Shielded Joy

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

There’s a famous story about St. Francis in The Little Flowers of St. Francis, a collection of sayings by him and about him from the 13th century. The story goes that he and Brother Leo were walking along a road one day and Francis, the founder of this new, simple way of following Jesus, Francis was partly preaching, party talking to Brother Leo, and partly talking to himself. 

Francis said, “Brother Leo, write down that if God were to make our little group of brothers the greatest models of holiness through the whole world, this would not be perfect joy.”  They walk on a ways.

Francis then says, “Brother Leo, write down that if the friars could speak every language, interpret all scripture, and even predict the secrets of every soul, this would not be perfect joy.”

They walk on.  “Brother Leo, write down that If the Friars Minor could sing like angels; if they could explain the movements of the stars; if they knew everything about all animals, birds, fish, plants, stones, trees, and all men, please write down and note carefully that this would not be perfect joy.”

I’ve been thinking about joy, not only leading up to this Fourth Sunday in Lent, Laetare Sunday, a day that takes its nickname from the Latin word, “rejoice!,” but all through the pandemic.

Perhaps my favorite prayer in the Book of Common Prayer is the one used at night that includes the lines

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 124, p. 134)

That line, “shield the joyous” has been important to me as I’ve prayed my way through the last year of the pandemic. There are times when I’ve been incredibly sad, felt deeply depressed, even with people around—extremely lonely. Like most of you, probably, I’ve felt exasperated, and angry, and confused… but after every dip, every hard place, every dark place, there has been a realization of joy. Joy not in the distant future, but joy right here, right now, inside me… and it has to with Jesus Christ living in me.

I talk about joy as being different from a feeling—like happiness or delight.  I think one can be sad but joyous at the same time. One can be anxious and joyful. One can be grieving, but acknowledging a bit of joy—all at the same time.

Over the last year, especially, there have been a number of articles and posts about what is labled “toxic positivity.”  I understand what they mean—writers are pointing out that there is something obnoxious and dangerous about the person who denies all pain and sadness and simply “puts on a happy face,” or tries to explain away every bad thing with something glib like, “God has a reason for everything,” or the one I really hate, “God never gives us a burden that’s harder for us to carry.” That kind of toxic positivity is not at all what I’m talking about. Joy is different. Joy has room for sadness, heartache, and grief.  As Psalm 30 prays, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning (vs. 6). Joy comes while the tears are still wet, still fresh, and perhaps still running. But joy comes.

As Paul says to the Ephesians in today’s first reading, “you were dead in sin, all of us were..… But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace we have been saved.”

The simplicity and well-known beauty of today’s Gospel reminds us of why we have been saved and how.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  God in Christ came to be with us, to live like us and teach and preach and struggle and laugh.  But its not just his life that shows that love, but also his death. 

The theologian Jürgen Moltmann explains it this way:

To understand what happened between Jesus and his God and Father on the cross, it is necessary to talk in trinitarian terms. The Son suffers dying, [but] the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son. The Fatherlessness of the Son is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father…. (The Crucified God, p. 243).

Christ on the cross is not some split off form of God, separate and alone, but God is on the cross taking death into himself, destroying it, turning death into some kind of black hole that explodes and reconstitutes into new life, new creation.  And knowing that, believing that, enables us to be joyful. Joy is more what we know and affirm, than even what we might feel on occasion.

I began with a story about St. Francis and Brother Leo, but I didn’t finish it. Francis has told Brother Leo what Perfect Joy is NOT, and finally, Brother Leo can take no more.  “Father Francis, please tell me then, what is perfect joy?”

Francis looks at him smiling and says, “if you and I were to approach the house where our brothers are, but we are drenched with rain and trembling with cold, covered in mud and exhausted from hunger; and if we knock on the convent gate; and if we are not recognized by the porter; and if he tells us that we are impostors who seek to deceive the world and steal from the poor; and if he refuses to open the gate; and if he leaves us outside, exposed to the rain and snow, suffering from cold and hunger; then if we embrace the injustice, cruelty, and contempt with patience, without complaining; and if we believe in faith, love, and humility that the porter knew us but was told by God to reject us, then, my dear Brother Leo, please write down and note carefully that this also is perfect joy!”

Francis goes on:  If we knock on the door again and the porter slams it in our face but, if he returns more angry than ever; and if he calls us annoying rascals and beats us with a knotted stick; and if he throws us to the ground, rolls us in the snow, and beats us again with the knotted stick; and if we bear these injuries with patience without complaining; and if we think upon the sufferings of our Blessed Crucified Lord, then, most beloved Brother Leo, please write down and note carefully that this, finally, is perfect joy!”

Francis says:

Above all gifts of the Holy Spirit, that Christ Jesus gives to his friends is the grace to overcome oneself, to accept willingly, out of love for Him, all contempt, all discomfort, all injury, and all suffering. In this and all other gifts, we ourselves should not boast because all things are gifts from God. Remember the words of Saint Paul: ‘What do you have that you did not receive from God? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift (1 Corinthians 4:7)?’ But in the cross of afflictions and suffering, we truly can glory because as Saint Paul says again: ‘May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).’ Amen.”

As we move through this season of Lent and as we continue to move through this pandemic, we can sense increasing hope, and increasing light.  But the joy of new life in Christ is a gift from God, a given, and it’s steady even in the painful times. It never goes away, even though we may not always be able to access it, but especially on this Fourth Sunday in Lent, may the Spirit help us to know the joy of Christ’s love for us, that lifts us into the love and power of God.

Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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