And And, Or But
A sermon on Matthew 5:21-37.
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash.]
When I was a Junior in college, I had the chance to intern with the chaplaincy program at San Francisco General Hospital for a semester, where I got my first instruction in offering pastoral care.
In many ways it feels like that was a lifetime ago, but one particular lesson has stuck with me over the decades since – a lesson about never negating what the person you are talking to has said.
My supervisor, an incredibly wise minister with a gift for teaching, took us through an exercise in which he deliberately misstated details in responding to a story one of us students had shared, and it was our job to respond without correcting the misstatement… to find a way to engage reflectively and meaningfully without calling out his error.
Because focusing on the error would set us and our conversation partners up as antagonists, whereas we were supposed to be allies in helping them process whatever challenge they were facing.
I REALLY struggled with this exercise. I DON’T like being misunderstood, so I kept wanting to offer a correction, to say, “but actually….”
He finally dumbed it down for me into a simple formula: “If you need to offer a different perspective in a conversation, don’t say, ‘yes, BUT…’ instead say, ‘yes, AND…’”.
In pastoral conversations, it can be a real gift to offer new information, or a new way of looking at things… AND people tend to receive that gift more openly when they are not being put on the defensive right from the start.
Fast-forward twenty-plus years and I got the same lesson in a class that taught improvisation techniques for clergy.
“Yes, and” is one of the fundamental principles of improv, a short-hand for the mindset of being willing to pick-up whatever is being offered in the moment and doing whatever you can with it to make the scene work.
To teach this skill, the class instructors had us try an exercise three different ways.
We were split into pairs and our task was to have a conversation to try to decide on an activity for a hypothetical get-together.
The first time through, each response had to start with the phrase “no, because…” each partner coming up with reasons why the other person’s suggestion wouldn’t work.
The next time, the initiating phrase was “yes, but…” where we offered validation for the ideas offered followed by roadblocks.
The final time through, we started with “yes, and…” giving us the chance to propose alternatives.
Of course, the last round was the round that generated the wonderful hilarity: producing silly plans for fantastical outings birthed from the release of all imaginative constraints.
The more fascinating thing about this exercise, though, was that in the second round, the “but” was clearly more powerful than the “yes.”
Even though we started with validation we couldn’t really get anywhere in our planning, because the “but” kept slamming on the breaks.
Just like my pastoral supervisor had warned back in college, negating words are roadblocks to connection and cooperation. “But” gets in the way of being able to move forward together.
Which leads me to believe that Jesus never took any pastoral care or improv classes.
Four times in today’s gospel reading he structures his WHOLE argument around negation: “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you…”
Of course… I know there WERE no pastoral care or improv classes in first century Palestine, but that doesn’t mean their principles were irrelevant.
People are people in every time and place.
An argument organized around a “but” is going to feel a bit combative;
It is going to set you up to your hearers as an antagonist, not an ally.
It is going to sap the momentum from what you are trying to build, rather than pulling in collaborative energy.
In other words, this is not a strategy for engaging people with your vision.
Which begs the question of WHY Jesus chooses to use this negating rhetorical technique in her most famous sermon when he gets to the point of declaring his wholistic vision of God’s law.
Last week, we heard he prelude to this teaching: his claim that he has come NOT to abolish the law but to fulfill it, to fill in the holes so that our understanding of God’s law could be complete and fully realized.
He seems to be making a point that he’s NOT trying to pick a fight, or to throw out what has come before.
And then we get, “but I say to you….” Four times! Six if we count the verses that get cut off from the end of this reading by the lectionary.
Biblical scholars actually refer to these verses as the “antitheses.”
There’s no getting around it. Jesus is being contrary. He’s being confrontational. He’s turning up the tension and pushing the conflict.
I think the answer to that question has to go back to identifying what he is trying to achieve, and how that goal differs from the goals of either pastoral care or improv.
In pastoral care, we want to hold a safe space for processing grief, or trauma, or anxiety. Connection and encouragement are what matter the most.
In improv, the goal is joy, achieved through the willingness to let down our guard in a thrilling collaboration.
What Jesus is trying to do here is to teach, and ultimately to change the people he is speaking to.
And sometimes meaningful change requires that we be challenged.
That our defensiveness GET triggered, so that we can recognize it and move through it.
Change is not comfortable, so we have to be able to handle some discomfort if we are going to join Jesus in fulfilling God’s vision for human wholeness, rather than just settling for abiding by the law.
Jesus doesn’t want to set us up with any false expectations about him creating a safe space for us to heal… he knows that what he is offering is hard work.
If we follow him down this path, we are going to get uncomfortable, because he is trampling all over the boundaries of workable righteousness.
He is leapfrogging past our harmful actions and saying that our thoughts matter too.
It’s not enough to avoid violence, we cannot even hold a grudge, or mutter an insult.
It’s not enough to be faithful in our relationships, we are crossing a line if we even let our urges objectify another person in the privacy of our own minds.
It’s not enough to follow the proper process in dissolving our responsibilities if the result is going to leave someone else vulnerable.
It’s not even enough to avoid lies. Our words should be so saturated in truth that we never have to offer any assurance that what we are saying can be believed.
Anyone feeling challenged yet? (And remember that last one about being 100% truthful ALL THE TIME)
It’s a lot! It’s probably impossible.
If we keep reading and include the instructions to “turn the other cheek” and “go the second (conscripted) mile” and “love our enemies” it is DEFINITELY impossible.
And Jesus knows this. He’s not trying to lull us with gentle pastoral techniques, or lighten the mood with a little comedy.
He is letting us know, right from the start, that his agenda is to challenge us.
AND that agenda is consistent with everything that has come before in this sermon.
It is consistent with the beatitudes that promise blessing to those least able to demand it.
It is consistent with the affirmation of identity that we ARE salt and light even when we feel small and powerless to change the world around us.
It is consistent with the assurance that Jesus is NOT trying to abolish the instructions that have been passed down to guide and nurture human relationships, but rather the fill in the holes so that we can see the full picture.
It is consistent with all the nurturing and assurance that has come up to this point in his sermon, because he understands that his challenge IS what liberates us.
It liberates us because it shifts our attention from following the rules to letting him change our hearts.
It breaks us free from the false expectation that we can be good on our own if we just do all the right things.
It makes it clear that God’s vision for our wholeness is NOT easy… but that wholeness is STILL what he is offering… if we will follow him into the challenge.
I started this sermon with lessons from pastoral care and from improv: lessons about the skills and practices that we human beings can use to nurture connection, encouragement, collaboration, and joy.
Those are all good lessons. But it turns out that Jesus doesn’t need them.
Because the hope he offers is not born from strategies that build rapport and cooperation.
It is born from his willingness to call us into challenges, because we can trust that whatever the challenge, it will be worth it for the change he works in us.
Thanks be to God.
 In the Sermon Brainwave podcast for Feb. 12, 2023, scripture scholar Joy J. Moore explains that Jesus is “challenging in a way that liberates us.”