Isaiah 43:18-25; Psalm 32; II Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12
Paul, writing to the Christians of Corinth, says, “the Son of God, Jesus Christ, was not ‘yes and no,’ but in him it was 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.”
This is all you need to know. I could sit down now and you would have heard all you need to hear.
“The Son of God, Jesus Christ, was not ‘yes and no,’ but in him it was 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.”
From our earliest days, our deepest wounding is that life is both “yes and no.” Our first wound is the unaccountability and unreliability and incomprehensible contradictions of those adults that care for us when we cannot care for ourselves. Even the most loving parents have days when they are exhausted or distracted or unavoidably absent, so we learn that we are loved in “yes and no.” And the infant has no capacity to interpret the gaps in care—sometimes I am fed, sometimes I am not; sometimes I am held, sometimes I am not; sometimes I am, sometimes I am not. When our wounding is severe, we enter adulthood uncertain, not only of the reliability of life, but even of our self-worth. Then our apparently mature relationships muffle the wailing of an infant who cannot tell if today will be “yes” or if it will be “no,” and who therefore clings or rages to ensure a “yes.”
This anguish of uncertainty cannot be circumvented or escaped. It comes to us all. This is where our identity is planted and takes root and grows to become the tree that bears the fruit of our life. This mutable distance between us and what we desire and fear, what we feel we love, matures into our sense of self, our manipulative ego, the agency for whom survival is all in all —defending the flesh that fosters the self, protecting the self that plots the perpetuation of the flesh.
The malevolent cleverness of terrorism is precisely to intensify into anguish this uncertainty of “yes and no.” We do not know which plane will be driven into a building, which letter will be dusted with a virus, which day we will not return home, which will be our last goodbye to someone whom we will never see again. This anxiety reaches insanity when it grips the false promise that a “yes” to our life and security can be obtained and established.
Our struggle as adults is to try to come to terms with this fundamental “yes and no” that has been our earliest training and which remains an accurate perception of the world around us. In some extreme cases, we struggle to overcome the brutality and indifference and inexplicability of our childhood, so that we can move with some measure of trust through life. More often, though, our struggle is more subtle: to realize that the “yes and no” of life is not about us, not about our persons, not about our worth. The eddies of life do not rotate in our direction any more often than they rotate to favor others; they are benignly indifferent. Infants, who cannot distinguish the self from bodily needs, of course perceive this variable “yes and no” to be about the self. Mature adults, though, come to understand that the “yes and no” we receive from those we care about often is not under their control at all, just as we are often trapped in responses that do not express what we value or wish to say or to be. We learn to watch the mystery of our own internal inertia, as enthusiasm and depression wash over us, in tides we do not control.
However, these initial learnings about the social and psychological dimensions remain at the surface. The most relentless and intense and significant struggle is that of our soul. What we came to believe, in the “yes and no” of our early days, is the primal deadly lesson of our alienation. That is what we must unlearn. Spiritually, the very core of our lifework is to move from alienation to detachment, that is, to learn not to place our value on the rise and fall of “yes and no,” but on the deeper steadier “yes” of God. Our self is not located in the vacillations and variations and vagaries of “yes and no,” even when we are invested in them. They are in fact what alienate us. Detaching from that futile pain, we are to set aside the transient and search for what endures in us, attentive and quiet, where even distracting anxiety does not reach. We look for an unalterable “yes” deep-rooted in us..
Paul says that in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, “it was always ‘yes.’” What we know about Jesus—and it is borne out by the story we heard from the Gospel today—is that he could face everyone with a “yes.” This does not mean that he consented to their own surface “yes and no,” but that he saw into them and said “yes” to their life, even when he said “no” to their actions. Paul, blasted and blinded on the road to Damascus, could not have heard Christ saying “no” to his violence, if he had not more deeply heard Christ saying “yes” to his person: the voice from heaven called him by name and changed him forever. The man of today’s story, paralyzed on the pallet lowered through the roof, hears first, not “stand up and walk,” which would have been a response to his circumstances—a swing of the pendulum of “yes and no” in his life—but instead hears “your sins are forgiven,” which sees his deeper longing and affirms his self, establishing “yes” in him.
Paul adds that, not only was it always “yes” in Jesus, but, shifting to present tense, he says “in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘yes.’” Promises are not from God if they remain in the past, fulfilled and left behind. God is from everlasting to everlasting. Just as every Jew at Passover says “God brought me out of Egypt,” so the promises of an everlasting God are eternal, for every generation, made true throughout history, even as they are also fulfilled in this moment. Eternity and the moment are identical and indistinguishable, the front and the back of God’s omnipresent life. Religious covenants are not mutable or incidental, but irrevocable, for all time. All eternity or each moment, they remain the same.
Our work, you see, is to find the ongoing enduring fulfillment of God’s promises in our life. We will not find that in the “yes and no” of our preferences and expectations, in the drift of our desires and aversions. They are merely the symptoms of what is being fulfilled. Our work is to search for those regions in our life where the “yes” is steady, where God’s “yes” is already being heard, where we find the “yes” in us every time we return, and to grasp that that is where Christ stands among us, eternally saying “yes” to every one of God’s promises that we bring and place at his feet. Do not look in impermanence for the luminous compassion of Christ. He longs to offer you a “yes” that will endure, not a “yes” that will delude you and then corrupt itself into a “no.” Notice in yourself, in your companions, in your communities, where the abiding “yes” is found that is still there every time you return to it. You know you are savoring that “yes” by the aftertaste it leaves in your mouth. You come away with hope and commitment and compassion. The doorways into that place are many: human affection, beauty in art or nature, the grace of the sacraments, the vision of justice and peace among all people. You know other portals. Beyond them all, as you give yourself over and pass through them, God stands saying “yes.” At every moment of your life, God waits on the other side of what has remained constant and serene and encouraging in your life, and there God says “yes.”
