Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Happy Joyful

Sermon preached April 13, 2014

Texts: Matthew 21:1-11; Matthew 27:32-54

Everybody loves a parade, and by the way the recording I am playing the morning is from 1890.
            Everybody loves a parade, and everybody loves to be happy.  “Happy” The Rolling Stones.  So we don’t hear The Rolling Stones in church much, but maybe we should.  They are an Easter band after all – rolling stones!
            God delights in our happiness.  The Psalmist writes, “God delights in God’s people” (149:4).  God delights in our happiness.
            Why, then, we might ask, aren’t our circumstances always happy?  That they aren’t is obvious from our second Scripture reading for this morning.  Why don’t happy things always happen?  Part of the answer is found simply in the human condition.  We are bodily creatures with a life span and our bodies and our life span are frustrating.  We have to deal with that.  We also need to remember that God is not the only actor there is.   God does not possess all the power there is.  Circumstances created by others can create deep unhappiness for us.  An overbearing boss, a dysfunctional family, an uncaring friend – the list could go on and on of those who can create unhappy circumstances in our lives.  Our own actions can undermine our happiness.  Sometimes what we think will make us happy does not.  Sometime we pursue some short-term thrill that leaves us with difficult long-term consequences.
            Life is not always happy.  That does not change that God delights in our happiness.  God, too, loves a parade.
            Even more, though, God fosters joy.  At the heart of joy is the heart of God.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus sums up pretty much everything by saying, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”  He said it at the supper that he knew was the last one he’d have a mouth to eat.  Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to – a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation.  Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.  (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 57-58)
            There does seem to be a meaningful distinction between happiness and joy.  Circumstances are not always happy, yet they never completely preclude at least a modicum of joy.  Since I first read them I have appreciated the wise words of Elizabeth Lesser.  A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any on emotion.  An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality.  Joseph Campbell calls happiness the “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.”  (The New American Spirituality, 180)  I also have a deep fondness for Wendell Berry’s phrase, “Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts” (‘Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”).
            Let’s admit it.  This is a weird Sunday in the church and not just because I have played both John Phillips Sousa and the Marine Corps Band and The Rolling Stones.  This is a weird Sunday in the church because we read both the Palm Sunday parade text, and some of the story of Jesus’s death.  It is kind of strange, yet the faith we share, the faith that encompasses both these stories has at its heart a God whose heart is a heart of joy.
            When Jesus was in danger, his disciples were alarmed; but otherwise it was impossible to be sad in Jesus’ company.  And when he told his disciples that he wanted his joy to be in them, “that your joy may be complete,” to a remarkable degree that objective was realized. (Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity, 78)  With Jesus, there is joy.  How about the startling words of Greek Orthodox Father Alexander Schmemann: I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy; when we forget that God created the world and saved it.  Joy is not one of the ‘components’ of Christianity, it’s the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything. (Journals)  Joy is the very tonality of Christianity!  It was impossible to be sad in Jesus’ company.  Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
            What are the roots of our joy, a joy possible in the midst of even unhappy circumstances?  Our joy is rooted is the wild, ubiquitous, persistent love of God.  Look at this poem by Raymond Carver (Late Fragment), a poem cited by Anne Lamott in the book some of us have read – Help, Thanks, Wow (99).
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

            Because of God’s wild, persistent, ubiquitous love, these words fit us.  You can call yourself beloved.  You can feel yourself beloved on the earth.  In that is joy.
            And in that love of God for us our lives matter.  That, too, is a root of joy.  Our lives matter.  Our lives make a difference.  To use a quote from last week: That you are here – that life exists and identity,/That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass).  You matter.  You make a difference.  You contribute a verse to the powerful play of life.  You contribute a verse to the powerful play of God’s life.  In that is joy.
            There are few more joyous occasions than weddings.  One favorite poem I use occasionally at weddings provides a nice image of joy.
“Prayer for a Marriage”   Steve Scafidi

When we are old one night and the moon
arcs over the house like an antique
China saucer and the teacup sun

follows somewhere far behind
I hope the stars deepen to a shine
so bright you could read by it

if you liked and the sadnesses
we will have known go away
for awhile – in this hour or two

before sleep – and that we kiss
standing in the kitchen not fighting
gravity so much as embodying

its sweet force, and I hope we kiss
like we do today knowing so much
good is said in this primitive tongue

from the wild first surprising ones
to the lower dizzy ten thousand
infinitely slower ones – and I hope

while we stand there in the kitchen
making tea and kissing, the whistle
of the teapot wakes the neighbors.

            There are sadnesses in life we will know, but joy is the kiss while the tea kettle whistles.  And joy is the very tonality of Christianity.  It was impossible to be sad in Jesus’ company.  Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
            God is a God of joy.  It is a predominant shade of God.  God is a God of joy, and God loves a parade.  God is particularly delighted when joy and happiness combine, like here:
Pharrell Williams, “Happy”  Know God, know joy, even when things are hard.


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