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August 26, 2012
08-26-2012 Sermon Our worship this morning is replete with expressions of joy. We called ourselves to worship, declaring, “You have taken off my funeral clothes and clothed me with joy.” We sang “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” for our opening hymn. Choir members lifted their voices in the beautiful arrangement of Psalm 100. “O, be joyful in the Lord; serve the Lord with gladness.” The portion of A Brief Statement of Faith that we’re considering this morning calls on us to “live holy and joyful lives.” And finally, in our accompanying scripture from John’s gospel, Jesus uttered those most winsome words, “I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” So this morning let’s pick up these threads of joy that run through our worship and see if we can weave them into the tapestry of our daily lives.
Now I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you are thinking that I’ve glommed onto this topic of joy because I’ve been away on sabbatical all summer. No wonder I’m in a good mood. Who wouldn’t be? Yet the kind of joy we’re claiming this morning is not dependent on outer circumstances. In our scripture, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the joy that is in him even though he is about to experience torture and death. How can Jesus speak of joy in the face of suffering? And imagine how Jesus’ words of joy would sound to the community of disciples at the end of the first century, who themselves were grappling with rejection and persecution.
For that matter, how do these words about joy resonate with us today? This summer Jan and I traveled through some of the most beautiful sections of our country. Yet it saddened us to see so much of the land wilting because of severe drought, rivers running dry, and record-breaking heat throughout the mountain states. This summer western forests the size of the state of Vermont have been destroyed by wildfires. It’s disheartening to see so much of our nation’s beauty destroyed or imperiled.
Further, the current political climate of divisiveness and polarization has cast a pall of discouragement over our national discourse. So given such disconcerting realities, it’s reasonable to ask: How do we live joyful lives in a broken and fearful world?
In his book titled Falling Upward, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr describes mature Christians as possessing “a sober happiness and a bright sadness.” That is, our joy is not merely a happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care attitude. Rather our joy is tempered by awareness of, and participation in, the world’s suffering. Ours is a sober happiness. At the same time, our sadness about the world’s misery never plunges us into the darkness of despair because, in the words of John’s Gospel, the light of God’s grace shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. This is what St. John of the Cross meant by his phrase, “our luminous darkness.”
I kept a journal on our sabbatical this summer. In one entry, I was marveling about how well everything on our trip had gone. I wrote, “…it seems that goodness, kindness, generosity, and good fortune have accompanied us day by day. Of course, trouble and missteps could come any day…” That entry was dated July 6th. On July 7th, the very next day, my son Edward and I were riding horses up the Snowmass Creek trail, on our way to fish some high mountain beaver ponds, when I literally took a misstep, landed on a sharp rock, sliced two finger, and in an instant changed the dynamic of the trip. Such is life. One day we’re happily climbing some mountain. Two days later I’m undergoing hand surgery. In a second, a misstep or misfortune can knock our feet out from under us.
But what I experienced in the aftermath of that injury—and what many of you have experienced in even more difficult circumstances—is that in the midst of a misstep, God’s love abides. A change of circumstance, perhaps especially an unwelcome change, can bring us a deeper and more profound understanding of God’s gracious presence in our lives.
That’s surely why the section of A Brief Affirmation of Faith we’re considering today begins with the words “In gratitude to God…” Gratitude is the necessary precursor to a joyful life. We could all rattle off a litany of the things for which we are grateful—health, a good marriage, enough food, a roof over our heads, and so on. But genuine gratitude is not centered on outward circumstances, which are capricious, but upon our ability to trust in God’s unchanging grace.
And such trust in God’s goodness is the reason Jesus is joyful. His joy is full because he lives in communion with God the Father through the power of the Spirit. And the love that Jesus shares with the Father and the Spirit is the very relationship Jesus invites his disciples to enjoy.
Thus our Brief Statement of Faith instructs us to “live holy and joyful lives.” Only when our lives are holy—that is, centered in God—are we therefore joyful. Or putting it the other way around, true joy is delight in doing the will of God, which takes the form of loving one another.
Now there’s one more thread of joy that this morning’s portion of A Brief Statement of Faith offers us: The thread of hope. A confident hope in the eventual dawn of God’s promised future is necessary if joy is to persist through all the challenges and sorrows of human life. In the darkest and most trying days of the Civil Rights struggle, Dr. Martin Luther King offered a rousing affirmation of hope, in his sermon titled “A knock at midnight:” King’s voice rings out, “Faith in the dawn arises from faith that God is good and just. When one believes this, he or she knows that the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate. He or she can walk through the dark night with the radiant conviction that all things must work for good for those who love God. Even the most starless midnight may herald the dawn of some great fulfillment.”
Friends, let’s pick up the threads of joy that run through our worship and weave them into the tapestry of our daily lives. The Christian life is fundamentally a joyful life. Why? Because we belong to God, and Jesus enables us to abide in God’s love until the day dawns when the whole world is made new, and all creation sings for joy.