Yes! Yes! Yes!

by Michael Usey; 2 Corinthians 1.15-22

Listen again to this passage from 2 Corinthians 1.18-20, this time from the NRSV.  I bet it’s a passage that you’ve rarely heard before, if ever: 

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, … was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes.” For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God.

Interesting passage, but what might Paul have been saying to his friends in Corinth?

I was on a zoom call this week with a bunch (what do you call a group of ministers: a pulpit of pastors?  A robe of religious professionals?  A baptism of baptists?), anyway, a bevy of Alliance of Baptist ministers.  We took turns introducing ourselves.  One minister, Alyssa is one of the pastors at FBC Washington DC, an impressive congregation and venue.  She said to me, “You don’t know me nor I you, but I do know College Park.”  This is always a moment I tense up internally.  Alyssa continued, “I was born in Texas but I was a CBF missionary kid in India, and my best friend was Amy Stocks.”  (Amy Stocks grew up at College Park, with her brother Josh, and her amazing parents Tammy and Ralph Stocks, also went on to become CBF missionaries.)

Alyssa said, “One day when I was 11, she showed me pictures of a cake baking contest at College Park. I was fascinated. Amy showed me the picture of the impressive winning cake with two men standing proudly next to it.  I was a little surprised that men had baked the cake, but Amy explained it was a male bake-off.  `So these two guys teamed up on this dessert?’  Amy said, “Well, yes, since they’re married.”  My mind was totally blown out of the water: a whole bunch of men baking, as well as two men, married, and on top of that, this church is completely okay with that?!”  Alyssa said, “It was one of the defining religious moments of my young life.  New paths opened before me.”  It was a moment of spiritual evolution, I thought to myself.

I just responded, “That was so sweet of you to tell me this story, and, well, yes, that’s my church.”  And I was silently grateful that one of the many other questionable cakes had not won that year of the Mostly Male Bake-Off, like Matt Cravey’s Catlitter surprise, or one of Wayne Jones’ lurid Wolfpack engineered creations.  Alyssa might have had a different kind of awakening.

It’s All Saints’ Day, and we are continuing to talk about our spiritual evolution, and the word for the day is Yes.  Thich Nhat Hahn wrote, “At Plum Village, I teach the young people a simple verse to practice while walking: Oui, Oui, Oui, as they breathe in, and Merci, Merci, Merci, as they breathe out.   Yes, yes, yes.  Thanks, thanks, thanks.  I want them to respond to life, to society, and to the Earth in a positive way.  They enjoy that very much.”

I want to talk more about God’s Yes, rather than our own yes to God. We could easily look at texts such as Joshua saying to the children of Israel, Choose today whom you will serve (Joshua 24.14), or the risen Christ asking Peter by the seashore if Peter loved him (John 21.17) to consider how we might say yes to the divine.  But what of God’s Yes?  And who are we to think we deserve it?

I was debating a woman protesting at the clinic this week–I shouldn’t have been, but it was raining hard and the time was passing slowly.  She didn’t want to be called a protestor but wanted me to refer to her as a “sidewalk counselor.” Hummm. I told her I wanted to be referred to as King of the Parking Lot, but that didn’t make it so. We argued politely about the bible and faith.  At one point she said, “Well, you seem like a nice good person; you’re very calm. I bet you’re not mean or bad.  I’m sure we have a lot in common.”   I said, “In fact, I’m not a good person.”  She looked confused as I continued.  “Don’t you remember what Jesus said, call no person good, for only God is good.”  She granted, “well, yes, of course, but what I mean …” 

But it’s a crucial point, I said, and in the DNA of our gospel: God loves us however we are, and we can do good and we can do evil, and many of us do both on the same day.  And while we were speaking together, an older man walked by to offer me this curse through gritted teeth, “One day you’ll be forced to kneel with broken kneecaps before an angry vengeful God, and then too late you’ll be sorry.” Such a compelling image of the love of God!  This is exactly why we all should be reading the book the Joyces are teaching in their Sunday class, Irresistible.

One of you, actually a long-time church member who is also a deacon, sent me an interesting article from Playboy magazine–I’m sure he reads it just for the articles.  (And I know someone will accuse me of inventing this fictive friend.) The article by Chrissy Stroop is entitled, The Gospel According to Mike Pence, in which she argues calling Mike Pence a “fake Christian” implies true evangelicals are incapable of wrongdoing.  She wrote, “Put simply, if the American public can’t imagine that “real” Christians are capable of evil, then we’re clearly living with a de facto Christian public sphere rather than a secular one.”  Her point seems to be that we should accept that Christians–followers of Jesus–are capable of evil too, and we best not forget that.  She observed,

“Accepting authoritarian Christians’ own framing paves the way for fundamentalist Christians to receive undue deference from major news sources, whose normalization of this extremism helped forge their path to power. This unquestioned deference toward Christians and to their leaders, this assumption that they must be basically good, is also what has allowed abusers to go unchecked for so long in both Catholic and Protestant contexts. If, on the other hand, we had internalized the truth that Christians are just as capable of evil as members of any other group, we would not be affording Christians the unquestioned trust that lets theocrats and abusers thrive.” [emphasis mine]

We Christians are not good people, even though we follow the good God.  We are all God’s saints, but we are far from perfect, and that is not even a thing, Christian perfection.  St. Brendan, the pirate saint, once prayed this prayer, according to Frederick Buechner: God, forgive me for the evil I’ve done, and remember me for the good I intended to do.  If you call someone a fake Christian, that implies there are so-called good Christians (whatever that is) who don’t do bad things.  But the truth is: I’m not okay; you’re not okay, and that’s okay, because of God’s yes.

