Deep and Shallow Yeses


A sermon preached on September 25th, 2011 based upon Matthew 21:28-32.

For most of us here this morning, myself included, there is this big challenge we face when we read the stories of Jesus, and it involves the fact that the place where we want to see ourselves identifying in these stories, and the place where we actually identify, are often not the same.  What I mean is that naturally we want to see ourselves as being on Jesus’ side.  We want to be the ones who nod approvingly when he speaks.   Naturally.

But, if we stop to ask ourselves, “With which characters in the stories does my situation in life actually more closely resemble?” then oftentimes the answer isn’t one that makes us very comfortable.

For instance, the brief little story Jesus told that Bob read for us calls to mind the more extended and familiar story Jesus told elsewhere about the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother.   Not many of us here today have taken the path of the Prodigal Son, at least most of the time, or at least in an overt–in-your-face manner taken by the Prodigal.

Not many of us have spent a good portion of our lives actively pursuing a path that says, “Screw my parents, screw all authority figures, I am going to pursue as much self-centered pleasure as I can grab out of life!” Nor have most of us gone through the kind of public shipwreck that the prodigal son experienced as a result of making consistently self-centered and hedonistic choices.

In contrast, most of us have spent the majority of our lives trying to work hard, do our duty, trying to live a good and respectable life, trying to honor the moral values handed down to us by our parents, trying to live a life that would make our parents proud.  All of which makes our identification with the elder brother in that familiar story all the more apparent.

Many of us have spent the better part of our lives as a part of Church, which, ironically makes our life situation more like that of the Pharisees who consistently went to synagogue, than with the tax collectors and prostitutes, who went for years without their faces darkening the door of the synagogue.   And so if we’re truly listening to the story, we too should be disturbed when Jesus says in this morning’s lesson that the tax collectors and prostitutes will be getting into the kingdom of heaven first.

What are we to make of this?   Perhaps simply a good dose of humility — the recognition that whatever goodness and love we’ve been able to manifest in our lives really has nothing to do with any sort of inherent quality that allows us to feel superior to others.  Rather, it has to do with the good fortune we’ve been blessed with in our lives – the grace of God, and to remember that there is always a notorious sinner waiting in the shadows of our hearts along side of the glorious saint God is calling into being.

On Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at noon an AA group meets in our fellowship hall.   There’s like 50 people who go out of their way to get here on their lunch hour.  They don’t read Gospel stories there – mostly they just try to speak the truth about where they are on their journey without any pretense.   But if they were to listen to this Gospel story, they would find comfort in hearing that the prostitutes and tax collectors are making a b-line to the kingdom, because for those working the program, they recognize that “prostitutes and tax collectors” is shorthand for the life  they’re trying to leave behind.

Baby Julia is starting out on her journey of life.  At this point in the journey mostly what we see is innocence:  sweetness and light.   But inside this little baby are the seeds of a surly, self-centered adolescent, and as well as the seeds of a productive, competent adult.

Inside this baby is a sinner and a saint, and at various times the sinner may be more apparent, and at other times the saint, and sometimes the two will switch places on a dime, as the expression goes.  And so it would be best if neither we nor Julia get too impressed with either the sinner or the saint as they reveal themselves in the days and years ahead.

If we get Jesus right, what we should be impressed by is simply the grace and mercy of God.

The little story Jesus told of the two brothers raises the question of from how deep inside us does our “Yes” to God come from?  The father tells the one son, “Go work in my vineyard,” and the son says “Yes.”  But afterwards he doesn’t go.   One way of seeing this is to simply say that this son was a hypocrite, and maybe that’s true.   But maybe when the son said “Yes,” he meant yes, but the problem was, it didn’t come from a very deep place inside him.   And since that was the case, well, as soon as something else came up that was more appealing to occupy himself with, well, he lost sight of the “yes” he had spoken.

And probably most of us can identify with that.  We have good intentions to do what we believe is the right thing to do, but some where along the way we get distracted from carrying out our good intentions.   And maybe we excuse ourselves by saying, “I really do have good intentions, I really am a good person.”   But good intentions that don’t translate into actions don’t mean a whole lot.

So the question becomes, well, how do we say a “Yes” that is rooted more deeply in our hearts?  And there’s the rub, because the truth of the matter is that generally speaking, we can’t just talk ourselves into being more committed to something if we aren’t feeling more committed to that something.   We can lecture ourselves, and have others lecture us until they turn blue in their face, but if the “Yes” isn’t there, it isn’t there.

