Pentecost 7, Proper 10, July 11

A couple of years ago, I headed to the nursing home for a visit. When I got there a local church group was setting up equipment in the common room. Their mission was to bring some company and comfort to the residents with prayers and songs. They had a pretty elaborate set up, microphones, speakers and boom box. A gospel karaoke was about to take place.  Volunteers had gathered the residents who waited attentively in their wheelchairs. The pastor was full of energy and spirit and I was charmed. Until he started to sing. Actually, he couldn’t sing to save his life. And he sang with abandon! It was awful. There’s nothing like an old-time gospel hymn sung as loud as can be, completely off key.  In my mind the residents seemed more hostages than participants, indeed the person I came to see asked me to close her door. Ouch!

Now, I think I have a pretty good singing voice and I am mostly, usually, on key.  Still, I’m not sure you would ever find me leading a sing-along like that. I’m too self-conscious. You see, I’m the only one in my family who didn’t learn how to read music or play an instrument, so in the back of my mind, I don’t think I measure up somehow. I’m always self-conscious about my singing, especially in public.

I wonder if my high standards sometimes get in the way.

In our reading from the Old Testament today the prophet Amos has a revelation from God. In it, God is holding a plumbline.  A plumbline is a device used since antiquity by builders, carpenters, painters, to make sure their work is straight, standard, true.  Otherwise, lines are crooked, foundations are not laid properly, walls lean, buildings fall.  

When God holds a plumbline, he is telling his people the same thing: there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things, and you are bending the wrong way, allowing evil to flourish; you are compromising divine law and your ‘crooked’ ways will not end well.  Amos prophesied the doom of the people of Israel, saying: “Are you following God’s commands or your own?”  

The reaction from those who hear his message is to try to get rid of him, “go away, earn your keep elsewhere!” they say. Still, Amos keeps on telling the truth; truth the people don’t want to hear. 

The plumbline is God’s righteous rule. But people have conveniently forgotten that. Instead, the people have measured themselves and judged others by different standards: wealth, military might, political power, whatever. Amos keeps trying to remind them that the only plumbline, the only measurement that matters, the only relationship that counts, is the one with God. That is the truth. But the truth is problematic for all of us, especially when it reflects how far we have deviated from it.

Fast forward a couple of centuries from Amos, another prophet, this time John the Baptist, is saying pretty much the same thing to the people of God. He, too, preaches a message about righteousness and a straight path that leads to God. God, whose Messiah is imminent.

His message of repentance is welcomed by many, even Herod himself we read, recognizes John’s integrity and righteousness. And though he may have been engaged by John’s charisma and message, at some point, hearing the truth about himself, his misdeeds, his corruption, his vanity and disregard for God’s law, the message strikes a sour note. 

It’s just too much for him to bear, so Herod tunes John out, he shuts the door, he refuses to the truth that will save him.

In doing so, becomes one of the real villains in salvation history: it’s a horrific story we read today. Something that stretches the imagination because it is so vile. A girl does a dance to entertain her stepfather and guests; charmed, he wants to give her a treat. To show off, Herod promises her ‘anything –even half my kingdom!’ It’s absurd.  

Astutely, her mother sees and seizes the opportunity to rid them all of the thorn that John had become with his discordant haranguing. The flimsiest of excuses will do to silence the truth teller. Herod would rather save face than save his life.

The hardest truths we have to hear are the ones about ourselves.

Conversely, the smoothest lies are the ones we tell ourselves when we’d rather not hear the truth.

“I’m not too buzzed to drive.” “No one will miss the money; I can replace it next week.” “I can be late a few times.” “No one cares if I take more than my share.” “I didn’t mean to hit you, but you provoked me; it’s really your fault.” “I can handle another drink, another pill…” “It was just laying there; I thought no one wanted it.”  “I didn’t mean to offend you, it’s just a joke.” How many ways, how many times do we stretch and bend the truth to make it sound plausible.

