7th Sunday after Easter, May 13, 2018
Church of the Good Shepherd, Reading, Massachusetts
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
First, I’d like to thank your rector, Brian, for his invitation to me to join you today. He said, “You will enjoy this community!” And so, I took a look at your website, and watched the video that you’ve posted there, to get a glimpse of who you are and what I might enjoy. What beautiful and joyful expressions of life, I saw! What joyful invitations of love, I heard. What a great community, I said to myself!
The words that we hear today in the gospel of John have come to be known as Jesus’ “high-priestly” prayer. His prayer is one of intercession, in which Jesus asks God to protect and comfort His disciples while they remain in the world. Jesus is praying for us even today. Knowing that He was about to die, Jesus said to His Holy Father, “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Today, I want to speak about that joy.
Now joy is not the same thing as “being happy.” Don’t worry, be happy, as if we can easily dismiss the things that worry us. Happiness is a fleeting emotion, with wings like a butterfly, which flits in and out of our lives, moving from one flower to the next. Flowers and chocolate and Mother’s day cards (or a Cletics win today) may bring us momentary happiness, but not joy; for joy floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. It is a deeper and more sustained reality that includes both suffering and sadness, as well as happiness and celebration. Joy is a birthing process that takes time, and effort, and involves other people in the creation of new life. Just ask Deacon Patrick, as you all prepare to share the joy of his priesthood at the end of this month!
I imagine most, if not all of you, know what I’m talking about. If you are a parent, you know what it’s like to watch your child stand and fall, hurt and be hurt, struggle and soar. When we are infants, our very first breath of life comes with a slap to our bottoms, in order to inflate our lungs. We all experience at some point the shock of getting good news and bad news, sometimes within minutes of each other. With cries of joy, mingled with tears of sadness, we learn to live in a broken and beautiful world.
I am not an artist and so when it came time to draw pictures in kindergarten, I often struggled with what to do. I could play sports, and I did well on tests, but when it came to drawing pictures, or singing songs, or dancing in front of others, I became very self-conscious. And so I created one picture that I would draw over and over again even in my mind. It was my “go to” picture, which I thought would somehow protect me from the hard knocks of life, and comfort me by my denial of pain.
On the bottom left-hand corner of the page, I drew a gently sloping green mound, upon which there was one beautiful leafy tree, which was filled with bright red apples. In the top right hand corner was a brightly shining sun. And in the middle of the picture was a calm blue ocean that reflected the clear blue sky overhead. There were no butterflies flitting from flower to flower, nor stinging bees. There were no mosquitoes or gnats, just a few simple birds. This was my garden of Eden. It was a still-life picture of happiness, created for self-protection and comfort, reflecting a peaceful world.
While my childish picture was simple, it did not reflect the truth of our human story, nor even the book of Genesis. In my picture, there were no angry storm clouds, with lightning bolts flashing from the heavens to the earth, like those times when someone took my toy, or stole my dignity, or when Jesus was crucified. There was no torrential downpours, like when my heart was broken or grief overwhelmed me.
There were no destructive tornadoes, whirlwinds of oppression and violence, or the barren ground of poverty and life on the streets. There were no scary monsters, who loomed on the horizon, or suddenly appeared like King Kong on my little holy mountain. Indeed, in my kindergarten picture, there were no human beings nor snakes that tempted me to pick one of those lovely red apples, or blame my partner. I had no siblings, no enemies, and no church members with whom I shared this fragile earth, my island home. In sum, there were no images of wickedness, nor evil, nor any destructive forces in my picture. Only sunshine.
At a very early age, while we may think that we are the center of the universe, we soon learn that we are not. We discover that we have needs and desires that go unmet, that we live in a world of competing demands, diverse people, and various viewpoints that lead to conflict. In today’s psalm, the very first psalm, the writer acknowledges that the wicked do exist. Over time, I’ve found that the psalms provide us with a more complex but equally beautiful picture of life.
The psalms express the full range of our human emotions. They scream outrage at our enemies and remind us that judgment day will come. They warn us not to walk in the ways of the wicked, nor linger in their courts, or sit in their seats. When I’m sad, I hear the psalmist say, “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.” And yet they also remind me that while weeping may spend the night, joy will come in the morning.
Captured by the word “joy” in today’s gospel and wanting joy to be complete within me, and within our world, I decided to read a new book called, “The Book of Joy.” It is co-written by a Jewish man, Douglas Abrams, who records a 5 day conversation between Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Christian priest in South Africa, and the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist Holy Leader, who became a refugee in India, after the Chinese invasion of Tibet some 50 years ago. The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama came together to celebrate the happy occasion of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. They talked about the nature of joy, the obstacles to joy, and the 8 pillars of joy. Joy, they said, is not found in the material world; rather it is a matter of both the mind and the heart. It is about our spiritual lives and our core values, rather than the physical world.
Fear, anger, pain, wickedness, and suffering can either ennoble us or embitter us. Faced with reality, we can become despairing and cynical, harden our hearts and close our minds, or we can become more open, more faithful, more hopeful, and more loving. We can put our trust in God, who seeks our freedom and peace, our joy and happiness, our health and our salvation. But this mind and heart work, these holy men warn us, takes concentrated and daily attention. It involves struggle; and so it means we must pray like Jesus, meditating on God’s law day and night, praying to God for comfort and protection from the “evil on”, and remembering the power of God’s love.
When we see ourselves as only one tiny person in a world-wide community of 7 billion people, we broaden our perspective. When we listen to our common creation story, we remember that in the beginning, we are all fundamentally good people, created in the image of God, and intended to be a blessing to others, regardless of our diverse religious beliefs, our political viewpoints, and our social standing. We can choose love in a world that may choose hate. We can offer random acts of kindness, sing simple songs of joy, open our hearts and our red doors, and say that all are welcome in this place. We can live simply, so that all may simply live.
Joy accepts the reality that suffering and pain are a part of life. We can see that joy comes every morning, like the bluebird of happiness, reminding us that life is a precious gift from God, no matter our age, our circumstances, nor our condition. In the middle of the bad news, we can remember the Easter good news of Jesus, that through Him, God gave us eternal life. And so we can live now: one day at a time, one hour, one moment, and one breath at a time, choosing to be grateful in all circumstances.
Our hearts are restless until they find their rest and true home in God; and so our joy is finally made complete, when, like Jesus, we return to God, who is the beginning, the middle, and the end of our journeys. Jesus said, “As the Father loved me, so too I have loved you. Remain in my love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete.”
When I am angry and sad, or see suffering and pain, I remember that I am not alone. I remember the love of God as revealed to me in the life of Jesus, and I trust the power of God’s Spirit to sustain and empower me. When I’m longing for unity in our fractured and broken world, I remember that God offers us a peace that passes all understanding. Then, I paint a picture in my mind of God’s original creation, and then I paint another picture. In it, I am like “ a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” And this time, in that garden of joy, there are 7 billion people with me. Like God and us, it is all good, all true, and all beautiful because we are all finally One with our Creator. Amen.
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13