Sermon #15 (16th September 2015 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
In the Gospel of Matthew, towards the end of chapter five, after the Beatitudes, Jesus is reported to have said the following words:
‘I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.’
This verse is generally taken to be about forbidding the practice of swearing oaths. The idea is famously taken very seriously by the Quakers – for them, the idea is that to swear an oath implies that you have a double-standard of truth – if you’re saying ‘no, this time, I swear on the bible, it’s true’ then does that mean we can’t trust what you say the rest of the time? The Quakers historically have had such a commitment to integrity that it is understood that one must speak the whole truth at all times. It’s all about saying what you mean and meaning what you say, without fail, in every situation.
So this is one interpretation of that particular saying, ‘let your yes be yes, and your no, no’, but over the next twelve minutes or so, let’s consider the issue a bit more broadly than that. For me, it’s not just about those highly charged situations where you might swear an oath, but every scenario in our everyday life where we say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the people around us. I want to consider the way we go about making commitments to each other (and to ourselves) – big and small, implicit and explicit, partial and total, conditional and unconditional – how we can get better at making and following through on those commitments, and how saying a wholehearted ‘YES’ (even in the face of doubt) can change your life.
Hopefully at least some of you are familiar with the classic Jimmy Cliff reggae song ‘Let Your Yeah be Yeah’ which inspired the title of this service. The lyrics to that song bring the issue right back down to earth, to our everyday interpersonal aggravations, and articulate the frustrations of hearing ‘yeses’ and ‘noes’ that we can’t rely on:‘You keep telling me yes – but you don’t mean it. You keep telling me no – and try to lean it. You’re giving me buts and maybes – you know this will drive me crazy. Why can’t you tell it like it is?’
It’s a reasonable enough question, isn’t it? Why can’t we always tell it like it is? Or why don’t we? When think about this my first instinct is, of course, to dredge up a list of past grievances, and recall every time I have ever felt let down or messed around by someone in this way.
Two examples: I decided to have a party (this doesn’t happen often). Weeks in advance, a bunch of people said yes, but then one by one they made their various excuses and dropped out, until there were only two of us left, and I felt rather dejected, and called off the party altogether. So you could say that their ‘yeah’ wasn’t really ‘yeah’. Two: I planned a workshop, and quite a few people said ‘that sounds great’, but only one person signed up for definite, and with a week to go I cancelled the workshop due to lack of interest (after it was cancelled loads of people came up to me and said ‘oh, I was planning to come!’). Their ‘no’ wasn’t really ‘no’. Or perhaps that’s more of a ‘buts and maybes’ situation… but being noncommittal can be functionally equivalent to saying ‘no’ whatever you intend by it.
Just two tiny examples… it is exceedingly tempting to focus on all the times when we feel that we’ve been wronged or let down in this way, when people haven’t kept their word. But as the UU minister Charles Ortman suggested in our first reading today, we can never fully know what forces or circumstances might cause the other person to change their ‘yes’ to a ‘no’, so it is probably more fruitful if we focus on examining our own conduct instead, as that’s something we have got a bit more power to influence and change (theoretically). Of course there are plenty of times when my ‘yeah’ hasn’t been ‘yeah’ and I’ve let others down too.
So, generally speaking, are you somebody who likes to say ‘yes’? Imagine: you’re invited to an event, asked for assistance, offered an opportunity. In the moment, ‘yes’ often seems the nice thing to say, the way to please other people. Often we sincerely mean that ‘yes’ at the moment we utter it… but we might come to regret it later, when we’re a bit over-committed, or we get a better offer. Maybe sometimes we already know we’re a bit doubtful about whether we’re going to follow through even at the moment we say ‘yes’… but we can’t bring ourselves to say ‘no’ for reasons that have got more to do with social embarrassment than anything else.
Or are you, perhaps, somebody who likes to say ‘no’, or just sit back and avoid committing yourself? Maybe you are wary of making promises you might not keep, or of having others rely on you? Perhaps you like to keep your options open and so, more often than not, say ‘maybe’?
Each of us might have a default tendency to be a yes-sayer, or a no-sayer, or a maybe-sayer. And there are consequences, of course, to each of these ways of behaving. When we give someone our word we lead other people to believe they can count on us and they will make their own plans accordingly . If we say ‘yes’ lightly, then regret it, we end up having to choose whether to let someone else down or go through with something that we don’t really want to do. If we say ‘no’ lightly – or we simply withhold our ‘yes’ and are noncommittal – then we may fail to support other people’s endeavours and also miss out on opportunities for ourselves.
If we dig a bit deeper, what we’re often really talking about, in these scenarios, is commitment. Margaret Farley says (quite formally, because she’s a professor of ethics) that ‘commitment is… an intention regarding future action and the undertaking of an obligation to another. Because we know our own inconsistencies, we need a way to strengthen ourselves… a barrier against our fickle changes of heart, our losses of vision, our weaknesses. By commitment we give ourselves bonds (and give ourselves a power) which will help us to do what we truly want to do… it is a remedy for inconsistency and uncertainty.’ I’d add to that the observation that commitments are of varying degrees of significance – some are huge things that involve our whole lives – some are tiny and time-limited. The obligation involved in making marriage vows, or joining a religious order, is on a totally different scale to saying ‘let’s go on holiday together’ or ‘I’ll give a talk at summer school’, or that resulting from casually saying we’ll go someone’s picnic, or signing up to make tea at church. And all of these widely varying ‘yeses’ and ‘noes’ are up for examination as far as I’m concerned.
