A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash
December 6, 2015
The prophet Isaiah told an exiled people -
And you will say on that day:
12:2 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
12:3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
12:4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
12:5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.
12:6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
4:5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
4:6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Joy that defies reality redefines reality.
I had the honor of representing Eliot Church on Wednesday night at an Eccelesiastical Council. This is the last step before the wider church authorizes someone’s ordination. This particular candidate (Jennifer Stuart) is a second career minister - in her first career she has worked with countless survivors of trauma and abuse. Her ministerial chaplaincy training led her to oncology wards. As she spoke to us she helped us to look directly at tragedy and she opened up theologies of suffering that I’ve never considered before.
And as she stood before us, she embodied joy. To us she preached a theology of gentleness and compassion, a peace which could surpass all understanding.
Her joy was not what we hear on the radio this season. It was not holly jolly misteltoe jingle bells. It was deeper. It was not frantic spending boxes and bows. It was calmer and more assured. It was the kind of joy that can only develop when you make a deliberate choice to be joyful, despite and nevertheless.
She told us what gives her joy and why in turn that joy strengthens her for her ministry. “Those times when we are close to the fire are often paradoxically the times when we are closer to God. The water of life and the love of God are illuminated in... the joy of coming together...In the communion meal there is a return to self, others, and God. The open table is set for us all. No one is deemed lacking. There is joy...” (Ordination Paper, Jennifer Stuart)
I am with Jenny in this - I see the connection between us, community, and God as the bridge to strength, to wholeness, to joy. When we are connected, that is when, with joy, we draw water from the well of salvation.
Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi from prison. And you may recall, he was in prison three or more times, for years at a time, and probably died by Roman hands.
Gregory Bloomquist puts this in context: “Joy was something Paul...thought he could offer.....What makes his assertion so implausible is that his was a message written from a context of extraordinary suffering.....Prison in antiquity was not a holding cell but a place to impose greater suffering...We would be shocked by the length of imprisonment...and by the conditions - overcrowding, hunger, chains, filth, inadequate clothing, illness, and death...torture was common...” (Subverted by Joy: Suffering and Joy in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Interpretation, 2007) Bloomquist goes on to say it would be understandable to seek death to end this suffering - but Paul’s choice might have shocked his contemporaries. “He has opted to go on living.” (ibid). He has chosen life, and joy. He has taken charge of his reality and recreated it, “invented a new discourse for a new culture.” (ibid). To Rome, he said, you don’t get the last word. You don’t get to define my reality, for my life is in Christ, my joy is in Christ, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
And for two thousand years people have drawn strength and practiced joy, even so and nevertheless. Christians have had faith to rejoice ahead of time...[Christians have made] a commitment that we live into even as we await the fulfillment of God's promises. (http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_december_13_2015 )
From a prison cell, Paul said: rejoice. In all times.
Here is the good news that Paul proclaims - that perhaps we can decide to proclaim:
In all times, rejoice in the Lord because the Lord is near.
From the position of ultimate hardship, he said rejoice.
This is a joy that does not deny reality - this is a joy that defies reality and in so doing redefines reality.
He said to the prison guards and the Roman empire - you do not get to define my reality, because God is near, because God is on my side and I am on God’s.
You have heard this story from the earliest Bible stories of “people moved to praise in the darkest moments” (William Dyrness, Rejoice Anyway, Christian Century, 1994).You have heard this story of defiant joy in the songs and texts of oppressed people around the world.
So many people, in the face of great trial, have defied the powers and principalities to determine their own joyful reality. Could we do the same?
I define my reality in Christ, and my joy is surprising and defiant:
the last shall be first
the crucified shall rise
despair will be matched with hope
isolation will be overcome by community
cynicism will be defeated by determination
the babe in a manger shall lead the world to peace
Do not be afraid, for this is good news of great Joy.
Paul was so closely connected to the living Christ - he never met the earthly Jesus - but he was so closely connected to the Risen One that he was strengthened and able to rejoice, even in a prison cell. And Paul was so closely connected to these early Christians that their very prayers lifted his spirits. This is what we can tap into: the connection, the community, the relationship that is embodied here in this congregation - that is part of our wider church - that is our Christian heritage. There is something about our connection with this babe in the manger, with this teacher of radical hospitality, with this Risen one - that makes possible our Joy. There is something about our connection with this great cloud of witnesses that gives strength, that makes for joy, that draws our focus toward the ultimate and toward the future and toward the building of the kingdom.
The world around us is filled with tragedy. It cannot be denied. Hundreds of mass shootings. Racism. Classism. Poverty. Parkinsons. Cancer.
And the world around us is filled, too, with jingle bells and sugar and rush and wish lists and Prime shopping and debt and this is all supposed to be Joyful but it does not seem so to me.
Somehow and nevertheless and even so, we are called to rejoice. Find strength. Choose compassion. Forge community. We are called to rejoice and to build a just world. To seek the peace that passes all understanding. And to live in joy.
Let us midwife that kind of joy into the world this season. Amen.
May the God of hope fill you wiht all joy and peace in believing - so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. (Romans 15:13)