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Joy or Control? Let the Joy Happen.

Sermon at Clergy Day
March 15, 2012
Paul V. Marshall

Ps. 95:8

I find myself thinking about four words from the Psalm. “Harden not your hearts.” Not as threat, but as invitation—it is the Invitatory Psalm.

As a teacher of preaching, I have heard a lifetime’s-worth of sermons about why a particular preacher does not like Lent, so I think at last it is my turn. I don’t like Lent for precisely the same reason that I don’t like cleaning the garage or basement. (I say nothing of desks.) Stuff builds up: that is its nature. Even if one is a daily tidiness person, and I respect such people, there needs to be a thorough cleaning now and then if our living spaces are to function well and give pleasure to the eye and heart. Cleaning up after
ourselves is not usually our favorite thing nonetheless.

It is tedious, unexciting…and necessary, or else one drowns in clutter or harbors a fire hazard. Worse still, stuff can pile up to the extent that you forget what the space is actually for, and have to start parking in the driveway instead of the garage.

And clearly the first half of Lent, which we wrap up this year with Saturday’s rivers of green beer, focuses on cleaning up the spiritual messes in our lives. What does liking Lent have to do with that life-saving task, anyway? It isn’t about liking it.

But something will change this Sunday, and for some of us Lent’s ante will be raised dramatically, if paradoxically. The preface will change from “who was tempted in every way as we are” to “prepare with joy for the feast to come.” Talk of repentance can serve our masochism, and may come somewhat naturally, but joy is a bit more problematic. Preparing with joy, hearts defrosted.

Thoughts about the preface occurred to me when I read a preview of today’s installment of Canon Anne Kitch’s oh-so-gentle daily meditations, which I hope you are following on our Bakery e-list. She has helped us each day to savor one of the moments of growth that Lent season offers.

Today Anne tells the story of picking up one of her daughters after a perfect day and observing her joy. Let me share a few words:

It is the tempered exuberance of early adolescence, but full of joy nevertheless. We both waft along on the energy she exudes as it propels us into the car and across town and into the house where her father receives his blessing as well as she recounts again the day’s events. “Today is such a good day!” she exclaims once more and gifts me with a hug as she moves on to
the next thing.

I have no defenses against such joy. I give in to its tumult and let its rapids carry me along knowing I will end up on some holy shore.

Defenses against joy. I think we know about defenses against joy. Some of them result from the weight of the clutter that Lent calls us to sweep away. Others defenses, or at least hesitancies, about opening up to the surprise of joy, come from those perceptions and experiences of childhood that recent-2ooth-birthday-boy Charles Dickens explored so well long before depth psychology came along and made it a business.

I could go on at great length, I think, to describe what underlies the sometimes dour, tight-lipped, de-facto Pelagianism that drains the joy from more than one flavor of Christian spirituality.

It comes down to this, though. One cannot experience joy and control at the same moment. Joy or control: fire or ice. Fire or mud. I speak not of the thoroughly-learned and unconscious control of the artist or athlete that makes the joy of “flow” possible, but the emotional control of wounded, timid hearts. Control, keeping it together. The avoidance of ecstasy.

Perhaps there is a question that could make Lent-haters out of us all. Does the second half of Lent invite us to court ecstasy despite our mental habits? Ecstasy means to stand outside of oneself. To have it, we let go a little, dare to be elevated, unwrapped but not unglued.

Perhaps as a group we are a bit introverted and prefer our ecstasy to be of the quiet variety, but whether one likes hang-gliding or prefers to listen to Hildegarde of Bingen’s greatest hits on the iPod™ while tending a bonsai garden, transcendence is something most of us have to make room for. We are so busy. But do it, we hear a voice say. Harden not your hearts; it is about a choice.

The choice is receptivity, and receptivity is a kind of reflective attunement that is different for each of us, and may be quite elusive. The preface next Sunday gives some clues for finding it though: through “prayer and works of mercy.”

Forty-nine years ago Richard Burton starred as Thomas Beckett. For me the key scene in the movie “Beckett” is not his defiance of the king: most of us know that defiance is not that hard to pull off and becomes quite a drug. No, I think the key scene was the moment when, no longer having any use for a lavish civilian wardrobe, Thomas is shown giving his clothing to the poor. There is a strong hint that this dispossession begins as a publicity stunt, but after putting a pair of his shoes on a beggar at the end of the scene, Beckett says, “he’s not a dreary God after all.” Dare we guess that the works of mercy
transformed the doer, and that dispossession was what made joy possible? I suspect that our New Hope donors would agree, just as those who have been slogging through the silt to aid flood victims just minutes from where we sit this morning might. Joy or control: fire or ice. For the joy that was set before him the Jesus emptied himself utterly; that’s why we’re here.

A mother tending a child beginning to blossom into a woman, a person distributing furniture as the waters recede, a priest making a first effort to tithe. All court ecstasy, or joy as it is called when it is at home.

We are utterly privileged in that much of our work puts us in the position of serving people. We are so to speak, in the “prayer and works of mercy” business, and we exert a lot of effort in those tasks and in inviting God’s people to join the work. The invitation to us as we make the biggest turn among the contours of Lent is to be detached just enough from the tasks, or to be perceptive enough in doing them, to let the joy happen, on its own subtle terms.

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