The hard knock baptist preacher Will Campbell was challenged by a friend to summarize the gospel in ten words or less.  After thinking for a long minute, Will said, We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.  Maybe you don’t prefer his language, but it is exactly what Will and I believe.

Could you summarize the gospel in ten words or less?  Here is what I came up with: God gets the last word, and it’s love. The final word is not greed, destruction, hate, or even death.  Goodness and karma bat last, and God does the batting.  Or perhaps if we summarize the gospel in just one word, however, it would be the word “Yes.”  The apostle Paul affirmed that, “in Jesus, “it is always ‘Yes,’ for in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.'”  There is a famous book on negotiation called, Getting to Yes.  That could be the title for the gospel story as well because, in Jesus, God always gets to yes.  What exactly does God’s yes mean to you?

During his lifetime the human family used every way we knew to say “No” to Jesus.  We rejected him, betrayed him, denied him, killed him.  And yet, in the resurrection, God would not take our “No” for an answer.  Before and after and under our definite “No” is God’s triumphant “Yes.” Or as poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.”

So, God gets the last word.  And that last word is “Yes.”  e.e.cumings wrote in his inverted style: 

I thank you God for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky;

and for everything

which is natural

which is infinite which is yes.

The apostle Paul explained to his friend in Corinth how Jesus’ arrival into humankind’s history is not an ambiguous message of God’s ambivalence toward us – maybe a curse, maybe a blessing; perhaps a benefit, perhaps a loss. Whatever God has promised gets stamped with the Yes of Jesus. In him, this is what we preach and pray, the great Amen, God’s Yes and our Yes together, gloriously evident. God affirms us, making us a sure thing in Christ, putting the divine Yes within us. By this Spirit God has stamped us with God’s eternal pledge—a sure beginning of what God is destined to complete.

Here’s the thing Paul is saying to us: God loves us more than any of us can imagine. Think of all the outreaching love that God has made to humans in the scriptures, says Paul. God has poured out them all in Christ, and more besides. Christ is God’s “yes” to humanity. 

This next week promises to be an extremely difficult one for North Americans, no matter who wins the election.  Our country has endured such terrible times: 545 children whose parents can’t be found; a wholesale destruction of American media and national institutions; a complete disregard of God’s creation speeding up its demolition; letting greed off the lease at the highest levels and an ostentatious display of political corruption; the intentional inciting of racial hatred and bigotry by our national leaders; all this and more while myriads lose jobs, lose homes, go hungry, and die of the Rona.  The trauma of all this death is not going away anytime soon.  Which is why I’m inviting us to focus today on the divine love and acceptance of our deeply troubled lives.  Things are likely to get worse before they get better, so we do not put our ultimate faith in systems, in government, in our leaders.  We focus instead on God’s yes in Jesus.

In her memoirs, a female field nurse writes of her experiences in the Civil War. She worked for the Confederate forces, patching up dozens of wounded, sick soldiers every day. One day at the war’s end, news came that President Lincoln would be visiting this Confederate field hospital. Many of the rebel soldiers were terrified of meeting him. Surely Lincoln was a monster, and he would treat the Confederate soldiers cruelly.  But when Lincoln entered the hospital tent, he began to cry. He bent over the injured soldiers’ cots and spoke softly to them. He patted their hands and stroked their hair, just as a father might do. And when he left, the men couldn’t stop talking about what a good man he was. They had expected a tyrant, and found instead a kind and gentle and forgiving leader.

I’m well aware we don’t need another metaphor of the divine as a tall bearded kindly white man, even one as cool as Lincoln.  Nevertheless, there is something healing in this nurse’s memory of people expecting the worst and receiving something so much better. 

One day you and I will discover that the God whom we serve is kinder and gentler and more forgiving than any of us can imagine. And we will wonder why we were so reluctant to trust God with our lives. Look at Christ, says  Paul. Christ is God’s “Yes.” We are a church that believes Jesus is our “Yes”; your life can be a “Yes” to others.  

Let me end with one of my (and Kari’s) all-time favorite poems, “God Says Yes to Me,” by Katlin Haught.  It begins so whimsical and light, then suddenly reaches into the depths.  God wants us to live life with joy and with abandon, even as we work to overcome evil.

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic

and she said yes

I asked her if it was okay to be short

and she said it sure is

I asked her if I could wear nail polish

or not wear nail polish

and she said honey

she calls me that sometimes

she said you can do just exactly

what you want to

Thanks God I said

And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph

my letters

Sweetcakes God said

who knows where she picked that up

what I’m telling you is

Yes Yes Yes