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Saying Yes and Saying No

"In order for a no the be effective, it must be placed in the larger context of a life-affirming yes"

-- M. Shawn Copeland

Sermon Preached by Jack Cabaness

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA

June 16, 2024


The night before the last day of school, my 8-year-old son said to me,

“Hey, Dad! Guess What? Tomorrow is the last day of school. It’s a ‘YES’ day. You have to say yes to anything I ask for.”


My immediate response was “No, I don’t! Your request has to be appropriate. In honor of the last day of school, your mother and I can try to be as permission-giving as possible, but there’s no way we are going to say ‘yes’ to everything just because you asked for it.”


With regard to our own lives, how do we go about saying yes and saying no over the course of the day? Do we have a disciplined, intentional approach to prioritizing our day and making decisions, or is our approach more half-hazard, based more on how we feel at a particular moment?


The Spiritual Practice of Saying Yes and Saying No helps rescue us from the tyranny of the present moment. It frees us from being entirely subject to our personal whims and desires. It gives us an opportunity to examine our motives more carefully.


For instance, if I’m inclined to say yes, why am I saying yes? Am I saying yes because this really is the right thing to do, or am I saying yes in the hopes that other people will think well of me? Am I saying yes so that I can cash in on a favor later on? Do I have any other ulterior motives for saying yes?


If I’m prone to say no, why am I saying no? Am I saying no because it’s really not the right thing to do, or am I saying no because of feelings of inadequacy or fear of risking failure? Am I saying no because of unresolved anger or even out of a desire to get back at someone by thwarting them in their moment of need? “You didn’t help me when I needed you, so you’re on your own!”


It’s an honest, soul-searching approach to prioritizing each day so that we can say yes and no with integrity. It’s a spiritual practice that asks, how is God at work in my life right now? How is God at work in my neighbor’s lives? How is God at work in the life of our church and community? And as we discern what God is doing, we endeavor to say yes to the things that further God’s work and to say no to the things that distract us from God’s work.


Consider the short, enigmatic parable that Jesus told about the two sons.

The father asks the first son to go and work in the vineyard, and the first son says, “No, I will not,” but later he changes his mind and he goes to work in the vineyard anyway. The father asks the second son to go and work in the vineyard, and the second son says, “Of course!” but then he never shows up.


Jesus poses the question, which one did the will of his father? And the obvious answer is the first one, the one who actually showed up to work in the vineyard.


This is a very, brief parable, but there’s a lot going on here. In the words of one commentator, if the main point of the parable was simply that actions speak louder than words, then why not have both sons say yes while only one shows up. Instead, Jesus quite carefully constructs the parable so that the son who said no is the one who ends up going after all and the son who said yes is the one who never shows. (paraphrased from Thomas G. Long, Proclaiming the Parables, 195)


When the Pharisees correctly answer that the first son is the one who did the will of the Father, Jesus tells them that some of the most infamous public sinners are entering the realm of God ahead of them,


Because while the public sinners initially said no, they later responded to the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus’ own ministry, Whereas the Pharisees initially said yes to God but then they failed to recognize God at work in the preaching of John the Baptist and in Jesus’ own ministry.


An example of one person who said no before he later said yes is Josh Bishop. When he was 19, he and an accomplice, while under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, tried to hijack a car and when the owner refused to hand over the car keys, Josh and his companion beat the owner to death. Josh was later convicted of murder by the state of Georgia and sentenced to death.


A year later, a woman named Diana Shertenlieb was asked by a parish priest if she would be willing to correspond with an inmate on death row. When she agreed, the priest gave her a list of those on Georgia’s death row, and she chose the youngest one on the list, Josh Bishop, who by then was 22.


Diana and Josh began exchanging letters, and eventually Diana decided that she wanted to meet Josh in person, and, the first time she visited Josh in prison, her impression was that Josh was the kind of kid you’d see out fishing. He could have easily been one of her own kids.


Diana continued to visit Josh in prison, and eventually Josh decided that he wanted to become a Christian. Josh said, “I had lost my trust in people, but she brought me back into the arms of God. “


In his final years, Josh worked with a clinic at Mercer Law School, and he taught close to 50 students lessons about justice that they could never learn in a classroom. He offered abject apologies to the families of his victims, and he was comforted in the grace offered by a number of those he had hurt. He did what he could to encourage teenagers who struggled with bitterness or apathy.


On March 31, 2016, speaking words of repentance and love to the end, Josh Bishop was executed by the State of Georgia.


