Sunday, December 12, 2021

Phil Kniss: The grace of joy

Joy...while we wait
Advent 3
Isaiah 55:6-13; John 15:10-11; Romans 15:12-13

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I ended my sermon on hope last Sunday
by saying, several times, that we “choose hope.”
I suggested we cultivate hope,
by cultivating a healthy imagination.

So in terms of joy, we might ask,
what do we do to cultivate joy?
Is joy also a choice?

Well, some very wise people have said so.
The likes of the late Joseph Campbell, who wrote,
“We cannot cure the world of sorrow,
but we can choose to live in joy.”
Or the late Henri Nouwen, who is quoted as saying,
“Joy does not simply happen to us.
We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

I agree with both of them.  Sort of.
It kind of depends what you are meaning to say.

Nouwen and Campbell are not saying something altogether different
than what I was saying last Sunday.
Choosing joy is like choosing hope,
in that we decide where to look for our orientation.
Like hope, joy also requires some will and some imagination,
some ability to look beyond what is in front of us,
and see something we can’t yet see.

So while I don’t disagree with Nouwen and Campbell,
that’s not exactly what I am meaning to say, today, about joy.
I’m meaning to say that joy, to a large degree,
IS beyond our ability to simply choose it,
or to make it happen,
or to manufacture it out of the hard stuff of life.

In a slight counterpoint to the words of Henri Nouwen,
joy does, in fact, happen to us,
because of where we place ourselves in relationship.

Today I want to explore the concept of joy, as grace.
Grace is really a synonym for gift.
The Greek word charisma means “favor” or “gift,”
from which we get the word charismatic.
Gifts come from someone who loves us.
Receiving gifts from people
result from being in relationship to them.

I want to suggest that joy is a charism, a gift,
and the source of joy is God’s presence.
So if we want to increase the odds of receiving this gift from God,
if we want to put ourselves where the grace of joy is,
then we will want to cultivate our relational connection
to the God who is joy.

I’ll come back to that in a minute,
but let’s first examine the scripture readings from today.

Our reading from Isaiah takes us directly
to what I was just trying to say:
“Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near.”

There is, of course, human choice involved in the seeking.
We aren’t forced to seek.
We have free will not to seek a connection with God.
But the prophet suggests it is to our benefit
to actively seek.
God is accessible, is near, the prophet says,
and to those who seek God,
God is ready and eager to dispense grace.
God wants warm table fellowship with us.
Wants a clear table to sit at across from us.
So if we bring all that we are to the table,
all that we have, all our junk and our baggage,
and plop it down on the table in front of us,
God will happily clear a spot at the table,
sit down with us,
and serve up a huge helping of grace, forgiveness, and joy.

God says to us, through the prophet Isaiah,
beginning in verse 8, and I’m paraphrasing—
I don’t think like you do.
I don’t see what you see.
I understand you are burdened,
you are weighed down with everything you are carrying.
I see your burden, but I also see past it already.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways and thoughts higher than yours.
I already see beyond what you bring to the table.
I see the table cleared of your burden,
and replaced with a feast.

As dependable as the rain and snow that waters the earth,
and produces fruit from the seed,
so can I be counted on to pour out my grace of joy.

You will walk away from this table in joy,
and return to it in peace.
Look around, and you’ll see all nature celebrate with you,
at your newfound freedom.
The mountains and hills will burst into songs of joy.
The trees will clap their hands in delight.
The thorns and briers will shrivel,
and in their place, cypress and myrtle trees will thrive.
That is my free gift to you,
just for showing up at my table.

This is the God of joy speaking to us through the prophet.
The same God who rested on the seventh day of Creation,
and just looked around at everything in the world,
with the giddy delight and pleasure and laugh-out-loud joy,
of someone who just finished making something
so good and so beautiful and so amazing.

I like to think of the God we worship
as being that Seventh-Day God,
the God who overflows with joy.
That is not to deny the God who also experiences grief and anger,
when God’s human creatures rebel against that goodness,
and do things to destroy it.
But at the core of who God is, at the core,
is this Seventh-Day God,
the Sabbath God who is full of joy,
and invites us into that fullness of joy,
which is found sitting at the table of God.

