Monday, January 24, 2011

Evangelism: the Proclamation of Joy

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany (January 23, 2011), which was also the Sunday of the Annual Meeting of the parish: Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23

There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish….You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy…

Many of you will remember Cuthbert, the dog with which John and I moved to Rochester. For those of you who never met him, Cuthbert was a good size black and white mutt—probably a mix of black lab and border collie. In our 12 years together, Cuthbert taught me many things. In fact, God taught me many things through him.

One warm, sunny day in Maryland, I had taken Cuthbert to work with me as I did almost every day. I let him loose to run in the chapel cemetery, which was, I think, his favorite place in the whole world. There were plenty of squirrels and rabbits to chase. Thank God he never caught any of them. Of course, I never thought there was any danger that he would.

I went in the parish hall to check my messages and make a couple phone calls. Then I went back out to get him. I stood near the edge of the cemetery and called his name. No response. I figured he must have wandered across the street to the post office. The chapel was on this short dead end street on one side of the road, and the post office was the only thing on the other side. Cuthbert was welcome there and known by most of the patrons. But he wasn’t there.

I called again. Nothing. I called again with my “Dad is annoyed” voice. Ah, there he was on the far end of the cemetery bounding towards me. He’s got something in his mouth. It looks like a rock. Why is the fool running around with a rock in his mouth?

He reached me and dumped the rock at my feet and looked up at me with great anticipation. Only it wasn’t a rock. Cuthbert had caught himself a turtle. I picked it up and the turtle looked way more annoyed than I had been.

And then I looked back at Cuthbert and he was shaking with pure delight. It was alive and he had caught it and Dad was pleased. It was like the moment when his whole dog life had been fulfilled.

So Cuthbert taught me that what is important in life is not what you catch, but how much delight you take in it afterwards.

The great Orthodox theologian of the 20th century, Alexander Schmemann once wrote, “From its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy.” He went on to say

Without the proclamation of this joy Christianity is incomprehensible. It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world, and it lost the world when it lost that joy, and ceased to be a credible witness to it. Of all the accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.[1]

I have been asking you to wrestle with our calling to evangelism, expressed in our baptismal covenant as the promise “to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.”[2] I have been trying to give us some new language to think about what evangelism is, because so much of what we think when we hear that word seems foreign and negative to us.

Two weeks ago I suggested that we are called to be the sacrament of Jesus for the world. Last week I talked about evangelism as the call to join and help build the beloved community of which Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently spoke, the same reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

Today I am offering you the notion that evangelism is at its very heart the proclamation of joy.

What is this joy? I do not think it can simply be equated with happiness, although it might be happiness sometimes. I think one of the gifts of Christianity to the world is the teaching that it is possible to be sad and joyful at the same time.

The most obvious manifestation of this setting aside one another of sadness and joy comes in our burial service. It is summed up through some words we borrowed from the Orthodox, although we unfortunately left out a few words. Here’s the Orthodox version:

Yet even at the grave [through our tears] we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.[3]

Joy is about confidence in the fact that we are God’s beloved, that, in the words of St. Paul, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,”[4] or in the words of our baptismal rite, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”[5]

Schmemann calls the Eucharist, “the sacrament of joy.” What we do here week by week is the means we have to return to our true joy again and again. We have to do it so often because life shakes our confidence in God’s unconditional love over and over. Our joy is constantly tested. But here, together, we can find it again. Sometimes as an individual in this assembly, when I’m having a bad time of it, I can’t get that confidence back. It’s going to take longer than that. But I have the next best thing, I have the comfort and hope that your return to joy gives away. And that, too, is an act of evangelism.

It’s the Annual Meeting so I am expected to say something about this parish and its future. I think I only have to say that the one thing above all others that we cannot let go of is our joy, our delight in God, our delight in the gift of life, our delight in the gift of one another, our delight in God’s call to do justice in the world.

Obviously I don’t get to visit other churches much, but I’ve been in enough to know by the end of the service whether or not this was a place I could return to joy. Is this a place where delight finds a home? This community of faith is, I believe, one of those places. I more than believe it, I have experienced it. I was devastated by an illness whose primary effect was the removal of joy from my life. Doctors and medication and therapists and taking better care of myself were all part of my healing. But here is where I returned to joy. With you. At this Table.

As your rector, I long for the day when I can stand up here and say, “We do not have to worry about our future any more.” My suspicion is that I will never get to say that. But despite the challenges we will continue to face, I believe that if we keep returning to our joy we will still be around to meet those challenges. If we ever are infected with despair as a community, it will mean our end.

It is not about what you catch but how much delight you take in it afterwards.

Let us pray that as new people come among us (and let us pray first of all that that they will), they will be able to see that we may not be the biggest or flashiest church in town, but we have caught something, the love of God, and we are delighting in it because we know that no one can ever take that love or our joy away from us.



[1] “The Proclamation of Joy: An Orthodox View,” in The Living Pulpit, October-December 1996, p. 8. The article is an excerpt from Schmemann’s book For the Life of the World.

[2] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305.

[3] The Book of Common Prayer version is on page 499.

[4] Romans 8:39.

[5] BCP, p. 308.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Counsel for a Priest, Counsel for a Christian

Today is the anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood (1990) and I was reading from an old favorite: Michael Ramsay's The Christian Priest Today. Ramsay was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961 to 1974. The book is a collection of addresses and retreat meditations on the priesthood.

At the end of the chapter called "Divine Humility" he gives "a few counsels for the struggle which will be before you." They strike me as good counsel not only for a priest but for any Christian. They are a description of how any Christian might rest in humility. Here they are, edited:

Thank God, often and always. Thank God, carefully and wonderingly, for your continued privileges and for every experience of his goodness. Thankfulness is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.

Take care about confession of your sins. As time passes the habit of being critical about people and things grows more than each of us may realize.

Be ready to accept humiliations. They can hurt terribly, but they help you to be humble. There can be the trivial humiliations. Accept them. There can be the bigger humiliations: some cherished plan misfires, or some injustice is done to you, or some slight or affront, or some sorrow, or some trouble caused by a mistake of your own. All these can be so many chances to be a little nearer to our humble crucified Lord.

Do not worry about status. There is only one status that our Lord bids us be concerned with, and that is the status of proximity to himself.

Use your sense of humour. Laugh about things, laugh at the absurdities of life, laugh about yourself, and about your own absurdity. We are all of us infinitesimally small and ludicrous creatures within God's universe. You have to be serious, but never be solemn, because if you are solemn about anything there is the risk of becoming solemn about yourself.