23 January 2011

Christian Practices II: Saying Yes and Saying No

I had the flu like symptoms this week that unfortunately came on with a vengance on my two writing days (Thursday and Friday). So I had to rely on notes and some embryonic thoughts to get me through. I am not qualifying the sermon but simply stating sometimes the week doesn't go like you desire, sometimes you have to trust your research and the writing practice.

Christian Practices: Saying Yes and Saying No
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – 23.Jan.2010
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27; & Matthew 4:12-23
text: “he saw two brothers…” (Mt 4:18)
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

Despite the old url address for New Orleans: www.cityofno.com it is anything but. It is truly the city of Yes: another beignet? Another cup of cafĂ© au lait? Another roast beef po-boy with dirty fries from Mahony’s? Another fried chicken leg, another cup of gumbo, more boudain, another round of Abita, would you like to go to the Saints game, would you like to come over for dinner tonight, do you like ice cream, would you like to go to the park and pass baseball, how about golf tomorrow, do you want a pair of Jazz Fest tickets, and so on and so on. This is the city of Yes. Therefore this sermon may be a hard one to swallow or at the very least a difficult one to wrestle with. For as Christians one of the hardest tasks for us to undertake is the delicate balance between learning when to say yes and when to say no.

This morning we continue our exploration of Christian Practices with saying yes and saying no. I have chosen to employ practices rather than discipline on purpose. Although I believe these practices are disciplines that we all need to incorporate in our lives, however, we need to adopt the freedom and playful quality of practice in our incorporation of them. These are not easy practices to adopt: discernment, saying yes and saying no, singing, honoring the body, observing Sabbath, testimony, and forgiveness. They require a great deal of commitment and intentionality; expect to trip, fall down, and stub your toe as you invite them into your life. I am challenging us all to use the season of Lent as a season of experimentation and exploration of these seven practices; it is not a throw down but an invitation to break up into small groups with specific purpose of trying one of these practices on for 40 days. You can have any room at any time in this building, feel free to think outside of this building: a coffee shop, a living room, a publick house (this is New Orleans after all). Experiment and push yourselves during Lent and see what happens. But know this, in order to make this work, in order to say yes to this challenge you will have to learn to and say no to other activities, demands, and requests of your time and energy.

Along the shores of the landlocked freshwater lake in northern Israel, the lake that the first century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus called it the ambition of Nature, along the lazy lapping waves of the Sea of Galilee two fisherman prepared their nets for another cast. Their skin was tanned, their hands were rough, but their hearts were soft. They knew he would come, well they hoped he would come. John had told them about him, but he did not describe the Messiah in physical terms he described him in poetic terms as the great light, the dawning light, as fire, as water, as one who would turn our lives inside out. Then one day he emerged, unbeknownst to all others, some had seen him in the wilderness but they were not on the shore that day. Then he found them and offered one of the greatest translated invitations in the English language, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

The phrase – enticing, mesmerizing, strange, intriguing, odd, just odd enough to get your attention, just odd enough to shake your innards just a bit. But it aint enough is it? As poignant and luring it is on face value I don’t believe it happened that way. I believe the invitation hooked them but there had to be more – their hearts were ready, their souls were expectant, their bodies were pregnant with hope they needed one more bit to reel them in. Exposed and vulnerable they looked to Jesus and without words said, Show us something beautiful. Then the poetry, then the vision of the kingdom, then the foretaste of glory divine. Between the invitation and the following sentence, “straightway the followed him” we have to take up the imaginative act which the late 18th century poet William Blake all invited to undertake, read the white not the black in the text.

We all know none of the disciples had any idea of what were the implications of their decision, their yes, to follow Jesus. It was a gamble to follow the man from Galilee but it was a risk worth taking. I find their acceptance of Jesus’ invitation as the moment to view the disciples throughout the gospels. Many people will argue that only when the experiences of life, only when people are in the midst of the tempest, only when they are struggling with God and life can one make a proper assessment of what someone is truly made of. But why not make the proper assessment when someone is acting out of their deepest hopes, dreams, and desires of true life? So do we judge the disciples by their actions during the crucifixion of Jesus or when Jesus called them? I offer latter as the appropriate lens or prism. They had no idea of what the future held for them, they were only on the shores of destiny, yet they knew they had to act and act decisively.

Where will our yeses and noes lead us? That is the great mystery and excitement of life for we do not know and dare I say I do not believe even God knows. I do not believe God foreordained the days of our lives – the biblical witness is a covenantal relationship cut with the understanding of mutuality; we are co-creators! In every situation rather than controlling the unfolding hours God stands with and by us expectant and hopeful of our yeses and noes.