Truth be told, none of us are very good at keeping God at the center of our lives. We are not good at relying on God as our plumbline. We choose all sorts of other ways to measure ourselves: success, political influence, social standing, education, nationality, physical attributes, almost anything other than God.

I think that is why Jesus came.

God, who never ceases to reach out to us, went beyond prophecy, metaphor, vision. God became incarnate, so we could see what truth looks like in the flesh, walking on two feet, living day in and day out, wrestling with the temptation to be judged by any other measure, and still making the right choices, hitting all the right notes, living in relationship with God.

Because we couldn’t measure up to God’s plumbline, we needed to see what other things we should measure. We needed to see the truth: that we value other things, not what God values. God’s way of measuring includes things like charity, faith, healing, wisdom, and even self-control; all gifts or fruits of the Spirit.  

Episcopal Priest and author Suzanne Guthrie writes, “Do I make choices like… Herod, appeasing others, acquiescing to my culture, societal expectations, and to maintain my standard of living? Do I accept the way things are with such studied ignorance and self-interest? Is my love for God, for justice, for the kingdom, as powerful as my devotion to distractions, glittering things and self-preservation?”

 Feeling a little self conscious, like you don’t measure up? The good news is that, with God’s grace, anyone can walk the way of righteousness, anyone can ask for forgiveness. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor; It doesn’t matter if we have education or not; it doesn’t matter if we have social standing or not; it doesn’t matter if we have political influence or not;  it doesn’t matter if we can sing or not.

The pastor in the nursing home taught me this truth: there is such a thing as simply making “a joyful noise unto the Lord.” 

He couldn’t sing to save his life, but it wasn’t his life he was trying to save.  He was just trying to do God’s will.  He understood something I didn’t:  his singing is a lifesaver to those who have little else. So who am I to judge?

amen.

Pentecost 5, Proper 7 , June 20

I admit I have a love-hate relationship with the story of Job. 

I love it because it contains some beautiful, inspiring passages, they’ve become part of liturgy. I hate it because it’s basically the story of why bad things happen to good people and it doesn’t provide a very satisfying answer.

Bad things happen to Job, really bad things. And for no reason, or not one that seems acceptable, anyway. The story is something of a set-up and he seems to be but a pawn between forces beyond his awareness or control.

Most of us can relate; we know what life is like: One moment, you’re on a boat, enjoying the sights; the next, in the middle of a storm, and you might not survive. When that happens, it’s not unusual for us to wonder ‘why me?’ or even cry out: where are you God? Don’t you care that we are perishing?

Writer Debi Thomas says, “The Hebrew scriptures are full of such questions and accusations.  Where are you?  Why won’t you save us?  How much longer?  Rouse yourself, Lord!  Why have you forsaken us?… How many times I’ve bruised my faith on the assumption that chaos is always and everywhere an unholy aberration, its very existence in my life a proof of God’s apathy, God’s coldness, God’s indifference — and maybe even God’s non-existence.” (Journey with Jesus, Current Essay, Proper 7

There are no easy answers. Rather, the readings today provide only questions: God asks Job, with rhetorical flourish, a series of “where were you?” questions that put him in his place.  Jesus, perhaps annoyed at being woken up from a well-deserved nap, dispatches the storm and also silences his bewildered followers, questioning their faith.

These passages are difficult because it’s hard to accept that basic premise that bad things happen to good people.  We want the “everyone gets their just reward” version of life.  We don’t want to deal with the complexities of chance or change. We want certainty, predictability, order and stability. Life is anything but.

We’ve all had these types of experiences: undeserved, unforeseen calamity; a breach of trust that can’t be explained; risky behavior that doesn’t turn out well. It is really, really hard to accept something that happens for no good reason at all.

And here, too, my love-hate relationship with the Book of Job, comes into play. 

While I was serving as a chaplain at a hospital. A young man, a cook at a local restaurant, was dumped outside the emergency room. Left there by his so-called employer, who drove off, not to be heard from again. He collapsed at work, but being undocumented, 911 wasn’t called, rather, he was loaded into a car and driven to the hospital, wasting precious time.

