Rev. Danielle K Bartz May 9, 2021
John 15:9-17 “Complete Joy”
“Can’t we, just once, have a Sunday worship that is all rainbows and sunshine, and not have to respond to something that has happened in the world?” I am not sure if I am quoting myself or Sandy, or maybe a mix of the two of us, but a line like that has been said on several Sundays over the last year. Worship plans made at the beginning of the week had to change at the last minute because of something that has happened in our country or world. Or plans are not made at all until the last minute because we were holding our breath, wondering if something was going to happen. I am a close follower of the guidance from theologian Karl Barth who said, “we must pray with Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” For me, and I think I can safely speak for Sandy as well, worship that does not hold the current events of the world close feels shallow or even empty. So, we have worked hard to make sure worship provides a safe space to consider our faith and God’s presence in the world as it is today. But, we have also longed for a week when we don’t need to respond to something, and just worship a world that is all rainbows, puppies, and sunshine.
The “what’s next” way of looking at and interacting with the world is not confined to just worship planning of course. It has felt like we have been on that edge for a long time now. We open our newsfeed and hold our breath. We listen to a story, waiting for the twist at the end. We hear good news and are instantly suspicious of it. Far too many of us have become too comfortable in our fear and distrust. It has begun to feel safer settling into that fear and distrust because of the ‘what’s next’ way the world has been lately. Pandemic, riots, violence, discrimination, insurrection, lies, division…I can go on and on. We have been bracing ourselves for whatever tomorrow’s news will bring, and yet long for the days – likely the past of our imaginations, not the past of our realities – when things seemed simpler.
So, I am led to wonder: do we still have room for joy and love in our spirits and in our lives? Do we still have the ability to experience the unexpected love received from a neighbor and simply bask in it? Can we dive deeply into joy for the sake of joy – and not be constantly wondering what can go wrong or how long it will last.
Do we still have room for joy and love in our spirits and in our lives? And if we find that we don’t, how do we begin to make room for it once again?
This is the question I have been wrestling with this week as I have considered today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus, in what is his final lesson – essentially pages and pages of discourse found towards the end of the Gospel of John – is reminding his followers that love and joy are a part of their calling in following him. Last week, we heard Jesus remind us that he is the true vine, and that we are connected to him, to God, in our own unique ways, but in our shared connection we find community. Today’s reading continues that lesson. “I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “and therefore the love I have from God, is the love you have.” Jesus is reminding us that, as the vine to which we are each connected, our source of spiritual nourishment, that nourishment is the audacious, unending love of God. And by telling his followers this, those sitting at his feet two millennia ago, and those of us listening to his lesson today, by telling his followers that because of our connection to God through Jesus we experience a powerful love, then our joy should be complete. Hear again verse 11: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
“Your joy may be complete.” What a powerful promise for Jesus to make. Complete joy, found through the love of God. A love of God that we can almost begin to understand through the lessons and lived example of Jesus Christ. A love that we can only almost understand, but a love that is given nonetheless. And through this love we are promised complete joy. And not only are we promised this love and joy, it seems to me that one of our calls as Christians is to embrace them. Fully, without hesitation or trepidation. Jesus is teaching that we are given this love, but a gift is only complete when it is accepted. If we turn away from that love, deny its presence in our lives, distrust what that love can do for us and for our community, if we don’t accept that gift of this promise, then we are not following our call as Christians. Our call to find complete joy through the love of God.
Did you hear what I just said? That one of our callings as Christians is to accept the gift of joy, complete joy. Not joy held at a safe distance. Not joy wrapped in distrust. Not joy distracted by a wondering of what can go wrong. Complete joy. A joy that can only be found through the love of God, a gift given to us even when we don’t fully understand what that love means or how it is possible. And no gift can ever be truly given until it is fully, and completely, accepted.
I encourage you to spend a moment to consider how this lesson makes you feel. Speaking for myself – I read this in the Gospels, I stand here and say it to you – and I still feel an urge to resist it. How can I accept the gift of complete joy when there is so much injustice in the world, injustice that I am also called to confront? How can I accept the gift of complete joy when I know that something, something will happen that will remind me of the hurt and pain of this world? How can I accept complete joy when I have spent this last year afraid and overwhelmed? Are these questions you find yourself asking? Are these questions creating a hurdle for you to live into our call to accept the love of God and therefore find complete joy?
Here’s the thing, though. By striving to live into the complete joy promised to us, we are not turning away from the pain of the world. We are not turning away from the needs of the world and just focusing on ourselves. That is not what it means to be experience joy. The gift of joy is not an act of denial, rather it is an act of resistance. An act of resistance to a world that says we should simply give up because it is all going wrong anyway. An act of resistance to a world that says fighting for justice is not worth it because we will never achieve it. Joy is an act of resistance. And it is an act of resilience. By seeking out moments of joy, and then fully and truly embracing those moments, and by recognizing those moments as gifts of God’s love for us – we are building ourselves up to continue responding to the world.
I have been trying hard to live into this lesson as best as I can. Even when it feels risky. Even when I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. The joy muscles of my spirit are a bit atrophied, and I wonder if yours are as well. It takes work, practice, patience to exercise those muscles. For those of us who have become too comfortable with fear and distrust, then it takes intentional effort to push ourselves to feel uncomfortable. And when we find ourselves resisting joy, keeping it at a distance, just in case – when we find ourselves resisting that joy, remember that it is a gift we are given through the unending source of love of God found through Jesus Christ. Nothing, nothing can deplete that love – it is and will always be – and it is always there for us to draw strength from, even when the strength we need is to be joyful.
I think Mary Oliver, a poet puts it best:
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.” That was a poem entitled “Don’t Hesitate” by Mary Oliver.
Joy is not a crumb, joy is complete. That is what it means to be Christian. To embrace that complete joy, and as an Easter people, to cry alleluia. As we begin to relocate ourselves after a year wrapped in fear and a world kept at a safe distance, we must seek out moments of joy. For some of us that may mean leaving behind the perceived safety of fear and distrust. For some that may mean working muscles that have sat unused for too long. As Mary Oliver says, the world still has possibility in it. And I take that a bit further and say that the Kingdom of God is still a possibility. But that Kingdom can never be realized if we choose to turn away from the love of God and the joy that love gives. It is time to embrace joy. And by so doing, we are engaging with the world, the world as it is, crying alleluia, and sharing joy with all our neighbors. Amen.
God, who is our source of love, light, and joy – we turn to you in prayer, seeking your presence in our lives and the lives of all.
Today, God, we pray that we can embrace the lessons of Christ, the lesson that teaches us from you comes unending love, a love that nourishes our lives, our spirits, and fills us up so we can share freely with everyone. For this gift of love, we give you great thanks.
We continue to pray God that we can embrace joy in new ways. And so we pray for your presence when we are afraid of the good of this world, or when we are not even sure we should trust that good can exist. In those moments, help us to open our eyes, our hearts, and our spirits to the miracle of our lives and the good that surrounds us. And in those moments when joy settles us, help us to not hesitate but to jump in with all we have.
Also today pray for the mother’s of our world, the people who have cared for us and cared for those we love. We give great thanks for the nurturing nature of so many, for the way love is given without request and requirement of return. We recognize that love is part of you, and so as we give thanks for the mother’s, we also give thanks to you.
We pray all of this with all of the joy, hope, and courage we can muster. And we do so in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher, our source, and our guide, who taught us to pray together by saying…Our Father…