Lost in the barren wilderness are the words and actions of John the Baptizer (I am sure the rocks and trees recorded them but they have yet to speak). We can only rest in the simple hope that he tempered and tenderized the hearts, minds, bodies, and souls of those who found hope in his message. As luring as the call of Jesus was and is, there had to be more, there had to be some prep work – like all autobody repair 90% is prep work. Something or things precluded Peter’s and Andrew’s yes to Jesus. As I am sure something or things precluded your yes to Jesus – the love of God showered through your grandmother, the fantasy of the poems in the hymns, the grandeur of the house of worship, the loss of a loved one, the termination of a job, something caused or will cause a small crack in our defenses of self and perception of life. For the disciples it was the forces of Roman occupation and domination – the legion crush upon their way of life, freedom and souls – something had to give. Their cities were transformed and renamed; their Temple was desecrated. Daily they saw the image of Caesar minted on coins and with every passing hour they witnesses the crumbling of life. There were other voices in the wilderness for sure: armed resistance, cell groups, alternative ascetic breakaways, philosophical departures, and full assimilation. Into the hungry eyes of Peter and Andrew, into our hungry eyes Jesus looked and with his message, his vision, his healing, his teaching, his embracing, and love he showed us something beautiful. Our only answer was yes.

What did they say Yes to?
A Yes to Jesus and his beautiful message was a No
To armed resistance and further fragmentation of life
To the madness around them
To alienation
To meaninglessness
To heartbreak
To apathy

Sure I am projecting onto them but the stories invite if not demand our projections; especially if we are to enter into them with open hearts and tenderized souls.

Place yourself there along the shores and discover again what you said yes to.

As the water from the sea lazily lapped around their ankles, as the sun beat down mercilessly on their backs, as they wondered if the next cast of nets would yield a catch Jesus found them – did he know their names already (had John told him), did he whisper the invitation like a goodnight kiss or did it possess volume like a dinner party conversation or did he shout it like a fully blossomed lily? Once the invitation was offered it could not be taken back. We know it found welcomed ears but how welcomed? Did they fall backwards into a sea of grace like a child on a playground, did they lose their breath like an extinguished candle, did their hearts stop beating like the end of a breeze? They said yes to Jesus with their lives, with their feet, with their smiles and with their hearts.

In some small way we need to periodically revisit our call to Jesus, our Yes to God it is our primal response to our desperate need of love, comfort, and grace; whether it took place when we were five or 50. We also need to revisit our noes to God throughout the journey for they are just as important! When did we say no to God and why? Only overtime can we assess whether our noes to God were genuine sounds of protest or whether they were masks of our fears. Only be revisiting these foundational choices over the course of our lives can we see the presence of God with, for, and by us. Rest assured as disciples of the Living God we will make wrong decisions we will say no when we should have said yes and we will say yes when we should have said no. But our choices are wrapped in redemption, we have the ability and capacity to right our wrongs and work towards the healing of the wounds we have caused.

Our yes and no to God is a response to trust a trust that God is God, a Loving God, a God of Life, and a God of Mercy. And so we can pray with Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you and I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.

And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road although I may
know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

We are saying and hoping Yes to that kind of trust, even if we do not posses it ourselves at this moment for we know it will emerge.

Since my time here I have been amazed at the demands and requests for my time. It has been a steep learning curve on the wisdom of guarding my time for study, writing, spending time with church members, and finding the quiet for discernment. Let us be fully honest about our situation we are a church with its back against the wall. Our immediate and long-term survival depends on the right choices that we will make over the next months.

What are we going to say yes to and what are we going to say no to? We will need to say yes to growth & new life according to the values of our rich traditions of living and life giving worship, openness, critical biblical study, honest scholarship, innovation, social justice, and loving hospitality. What is going to make us younger, how are we going to invite new and younger families, how are we going to move from maintenance to ministry? We will need to say yes to these tough choices. We are going to need to find the right kind of person who will say yes to our living and life giving traditions but these people will also need to be patient because it will take time to create this new generation and community of the congregation and they will need to be creative because we are going to need their creativity, energy, and enthusiasm. Those people are already finding us and we are going to be more intentional about finding them.

As I am coming to a close I ask that more than anything we say yes to foolishness! No I am not advocating for buffoonery in the pulpit or Galagher gags around the communion table. But I am advocating that we all embrace the foolishness of our message for some it will sound nothing more than foolishness that we are going to turn this church around, that we are going to bring in new young families, that we are going to find new life and find it in an abundant manner. And do it all while maintaining our values. But we are. We going to do it because we are going find, muster and employ the moral courage to say Yes to this vision of God. I came here with a vision of an embracing and intentionally open community of faith. I came here with a vision of a Baptist cathedral. I came here with a vision rebuilding a church not just for the time I am here but a church for future generations to enjoy and find grace. Whose with me? Will you help me make this dream and reality?

Finally, let me close with a prayer from Mother Teresa for in many ways I think it is what we are saying yes to. For even if we cannot concretize our visions we are going to move forward…anyway.

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

Amen and Amen.

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