Choose Joy

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
The Fifth Sunday of Easter + Year C
May 19, 2019

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

newbornbaby-parentHenri Nouwen once wrote, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.”

I’ve decided that joy is a spiritual discipline.

It’s not something that happens to us in an instant in the same way that we experience happiness.  Happiness comes and goes. We can be happy one minute and sad the next, and often, our degree of happiness depends on forces that are beyond our control.

Joy, on the other hand, is completely different. Joy is something that happens over time, and it’s sustained by our willingness to remain faithful to God. Joy is something we choose for ourselves. It requires us to risk our own well-being, to be vulnerable to the possibility of getting hurt, and in my mind, there’s nothing more vulnerable than the experience of being a new parent. There’s no doubt that the birth of a child is a precious moment worth celebrating, but, as any parent will tell you, it’s also terrifying. After the birth of a new child, life is very different than the way it was before. For the parents, there’s now this enormous responsibility of taking care of a helpless newborn, and the love they feel is a love unlike anything they’ve ever experienced, a love so great that it causes anxiety and panic by the mere thought of something terrible happening.

This has certainly been my experience as a father. There have been times when I was probably a little too overprotective, but looking back now, I realize that it wasn’t just to protect Sophie and Jude from harm. It was to protect me as well, knowing that if something tragic happened to my children, I would suffer in ways that I couldn’t begin to imagine.

This kind of fear isn’t limited to new parents, by the way. I’ve also experienced it in moments when things seemed just a little too good to be true. Have you ever felt like this?  Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t want to get your hopes up too much or let your guard down in case something didn’t work out or something fell through? I do all the time. In a single instant, I might be excited because of a wonderful possibility and scared by the thought of losing it.

I think this is something that a lot of us deal with at different times. Fear takes over, and we risk missing out on the great gifts we’ve been given for fear of losing them. The interesting thing about loss, though, is that protecting ourselves from it doesn’t really prevent it from happening. Bad things happen all the time. Wonderful things happen, too. It’s the reality of this broken and sinful world in which we live. It doesn’t mean that God is angry with us or that God is punishing us.

On the contrary, the Christian hope is that this broken and sinful world will one day come to an end and that God will once again make all things new. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus is that God’s grace abounds, even in those moments when it feels like God is absent. Jesus never promised us that following him would be easy or that it would make us happy. In fact, he promised the exact opposite. He taught his disciples that in order to experience the joy that God desires for our lives, we must follow in his footsteps to the cross. We must offer ourselves as living sacrifices and carry out the work of the Gospel.

We begin to experience the joy that God desires for us, not by sheltering ourselves from the possibility of being hurt, but by giving thanks to God for all of God’s many blessings.

In her research on the link between vulnerability and joy, author Brené Brown has discovered a common quality among people who live with joy in their lives. Gratitude. The people who seem most joyful are not the ones who spend their time dwelling on what might go wrong. They’re the ones who spend their time giving thanks.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, giving thanks is at the heart of what we do every week when we gather to worship. Every time we celebrate the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, we practice giving thanks:

We take the gifts of bread and wine that God has graciously given us;

We acknowledge God’s goodness and pray for God to bless the bread and wine that it may become for us spiritual food;

We break the bread and share it among us;

And finally, we give it back to God. By receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, we become the Body and Blood of Christ, broken and poured out for the life of the world.

So, the Eucharist is not just about what we do on Sunday mornings. It’s formation for our lives.  It’s how we learn to live with joy in our hearts. We take what God has given us and give thanks; we break those gifts wide open and give them back to God. We do this with bread and wine. We do this with our souls and bodies.

Given that today is my last Sunday as your rector, today’s lesson from John’s Gospel seems especially appropriate. It comes from a section of the Gospel commonly known as the Farewell Discourse. As Jesus is preparing to say goodbye to his friends, he leaves them with these words: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says to them, “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.”

Jesus teaches us that joy begins, not with fear, but with love in our hearts, and we express our love by giving thanks. Give thanks to God in the same way that we give thanks on Sunday mornings by giving back to God that which God has already given us. In those moments when it’s difficult to see God at work, give thanks. In those moments when it feels like nothing is going right, give thanks. In those times when it feels like you have no idea where you’re going, give thanks. Give thanks to God for the times when you succeed. Give thanks to God for the times when you fail.

I give thanks to God for this parish. In our time together, you’ve continued to form me in my ministry as a priest. You’ve taught me a lot about what it means to love as Christ loved. You’ve been patient with me and forgiving when I’ve fallen short. You’ve welcomed me and my family and supported us for the past two and a half years, and I can’t thank you enough.

As I prepare to say good-bye, I can say with confidence that I’m proud of the work we’ve done together, and my heart is full of love and gratitude for you and the time we’ve shared as priest and parish. Be thankful, my friends. As someone once wrote, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” I will leave St. Catherine’s with a smile on my face and joy in my heart, hopeful that this parish will continue to do great things in the name of Jesus for many years to come. Always know that I’ll be cheering you on from wherever I may be.

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen.

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