I became involved because I spoke Spanish as the hospital tried to determine what happened and track down the family.  He had suffered a massive stroke and was put on life support.

I kept vigil with the man, waiting, being available just in case someone would show up.  And they did. A cousin, a sister.  Then, the task was to explain to them what was going on medically, but I couldn’t explain what had happened ethically or morally to this man.

  It was disheartening. It was absurd. It was callous. I felt adrift, as a boat in a storm.  When the poor, the disenfranchised are so brutally treated, taking away what little dignity they have, it is difficult to comprehend.  

More than once I found myself asking the same questions Jesus’ followers did: where are you, Lord? Don’t you care that he is perishing?  Trying to manage the emotions of the family members, I could feel myself sinking into a slow-boiling rage. I had no ready answers, none at all. I could not speak about the injustice of poverty. I had few words of comfort for those who had endured separation upon separation, and now this final one.  I could translate the language, but couldn’t make sense of the horror they were experiencing.  

I clearly remember the room he was in, the twilight and shadows, the whirr of machines beeping and pinging, keeping him alive.  There was a storm raging around him and in my heart. When his closest brother finally showed up, he couldn’t take it in: the man looked so peaceful, sleeping, calm. Why wouldn’t he wake up? 

I updated the brother on the latest news. No good outcome was expected.  One last test awaited that would determine whether a disconnect would happen and his life would come to an end. The brother  leaned heavily against the wall, sighing.  Yes, it was one of those sighs. Too deep for words.

Then I noticed the Bible he was clutching. I don’t know why but I asked him where in the book, did he find hope?  He immediately opened the Bible to Job 19:25. You may not know the citation off the top of your head, but will be familiar with the words “ for I know that my redeemer lives…” 

Job says this in a part of the story, after he has suffered multiple calamities and is particularly anguished and sorrowful; he is misunderstood by friends and feels alienated from God. The storm he is living through is of epic proportions, yet he still finds a way to trust.

“I know that my redeemer lives…”  little did I know that, at that point, I was the one being saved.  Those words were a lifeline, the peace that stilled the storm raging within me. 

Bad things happen to good people. We want explanations but won’t get them. Instead, we get question upon question.  It’s amazing to realize that “suffering and evil don’t always lead to a loss of faith.  Often, the harsh realities of this broken, disordered world are what draw people to faith.” ( D Thomas, ibid)

Just because we don’t get the answer we want or think we deserve, doesn’t mean that God is asleep.  Just because we can’t see how things will play out, doesn’t mean that Jesus won’t show up.  Just because we are afraid, storms rage, and we are about to go under, doesn’t mean no one cares.  I could not have imagined being quoted Job in that room so filled with darkness and sorrow, where so much loss and cruelty was in evidence.  Yet, even as I nursed my righteous anger, God showed up to comfort me.  Me, not them!

Actually, God showed up for all sorts of people. While I was immersed in this battle, other storms were being quelled. Storms I knew nothing about.

That man did not die in vain and neither was his life wasted.  Because of him, someone who needed a heart got one.  Someone else, his lungs; someone a kidney.  Others received corneas, and tissue and bone, he became a living legacy: his dignity denied in life, was restored in death.

After Jesus calmed the storm, he asked his disciples: “why are you afraid? Where is your faith?”

Amen. 

Pentecost 4, June 13

Rev. Susan’s Sermon for Proper 6, June 13,  2021

Several years ago, my daughter and I went to Scotland. It was one of those mother-daughter things: you go on a trip, and it becomes an adventure. You think you’re there to see the sights, but what you learn most about is each other. A trip like this is disarming and enriching.

Scotland is beautiful. Incredibly so.  We were there in late spring, but that doesn’t mean much in a country where you can experience the four seasons in a single day.  We missed the heather, but were there for the lambing. Surprisingly, it was very sunny, not much rain, so no brooding mists. That meant there were few midges, the curse of the isles, to bother us.  

