Monday, January 31, 2011

Sermon - "No is Not a Dirty Word"

“No” is not a dirty word. In fact I have referred to saying “no” as a spiritual practice, one that some of us could learn deeply from. I mean that seriously. For some of us, saying “no” is a spiritual discipline. It’s something that we should be doing to deepen our sense of self and to improve our relationship with creation.

I know it sounds strange to say that religiously, we should say “no” sometimes. Especially when we so often focus on openness and affirmation and giving. That sense of openness and giving is pretty much the core of Unitarian Universalist theology.

But, theology never happens in a vacuum. It always comes from a particular person, or people, and it is always directed to a particular person. Theology should respond to the needs of the person hearing it. And our needs vary pretty significantly from one person to the next. Even from one moment to the next, what we need to hear in life can be very, very different.

The vast majority of theology within our tradition as Unitarian Universalists, and the theologies that we draw on emphasize the role of compassion and giving in our lives. They are based in a sort of openness and connection. Whether it is our Christian heritage, Buddhism, Paganism, or our shared ethics as human beings, we usually dwell on the responsibility to give more freely of ourselves.

That’s all well and good. I know it’s a message that I could use more of on occasion. But some feminist theologians have raised a question about this theology. They have wondered exactly who this message of giving more of yourself is written for.
Are we telling disempowered women that they should be more compassionate and be MORE giving? Are we telling underpaid laborers and disadvantaged people of color that their real spiritual quest is to learn how to give more freely of themselves? Should abuse spouses be more generous? Should we telling the disempowered to give more?

No. That would be foolish.

We heard in our responsive reading earlier today, that there is a season for every thing. A time to be born, a time to die; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing… and of course there is, a time to say yes, and a time to say No.

That raises the obvious question, when is that time. Do you have to be a member of an oppressed group? Do you have to be abused or unappreciated? Well, not exactly. Here are a few rules of thumb about when to say “no”.

First we should be clear that, “no” is not be your first response, either spoken or thought. This is a sermon about drawing reasonable boundaries, not about shutting out the world. I think it is deeply important to live our lives with a sense of openness and opportunity. Just two weeks ago I spoke about the discipline required to live in a state of hope. With all the world around you ready to say no, let it be our goal to greet new opportunities and ideas with the a positive intention.

But sometimes, we realize that giving of our time or our energy doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel fair. I think one of the most important times to say no is when saying yes builds up resentment of another person. This happens in all sorts of different ways. In very mundane ways, it could happen when we always give in to what our partner wants to eat for dinner. Too many “yes Dears” is likely to end up in a pretty heated discussion. If you really do mind, then say something. But it can also happen in more significant ways. One of them that I want to be sure to talk about, is in giving our time to our community, our Fellowship. We ask a lot of our members, and most of the people in our community are incredibly generous with both their time and their money. It is deeply appreciated, and hopefully it feels like a good investment of both.

But I do not want you to resent your church. I don’t want anyone to resent the number of hours they spend on a project or the physical effort something takes, or the money they give. Certainly it may give us a little pause, we may even joke a little about all that we do. But if there is any serious resentment about how much you give, if your giving of time makes you question your relationship with the Fellowship, then by all means stop, or at least cut back a little. When you begin to resent your giving, it is time to say no. Whether it is with this Fellowship, your family, your work, or any other venue. Giving should be what you do willingly. If it is done with resentment, then no one wins.

My final rule of thumb, is that we should say “no” when saying yes is actually harmful. Who wants to end up like the “Giving Tree” after all. That is exactly the type of scenario that this sermon is about. What happened to the giving tree was completely destructive to the tree. There was literally nothing left of her at the end of the story. Her generosity destroyed her as a person.
And her generosity was destructive in another way. The boy in this story never learned in ways that he could have. Just imagine if the tree had encouraged the boy to plant other apple trees rather than giving all that she had. Imagine if the tree had said no, because I love you and want you to learn more sustainable ways of being relationships. Saying yes wasn’t just harmful to her, it was also harmful to the person that she loved.

Just like the tree, we are called to say no when what is asked of us is harmful to ourselves or to the person asking. We’ll get into the theology of it later. But from the most basic idea, sometimes saying “no” to someone we care about, is necessary for our own basic well-being or for theirs.

So just to recap the rules of thumb about when to say “no”. It shouldn’t be the first thing, but that doesn’t mean it is never said. Second, we need to say no when saying yes builds resentment in our hearts. And finally, we need to say “no” when saying yes is actually harmful.

But we can also couch this in terms of our faith. I said earlier that our faith tradition typically leads us to a sense of openness and sharing. It’s hopefully our initial response to things.
If you were here last week, you know that I did a “question box sermon.” I answered questions that people wrote down on pieces of paper. I was largely satisfied with the answers that I gave. But there was one that I knew by the afternoon was inadequate. The question was about how Unitarian Universalists are called to respond to fundamentalist religions, be they Christian or Muslim or any other. My initial reaction, and what I think the gut instinct of our traditions, was to say that we should listen, truly listen to the world view that they are coming from. And that was a theologically diverse tradition, we have something fairly unique to offer in the venue of inter-religious dialog.

I stand by that idea of listening, but it’s not quite enough. We also are called to say “no” on occasion. That’s right, our listening and our acceptance of other cultures and traditions has boundaries. When religious traditions dehumanize people or sanctions violence, we are called to stand up and say No. Just this past week, a gay-rights activist in Uganda was beaten to death in his own home after a local paper published the names and addresses of gay people in the community, and suggesting that they should be hanged. This violence was a part of religion. And we are called to stand and speak against it. Just as people of good conscience throughout history have stood up to say that religious persecution is not okay.

Obviously, we in this room do not face immediate danger because of our religious beliefs. We fortunately live in a country where our religious liberty and right to political speech are pretty safely guarded. This example of when to say no may seem extreme and obvious, but there is a point. The gut reaction from our Unitarian Universalist principles is openness and acceptance. We aim to hear the other out, as a religious value. But those same religious values tell us that we MUST stand up and say no on occasion. According to our own principles, there is a time for openness, acceptance and giving, and there is a time to say no.

We usually talk about these principles providing a sense of openness and giving, but that isn’t always the case. Our first principle is respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We remember that one pretty easily and quickly. And we acknowledge that everyone has worth, even those most in need. But today I want to remind us that EVERYONE includes yourself. You have your own inherent worth and dignity to respect. Sometimes we disrespect ourselves when we just agree to everything that is asked of us. Sometimes saying “no” is necessary to respect our own dignity.

And there are other principles that we hold that speak to the issue. Can someone tell me what the second of our principles… without looking? It is
Justice Equity and Compassion in human relationships. Justice and Equity both depend on knowing some limits, knowing when to say “no.” The story of the giving tree was nowhere near just or equitable. relationship I think at first glance we call it compassionate. But was the boy able to grow in compassion at all? Sure the tree was compassionate in her giving, but her giving wasn’t met with anything resembling reciprocity. Sometimes Justice and Equity mean saying no.

Okay, someone give me the fifth principle…. It is the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large. The use of the democratic process can be a tricky thing for us to understand sometimes. We get the first part of it, that everyone gets a vote. We celebrate that quite well. But the other part is that everyone gets only one vote. That’s right, one vote per person. No matter how much of a fuss any individual raises, no matter how deeply held his or her convictions are, they get only one vote. It is up to the community to decided together, in an equal manner how it will govern itself. And a democratic community in turn says “no” to a smaller group who disagrees with the result of a vote. Functional democracy is about the ability to say no, in a way that is not dismissive or oppressive or rude, but still saying no to some people when the final decision has been made.

And the last principle, the one that we know and perhaps encapsulates UU theology most completely… respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. This finale principle, the one that guides so much of how we live as a religious community is all about recognizing our relationships. It is taking seriously the lyrics of the song that we sing every Sunday: “From you I receive, to you I give, together we share and from this we live.” To sustain our relationships in a loving way, we should build them without resentment. And to be able to have long-term relationships, sustainable relationships, we can’t give ourselves completely away, or like the giving tree, eventually, there will be nothing left of us to give.

Everyone has their limit, and the limit is different for each person. Some people are able to give in ways that baffle me, and to do it for a long time. But we all have a limit to our patience. I’m reminded of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers at the temple. This was the only action remotely resembling physical violence that Jesus engaged in. I’m not totally clear about the details of the money-changers. But the way I understand it, the money-changers or bankers were there to make correct change for of the pilgrims who had come to pay the required half shekel as an offering at the temple, but essentially ripping them off in the process. Seeing people making money by ripping off faithful pilgrims put Jesus over the edge. He said clearly, no more of this. “Not in my house,” he said.

The last example of saying no that I want to leave you with is perhaps the most useful to our diverse lives. The Buddha found limits in a different way, perhaps the best way I can think of for us as a model. He always advocated for the middle way. In a nut-shell, he left a life of opulence as a prince, to live life as an ascetic holy man. Finally he realized that both these extreme lifestyles were a barrier to becoming his best self, and he took care of himself, so that he could take care of others. Totally selfish greed wasn’t the way, but neither was a total rejection of his own needs. There was a balance to be struck, a middle way. That’s hat I hope for us, to find in each of our lives the sacred balance, a time to say yes, and a time to say “no.” Because it is not a dirty word. In fact it is a necessary word if we are to live out our principles in this world.



  1. Today' sermons blends with last week's sermon. Two areas I am vitally concerned with. Growing up in the 60' and 70's, social action was considered imperative. This is distinct form the conservative view which embraces and supports social hierarchy. However, life experience makes me wear sunglasses with jade lenses and life begins to take on a tone of cynicism. My experience with corporate America is that is very slow to embrace change and Social Action is not its highest priority. I also have encountered extreme jaundiced prejudice in this arena. Not wanting to cave into abject cynicism, I have been asking myself the questions asked in the last two sermons. How much effort do we spend developing our individual selves, ie setiing boundaries between self and society? And given the extent of discord in today's world, how does this individual validate himself and embrace change without succumbing to abject cynicism and giving up? These are two issues that confront me daily. Anyone have any insights???

  2. Sorry for the typos. It was late!!!