I’d also like to bring in another variable: some commitments are formal and explicit whilst others are informal, implicit and sometimes even entirely unspoken. Certain kinds of relationships carry with them expectations which are rarely articulated… and differing expectations can be the source of all sorts of problems and discord. You can end up in situations where one of the parties has no sense of a binding commitment having been made at all whilst the other is tearing their hair out at being ‘let down and wronged’. An example I can think of is in a new relationship where one partner expects the other to get in touch and exchange messages every day and the other isn’t so fussed and is happy to let communication drop and go for days without replying. They have different expectations of what commitments implicitly come along with that new relationship. I’d suggest that there’s a lot to be said for making these implicit commitments a bit more explicit in order to avoid this sort of confusion and disappointment. As awkward as such conversations might seem they’re a lot less awkward than simmering resentment and acrimonious break-up in the long run…
Being clearer in ourselves about what we mean by a certain commitment is important. As Margaret Farley says, ‘it is possible to be more reflective about the limits we intend.’ How do we really feel about it? Do we honestly mean ‘yes’? Are we going to see it through? Perhaps we need to hesitate before we give our answer and mull it over properly. This can help us to narrow the gap between what we mean to do and what we actually do. Maybe our ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’ depends on other things and needs to be conditional. And whatever the answer to the question might be, once we’ve given it due attention, we need to take care to communicate that clearly with anyone else who is affected by it, maybe explore the mutual expectations, even if that feels an awkward and clumsy thing to do.
I must also acknowledge that sometimes it is all but unavoidable that we break commitments. From time to time we may have multiple commitments that pull in different directions and thus we may need to prioritise and break one commitment to honour the other. And life is complex so it is not always obvious how we should prioritise. On the basis of greatest need? Closeness of relationship? Magnitude of help or harm? Circumstances can change, unexpectedly and through no fault of our own, and there may be some commitments which become practically impossible to fulfil. It’s a bit of a balancing act; not taking our commitments too lightly and ‘letting ourselves off the hook’; but not being bloody-minded about fulfilling them at any cost (including our well-being). And it is completely legitimate that in some circumstances we simply change our mind. When our ‘yes’ becomes ‘no’ then that must be respected – it becomes a question of consent. On those rare occasions when we find we really can’t follow through on a commitment then I’d say we need to think carefully about how best to handle that honourably. That might entail giving people a heads-up as soon as we can see there’s a problem so that they have plenty of notice, and checking out whether it’s possible to renegotiate arrangements, rather than making it an all-or-nothing yes/no situation. Communicating.
I read an article by the life coach Royale Scuderi which gave five tips for keeping commitments and although they don’t cover every nuance I’m going to give you the digest version. She says:
1. Make it concrete: try to be sure you are going to be willing and able to do something before you commit to it and get as clear as you can on the expectations of all involved.
2. Get it in writing: verbal agreements tend to be vague and perceived differently by the parties involved so you might not even both agree when the commitment has been fulfilled.
3. Small promises count: if you don’t message back, you don’t repay a small sum you borrowed, then you can erode trust, damage your reputation, and appear irresponsible. You might make the other person feel dismissed and unimportant to you. That’s no good.
4. By default, do it anyway: don’t make excuses for yourself, push yourself a bit, and give yourself the satisfaction of following through and keeping your word. On the rare occasions when you really have to go back on your word then ask to alter the agreement (and if you have been consistently reliable in the past then people will understand).
5. Expect the same of others: expect the best and don’t take your agreements with them too lightly. If someone fails to keep their word be clear and honest in your disappointment.
Five tips for keeping your word – or letting your yeah be yeah – from Royale Scuderi.
There is one final aspect to saying, and meaning, ‘yes’ that I want to bring in today. Commitment is not just about our obligations and what we owe to others. To repeat what Margaret Farley said, ‘it is a barrier against our fickle changes of heart, our losses of vision, our weaknesses’ and it ‘gives us a power which will help us do what we truly want to do.’ Integrity coach Mark Wright elaborates: ‘every commitment we make or break has a direct impact on our integrity, character and ultimately the fulfilment of our life… The easier path is to ‘play small’ and not ask much of life, and therefore not be required to give much either. However, this does not bring forth the “highest expression of yourself”.’
When it comes to big, significant, potentially life-changing commitments – the most obvious example that comes to mind for me is getting married (or embarking on some kind of serious committed relationship of some sort) – we can never be totally sure ahead of time that it’ll all work out perfectly, effortlessly. There is a risk that we will hang around endlessly waiting until we’re certain it’s the right move (and a risk that we will miss out on whatever life has put in our way because of this hesitation). These big commitments often require a leap of faith. That’s kind of the point of them! They are an expression of your highest vision, your intention, your heart’s desire, and the commitment itself helps to give you the strength to see it through and make it into reality. I am using marriage as my example because it involves a very visible, public affirmation of the commitment between two people, which serves to strengthen its binding power. Humans are trying buggers, even when you love them dearly, and building a life together is not easy. In a way this is a form of ‘tying yourself to the mast’ to help your future self stay true to your original intentions in the face of all the trials and tests you are likely to face along the way. And of course this goes for other significant commitments too – pursuing a tough career path, or embarking on a creative endeavour that will stretch you. A wholehearted ‘YES!’ as we embark, even in the face of doubt, can give us the power to do something hard, and open us up to bigger and braver possibilities than we could face up to if we were half-hearted and tentative about it. And this vocal affirmation is even more important when two or more people are involved; each has to give the other confidence to make the leap and trust in an entangled future together.
In that spirit – of a wholehearted ‘YES!’ which leads us on to greater things – I would like to close with a fragment of a famous piece, often (mis)attributed to Goethe, (actually by W.H. Murray): ‘Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation there is one elementary truth… the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would come their way.’
May it be so for all of us. Amen.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: