This sermon was given by the Revd Sarah Brewerton on 9th August 2009
Many of the stories in the Bible and about contemporary Christians feature people who say YES to God – people who choose to follow God’s will, in many different ways and in many different circumstances. For example Abraham, who promised to obey God whatever it took; Moses, who obeyed and challenged others to follow – quite literally, on a journey to freedom; Mary the mother of Jesus whose YES would change the course of history; the disciples, who said YES to Jesus’s call to follow him.
And for many such people saying YES to God implied that they also said NO – to social conventions, to other people, to a particular way of life.
So what about saying NO? What happens when we say NO?
Let’s look at stories of 3 individuals who in their own way all said NO – two biblical, and one contemporary.
So first from the book of Esther – though not about Esther herself.
The King of Persia was having a party that lasted a week (some party!). The wine flowed freely, so much so that the King and his friends were quite the worse for wear. In his merry state, the King orders that Queen Vashti be brought to him, so that he can show her off.
Meanwhile in the women’s quarters, the queen was having a girls’ night in. She too was throwing a party, but one where the guests still had their wits about them. When Vashti was told of the king’s command to go to him, she guessed what he was up to. Befuddled by drink, he’d forgotten common decency. He wanted her to wear the royal crown – and he might well have implied JUST the royal crown. He wanted to show her to his servants and courtiers and officials – but probably not for who she was but what she was.
And Vashti would have none of it. She said NO. She refused to do what her husband told her. She refused to be subjected to the drunken bawdy comments of the men. She refused to be treated as simply an object of desire. She knew what was right and decent. Her calm strength and self respect was a great contrast to her husband’s weakness and dithering inability to make decisions.
He became quite nervous – what would his servants and others think if he couldn’t even control his wife? What sort of a king was that? And what if other women took courage and followed suit? An uprising of women! That would never do. This one woman’s refusal to go along with the drunken and unseemly requests of her husband was perceived to be a threat to the dominance of every husband in the kingdom. Something had to be done.
But the king couldn’t make up his mind what to do. (That does make you wonder what sort of a king he was.) He was beginning to regret his harsh words and hasty action. Maybe he was on the brink of making an apology. The royal advisers reckoned that would be inadvisable. It would give Vashti even more of a hold over her husband. I wonder if they were a little afraid of this strong and determined woman. Maybe they were frightened at what she would do next. It would probably be for the best if she was kept away from the king.
So a royal proclamation was sent out, forbidding her to appear before him. Well, that was rather ironic because it gave Vashti exactly what she wanted and was exactly what started the whole thing off in the first place. But then the punishment went a step further. The royal officials advised that Vashti be deposed as queen. Let some beautiful young women be brought, and the one that the king likes best, let her become queen in Vashti’s place.
So Vashti is banished forever and makes way for another, Esther, who takes her place in the royal household. But there is still more intrigue. Esther has a secret. She is Jewish. She also turns out to be clever and resourceful, and later used her skill to save her fellow Jews from torture and death.
We hear no more of Vashti. She disappears from the story and we don’t know what became of her. But her strength and determination live on. Maybe she wasn’t sorry to see the last of the king, and the self-centredness, the lack of respect, the corruption, that went on within the royal palace. Effectively she said NO to all of that. She deserved better. Vashti set in motion a train of events that would cause her personal loss of status, but which would have enormous implications and importance in the history of the Jewish race.
All this because she had the courage to say NO and defy convention.
So then let’s fast forward a few hundred years, to the time of Jesus.
There were plenty of people who said NO to Jesus. They were mostly the baddies of the story – for example, the religious leaders who regarded Jesus as blasphemous, heretical, and who were out to get him. They said NO in a big way.
But sometimes his friends said NO too. Peter was a classic example. When Jesus tried to prepare his friends for what was to come, arrest, torture, death – Peter said NO, this would never happen, he would never allow it. And then that horrible moment when Peter said NO, I don’t know Jesus, and when he realised what he had said and done, he went away and wept. He bitterly regretted his NO.
But there was someone else who said NO to Jesus and who didn’t regret it.
This was a woman – we don’t know her name – who was in dire need. She came from Syria, and was a Gentile, and her nationality and her religious belief would have made her an outsider to those of the Jewish race. The fact that no husband is mentioned is probably significant. When it came to protecting the family and seeking help if one of them was ill, that would be job of a male member of the household. But that wasn’t the case here. Was this woman, then, a single parent? If so – she’s female, a non-Jew and no husband – well, she didn’t have much going for her.
But she knows the etiquette, what’s expected. She approaches Jesus in a house – the customary setting for reputable women. She falls at his feet – again the correct deferential position – and begs for Jesus’ help, because her daughter is very ill. Now, that is not unknown – others had approached Jesus, not for themselves, but for their child. And Jesus had willingly done what they asked.
But this is different. And it’s actually quite troubling. Jesus seems to speak to her disdainfully and sharply. His response reflects his religious background, where Jews held in contempt those they saw as heathen.
And to make matters worse, Jesus then compares her and her kind to dogs, which are fed only with the scraps and crumbs from the master’s table. I reckon Jesus must have been having a bad day.
His refusal to help is bewildering enough – he had been quite willing to heal a Gentile man from around the same area as the woman, who was possessed by evil spirits. So it can’t have been the woman’s nationality or religious beliefs that were the problem. We can only assume it was something to do with her gender. What seemed to unacceptable to Jesus was that she dared to approach a stranger, a man, on behalf of her family. An honourable family would have sent a senior male relative. What she did was shameful, and provoked quite a shocking response from Jesus.
But Jesus’ refusal to help is not the end of the story, not by any means. Instead of hanging her head in shame, the woman says a strong and bold NO to Jesus. And she cleverly turns his words round “OK so you call me a dog. But – oh no! don’t forget that the dogs can have the leftovers after the children have eaten.” We see here a sharp-witted, quick thinking, resourceful person who is desperate to help her child – who isn’t afraid to say NO even to Jesus and to challenge the conventions of the day. This woman is the only person in Mark’s gospel who gets the better of Jesus in an argument.
Jesus has already taught others that religious customs should not get in the way of doing good to those in need. Now he has to learn that social customs should not get in the way either.
I believe that not only did she better Jesus in an argument, but that she changed his mind.
He learnt from her to transcend the racist and sexist boundaries of his culture, to recognise insights from outside that culture, and to acknowledge that faith can be found there.
So – the original request was granted and the woman’s daughter was made well.
Now to fast forward again 2000 years or so and tell you about Susan.
Susan was born 40 years ago with a hair lip and cleft palate. She had many operations in her first year of life. Her father wanted her to develop self-esteem and didn’t want her bullied, so worked hard to encourage her in sporting activities. And she shone in this. She got a black belt in karate but her main love was football, both watching and playing. She played so well that a football coach saw her play and didn’t believe she was a girl!
Then in her teens she developed diabetes and this led later to kidney failure. She came to the Manchester Royal Infirmary three times a week for dialysis, until 2006 when she had a pancreas and kidney transplant. This would have revolutionised her life. It would have reversed her diabetes and would also have meant that she no longer needed dialysis. It was a bitter blow when both transplanted organs were rejected. Susan spent the following two years back on regular dialysis, and really quite poorly and she had numerous inpatient admissions. Her diabetes became more and more difficult to control. She became very unwell and was admitted several times to the Intensive Care, and it became clear that her condition was serious. It was at this point that I got to know her quite well.
One day I instinctively asked her if she would like me to say prayer with her. She replied immediately, that she wanted Psalm 23. I didn’t have a copy with me, so said it from memory – no easy task! But Susan and I between us got it more or less right. I was surprised that she had asked for this, as she was not a church-goer. The next time I visited, I suggested saying the Lord’s Prayer together, to which she responded that she did not know that one!
Throughout several crises when we all thought that she would never recover, Susan remained clear about what she wanted. She said a very firm NO to going back into Intensive Care or to being resuscitated. She was one of the feistiest patients I’ve known and I loved her for it. She had both a strong will and a strong sense of reality. She knew that her life expectancy wasn’t great. She was very open in talking about her death. Maybe that made her determined to get what she wanted and needed for herself and for others.
One thing she was determined to do when she got out of hospital was to come to a service at Central. I was so looking forward to that – she would have got such a welcome. But that wasn’t to be.
When she was critically ill a few months ago and the doctors were considering stopping the dialysis treatment, she was furious. I will never forget her words “NO. I’ll die when I’m ready to die.”
She defied death – she said NO to death so many times. She took control over her life, and her death.
When death finally came, it came 20 minutes before her 40 birthday at the end of June. I believe that in ways we don’t really understand, Susan took control and said NO to dying on her birthday, maybe so that it would not be always linked to the day of her death.
So – what we can learn from these three people is that saying NO isn’t necessarily always negative. It can open up all sorts of opportunities, possibilities, and give us back some control.
And there are times when we have to say NO ….
Saying NO can be positive providing it is what we choose for ourselves. If it is other people – or society – that say NO, then that closes doors.
copyright © Revd Sarah Brewerton, 2009
unuathorised use or reproduction prohibited
Susans family have given permission for the use of her story in this sermon
new page 30 August 2009