One detail I haven’t shared yet is that Diana Shertenlieb almost didn’t reach out. When the parish priest first asked her about writing to death row inmates, she actually said no, but then she changed her mind. [story told by Tom Long in Proclaiming the Parables].


We need a spiritual practice for Saying Yes and Saying No,

because our yeses and no’s can be deeply consequential in ways we can scarcely imagine.


In our prayers we can ask God to help us say yes to whatever will impact people’s lives for the better and to say no to anything that distracts us from responding to God’s yes.


A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the Spiritual Practice of Discernment, and there is a lot of overlap between Discernment and Saying Yes and Saying No in that both practices encourage us to discern how God is at work and to join God in that work.


We might think of Discernment as related to the big decisions. Who do we marry? What calling do we pursue? When is the right time to retire?

And we might think of the Practice of Saying Yes and Saying No as pertaining to our daily to do list.


And indeed, we need practice with the little yeses and no’s to help us be wiser with the bigger yes’s and no’s. If you say no to cheating on a high school quiz, then hopefully that increases the chances that you’ll say no to cheating on  your taxes.


One preacher tells the story of a father and son who decided to give up something for Lent. The father gave up drinking and the son gave up candy. A few days later, the son saw his father drinking a glass of wine, and he reminded his father about his pledge.

The father replied, “Well, son, I’m giving up hard liquor.”

To which the  son replied, “Ok, I’m giving up hard candy.”

[From a sermon by Martin Copenhaver preached at the Wellesley Congregational Church]


To deny ourselves something small is its own way of rebelling against a culture that tells us that we can have anything we want when we want it.


Learning how to say no is difficult, and most of us have so little practice in doing it, that perhaps it is best to start with something small. So, it may be okay to start with candy, or even just hard candy, and go from there.


Sometimes it can be really difficult to say no, and we may require 12-step groups and other interventions to help us overcome addictions.


On the cover page of today’s bulletin is a quote from theologian M. Shawn Copeland, in which she says that "in order for a no to be effective, it must be placed in the larger context of a life-affirming yes."


The Spiritual Discipline of Saying Yes and Saying No helps remind us that God’s word to us is Yes.


To quote Martin Copenhaver once again,

The good news of the gospel is about God’s yes to us through Jesus Christ. First, through creation, with God saying, yes, it is good. Then through God’s covenant with us, with God saying,

Yes, I will walk with you. I will be your God, and you will be my people.


Then through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, with Jesus saying to us, Yes, I have come that you may have joy and that your joy may be complete. Yes, I am with you to the close of the age.


Or, as the Apostle Paul put it in his letter to the church in Corinth, Jesus Christ is an eternal yes:

“For all the promises of God find their yes in Christ.”


It is in response to God’s great Yes that we are invited to offer our own yes, our own offerings of praise and devotion, our own Yes-shaped lives.


M. Shawn Copeland offers some practical suggestions to help us with our yeses and no’s:[Copeland, “Saying Yes and Saying No” in Practicing Our Faith]


She encourages us to begin the day in prayer, so that we can prepare our day and contemplate carefully all of our yeses and no’s.


May God grant us wisdom to say yes to the life-changing possibilities, such as when Diana Shertenlieb changed her mind and said yes to beginning a correspondence with an inmate.


At the end of the day we can engage in the ancient Christian discipline of the Examen, or examination of conscience.


We can ask ourselves,

To what or to whom have I said yes or no this day?


What motivated me to say yes or no?


What obstacles did I encounter?


What specific conditions can assist me in sustaining my yes or my no?


Do I understand that each choice I make influences the choices I can make in the future?


Do I understand that in saying yes to every invitation or opportunity, every task or assignment, I limit the possibilities for my growth in other areas?


Am I afraid that saying no may require me to give up more than I had bargained for, or to grow in unfamiliar ways?


Do I have adequate spiritual nourishment or emotional support for the yes I seek to say?


If there is a particular choice or decision that concerns me, I identify some supports to strengthen my resolve.


We can conclude the Examen by thanking God for this knowledge and for God’s mercy and compassion. And we can do this knowing that God’s word to us is Yes.


All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.


Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.



For Further Reading about Spiritual Practices:


Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People; Dorothy C, Bass, editor; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, 2019.


 Chapter 5, “Saying Yes and Saying No,” was written by M. Shawn Copeland., who is Professor Emerita of Systematic Theology at Boston College.





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