An Honest Answer
AN HONEST ANSWER
It’s election season in America again. It’s the time of year when politicians make promises they can’t keep, we pretend to believe that our candidate is the exception to that rule, and then we are disappointed when said politician doesn’t follow through. We are promised straight talk and substance; we rarely get either. The word politician has become synonymous with liar in the modern American mind. We bemoan that talk is cheap but do little to solve the problem with our own words. People say they want an honest person to run for office. Perhaps some of you are thinking that the day you meet an honest politician is the day pigs start flying.
Well, back in 2004, there were some pig-filled skies in my home state of Virginia. That’s when Brad Blanton, an independent, went up against incumbent Republican representative Eric Cantor in the 7th district. Brad Blanton is a therapist who lives by a philosophy called Radical Honesty. Blanton thinks all of our problems are caused by lying and the only way to be happy is to tell the truth, no matter what. In his interview with NPR, Blanton admits to having an affair, being in a polygamous marriage with five wives, taking multiple drugs, and a long list of other things that many might consider to be political suicide. But in 2004, Blanton put out a 4-minute TV ad that ran twice where he said, “If you want to an alternative to the lying, wasteful, ignorant, destructive, costly, paranoid way your government has been run by most Republicans and some Democrats, then I am your only shot.” He ends the commercial with, “Call me, send me some money, bye.” The commercial ran twice. He won 25% of the vote, something unheard of for an independent in Virginia.
So in 2006, the Democratic Party decided to try to put him on the ticket. It looked like Blanton was on the way to getting the nomination. But then Blanton was honest about some of some rather salacious and unorthodox group counseling methods. The Democratic establishment was not thrilled about this and decided not to give him the nomination. So Blanton tried to run as an independent again. But even the people who were working to get him elected, whom he recruited from his Radical Honesty seminars, when asked by NPR if they would vote for Blanton, replied no. It appears that Radical Honesty is actually radically unpopular, even with your campaign staff.
Honesty, truth telling, swearing, saying what you mean, meaning what you say – that’s what we are talking about today. We’re talking about God Talk and how it can change our lives. We are not talking about how we talk about God, but we are talking about how God talks to us and how He expects us to talk to each other, which is basically to give an honest answer without all the fluff that human beings tend to add to their speech to make themselves more believable.
You see, we are not talking about swearing, as in bad language. Certainly, that can be inappropriate and offensive, and it reflects the state of our hearts. But that is not what this is about. Instead, it is about a common practice during Jesus’ time where people would invoke God’s divine name, calling upon God, to either affirm what they said or strike them dead. This is the particular formula that was being used and the particular formula that Jesus was speaking against. The formula is based off the Middle Eastern idea that if you knew the name of a god, you had power over that god and could make that god do what you say, which is basically magical thinking. Implicit in the oath is that the speaker him or herself, is not inherently believable, and thus must appeal to something else to add to their trustworthiness. Perhaps this reflects the general human tendency to do one thing and say another.
You see, by the time of Jesus, observant Jews so revered the name of God, Yahweh, that it was forbidden to say the name, even to write it. But this didn’t stop people from getting around this rule. They would try to swear by heaven, a proxy word for God. If not heaven, then by Earth; if not Earth than by one’s own head. But even one’s head is God’s property. It is all God’s, thus if you swear by anything, whether you invoke the divine name or not, you are swearing by God. This is evil, when we take oaths that we can’t fulfill, or don’t intend to fulfill. This is evil when we use oaths to cover up our own untrustworthiness. This is not to say that we should never take any oath of office or oath to defend our nation, but it is to say in our everyday lives, it is better to let our yes be yes and our no be no. For we human beings are made in the image of God. And part of God’s nature is that God speaks and stuff happens. God’s speech isn’t just words. There is Spirit and Truth behind the words to accomplish the purposes for which the words were sent. The same should be for us. When we speak, stuff happens, because our words and our deeds agree.
However, we must also recognize that while the Bible calls us to speak the truth, the Bible also calls us to use our words sparingly. As James 1:19 declares, “Know this my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” And as Jesus says in Matthew 12:36, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” The Bible tells us that we should not throw our pearls before swine, which more or less means don’t give people what they are not ready for or can’t handle. We must admit that there is a false honesty where people use a lot of words but say very little about themselves and who they are. They may speak facts, but they don’t speak the Truth. Vulnerability means we must be open to being wounded, for that is the risk of genuine relationship, the risk that we will be hurt. But vulnerability is not the same thing as unwise honesty. Vulnerability protects us from lying and deception while also acknowledging that we cannot share everything with everyone.
