The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
Sunday, December 13, 2015: The Third Sunday in Lent
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
On Friday night, Claire and Thea and I were driving back from a birthday party she had went to in Troy, and I found myself in this moment that I often find myself in the holidays. I suddenly felt this deep need for a treat. So I tried to get everybody else interested in the treat because I didn’t want to be selfish, and so I said, “Would anybody like ice cream?” Thea said she was okay, didn’t need ice cream. Claire didn’t need ice cream, but I really wanted ice cream. Then they offered to stop by and get me some ice cream, but eating ice cream alone is a really sad thing to do and is indicative of some deep problems. So I began to race and I said, “Well, wait, we have whipping cream left over from Thanksgiving.” Claire said, “Yes,” and I said, “We have eggs, don’t we?” “Yes, we’ve got some eggs.” “We have some nutmeg and cinnamon,” and I thought to myself, I will make homemade eggnog.
So I had this vision in my mind of the eggnog my mother would make once upon a time when you whip up the egg whites and the egg yolks and you put it together and it’s fluffy and wonderful. So we get home and I pull out the whipping cream and I decide let’s just cut out the middleman, and I poured myself a big glass of whipping cream and drank it. For the moment, I was happy because during the holidays we find ourselves trying to capture an elusive balance between butter, fat, salt, and sugar and then refined flour. If you get that balance just right and can administer that drug with regularity, you too will feel at home and at peace and happy. Of course, happiness is more complex than that.
Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher, made her name on a book called The Fragility of Happiness. It was a time in which she went back and looked at how ancient philosophers in the west talked about happiness. They all agreed much as probably you and I do today that happiness is this Pareto optimum, this meeting between being of sound body and mind, of having a wonderful career or occupation, of having a family that was intact, of finding someone who loved you. And all the philosophers agreed that happiness was wonderful but it was the creature of fortune. Happiness was inherently fragile because at one time or another in our lives, things break apart that wonderful vector of all those things that have to combine perfectly to make us happy. There are lots of people who have lots of money, but they would trade it all for one more day in a sound body, Aristotle wrote. So money cannot make you finally happy if you have no sound body to enjoy it.
Today we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete, Latin for “rejoice”. It’s meant to be a Sunday in which we are reminded about joy, and from the beginning that Sunday has been marked in our calendar by having a salmon colored or maybe pink colored candle. That was devised so that the feasting of Christmas would be back-ended into one moment during the fasting of advent, so that there would be a moment of relaxation from all the fasting and people could relax their fast, have their feast, and say to each other, “Rejoice!”
Now, it’s common for us to confuse joy and happiness. Part of that is because we’ve come to see happiness as something of a constitutional right. The Declaration of Independence says that we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s meant to articulate a kind of political vision of our lives and our communities in which we will get along so that we can all achieve our own version of the vector of things that make us happy, whether it’s from our lives, our careers, our families, our different occupations, our bodily health. Everything has been banked upon that. It’s the way in which we see the world. Because of that, I think there’s a sense in which we don’t know what we’re talking about when we talk about joy.
The philosopher Charles Taylor wrote a massive book called The Secular Age in which he said that the problem that we face today is that we are all locked in an imminent frame. What does he mean by that? He means that all of our joys and sorrows have become a product of the here and now and not from any kind of connection to something greater in life. So all of our joys and sorrows have become so narrowly focused on material prosperity that, actually, the fundamental note sounded in our daily lives is actually ironically a kind of sense of loneliness and despair, because none of those things, says Taylor, can put us in touch with what he describes as “fullness”. None of those things can give us a transcendent relationship. None of those things can truly satisfy us in the end because they are all time bound. Our health will give way. Our money will go elsewhere. Our occupations will end. Our families will disintegrate. It’s the nature of life.
What is joy? C.S. Lewis, in a book, surprised by joy, argued that joy was a kind of longing. It was a longing for something deeper; a longing to belong. I think that gets us partway there, but I want to suggest to you that joy is the sense we have of having a deep connection with God, and nothing else but that. Joy is a kind of relationship we have with God so that we know in our bones that God is present and near and walks with us in the midst of all the things in our lives.
This might surprise you but the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have very little to say about happiness. It was considered too small an occupation for their thoughts. They have a lot to say about joy, and when they talked about joy the opposition wasn’t happiness. That’s our modern problematic that we can’t understand. When they talked about joy, its opposite was sorrow and suffering and oppression and frustration and alienation and exile. This is why in Zephaniah you have this vision of the return of Israel to the Promised Land, and it’s couched in a language of joy, saying, “Fear not, the judgment against you is over. Your connection with God has been repaired. You may go and come back to God’s home and be present to God. Therefore, you must rejoice.” And in Philippians, which is read every advent since the beginning of things, in Philippians we read, “Rejoice always; again I will say rejoice!” Fear nothing because Jesus is now present in our lives; therefore, you have nothing to fear.
Earlier this week we were sitting in Bible study and Kate Stella had a wonderful insight into all of this when she remembered a hymn that was written in 1868 by a Baptist pastor named Robert Wadsworth Lowry. He was not only a Baptist pastor, he was also a professor at Bucknell University, or what became known as Bucknell University. Lowry is writing this hymn in the context of a nation that had been ripped apart by a civil war, in which you had thousands of people who were either dead or maimed. And you had thousands of people who were displaced because of not only the Civil War but the entire movement of industrialization during that time in which people left the farms and moved to the cities and experienced dislocation and in some manner exile. Lowry’s hymn is meant to speak about joy that comes from knowing that God is present and that each of us is part of God’s new creation coming into being. This is the hymn.
My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord, my Savior, liveth.
What though the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that refuge clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?
Now, all of this is an introduction of sorts to today’s gospel because while you might see joy explicitly stated in Philippians and Zephaniah, when you encounter John’s words where he says, “You brood of vipers,” you might not have experienced that as joy. But I want to suggest that the fundamental message of that passage is joyful, not just because at the last line of it you say, so with these and other exhortations John preached the good news to the people. In the Israel of Jesus’ time, the people of God felt so out of touch and so unworthy and so dislocated that they had no hope that they could ever repair the relationship they had with God. So when John says to them, “Repent!” They realized that they had the chance and opportunity to make things right with God. They had the opportunity to find joy again, which is why they all flocked to John in the wilderness. Tax collectors and soldiers came as well as everybody else because the reconciliation John was preaching was for everyone, and possible for everyone. No one was to be excluded; everyone was to be transformed because God was reconnecting and drawing the world to Himself. That was a joyful thought.
I’ve given you two depictions today to take a look at of John the Baptist. The first is from Leonardo da Vinci. It was done sometime between 1513 and 1516. This is known as the last painting that Leonardo da Vinci painted before he died. So you see this John, and John is wearing none of the clothing that’s usually associated with the symbolism surrounding John. Usually, you see he’s wearing fur and he’s wearing a belt. You know it’s John because he’s the roughest looking one in the picture. Here, John the Baptist is not wearing any clothes and he looks a little bit like some kind of cross between the singer Josh Groban and Cher. John is just fabulous looking. He’s just so beautiful. You only know it’s John because he is smiling and pointing and reminding us that God is near. So in the end, Leonardo da Vinci saw in this figure of John a kind of icon through which to see his own life as joyful witness to the God who is near always.
The second is something I saw when I was in the youth in the Dominican Republic. It’s by the Dominican artist, José Rincón Mora. It was done in 1985. This is an incredible piece and it was done at a baptistry at the earliest spot where Christianity was proclaimed in what we know as the New World, the Americas. Here, you have John blessing Jesus and baptizing Jesus, and this piece condenses all of John’s life. You see not only John at the moment he is baptizing Jesus, but you have a foreshadowing of his death because the John who is depicted here on the left has his head turned upside down, and that’s meant to suggest his death when he was beheaded for criticizing Herod. You have John being lifted up as Jesus is going into the surfaces of the water, and that John is already experiencing the wounds of his martyrdom. Yet, his hand has a glow around it because the blessing he is giving is adding to the blessing of God who is Jesus. Jesus is there almost with the skin of a newborn entering into the waters and coming into our human condition so that he might transform the world and us by walking with us in death and life.
Now, you might not call this a happy image, but this image is one of deep joy. John is losing his head over Christ. He is being lifted up and transfigured and Christ is being transfigured as we will all be transfigured. And by clinging to that, we find the connection and belonging we seek.
There is another term for this Sunday. It’s from the Collect. This is known, believe it or not, among English-speaking Christians, as Stir-up Sunday. By that, I mean, there’s nothing to do with horseback riding in this. It’s known as Stir-up Sunday from the Collect, Stir up Your power, O God. It’s a prayer that asks God to be active in our life. What is the shape of God’s power for you? What is the joy that you long for and that you have seen? How can the power of God save you from yourself and transform your world and render your life transfigured?