Thursday, May 14, 2015

Abiding in the Love and Joy of Jesus

A sermon preached at Nashotah House Theological Seminary on May 7, 2015

Joy Davidman, whose husband was C. S. Lewis, wrote a book, Smoke on the Mountain, An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments. Toward the beginning of the book she shares this story. Though the language is a bit dated and Euro-centric, the main point remains pertinent::
There is a tale told of a missionary in a dark corner of Africa where the men had a habit of filing their teeth to sharp points. He was hard at work trying to convert a native chief. Now the chief was very old, and the missionary was very Old Testament – his version of Christianity leaned heavily on thou-shalt-nots. The chief listened patiently.
“I do not understand,” he said at last. “You tell me that I must not take my neighbor’s wife.”
“That’s right,” said the missionary.
“Or his ivory or his oxen.”
“Quite right.”
“And I must not dance the war dance and then ambush him on the trail and kill him.”
“Absolutely right!”
“But I cannot do any of these things!” said the chief respectfully. “I am too old. To be old and to be Christian, they are the same thing!”

Davidman continues:

Not a very funny story, perhaps; there is too bitter a point in the laugh. For, if all the truth were told, how many of us in our hearts, share the chief’s confusion?
How many thousands picture Christianity as something old, sapless, joyless, mumbling in the chimney corner and casting sour looks at the young people’s fun? How many think of religion as the enemy of life and the flesh and the pleasures of the flesh; a foe to all love and all delight? How many unconsciously conceive of God as rather like that famous lady who said, “Find out what the baby’s doing and make him stop”?
That is, how many of us both inside the Church and out have reduced the good news out of Nazareth to a list of thou-shalt-nots?
We are in danger of forgetting that God is not only a comfort but a joy. He is the source of all pleasure; he is fun and laughter, and we are meant to enjoy him. Otherwise our Christianity is no better than [the chief’s impression of it].

God is "the source of all pleasure; he is fun and laughter,
and we are meant to enjoy him."

Christians believe that at the heart of all
there is the Joy that is the Trinity.
We believe the world – and each of us – was created for joy.
We believe that the story of creation ends in resurrection joy.
As that contemporary theologian, Bono of U2, writes,
                                    “Laughter is eternity if joy is real.”
To be a Christian is to believe that joy is real.

But, too often we come across as insecure,
cramped moralists, and political scolds.
There are "conservative" and "liberal" versions
of this rather joyless presentation.

But, the Good News we have received is
"of a great joy which will come to all people."
And our Lord came into our midst that
"my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete".
We are meant to be agents of that joy in the world around us.

The mission of the Church is to live in expectation and anticipation
of the joy of God's kingdom.
Our mission is to smuggle some of that joy into a world
that is often all too joyless.

But, too often Christians appear to be just as joyless,
just as anxious,
just as angry
as anyone else –
sometimes even more so.
That is a scandal and a betrayal of the Gospel

If we abide in the love of Jesus
our joy should be evident and infectious.
If we abide in the love of Jesus,
we will know ourselves and the world around us
to be the delight of God.
If we abide in the love of Jesus,
we will know God’s mercy washing over us
and soaking us through and through.
If we abide in the love of Jesus
            we will know that nothing – nothing –
can separate us from the love of God.

If we abide in the love of Jesus
there is nothing to fear or be anxious about.

If we abide in the love of Jesus
            We can resist the fear-mongering of cable news,
social media
and advertising.

If I abide in the love of Jesus
there is nothing I need to prove.
            I do not need to prove my worthiness to God
                        or anyone else.
I can ignore all the naysaying voices in the back of my head:
Who do you think you are?
Today is the day they will discover what a poser you are.
Today your incompetence will be revealed.
Today is the day they will find out that you aren’t really that smart.
Today they will discover some of the internal ugliness
you try so hard to cover up.

Am I the only one here who has those voices in the back of his head?
            I didn’t think so.

I’ve got some bad news for you.
Getting a seminary degree won’t quiet those voices.
Being ordained a priest in God’s church won’t quiet those voices.
Becoming a seminary professor won’t quiet those voices.
I can tell you that being made a bishop doesn’t quiet those voices.

The good news is that
abiding in the love of Jesus
does silence those worries
or at least it reduces them to whispers
that are more easily ignored.

An abiding in Jesus frees us from imposing such anxieties
onto others.
                        It frees us from worrying about whether or not
others get it the way we think they should get it.

I encourage you to abide in the love of Jesus and his joy –
            especially once you are ordained
                        and serving and representing the Church.
Make time for prayer and devotional reading every day.
There is nothing more deadly to the Church
                        than joyless clergy.

What if Christians acted among themselves
and in the world
such hat those who heard our words
and witnessed our behavior
looked on with surprise
at our freedom from such anxieties
and wonderment at our joy?

That doesn't mean we should live in "blissed out" denial
of the difficult realities of our lives and those of others.
Nor does it mean that we never ask difficult
or awkward questions,
that we do not persist in resisting evil
or renouncing the evil powers of this world
which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.
Nor does it mean we should not be serious about obeying Jesus

But, even then, if it is not clear that our words and actions
are born of and lead to joy,
we will appear to those around us
like the missionary appears in Joy Davidman's story
and risk reducing the Good News out of Nazareth
to a list of thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots.

That will not so if we abide in the love of Jesus
and allow his joy to complete ours.

If God is indeed the source of all pleasure;
if God is fun and laughter,
and if we are meant to enjoy him;
            shouldn’t we desire to abide him and his joy?
And shouldn’t the church be known for its joy?
And might we see part of our mission
to be smugglers of that joy

into the world around us?

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