Saginaw Bay District Day April 8, 2017
First United Methodist Church, Saginaw
Texts: Nehemiah 8:9-12; Isaiah 12:2-6; Galatians 5:22-26
It is a pleasure to be here with you today. Thank you for the invitation. I am very pleased to be here with your District Superintendent, Rev. David Kim. Rev. Kim is a remarkable person in so many ways. He has a deep faith, a delightful sense of humor, a strikingly smooth golf swing, and a remarkable singing voice. Have you heard him sing? I am wondering, though, if since his appointment as the Saginaw Bay D. S., if he has learned to sing the old Lefty Frizzell song, “Saginaw, Michigan.”
You may know that I am from Minnesota, though my grandfather on my dad’s side was born in Bay City. He moved to Duluth, Minnesota as a young child following the death of his mother. Minnesota and Michigan share quite a lot. Ojibwa people lived in both places. The French were some of the first Europeans to find their way to both states. Mining, logging and agriculture have been important. Minnesota has never had a president. Michigan had Gerald Ford, the closest Minnesota got was Vice-President Walter Mondale. One other difference, and this does my heart good, is that Methodism is more prevalent here than in Minnesota. Religious affiliation in Minnesota is heavily Roman Catholic and Lutheran. Of course, Minnesota is the home of Garrison Keillor, and the combination of Garrison Keillor and Lutherans has often been just plain fun. What do you get when you cross a Lutheran with a Buddhist? Someone who sits up all night worrying about nothing. (Pretty Good Joke Book, 5th p. 133)
Keillor loves to tell a story to make us smile. The young minister was asked by the funeral director to conduct a graveside service for a homeless man with no family or friends. The cemetery was way back in the country, and the minister got lost. Finally, he saw the backhoe in the field and the gravediggers standing by, but no hearse was in sight. He hurried over to the grace and saw that the vault lid was already in place. He opened up his Bible and began to preach. He preached about God’s mercy and the parable of the Prodigal Son and the hope of the Resurrection, and then he bowed his head in prayer. One of the workers said, “I ain’t never seen anything like this before… and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.” (122)
Laughter is good for the soul, but there is so much in the world that is no laughing matter, so much that tears at our hearts and brings tears to our eyes. Just this week we saw images of children dying as a result of a chemical weapons bombing in Syria. We know that in our world too many go hungry, too many children go without clean water or adequate health care. Wars and oppressive regimes mark too many places. The world economy works fabulously for a few, adequately for many, but leaves too many with too little. In the United States we continue to struggle with the legacies of slavery and our treatment of indigenous people. Race still divides us. The church itself is not immune from difficulty. We struggle with race. In The United Methodist Church, we are struggling with how we can stay together given important differences in theology and on the inclusion of LGBT persons. Then there are all the personal disappointments in life that can take their toll – friends who turn away, relationships that go sour, awards not received, the unkind word. Finally, we all confront the reality that our existence is a bodily existence, and these bodies bleed and get sick, and eventually give out. We in the church walk with each other through the valley of the shadow of death.
A few years ago, an essay written by a Polish philosopher was published, the title of which was “Is God Happy?” (Leszek Kolakowski, Is God Happy?) Leszek Kolakowski concluded that God is not happy in an unchanging sense, because God must notice and care about “human suffering… all the misery, the horrors and atrocities that nature brings down on people or people inflict on each other” (213). He then turns his essay to human beings and says that we cannot be unchangingly happy either because even if we can experience “pleasure, moments of wonderment and great enchantment… love and joy” (213)… we can never forget the existence of evil and the misery of the human condition” (214).
There are deep sorrows in the world, and we cannot ignore that. Even in the church, committed to God’s love and to sharing and living God’s love in Jesus Christ, we know how to hurt others. Church disagreements can sometimes erupt into nasty fights. And just this week a priest and his secretary were indicted for embezzling $450,000 from the church and related charities. Aren’t you glad you got up to come here this morning?
In the midst of all this, we have a faith that puts joy at its core. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). “With joy you will draw water from the well of salvation,” Isaiah says. And when God’s Spirit is at work in our lives, what is one of the evidences? Joy (Galatians 5:22-26) – in fact, joy comes right after love in the list. The renowned religious scholar Huston Smith, who died December 30 and who grew up the son of Methodist missionaries in China, wrote in his book The Soul of Christianity: When Jesus was in danger, his disciples were alarmed; but otherwise it was impossible to be sad in Jesus’ company (78). Smith goes on to say that one of the remarkably attractive qualities of the community of the early followers of Jesus was their joy. Outsiders found this baffling. These scattered Christians were not numerous. They were not wealthy or powerful, and they were in constant danger of being killed. Yet they had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that was unquestionable. (79) The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lost his life at the hands of the Nazis, once put it very simply. “Discipleship is joy.”