One thing that was blooming heavily was gorse.  It covered the hillsides with this lovely shade of yellow; sometimes the hills seemed like they were on fire. Gorgeous!

I was not familiar with gorse, so I had to have an up close look, and boy, are their looks deceiving! For, under the bright yellow, coconut-scented flowers, are branches covered in spines, long thorns, the size of toothpicks! They take the whimsy out of the beauty with a sharp touch of reality.  

Gorse has other amazing properties: it is very oily, which can lead to devastating fires and it’s a ‘phoenix plant’ in that the seeds can remain dormant for decades; it keeps reseeding and surviving, so It does especially well in rocky, inhospitable places… cue the Scottish moors.  Gorse is considered cattle feed at best, but mostly, the advice is to be vigilant about it and try to eradicate it, where it’s not welcome.

In the gospel reading today, Jesus speaks about the nature of the kingdom of God, using two parables to describe it.  His examples are somewhat of a head scratcher, though.  I mean, if you were going to encourage people to strive for the kingdom, I’m not sure you would have picked these stories.  Then again, we come from a culture of in-your-face advertising, one whose goal is to sell us something, to make us commit to an action with as few questions asked as possible. So maybe Jesus is on to something.

You can’t listen to these parables, short as they are, without wondering… is the kingdom like the seed, the sower, the fertile ground? Is it about growth, is it about expectations? Well maybe all of the above.  My New Testament professor said this about parables recently: “Parables are a non-coercive way of speaking, one that, above all,  invites reflection.” So Jesus is not being pushy when he talks about the kingdom, rather he is inviting us to consider something we can’t quite see or readily put together. 

“The kingdom is as if…” he says, talking about things happening with soil and seeds, and a curiously trusting and incredibly lucky gardener.  (He has a crop, and doesn’t know why or how!) Jesus says it is like when insignificant things can become important, essential, and even grand.  

The way Jesus talks about the kingdom is as if describing a mystery.  It is like all life is mysterious: generative, impulsive, creative, sometimes even unassuming and not a bit dangerous.

But if it isn’t something we can grasp, how will we know the kingdom is here, or that we’ve arrived at it? How do I recognize it? What am I striving for? 

That is our challenge and invitation: to see the kingdom from an “as if” or “is like” perspective.  This is the only way we can even begin to realize that what we have, what we have created, instituted, sacramentalized, or sentimentalized is but a veil. A glowing shade of yellow on a hillside. 

We do real damage to ourselves, to others and to creation itself when we live as if we knew it all, when in reality, we know nothing. It is dangerous to believe we’re in complete control of our lives and destiny, when we can barely apprehend the mystery that is the kingdom of God. I saw hills covered in yellow, as if it was a vision of beauty, a gossamer vision; hidden, were thorns underneath.

By suggesting “the kingdom of God, is as if… or is like…” Jesus tearing at the veil between our world and the next, this reality and God’s; he is subverting our well organized status quo, the conventional, normal way things operate. He is proclaiming that the kingdom can’t be contained and proceeds in its own time and order.  Gorse is wild, spreading swiftly, invisibly, underground, unrelenting.  The kingdom is likewise.

And like the mustard of the parable, gorse has other functions and qualities not immediately obvious to us humans:  “it is a key plant for wildlife, providing early if not year-round nectar, and solid protection for birds and invertebrates. The  prickly bushes are an ideal setting for nests: on open ground where trees are few, they provide a port in a storm… It is an effective pioneer plant, its roots fixing nitrogen in the soil, to the benefit of smaller plants… it can withstand exposure, drought, and sea winds… its prickly exterior encloses a thing of beauty, with a hint of the exotic.” (Gardenista website)

The kingdom of God is as if all that concerns us, isn’t all that matters. There are matters greater than our immediate wants and needs.  Through the parables, Jesus is both disarming our defenses and enriching our imaginations, inviting us to question norms, upend conventions, to envision life open to wider possibilities, to imagine it bigger, bolder, to become more engaged and aware. Jesus invites us to imagine a realm where an exceedingly tiny and apparently insignificant thing, can become, through God’s action and grace, something acceptable, useful, even hospitable, if only we could allow ourselves to see life that way.