I could use losing 30 pounds.   I know that I would be better off if I could lose 30 pounds.

I would have more energy, I’d feel better about myself, and my long term health prospects would improve.  Sometimes I try for a couple of days to cut back on the amount I eat, and make a point of getting more exercise.  But I don’t follow through with it.  Why?   Because at the moment the fact that I’m carrying an extra 30 pounds isn’t causing me any kind of immediate threat.  My desire to lose that 30 pounds isn’t strong enough.  My “Yes” to dieting and exercise doesn’t come from a deep enough place.

Though I often tell myself I should change my ways, as of yet, I haven’t succeeded in evoking the kind of “Yes” from inside myself that is required to actually lose 30 pounds.

I have a friend who is a bit older than I am who had a doctor tell him a couple of years back that if he didn’t change his lifestyle — start eating better and get regular exercise, well, he was going to die, and die soon.   He was headed for a major heart attack for sure, the doctor told him, one he wasn’t likely to survive.   My friend said yes to a change of lifestyle in a big way.  I’d see him out jogging in the neighborhood at various times of  day and night.  He shed sixty pounds.  He became a new person.

His yes came from a deeper place.

The people at AA.  The Tax collectors and the prostitutes that Jesus refers to.   Previously in their lives they hadn’t been making any pretense of saying “Yes” to God.  But now they’ve reach a place in their life journey where it suddenly became very clear to them that they were on a path to destruction, and it became possible to say, “Yes,” from a very deep place inside their souls. They realized that they were shipwrecked and that either they changed their lives or they realized they were going to die.

I often say in sermons that it is important to live in the present moment – that in a certain sense the present is all we have.   And there is truth to that.  But there is also a sense in which we shouldn’t be too impressed by the present moment either.  If we recognize our life as being a journey, then where we are at the present moment of our journey is important, but it isn’t the whole journey, and we should reserve judgment on the whole journey until the journey is complete.

One of the things Jesus’ little story suggests is that even though we may not be able to say “Yes” in the present moment, that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to say “Yes” at some later moment in our lives.  And the same is true for the people we love and worry over, who we wish could say “Yes” to the changes they need to make in their lives, but cannot, at the present, seem to make.

And the story suggests that it’s best to try and be honest about where we are on our journey.   Rather than going through the motions of saying “Yes” when our hearts are not in it, it might be better to be honest with our “Nos.”

“Jesus, in the present moment, I am not where you want to lead me.   I can’t let go of my attachment to money and possessions, and share with others.  I can’t let go of my fears even though you invite me to trust you.   I’m not yet able to let go of my resentments and anger, even though you tell me it is time to forgive.  This whole love my enemy thing isn’t something I can say Yes to right now.


“But Jesus, I also believe you’re not finished with me.  And what I can’t say Yes to now, I want to believe that as I move forward on my journey, you will give me the grace I need to say Yes to in the future.”

I heard this radio piece where this man described how over an extended period of time he descended into this place of despair and depression so dark that he came to the conclusion that the solution to the problem of life was for him to take his own life.

He figured it would take away the terrible pain he was feeling, and that his family would actually be better off without him – a delusion people generally feel when they reach such a point.

He lived within driving distance of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.   So he devised a plan that on a given day after saying his usual goodbye to his family in the morning, rather than drive to work, he would drive to the bridge.  Which he did.

The choice to take one’s life is the most basic form of saying “No,” to God.  The man was convinced that there was no “Yes,” nor would there ever be a Yes, inside his heart.

The man went all the way through with his plan.  He jumped off the bridge.  The stunning thing for him was that immediately as he let go of the railing the “No” inside his heart switched over to a mighty “Yes.”  Yes!  I want to be alive!

Remarkably he did survive his jump off the bridge, and lived to tell the story.  The vast majority of jumpers so not.   Most of the other people who similarly survived such a jump described a similar reaction, that after letting go of the rail they immediately regretted what they had done, and wanted to keep on living.

Really trusting the grace and mercy of God means among other things trusting that sometimes it is necessary for people to descend into the deep darkness – the place where the NO is said loudly and bitterly, before they will be able to say the Yes with great passion.

Those of us who have the good fortune  of  never ending  up in such places, are compelled to acknowledge that the “Yes” that such folk come over time to speak may in fact be a more powerful yes than the one we are managing to make, and to stand in awe of what the grace of God can do.