Sunday, March 14, 2010

Surprised by Joy

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 14, 2010

Year C: The Fourth Sunday in Lent
(Joshua 5:9-12)
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Surprised by Joy

We’ve already reached the fourth Sunday in Lent and if you’ve been coming to church regularly over the past few weeks, by now you may have gotten used to our somewhat toned-down atmosphere here. George Hayman has a running joke that his wife the rector has forbidden the use of Joy dish detergent during the season of Lent. While that’s not true - I think - Lent, of course, is a season for penance and sacrifice and reflection and so our surroundings here at church are designed to reflect that. In an effort to create the appropriate atmosphere all the shiny items are either put away or covered up with purple cloth.

Rather than our usual sparkling silver chalices and patens, we use duller ceramics. Just the other day a parishioner was bemoaning that there aren’t any great Lenten tunes. I’ll defer to Anne’s judgment about that, but certainly the music is more somber than usual. At our Rite I service we say the Prayer of Humble Access before communion, calling us to humility before we receive the Body and Blood of Christ:

“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table…”

On one level the Prayer of Humble Access offers a powerful reminder of our sinfulness and unworthiness and calls us to repentance before we approach the Lord’s Table.

Lent, like all of the church’s seasons, is an artificial creation designed to make a theological point. Lent reminds us of our sinfulness and challenges us to make sacrifices, to change our ways, to remind ourselves of our total dependence on God. Lent is especially important for you and me – people living in this rich and comfortable society.

Some people, though, don’t need this artificial creation to remind them of sacrifices and dependence on God. When our Presiding Bishop recently visited Haiti, she rightly told the suffering people there that they could skip Lent this year – they had already experienced a real world Lent. They could and should skip ahead to Easter – skip ahead to the joy of the Resurrection, to the joy that comes from knowing that for Jesus and for us death is not the end.

Of course, it’s not just people in Haiti or Chile who have already experienced a real world Lent. There are people right here in our community, right here in our congregation who are experiencing a real world Lent. There are people facing serious illness or are caring for someone who is ill. There are people who have lost their jobs and there are people afraid of when they will get the dreaded visit or call from a supervisor telling them to clear out their desks. There are people who are depressed and anxious. There are people filled with regret and remorse.
Many of us right here have already experienced a real world Lent.

Yet, even in the midst of artificial Lent and even in the midst of real world Lent, it’s always the mission and purpose of the Church to proclaim the Good News. In fact the Prayer of Humble Access proclaims joyful Good News too: We say to God, “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”

During Lent we cover up the crosses and put away the silver, but the Church can never ban joy. And to remind us of the joy that is at the heart of the Christian message, today we put away the purple and bring out the rose vestments and hangings. We set aside this fourth Sunday in Lent is as Laetare Sunday, as rejoice Sunday.
And if we pay attention, if we keep our eyes open, even in the midst of artificial and real world Lents, we may find ourselves, to borrow the title of a book by C.S. Lewis, surprised by joy. Even in the midst of our own struggles and pain, we may find ourselves surprised by joy.

Take a moment and think about just last weekend here at Grace Church and see if we’re not surprised by joy. Twenty of the men had a retreat that was filled with honest and prayerful discussion about the big issues of life and faith. Meanwhile at church, I hear Jacki Connell led a fine First Friday and the next morning Dorothy Hayes and Sue Mangina coordinated the successful second annual craft day. Mary Lea Crawley put together a wonderful Help Haiti Sunday encouraging the children to come up with creative ways to raise money for the people of that devastated country. And to add to the joy, an anonymous parishioner generously offered to match the money raised by the children. Together they raised about $1000 for Haiti. Communion was brought to faithful people over at Pine Acres and Harmonium had one of its most successful concerts ever. And at the end of the day one tired priest and a Confirmation class of 13 lively kids talked about how God makes an unbreakable bond with us in baptism.

If we pay attention even in the midst of Lent we may find that we are surprised by joy.

And if we paid attention to today’s lessons we may very well have been surprised by joy. Today’s gospel lesson is one of the all-time greats, what’s usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s found only in the Gospel of Luke and captures our imagination because Jesus gives us a parable that stretches us to imagine how we would act if we were the prodigal son, the older brother or the father. Or maybe we don’t have to imagine. I remember hearing someone say the longer he lived, eventually he had played all of the parts.

Since we call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son it’s natural for us to think that the parable is really about this wayward young man who squanders his inheritance, and ends up begging to be taken back in, not as a son but as a hired hand.
When we stop and think about it, though, this great parable is not mostly about the prodigal son. His is an all-too-common, everyday story. Jesus’ great parable is about someone much more unusual. Jesus’ parable is about the loving father.

When we look at this loving and forgiving father, just as when we look at Jesus, we see what God is really like. “But thou art the same Lord whose property is to always have mercy.” No matter how we’ve gone astray, God is ready to welcome us back with forgiveness and open arms. And we might very well find ourselves surprised by joy.

Whenever I think of this parable I’m reminded of a priest friend of mine. He had been rector of a big suburban parish and lost everything – his church and some of his family, his sense of self – to the ravages of alcoholism. After going through rehab and beginning the road to recovery he finally worked up the courage to make an appointment with the bishop to see if he might have a future in the Church. Many times he told the story of waiting nervously outside the bishop’s office. Suddenly the bishop came out of his office and without saying a word, walked over, embraced him and welcomed him back to the church.

And my friend was surprised by joy.

St. Paul is someone else who was surprised by joy. Today we heard a passage from what we call the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Most scholars, however, think that this letter is actually a collection of letters from Paul to Corinth that were stitched together by a later editor.

Paul’s story is amazing – he never knew Jesus during his earthly lifetime. In fact, he had persecuted early followers of Jesus. Later he had a powerful encounter with the resurrected Christ that dramatically changes his direction. He spent the rest of his life traveling around the Mediterranean telling people the Good News about Jesus and setting up Christian congregations.

One of those congregations was in the rich Greek port city of Corinth. The Corinthian congregation gave Paul a lot of trouble. After he was gone they were tempted by other, probably Jewish-Christian, missionaries who offered a different kind of gospel and were perhaps more eloquent and better-looking than Paul. If you read all of Second Corinthians you find that Paul gets very angry at and hurt by the church in Corinth.

We don’t know if Paul was familiar with the parable of the prodigal son and his loving father, but Paul definitely understood that in Jesus we see that God is merciful and loving. And Paul definitely understood that we are called to also be loving and merciful.

He writes to his troublesome congregation in Corinth, “…In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the ministry of reconciliation to us.”

So, just like the loving father in the parable. Just like the bishop in my story, Paul set aside his hurts and disappointments, and opened his arms in forgiveness and welcome for the people of Corinth.

And today, if we keep our eyes and hearts open, even in the midst of our artificial and real world Lents, as we receive forgiveness of our sins, as we offer peace to our fellow Christians, as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, as we donate pajamas or drop food into the bin, today we also may find ourselves surprised by joy.