Our invitation to a life of faith,
a life in relationship to God,
is not a daunting invitation.
Yes, the road of a life of faith is hard.
But then, the road of life without faith is hard. Or even harder.
No one should ever shy away from approaching God,
out of fear for the demands God is making of them.
If it seems intimidating to anyone,
it means we’ve done a poor job representing faith to them.
No, our invitation to obedience, is an invitation to a party.
At least it is according to Jesus,
in the words of John 15 that we heard today:
“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.”

Can we even grasp that—
we who like to emphasize the hard teachings of Jesus,
as well we should?
Can we grasp Jesus’ astounding claim here?
He is saying to his disciples,
“Everything I have told you,
every commandment,
every law I have taught,
every directive to carry your cross and follow,
I have said all these things,
so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.”
It’s all for joy, folks. It’s all for joy.
I wonder if Peter, James, and John,
and the rest of the 12 sitting at the Passover table,
really caught the gist of what he was saying.

The writer of John’s Gospel
has Jesus giving a long discourse at the Last Supper,
giving them all a heads-up about the resistance
they will all face in the world after he leaves them,
the hatred and persecution they will encounter,
and other things that are just too hard
for them to hear right now.
It is in the middle of that long, sobering discourse,
that Jesus says the surprising words we just heard:
“I have said all these things,
so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.”

And to think—wealthy Western Christians sit here today,
in comfort and plenty, and a privileged place in the world,
and have the nerve to create a joyless religion,
that gets more mileage out of boundaries and restrictions
and rule-following,
than out of the pure and deep joy being offered freely to us
who approach God’s table.

The Apostle Paul, in today’s Romans reading, ends with this prayer:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

In these two short quotes from Jesus and Paul,
all four themes of Advent—Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love—
get wrapped together in one package.
Here is the God who comes to us in Advent.
Who says to us, “Abide in my love . . .
that your joy may be complete.”
And, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace.”

This is the religion I strive for—
one that pulls us, by sheer magnetism, by God’s charisma,
toward the table of the God of joy.

Yes, there is a sense in which we choose joy,
or at least, choose to come to God’s table.
But we are not told to will ourselves into being joyful.
Joy is not created, it is received from the Creator.

And this joy does not blind itself to the harsh realities of life
in a broken and grieving world.
This kind of joy is honest.
Brutally honest.
It names the pain.
It faces the grief.
It acknowledges the injustices, the sins and the shortcomings.

Even so, it moves us toward the table where the God of joy sits,
the God who sees and knows and respects the baggage we bring,
but who gently, in our presence, and with our permission,
clears away a space at the table,
where the grace of joy can be received,
where the feast can be served.
The joy and the pain can both be held, together.

We are called into joy by the God of joy.
Our responsibility, our choice, is to put away our defenses,
and receive it,
as the precious gift that it is.

Let us make our confession together.
I invite you to turn to the confession in your bulletin.
And, at the same time,
turn to Voices Together #629 – “Here by the Water,”
a wonderfully appropriate song by Jim Croegart.
I’ll be reading Jim’s words at the end of the confession.
After which, we will sing them.

one God of joy, Lord of the Dance, we confess that we allow fear 
                to bar the gate that holds us back from entering your joy.
all Forgive us, encourage us, release us from that which binds us.
one We look for joy in the wrong places,
                straining to grasp for that which glitters, 
                yet is fleeting and empty.
all Forgive us, encourage us, release us from that which binds us.
one The God of all joy invites us to freedom and fullness of joy,
                here by the water, as we pray and sing . . .
Soft field of clover, moon shining over the valley,
joining the song of the river to the great Giver of the great good.
As it enfolds me somehow it holds me together.
I realize I’ve been singing. 
                Still, it comes ringing clearer than clear.

I think how a yearning kept on returning to move me
down roads I’d never have chosen, half the time frozen, 
                too numb to feel.
I know it was stormy; hope it was for me a learning.
Blood on the road wasn’t mine, though. 
                Someone that I know walked here before.

And here by the water I’ll build an altar to praise you
out of the stones that I’ve found here.
I’ll set them down here, rough as they are,
knowing you can make them holy . . .

—Phil Kniss, December 12, 2021

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