Vulnerability, being open to others, is key to understanding ourselves. And understanding ourselves is key to knowing when we should say yes and when we should say no. What does the Bible say about our yes and our no?
As far as our yes, the Bible puts a great deal of emphasis on our voluntary commitment, on saying a genuine yes. On giving to the church, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Though the Bible affirms the role of the state and for the state to use power to enforce law and order, central to life in the church is doing things because we genuinely want to do them.
Yet, even our lives in the church are not characterized by agreement and unity but by disagreement and disunity. Part of our yes is that we must have willing hearts to serve. Part of our yes is we must have leaders who genuinely inspire us to say yes instead of shaming, guilting, or forcing us to say yes. But then we are forced to face the question of how to get anything done, since most of us face many time constraints on our lives and saying yes to anything may be a genuinely difficult prospect for us. We are all separate emotional creatures with strong opinions and desires. As the book Getting To Yes argues, “Human beings are not computers. We are creatures of strong emotions who often have radically different perceptions and have difficulty communicating clearly.”
We have to address our relationship problems before we get to yes. And when we get to the issue, we must realize that it is often not about the position so much as it is about the fears, hopes, dreams, and interests that underlie the position. Churches don’t split because of the new building or the new worship service. Instead, it is about the interests beneath the issue we are talking about, interests that we feel but are rarely brought into the light. As Proverbs 20:5 declares, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” Translation: ask people what they think, what they feel, before you go on a moral crusade, before you decide this is the right thing to do, or this is God’s Will, and everyone else is either with me or against me. Pastors can be bad at this, since we spend so much time talking about God we often forget how God wants us to talk, that is honestly, not using our words to guilt or compel people to do something.
As much as we have to be honest about our yes and learn to communicate in a way that can facilitate a genuine yes, we must also recognize that those around us have the right to say no. As Dr. Henry Cloud argues in Changes That Heal, part of knowing who we are, part of setting good boundaries, is knowing who we are not. Dr. Cloud gives the example of the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-31. Jesus tells the story of a father who asks two sons to go work in his vineyard. The father asks one son to go work and he says he will not. But later he changes his mind. He asks the other son to work and the son says yes but later does not follow through on his yes. Jesus then asks, who did what the father wanted? The first one, was the response of the Pharisees. To quote Cloud, “In effect, the second son did not know who he really was. He didn’t want to work in the vineyard, but he couldn’t say, ‘I won’t go.’ Thus, he was out of touch with himself. The first, because he could say no was in touch enough to later say yes. This kind of person can say no, and then his yes means something. We must be in touch with our no and in control of it, or it will control us. The second son could not own his no, so it owned him. Nos always come out in some form or fashion. In his case it was in his procrastination” (Cloud, 111).
We can see the danger of saying yes all the time and saying no all the time. When we say yes all the time, we lose definition of ourselves, our values, our purpose, who we are. We want to give, but in the end, we can’t, because we find in our hearts we have nothing to give away because we don’t know who we are. But if we say no all the time, then we begin to see life as all about us. We become so self-defined that we lose our connection to others. Our hearts harden, others are repelled, and our hearts harden even more, till we are in a prison of resentment, a prison of our own design.
When do we say yes? When do we say no? Those questions matter a lot when you are in a small church, don’t they? Because we face a Catch 22. There are things we need to do, traditions we want to honor, people we want to minister to. But to do those things, we need more willing people. But we can’t get willing people till we say yes, till we take risks, till we grow and connect with those we don’t know. All of us have genuinely fulfilled our duties and yet a yes keeps being asked of us. And because we don’t want to let people down, we say yes when we actually mean no. And we feel the weight on our spirits. I’ll be honest, I don’t want to be the pastor under which the over hundred year tradition of Harvest Home dies in this church. It’s a wonderful tradition. I know folks in the community love it. I know we love it. I know Kelly has served faithfully for 15 years. But we have been getting into a habit of saying yes when we mean no. And it gets the job done; it’s just not sustainable.
We need to have a “come to Jesus” moment, my friends, in the life of this church. Why are we here? What has he called us to do as a people? What will we say yes to? What will we say no to? As Revelation 3 says, the Lord opens doors for us that no man can shut and shuts doors that no man can open. And the Lord is waiting to see what doors we shall walk through. He is waiting for an honest answer.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.