Here’s an even more radical thought: if we did, if we could see the kingdom, we could be true agents of change.  Because you know what, mustard or gorse, that little speck of a seed is the beginning of something that can swallow up a whole field, sometimes waiting for years until the time is just right for it to make its presence felt.  

Then, it becomes a new reality that invades, overturns, and eventually overcomes the old one. It becomes something that can’t be held back: a word of promise that spreads, creates hope and expectation of new possibilities; it becomes something that grabs people, inspires them, changes them, opening their eyes, helping them to leave behind their old ways of being. And before you know it, they are on fire.

The kingdom of God is like that.

The kingdom of God is as if people were on fire…

And it spread everywhere.

And it couldn’t be stopped.

And everything glowed.

Amen. 

Easter 7, May 16, 2021

With the Feast of the Ascension formally celebrated this past Thursday, we come to the conclusion of the “Life of Jesus.” No, it doesn’t mean that we won’t hear about him anymore, far from it! It means that the calendar observances of his life’s milestones, from birth to death and resurrection, have been completed. We won’t engage with his story this way again until Advent, when the church calendar starts over.

The Ascension marks an important transition point for us, as we wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which we will celebrate next week, (don’t forget to wear red!). Now the disciples have to figure out to go forward, as one way of life is ending and another beginning.  Questions about what to do next, who’s in charge, who makes the decisions, and so forth loom large as they are set to re-enter the world. Sound familiar?  

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said recently, “Christ’s Ascension into heaven is a sign that He has finished what He came to Earth to do.  Now he entrusts us to play our part in transforming our world to look more like the Kingdom of Heaven.

How do we do that? How do we play our part? How do we take on  that enormous responsibility that has been entrusted to us? It’s worth spending some time reflecting on this transition, on this space between letting go of Jesus and receiving and accepting the power of the Holy Spirit. 

If Ascension had been celebrated today, on this Sunday, we would have heard a different gospel where Jesus explained to the disciples their new mission that repentance and the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed to all nations.  That is, and always has been, the mission.  They had to wait, though, stay in Jerusalem until Pentecost happened, when they would be ‘clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24: 47-49). The Spirit unleashed throughout the world, would replace as it were, the physicality of Jesus.

The virtual world is a good analogy.

This year, we’ve experienced what that’s like, of being  physically distant, but spiritually connected, of keeping relationships beyond geographical space, of believing  not just only what we could take in with our senses. This helps in ways we don’t quite yet understand, to be able to go beyond the immediate presence into the divine, to imagine the kingdom of God.

I want to propose that when it comes to that Kingdom, our connection, our very own virtual –or spiritual– link is something called prayer.  Prayer is the bond keeps us together as followers of Jesus, as members of the Body of Christ, as children of God.

I think we are so used to prayer as being a vehicle for us, that we don’t see its importance or how radical it is to have it as an integral part of our discipleship.  It’s not what we do for God in prayer, but what we allow God to do in us when we pray.

We learn to pray from Jesus himself.  We know he had a deep life of prayer, reflected in multiple accounts across all the gospels. We also know that at different moments of his life, prayer is the one thing that keeps him going. We don’t always hear the content of his prayers,  but when we do, it is powerful and moving, especially as he nears the events that will bring his life to an end.

How does Jesus pray? He gives us three important ways:

First is his ‘institutional prayer.’ His disciples specifically ask him to teach them (Luke 11:1-13).  ‘Teach us,’ they say ‘to pray’ and so he does.  That beautiful and foundational prayer we know as the “Lord’s Prayer.” He taught it and we learned it. It is so ingrained in us that we can’t unlearn it. It’s reflex. I know that all I have to do is say, “Our Father…” and just about everyone will chime in, no matter where I am, in church, the nursing home or the hospital, wherever.

