Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2006, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
In Him It Is Always “Yes”
It may be tempting sometimes to think of church as a predictable place, a haven where the liturgy becomes soothingly familiar and nothing much ever changes and we can basically sit back and relax. And then along come readings like the ones we heard this morning, readings that begin and end with surprise and that tell us that God is up to something new. The first line of the first reading is that wonderful passage from Isaiah: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old; I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” [Isaiah 43: 18]. And the last line of the last reading, Mark’s story of Jesus healing the paralytic, is the cry of amazement from crowds, “We have never seen anything like this!”
“I am about to do a new thing.” “We have never seen anything like this!” These opening and closing lines stand like brackets around today’s readings, like two open arms that hold the power of God to transform our lives. And in the middle of the middle reading is a phrase that says it all: “in him it is always ‘Yes'” [2 Corinthians 1:19b]. Here’s what leads up to that line in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: “As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been ‘Yes and No.’ For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.'” For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.'” [2 Corinthians 1:18-20].
That’s the core message of today’s readings: God’s word to us is Yes. Yes, I love you. Yes, I formed you for myself. Yes, I will make a way in whatever wilderness you may be lost and wandering. Yes, I will make rivers spring up in your desert. Yes, I will free you from whatever is paralyzing your spirit and keeping you stuck. Yes, I will forgive the sins that are burdening your soul. Yes, I will put my seal on you and place my Spirit in your heart. Yes, I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? You have never seen anything like this. My word to you is Yes.
As I reflected on these passages I found myself wanting to sit for a long time with that line: “in him it is always ‘Yes.'” For the fact is: everyone knows what it’s like to hear the word No. We know what it’s like to be disappointed. We know what it’s like to come up against obstacles that we just couldn’t dodge, or to run into walls that stopped us in our tracks. Maybe we heard No when it came to our dream of finding a life partner or our hope of conceiving a child. Maybe we heard that No when we lost a job or got a diagnosis, when our marriage fell apart or when someone close to us died.
There are plenty of No’s we may be hearing right now in our personal and family life, and we may feel the weight of No’s in our national life, too. Anyone who longs desperately for peace in the Middle East or Iraq, or for decisive action from our national government to address poverty or education or climate change – well, we may feel as if we’re listening to a lot of No’s right now.
When faced with a No, we are thrust into a spiritual wrestling match with God, as we try to make meaning of our lives. Questions confront us: What am I going to make of this? What are God and I together going to make of this? How does this No affect my relationship with God? What is this No saying about who I am called to be and what I am called to do? How will God use this ‘No’ to draw me deeper into the heart of God? How will God transform this death into a crucifixion that will bring new life? How do I pray with this No, so that the Holy Spirit can integrate it into my life with God?
Prayer can help us integrate our No’s at a deeper level. And it will take some time. Prayer becomes a necessary discipline. We may need to face feelings that we’ve denied – maybe shock or anger, anxiety or sorrow. We will need to grieve our losses, but in a special way – within the embrace of God’s love. Mourning is one thing, but mourning-in-God is something else. It’s so tempting, when we hear any kind of No, to let it fuel our chronic self-rejection. We may start telling ourselves, “See? This loss or disappointment just shows how inadequate I am, how incompetent, how worthless, how basically unloved.” Every No tempts us to reject ourselves, to add to the pain that comes with any No the additional (and unnecessary) suffering of self-hatred.
When we pray our losses within the embrace of God’s love, we bring all the inevitable No’s of life into the embrace of God’s Yes. For God is always saying Yes to us: Yes to our belovedness; Yes to the steadfast tenderness with which God’s holds us each in love. There may indeed be losses we have to suffer. There may be deaths we have to die. But at some deep level of our being, God is always saying to us: Yes. “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.'” For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.'”
There may even come a point in our lives when it becomes impossible to decide conclusively which events in our lives represent a Yes and which ones represent a No. In a book that psychiatrist Gerald May published last year, shortly before his death, Jerry described how difficult it finally became to decide which events in his life were “good” and which ones “bad.”
He writes, “Some things start out looking great but wind up terribly while other things seem bad in the beginning but turn out to be blessings in disguise.” He writes, “I was diagnosed with cancer in 1995, which I thought was a bad thing. But the experience brought me closer to God and my loved ones than I’d ever been, and that was wonderfully good. The chemotherapy felt awful, but it resulted in a complete cure, which I decided was good. I later found out it may also have caused the heart disease that now has me waiting for a heart transplant. At some point I gave up trying to decide what’s ultimately good or bad. I truly do not know.” (1)
Jerry never did get his heart transplant, but the heart with which he wrote his final book was so filled with the love of God, so filled with awareness of God’s basic Yes to us, no matter what, that you sense his inner freedom. Jerry’s words remind me of the freedom that St. Paul enjoyed in his prison cell, when he wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through [the One] who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).
Paul spent his converted life in an active, passionate, creative quest to be a vehicle or channel for the love of God. Sometimes people responded to him with praise and sometimes with contempt, sometimes with gratefulness and sometimes with scorn. But in all things Paul kept his focus on God. Whether life handed him a Yes or a No, whether he got what he wanted or not, Paul learned to place his trust, and to direct his longing, toward the One whose word to us is always Yes. Paul was a man who was free.
I think that Jerry May was free, too. I don’t know if this story is true or not, because I haven’t yet checked it with his family, but someone told me this week that on his deathbed, Jerry struggled to say something to the family gathered around him. Finally they made out what the dying man was saying. “Trust love,” he told them. “Trust love.”
I hope that you and I will help each other to trust love – to keep our eyes on God and to live as gracefully as we can with the No’s that will always be woven into our lives. I hope that we will come to see that God is transforming every No into Yes, including the No that we perceive when the time comes for us to die. I hope that in every moment of our lives, and even at the grave, we too will come to see that God’s word to us is always Yes.
(1) Gerald G. May, M.D., The Dark Night of the Soul, HarperSanfrancisco: 2004, p. 2. (I met Jerry 20 years ago, when he was one of my teachers at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. His books on spiritual direction, contemplative psychology, and addiction are first-rate. He died April 8, 2005.)