he was telling me that the effort to save my voice, the effort to perfect what he was teaching me, was blocking me from experiencing the glorious freedom of singing that he was offering. I had to risk missing (“losing”) the pitch, I had to risk making an ugly sound, in order to find the authentic beauty of my own voice.
I had to say No to my desire to get it perfect, just as I had to say No to a misguided understanding of what it meant to deny myself, in order to say Yes to the gift God had placed within me.
Sometimes you have to say No to something that looks right, that looks good on the surface, in order to go deeper and say Yes to what God is calling you to do, Yes to the self that God created you to be.
It is still a sacrifice.
It was a sacrifice for Abraham and Sarah to say Yes, to be given responsibility for a new life, to uproot their future and set out for an unknown country.
It was a sacrifice for Jesus to say Yes, to feed the people in such a way that he was simultaneously proclaiming liberty to what was captive inside them–but that was also exponentially more threatening to the religious and political powers of his day. Because, it occurs to me, they could maybe have understood a miracle worker who changed stones to bread, or threw himself off the pinnacle of the temple in a dramatic display of divinity. They could even have understood, perhaps, someone who seized political power in order to fast-track solutions to everything that was wrong with the status quo. But this man? This carpenter from Nazareth, of all places? This raggedy preacher and his rag-tag band of followers?
And so they said No. They rejected him, because they couldn’t say No to everything they had spent their lives building and maintaining and securing–
Which meant that they couldn’t say Yes to the regenerative, transformational power brought into being by this incarnation of God’s Love.
In every moment God is calling us to say No so that we might say Yes: No to all that is inauthentic. Yes to the call that God has hidden in the center of our particular gifts. Through those gifts God longs to speak comfort to the world. It is a comfort that can only be found in the courage to say Yes to holy discomfort.
2 thoughts on “Saying No in order to say Yes”
Amen, Karen! Thank you for those words of deep wisdom! I look forward to reading more!!! Judy F
Thanks, Judy! For visiting and for reading!