The Lord’s Prayer is important because it gives us both permission and a template with which to approach God, no matter the circumstance.  And perhaps more importantly, it unites us in the eyes of God.  God is father to us all.  

Of course knowing this prayer hasn’t stopped us from forming our own.  While other denominations will look to and cite biblical passages in their prayers, most Episcopalians will turn to the Book of Common Prayer.  Indeed, there are few life situations that are not covered by the prayers included in the Book.  And they are beautiful! All great,  except when we feel we can’t pray without it.  Sometimes even I will look up a prayer rather than trust my heart. Extemporaneous prayer doesn’t come easy to us.

That leads me though, to a second type of prayer and it’s what we hear today.  This is part of a long passage in the gospel of John, known as the farewell discourse, his goodbye at the Last Supper.  It is an extemporaneous prayer, and it sounds like it.  It’s hard not to stumble over the words when reading it out loud.  And that’s important.  Jesus didn’t rehearse what he said, he just poured out his heart. “I’m asking…” he says.

Jesus prays for his disciples. What an amazing thing that is! So much on his mind, yet he lets his heart speak out. In describing this prayer, Debi Thomas writes, “Knowing full well the trials and terrors that lie ahead, he prays into uncertainty.  He hopes into doubt.  He trusts into danger.” (Debi Thomas, Journey with Jesus). As he prays for us, he asks God to provide three specific things for his followers: unity, protection and sanctification. 

These are things that only he could ask on their behalf. It’s not the perfectly worded beauty of the prayer he taught, but it is the last prayer he prays for those he loves.

The third type of prayer follows soon after this one. And it is when Jesus prays for himself. All the gospels have Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemani before his arrest. (Mt 26:36-45; Mk 14:32-, Lk 22:39-46, Jn 18:1-11).  Luke highlights the need of prayer in “the hour of darkness.”  Here Jesus entreats God, if God is willing, to “remove this cup; yet not my will but yours be done” and in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus uses as he prays the endearing “Abba, Father,” to make his petition.  It is an appeal only a son could make. In this hour he is as vulnerable as anyone of us.

Communal prayer, praying for others, praying for one’s self.  Jesus’ prayer life covers all the bases.  We have in his prayer life a wonderful model of how we should, could and ought to pray. It’s not one size fits all. It’s not the form, it’s the content. It’s not the words, it’s the disposition of being open to God.

How will you follow Jesus by praying today?  How will you  play your part in transforming our world to look more like the Kingdom of Heaven, as the Archbishop said?

Prayer was for Jesus, and remains for us, that point of connection, a means of access, a way to reach out, a means of identifying ourselves as believers and a way to build community as we do.  Praying is as important today as it has ever been.

If ‘living online’ has taught us anything during these last few months is that even though the connection at times is weak, leaves a lot to be desired and sometimes breaks down and feels absurd, the relationship endures.

Jesus has ascended into heaven but has not left us alone, indeed, he sends us out into the world trusting in this connection, however tenuous it may seem to us. 

  Don’t let go of this link. It will change the world.

Amen

Easter 6, May 6, 2021

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Let’s see… being able to reach the top shelf without needing a stool; Manicures, pedicures and massages; fewer pounds around the waist; travel to exotic destinations, Broadway shows; paid off credit cards… These are all things that make me happy.  Some are guilty pleasures, some I believe I need to navigate life. Some are just wishful thinking. 

I’m a reasonably happy person. I found out during the lockdown though, that while I missed some of these things, I didn’t feel deprived, rather with priorities realigned, I managed. We all did. Now I wonder what will happen.  Will we indulge in all our whims, or will we live differently? 

