Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51
Carl Allen was a “No” man. Ask him out for a drink at the local pub, and he’d almost certainly say, “No.” Ask him to a party, or to stay late at work, or to help out with a project that’s too big for one person alone, and the answer would always be the same.
“No. No, no, no, no, NO!”
And what did Carl do instead of saying, “Yes?” Why, he sat at home watching bad television and DVDs randomly selected from the video store.
His wife left him, and his friends almost gave up on him when he missed the engagement party of one of them. Late one night, he dreamed of himself lying on the sofa dead, while his friends drank his last beer and stared down at him, trying to determine if he really was dead. They had trouble doing this, because in Carl’s case, there wasn’t really all that much difference between dead and alive.
This is how the movie Yes Man starts. It’s an exaggerated version of the start of the book it’s based on, also called Yes Man. The book is the true story of a year in comedian Danny Wallace’s life, a year that begins with Danny realizing that saying, “No” has gotten him nowhere fast.
The book and the movie aren’t about particularly unusual people. There are hundreds, thousands, millions of people in the world whose life consists of waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, commuting to a job they don’t particularly enjoy but don’t hate enough to leave, doing the job, commuting home, having supper, watching television, and going to bed. Carl Allen was one of those people, and despite his seemingly glamorous career as a comedian and television producer, so was Danny Wallace.
People of the “No” have been around for a long, long time. How many women before Hannah refused to leave their sons at the temple? Refused to give them to the Lord? Our biblical records don’t tell us. They’re forgotten.
To how many people did Jesus say, “Follow me?” Only a dozen? Somehow, knowing human nature, I don’t think so. Probably more than a dozen, possibly many, many more. But the Son of Man had no home. Following him meant leaving the familiar, the supportive. It was a lot easier for them to listen politely, nod their heads, and just say, “No thanks. Not today.”
No. No, no, no, no, NO!
Saying no is safe, it’s easy, and rarely costs anything. Or so we believe. If we say no, we won’t get scammed, taken in, misled. If we say no, we’ll have the time to do the things we really want to do, even if we don’t know what they are. If we say no, we’re condemned to live life as it has always been, and die never knowing what would have happened had we said, “Yes.”
But if we do say, “Yes…” What happens then?
In real life, Danny Wallace was on a bus. He may not have felt down at that fateful moment, but he certainly must have looked it, because a man on the bus spoke to him and said, “You need to say ‘Yes’ more.” Danny thought about that, and decided to say “yes” to everything for the next year.
In the movie, Carl is dragged to a seminar on saying yes by an enthusiastic friend. Guru Terrance Bundley bullies him into making a covenant to say “yes” to everything.
Though the specifics differ, what follows in both book and movie is a funny, moving journey—the journey of a man travelling the road from death to life.
Right about now, I’m almost certain that some of you are thinking, “That’s crazy! You can’t say yes to everything! What about scammers? What about over-commitment? What about money? It doesn’t grow on trees, you know!”
If you’re asking those questions, let me ask you a couple of questions in return.
What place does “faith” have in your journey?
And how important are your concerns, really?
Let me tell you about another journey that has involved saying “yes” a lot. It’s a true story, and I know this because it’s mine.
I said “yes” on the first Tuesday of a long-ago September, when a friend asked me if I wanted to go with him to see what Army Cadets was all about. Something a bit odd, something none of my female friends would have done.
But I said “yes,” and I followed through, and that night I met a young man named Bill Cooke. And now that I think of it, that’s in keeping with what happens to both Danny (in real life) and Carl (in the movie.) We all ended up meeting that special someone— someone we wouldn’t ever have met had we stuck to our routines and our closed circle of friends.
The Saturday following that fateful Tuesday, I learned how to shoot a rifle, and crawl through the bush unseen, and camp in a tent. I went from being a child of the suburbs to being at home in the wilderness almost overnight, and it’s changed how I see and interact with the world.
A few years later I said another “yes,” this time to Bill. A few “yeses” later, and we had three kids. The eldest of those, at age five, wanted violin lessons. We were broke, and I wasn’t sure that five years of age was old enough to learn to play an instrument, and…
I said “yes,” of course. I never imagined that eighteen years later, one of my children would be on her way to being a professional musician. I certainly never dreamed that I would myself be playing in an orchestra and accompanying the famous operatic tenor Ben Heppner, which will happen on February 13th of this year. (Me? Excited? Nah… )
I said “yes,” when at the lowest point in my life, God called me to ministry. Again, no money, no job, no hope. But I had nothing to lose, so I did it. And ended up coming back to life.
I’ll freely admit that many, if not most, presbytery meetings can be boring. When I was in ministry, I’ll shamefully admit to finding reasons to say no. But one day, I didn’t put it off, and I said, “Yes.”
I went home with a flyer about a youth mission trip some members of a Waterloo church were planning. We couldn’t afford to send one child—once again, we were broke, under-employed, and now dealing with an autistic child.
We ended up sending two of our kids, and Allison and David will probably be delighted to tell you all about it some time. They came back changed for life, but it wasn’t just them who benefited. I found out, through saying yes, just how much support is out there for people who say yes. Five different church families supported us. Random strangers donated to our cause. We found resources and talents within ourselves that we didn’t know we had. We made friends, and we had a ball.
Because I said yes to a boring meeting, and yes to what followed.
It’s not just theory, and it’s not just me and Carl Allen and Danny Wallace. Saying yes to most things, even when it’s hard to do so and requires sacrifices we don’t think we can make has rewards that are beyond our imagining.
Let’s go back to those early followers of Jesus. They said, “Yes,” and they learned a new way of living.
Feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked. Don’t be afraid of death, for God is with us in life, in death, and in life beyond death.
We take those lessons for granted some days, but I’m convinced that those simple acts of saying, “Yes” to the world around them were the difference between life and death for the early church.
The people around those early Christians often abandoned those in need. With no antibiotics, no surgery, no knowledge even of what caused disease and how to prevent it, saying, “No” to helping someone who was dying was an act of common sense, not of callousness. The same might be said of giving to the poor and hungry in a world where famine and drought and want were regular visitors, even to the rich. We sometimes forget that in our little world where we too often waste as much food as we eat that it wasn’t always that way, and that giving away one’s excess food might very well cost one one’s life in lean times.
But early Christians became convinced that there was something more to living than mere life, and lost some of that fear of dying that is instinctive to us all. Not being afraid of dying meant a Christian was more likely to help a sick neighbour. The help the sick neighbour received meant the neighbour was more likely to survive. A neighbour who survived a plague due to Christian nursing was very likely to become a Christian himself. And so it went. The early Christian Church had a phenomenal growth rate, and it wasn’t due to preaching the word. It was because Christians live the word, and the word was, and is, “YES!”
Mary said yes, and Jesus was born.
James and John and Simon Peter said yes, and a church was born.
Philip and Nathaniel said yes. Paul said yes. Dorcas said yes. Timothy said yes.
And on, and on, and on, and on, right on down to you. Now the question comes. God is knocking at your door, calling you to do big, scary, fun things—things that you’ve never done before. God is that unknown person on the bus, that slick television guru, that pesky friend who drags you to a new place, that stuttering person standing up at the presbytery meeting.
You’ll listen to their calls to action, and you’ll think about it for a bit. And you’ll find excuses to say no. You don’t have the money. You don’t have the time. You don’t have the energy. You don’t have the skills or the resources. Saying, “Yes” would be a big hassle, and upset your routine.
But God is persistent. God will still knock at your door, calling your name, asking you to come out and play, to come out and live. God will keep knocking, keep asking, for the rest of your life.
How will you answer?
(Preached at Alma United Church, January 18, 2009)