Our task, as Paul says, is to say “Amen”—our own “yes”—to God. Paul points out that Christ is the intermediary: since it is in Christ that God says “yes” to the promises God makes to us, it is also in Christ that we say “yes”—that is “Amen”—to those same promises. Not only historically, not only in the life of Jesus, did humanity say “Amen” to God and consent in loving obedience to all God’s will, but to the extent that we find ourselves in Christ, we are empowered with him to say “Amen” to all God’s will for us. Not only is Jesus Christ the glory of God revealed among us, but we, as we say “yes” to God’s promises in our own life, we become the means for God’s glory to be revealed.
You have heard many times, I am sure, what Irenaeus of Lyons, in the third century, said, against the Gnostic heretics, who believed that we were casings around a divine spark, that our flesh was excrescence, that we longed only to be released to plunge back into the undifferentiated flood of Divine Light. Against this alienated notion, Irenaeus said, “the glory of God is the human being fully alive.” So if our “Amen” is to the glory of God, and God’s glory is the human being fully alive, then saying “Yes, Amen,” is to know our self with every thrill of physical energy, with every risky exuberance of emotional energy, with every insightful burst of mental energy, with every consenting outpouring of our spiritual energy. Our ability to say “yes” to life is to God’s glory, who made us precisely for this. When we say “Amen, yes,” from our depth, knowing that in Christ our “yes” has already been said and received, everything else can dissolve around us, and we ourselves will not be “yes and no,” but always “yes” through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Now, my brothers and sisters, since this “Yes” that Jesus said is an ongoing “yes,” not a momentary affirmation, but a constant consent, since this “Yes” of Jesus is also our “yes” to God, then we must watch Jesus to see what a life lived as “Yes” looks like. Consider the story today. These people are so desperate for their friend’s healing that they break into Jesus’ own house to get him close to Jesus. When Jesus, no doubt dodging the debris of his roof tumbling down around him, sees this man on a mat being lowered through the roof so those who love him can get him close to the one they believe will heal him, Jesus sees, not recklessness, not craziness, not willfulness, but faith. He sees their utter surrendered trust, born out of love for their friend and despair over his impairment. The currents of their different lives—the superficial “yes and no” of circumstances—have eddied them together for this moment. Jesus sees the deep belief and courage that steered them through the stream to him, because they saw that for a moment they could come close to the Well of Life. So he drops everything, not only to make what is withered and dry pliable and resilient again, but also to go deeper and to eliminate the self-condemnation and to remove the self-doubt and to erase the shame the man has felt for God-knows-how-many years.
So what is that to us? We say “Yes” when we labor to restore another person’s strength and hope. We say “Yes” when we encourage others to flourish. We say “Yes” when we forgive those who have wounded us. We say “Yes,” when we live out of the peace that makes peace. And we know we have shared God’s “yes” of us when we hear “Yes” from those among whom we move. Remember Dag Hammarskjold, at once a mystic and a man of action, a great advocate of peace and reconciliation as Secretary General of the United Nations. In his journals, found after his death, he had written, “for all that has been, thanks; to all that will be, yes.” This is what it means when, to God’s first “YES,” we agree, “YES, YES, OH YES!”
One final thing. I spoke earlier of detachment. It seems odd to think that “Yes” can mean detachment, but, to the extent that this “yes” is our deep “yes” to life, rather than a will to impose stability on the impermanent, on our ego-based preferences, “yes” does mean detachment. Once that unalterable deep “yes” to life is found in us, our temptation is to make that the matrix of the self. Ultimately, however, even if we have found that steady core, from which we regard all creation with affection, we are called to relinquish even that steadiness as well. We must reach to consent to more than the maintenance of our identity, which is, after all, simply what has collected at a certain eddy in a certain river during a certain season: broken branches, discarded plastic, fallen flowers, all caught on protruding rocks—the mat on which our paralysis rests—beneath which quicksilver fish and undulant waterweeds thrive and wave; that is what we are, beautiful and more precious than we can comprehend to God, who delights in every curl and tendril of creation. Finally we can come to see that even our core and the core of every human being is part of our fragility, to be treated with respect and protected, neither to be attacked nor to be risked, but finally to be recognized as circumstantial, the gift of a moment, whether paralyzed or potent, but more importantly, one whose sins are forgiven. Our work of detachment is to place even this core steady self, forgiven and safe, in the crucible of God, where even it is to be dissolved, as it must at our death, not as a final “no,” but as an ultimate “yes” and an “Amen” for all eternity.
So listen to Paul one more time. “The Son of God, Jesus Christ, was not ‘yes and no,’ but in him it was 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.”
May we continue to say “Amen, Yes” through Christ to the glory of God, until God’s glory is all that we know, and we are brought into the presence of the One who creates us with the “Yes” of a Father, and restores us with the “Yes” of Jesus, and sanctifies us in the fiery “Yes” of the Spirit, in the endless “Yes” of the Holy and Life-giving Trinity, whom we praise this day and always.