We are a culture oriented towards happiness. The Bill of Rights actually says that this country is about ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ Something I find ironic since we don’t make the top ten in the World Happiness Report. Yes, that’s  a thing. So there seems to be a gap, if not a conflict, in what we believe about ourselves and how we actually live.

On the one hand, we are encouraged pursuing happiness as a lifestyle choice that sets us up to be dissatisfied when we don’t attain it.  On the other, it promotes the core value that happiness is a personal quest above all. Happiness is totally up to you, you are in complete control of your destiny and thus your happiness. If it doesn’t work out, you must be a failure.

Failure, as they say, is not an option. The world is full of options. Entire industries exist to facilitate this pursuit, from entertainment, to education, to science, and everything in between, each preaching, “this will make you happy.”  How do you measure happiness? Is it success? Is it your bank account? Your physical attributes? is it your social position?

Did the pandemic make you rethink what you value, what is most important to you? One of the ways to know what you value is what gets you through the hard times. In those cases, we look for something else. Something more durable and deeper. 

Continuing his meditation of the vine and the branches, Jesus says: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Not happiness, but complete joy. What would that feel like, be like? What would we do to attain it? My idea of being taller, thinner, well rested and put together, in Tahiti drink in hand enjoying the sunset, doesn’t even compare! Because even though I have a strong desire to enjoy life like the rich and famous, at a deeper level, I know of a stronger desire yet: complete joy. And the idea that God is offering me that, just blows me away!  All of this, as today’s collect says, is something that surpasses human understanding. 

I struggle with this notion that joy is what God wants most for us.  That God is so invested in me that joy is the ultimate goal of my life, joy not happiness. Think about that: What God wants for me is better than what I want for myself.

Not that Jesus’ disciples are asking for that.  No, in fact, the passage read today takes place at the Last Supper, a continuation of what we heard last week.  They are wrestling with the strange message he is trying to get them to understand, that they are loved without measure by him, by God. And even though he’s delivering bad news, difficult news to comprehend, news that their world is going to be torn apart, Jesus wants them to know of his utmost concern for them: that their joy may be complete. Despite the pain, despite the separation, despite the violence and the horror.  It is joy that will get them through life, post resurrection and us, post pandemic. For God’s love is abiding and joy for the long run . Happiness cannot sustain us in the same way. 

I think that’s because all human experience is one of being incomplete, lacking somehow, failing.  We are always either striving or longing for what we want to achieve or what we don’t have.  In a positive way, it keeps humanity going: it makes for explorers, entrepreneurs, inventors, creators. In a negative way, it means that we are never satisfied, always looking for the next thing, always believing that the grass is greener elsewhere, maybe even that we’ve been shortchanged somehow, deeply longing to connect with our reason for being. 

That points to something else to consider today, the difference between joy and happiness. From a Christian perspective, “joy is a limitless, life-defining, transformative reservoir waiting to be tapped into. Joy is not simply a feeling that happens. It is not elation, jubilation or exhilaration — emotions that may be present with joy; emotions express joy, but don’t define it. In its truest expression, joy transforms difficult times into blessings and turns heartache into gratitude. Joy brings meaning to life. In fact, it brings life to life.”  That’s what sustains us.

Jesus himself explains this by comparing joy to childbirth: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (John 16:21)  That, I can attest to, there is no joy like motherhood. 

Joy and happiness are wonderful to experience, but they are very different. Happiness is pursued, chased like something that might not be caught; joy is cultivated, it’s a decision, it comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are, and ultimately, to whom you belong: God.

I am happy that we are closer to reopening everything and getting on with our lives. Yet I do not want the lessons learned during this time to go unheeded.  Let us stand firm against attempts at superficial changes. Let’s  not rush normalcy in an effort just to relieve the pain we’ve suffered. Let’s keep realigning our priorities. Let’s work for something better, deeper, more fulfilling before reaching for an anaesthetic. Let’s love better. Let’s commit to everyone’s wellbeing. Let us cling to the vine, to the truth, to the good news that God’s preferred future for us is joy, complete joy. Amen.