On the one hand, we have all the very real hurt and suffering in the world, and on the other hand, we have a faith that has joy at its core. How do we make sense of that?
I have begun to distinguish joy and happiness, though the terms can often be used interchangeably. Perhaps happiness is something that depends upon circumstances. There are moments when things are going well, and we experience happiness. Perhaps in such times we can bracket off some of the hurt and pain of the wider world, and for some moments, that is o.k. If we were “happy” in that sense all the time, people could legitimately ask if we really understand and care about the world in which we live. The Polish philosopher in his essay on the happiness of God writes that “being truly human involves the ability to feel compassion, to participate in the pain and joy of others” (212). There is something very human about being able to feel pain, our own and the hurt and pain of others. We cannot be “happy” all the time.
Maybe joy is something a little different. I have come to think of joy as the quality of a large heart, of an open heart. Joy is a basic stance toward life more than an emotion of happiness. A number of years ago, I read some words that have been of great help to me, that led me into some new dimensions in my journey of faith. I am changing some of the words just a bit because the writer, Elizabeth Lesser, uses the word “happiness” in places when I think what she is describing is my understanding of joy. The opposite of [joy] is a closed heart. [Joy] is a heart so soft and expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness. A [joyful] heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead we isolate ourselves even more from joy. (The New American Spirituality, 180)
Joy is a large heart, an open heart – open to seeing the world in its amazing beauty and its horrific brutality, and staying open. It is a compassionate heart, ready to embrace with kindness those who are hurting, ready to act courageously in the world to make the world more just and peaceful, ready to laugh with those who laugh, and weep with those who weep. Joy relishes happy moments, and deepens them. Joy is a trusting heart, trusting in the power of love to overcome.
Such joy is not dependent upon happy circumstances. Our joy as followers of Jesus Christ is rooted in God’s love, God’s incredible, never-give-up-on-us-ever, no-not-ever love. That’s the heart of our gospel, our good news. God’s love is always reaching out to us in Jesus Christ. The grace of Jesus Christ is to be found around every corner. This love is strong. This love is deep. This love’s purposes cannot finally be defeated. In the words of Paul, For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Because our lives are rooted and grounded in this love of God, our basic stance in life is one of joy, the joy of a large heart that is able at any one time to hold a range of emotions. This is the joy of an open heart, a heart that does not live in fear of life, but is open to creativity, curiosity, adventure. This is the joy of a compassionate heart, a heart that sees and feels the hurt and pain and destruction we find in the world and though sorrowful, responds energetically as best it can to bring hope and healing and new life.
We are a people of joy. The joy of the Lord is our strength. With joy we draw water out of the wells of salvation. The well of God’s love is deep, and we draw buckets of joy. We are people in whom the Spirit of God is at work, and when the Spirit is at work, one of the fruits is joy.
The first sermon I preached here in Michigan as your bishop was a sermon I preached three times at three welcome events. Some of you may have attended one of them. I’m not going to ask you to raise your hands. In that sermon, I said that I hoped four watermarks would characterize our time together as Michigan United Methodists. Watermarks – you know, those marks that are found embedded in high quality paper, marks you still write over to tell your story, but that are always in the background of what you write. I said that I would like joy to be one of the watermarks of our time together. I quoted the poet Wendell Berry, “be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” I love that line, and I think the truth behind it is that we can be joyful as Christians because among the “facts” in our lives is the fact of God’s incredible, never-give-up-on-us-ever, no-not-ever love.
So though the world is torn by hatred and war and violence in too many places, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to build justice and peace and reconciliation.
Though too many children go to be hungry, or go unvaccinated, or are left on the streets to fend for themselves, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to act courageously and compassionately to heal a broken world.
Though the human beings can be cruel toward one another, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to love.
Though our evangelistic witness has been hampered by the way some who name Jesus live in ways that don’t very adequately embody the spirit of Jesus, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to humbly and kindly share the good news of God’s love in Jesus.
And when our hearts are joyfully open and large, we are also better able to see the wonder and beauty in the world, places where God’s grace shines through so amazingly – a sunrise or sunset over a great lake, the sounds of beautiful music, the colors in a work of art, the kindness of an embrace, the gentleness of human touch.
God’s Spirit continue to work within each of us to enlarge and open our hearts in joy. The joy of the Lord is our strength, and we’ve got buckets of it. Amen.