December 18, 2011 – 4 Advent B
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
What would have happened if Mary had said “No, thank you”? One of our more famous hymns says that force is not of God and scripture could be used to make the case that God allows us to opt out of his purposes if we are willful enough to do that. So, maybe if Mary had heard the proposal by the angel and said in reply, “That’s not gonna work for me”, the angel would have said, “Okay, no problem, I’ll find somebody else.” On the other hand, all of salvation history seems lined up here in this angelic proclamation, “Hail, favored one. The Lord is with you.” The tone seems pretty definitive. “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son….” It doesn’t really sound like Mary is being asked for her consent. It seems more a case that she is being given fair warning. So, what would have happened if Mary had said, “No, thank you”? How much does her gracious acceptance of the proclamation affect the outcome of the virgin birth narrative? If she had said no, would it all have happened pretty much the same way?
When things land in our laps, what does our saying yes or no have to do with the outcome? Certain things seem inevitable. Others seem more affected by our assent. Yes or no? What does it really matter?
You’ve probably heard every priest who has worked on our staff over the years use some sermon illustration from an interchange with someone coming to us for financial assistance. That’s something that happens here on a regular basis, partly because of our downtown location and partly because we have made it known that we will assist the needy when we are able. Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t walk in our lobby and ask for financial assistance. It’s a good opportunity for us to serve those in need as our Lord instructs us. Many times we hear a request and are able to say, “Yes, I can help you with that.” But probably five or six times more often we must say to those requests, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” Sometimes that is because we don’t have enough funds. But more often it is because that person has come here on a too-regular basis, or because we have gotten to know them over the years and know they aren’t doing enough to take responsibility for their own lives.
Having faced those requests for many years now, it may not surprise you to hear that occasionally I get a little hard-hearted. Sometimes I will listen to someone’s request and have already made up my mind that I am not going to help them. That usually has to do with the last 20 people I have dealt with and I’ve just had enough so I am determined to say no.
One day, several years ago right before Lent started, the receptionist came in my office and told me there was someone in the lobby again asking for assistance. I was busy doing something else and really didn’t want to be bothered. I walked up to the person and said, “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to help you today. You’ll have to go somewhere else.” After the person left, the receptionist said to me, “Are you alright? You usually at least listen to the people who come in here.” It got me to thinking.
That year I decided to take on a new Lenten discipline. I took a card out and wrote on it, “Start with yes instead of no” and put it on my desk. What I tried to do during Lent that year was to approach each assistance request with the assumption that I would say yes to them instead of no. I ended up saying no a lot but I tried not to assume I would say no.
I have to admit it made a difference. I really don’t think I helped any more people than I usually do in a forty day period but it changed the way I looked at them. It also changed the way I felt. I didn’t approach each person as an imposition. I got a little less cynical. Things were lighter and less grim. I have no idea if it affected any of the people I listened to, but it did affect me. Starting with yes instead of no. Maybe it didn’t affect the outcome but it affected me.
It was a lesson I had been taught years earlier but obviously not a lesson I had learned well. Years ago for a brief period of time I was part of an ad-lib theater group. When we were on stage we would feed off each other as we ad-libbed. We never knew what was going to happen next. But one of the rules was: when someone asks you to do something you always say yes. Otherwise the ad-libbing grinds to a halt. Saying yes allows things to move forward. Saying no halts progress. Saying yes allows you to be part of the adventure with the other party. Saying no leaves you all by yourself and all the action goes on without you.
A very important tool in life is the proper use of the word No. We call that setting good healthy boundaries. Saying no allows us to take responsibility for ourselves and keeps us from being victimized by those who might run over us. It helps us protect ourselves from being overrun by time commitments. “No, I’m sorry I can’t take that on. If I do that, I’ll not be able to do the other things I must do.” “No, you can’t treat me that way. I deserve better than that.” If we don’t learn to say no, we end up just doing what everybody else thinks we should and never figure out what is best for us. Plus we end up with resentment and bitterness.
But sometimes we get locked into saying No when that is not what is best for us. Saying No too automatically locks the rest of the world out. It shuts down healthy and intimate contact with others. It can isolate us and halt progress. Sorting out appropriate Yesses from Nos is a vital part of our faith lives. We have to learn to say No to the things of the world that take us away from following God. And we have to learn to say Yes to the invitations that do come from God and will be good for us.
Yes, I will take that risk. Yes, I will let you get a little closer to me. Yes, I will give this my best effort. Yes, I will admit the difficult things I am feeling. Yes, I will trust and be more generous. Yes, I will listen and face reality. Yes, I will take the next step forward in life instead of playing it safe.
A wonderful prayer discipline would be to ask ourselves each day what there is out there to decline and what deserves our assent. What should I say No to today? What should I say Yes to?
Saying Yes is a matter of faith. It evidences faith that is already within us. But it builds faith too. If Mary Ward had said No to me years ago, where would I be today? If I had said No to St. John’s years ago where would I be today? What sort of joys might I have missed out on?
Life is hard. I know that. You can’t do everything. I know that too. But how many invitations from God have you missed by being hard hearted? There is a gracious, inviting Spirit in the world that keeps asking us to be part of God’s adventure. Life is pretty grim if all you are doing is saying No and protecting your turf. Saying Yes is scarey sometimes. But saying No to God is lot more dangerous than saying Yes. Let go a little. There’s some great joy just around the corner. Try saying Yes and see what God might have in store for you.