Yes and No
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
St. Philip Lutheran Church
17 July 2022 + Lect. 16c (Pentecost 6)
Rev. Josh Evans
It’s hard to say no: to that second piece of cake, to “just one more” episode of your latest Netflix binge before bed, to taking on another volunteer role when you have been so kindly asked.
It’s especially hard to say no when we have been so conditioned to say yes. As Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: “At least part of the pleasure of saying yes is knowing that someone wants you… This may account for the seductiveness of the word, especially in a ‘can do’ culture where the ability to do many things at high speed is not only an adaptive trait but also the mark of a successful human being. As much as most of us complain about having too much to do, we harbor some pride that we are in such demand.”
In other words: We want to be wanted, to be accepted and validated and loved, so much so that it’s hard to say no.
In our struggle with saying no, we might find some resonance today with the story of Martha. And in that shared struggle with our sister Martha, we start to understand and empathize more with her.
Too often, we hear this story, and we are told that Martha is “wrong” and Mary is “right.” But it’s not that simple, nor is it a helpful interpretation. Shaming someone for what they “should” be doing, when they already do so much, only increases feelings of shame and unworthiness.
Martha wasn’t merely distracted by her many household chores – the cooking, the cleaning, the entertaining. Martha was distracted by her diakonia. Her service and her ministry. Martha was so compelled by a sense of duty to her vocation that it absorbed all of her time. More than that, we can sense in Martha’s diakonia-service a conditioning to say yes in order to be needed. To do what is expected of her in order to “earn” the love and appreciation of others.
Jesus’s initial response is noteworthy: “You are worried and distracted by many things.” It’s simply a statement of fact, not judgment. Jesus first acknowledges that Martha has a lot going on. He meets her where she is (quite literally: physically in her house), and he affirms and validates her diakonia-service. Jesus doesn’t chastise Martha, but he invites her to take a break, validating her personhood apart from her work. As if to say: You give so much for others. Now be fed yourself.
The work (diakonia-service) is good, and it also doesn’t define Martha (or us). There is grace in saying no.
Sometimes, we need to hear the no from someone else. Sometimes, too, the no sounds a little harsh.
The elite of ancient Israel were distracted in their own way: “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?” When can we go back to making more money, even if it means exploiting others?
It is to these elite that Amos preaches a no message.
In an overly simplified crash course in Lutheran theology, we might think of God’s no and God’s yes as “law” and “gospel.” The law shows us the reality of our sin and brokenness, and it offers no hope for those who fall short, only judgment. But the gospel doesn’t leave us there. This “good news” tells us who stand hopeless before the law that there is a way out, that there is forgiveness and freedom from the consequences of our sin and brokenness.
It’s also important to remember that the gospel is irrelevant and meaningless for those who think they have no need of it, when our own stubbornness distracts us and obscures our perception of just how off-the-mark we are.
Those to whom Amos is called to preach on God’s behalf are entrenched in their own stubbornness, looking out for their own self-interest and well-being at the expense of others’.
The people need to hear an uncomfortable no. They need a wake-up call to get their attention and to call out their selfish nonsense.
Enter Amos’s message: holding up a mirror to their stubborn self-centeredness and the ways they were hurting those around them.
If that’s where the message ended – a resounding no and a word of judgment – that would be pretty hopeless and dismal.
But, just as gospel without law is meaningless, the preaching of the law without the gospel is spiritual abuse. As if to say to ancient Israel: You messed up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You perpetuated the suffering of others, and now it’s your turn to experience it yourselves. That’s not good news; that’s gloating. And it would make Amos no better than those to whom he was sent to preach.
In the very next and last chapter, Amos prophesies: “I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen…” says the Lord, “I will restore the fortunes of my people… I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them.” (9.11-15) Amos ends with a word of hope and promise of restoration.
God’s final answer to God’s people is always yes. God cares about God’s people too much to let us keep going on in ways that harm ourselves and the people around us. God’s love for us is too strong to give up on us.
First, God says no: to a system that tells us and our sister Martha that we are what we produce and that we are only as good as what we can accomplish; to a system that only looks out of the interests of an elite few at the expense of everyone else; to practices that abandon the heart of God’s torah (instruction, teaching) rooted in love of neighbor.
Then, God says yes: to all that is life-giving and rooted in loving concern for the whole community; that the work (diakonia-service) we do is important and it is not everything; that we are loved unconditionally apart from anything that we do.
It’s hard to say no, and it can be hard to be told no.
God’s no is an interruption to the status quo – whether it’s a welcome interruption or not.
God invites us to stop; to come back to God, to our community, and to our beloved selves; and to sit at the feet of Jesus.
God’s no interrupts our business-as-usual and invites us to hear God’s yes: an abundant and life-giving hope and promise for us and with us.