It is, as you all know, always dangerous to give me a couple days to read. I so seldom get to do the sermon preparation I want to do. But, as events and the calendar would have it, thanks to the fourth falling on a Thursday, I had three full days of relaxation and reading. Now, I confessed to Jane and Connie and Pauline & Don and others around the table that I was still undecided about my sermon for this morning just before church. Our readings and the commentaries gave me ideas for at least a half dozen sermons. The key was figuring out which one most appropriate for us at this time. Truthfully, I had a hard time deciding. Yesterday, though, as I was trying to figure out which sermon to offer, I heard about Pope Francis’ lecture to seminarians and novitiates, men and women seeking to become monks and nuns. Now, the press was, admittedly, going nuts over his attempts to circumvent the Vatican establishment and his call that they live more mundane lives sans Mercedes and cell phones and his efforts to reform the Vatican Bank, but I was drawn more to what he had to say to those considering a calling to the religious life.
The pope asked all the students about their joy. It seemed a simple question. But the pope seemingly caught on to the idea that a number of those exploring a vocation in the Roman Catholic Church were lacking joy. I was reminded in his question of that scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the renewed Spock is studying and asked by the Vulcan computer “How do you feel?” Spock has been answering scientific and literary and other cross-cultural and cross-planetary questions quick as a wink, but when posed by that simple question, he is stumped. It takes Amanda, Spock's mother, to explain the nature of the question. The same seems to have been true for some in the pope’s audience. They studied hard, they performed their given tasks with determination and skill, but he wondered aloud at whether they were happy doing what they felt called to do. He even told those in attendance that if they noticed a lack of joy in the presence of those with whom they were working and studying, they should speak up. The work that they are called to do is often exhausting and seemingly never-ending, but they need to remember the One calling is not just anyone. He is the Lord Christ! He is the One who promises abundant life for all eternity! He is the One who ought to inspire us to sing praises to His name and to recount the amazing works He has done, as our Psalmist reminds us this morning.
Naturally, the Pope’s question got me thinking. He intended the question for those pursuing religious orders or ordained lived in the Church. But why should we limit it there? Yes, I understand that the ordained serve an important role in the Church. But we have been reminding ourselves the last few weeks that we each have unique and important callings. Our Lord calls us and tasks us according to His will. We are, as we often remind ourselves, a sent people. We are sent back into the world to witness His saving grace in our lives and the hope that He gives us. How many of us do that with joy? How many of us approach our callings with excitement and thrill that the God of the universe has chosen us, us with all our faults and all our potential for messing up His wonderful plan, for the work of spreading His kingdom?
The fact is we can get so caught up in the business of the Church that we forget the purpose of the Church. Think about the work that we do around here. This week alone, there will be 25-30 of us involved in feeding the homeless at the Community Meal, several of us will be engaged in the effort to rid the area of slavery, 11 of us will gather around a meeting at the Vestry and discuss both the mission and secular measures of the parish, Larry will venture to the jail to minister in our name, a dozen or so will be committed this week to intercessory prayers on behalf of us and those who come to us, some of us will travel to Muscatine to listen to the bishop, a few of us will be working on the fall’s Underwear drive, Nicole will be choosing music for the upcoming Healing Service, and Robin will be tasked with getting the Bulletin and Orders or Worship out. All of this is occurring during the lazy summer days of Episcopal vacation.
Think of how easy it would be for us to get consumed by our work. Those organizing the Community Meal could easily be stressed by the job of finding preparers and servers for Wednesday night or planning a meal or guessing at the number of those whom we will serve. The Vestry could easily get bogged down in budgets or marketing. Robin and Nicole could easily forget the purpose of their work and get stressed out by deadlines or too many choices or other items. Heck, you could be “put out of sorts” by the combined services of July. There is every chance for us to be distracted by the minutiae of our ministry and forget both the purpose of our ministries and the One who calls us. And when churches become distracted by the minutiae, what happens? They become places that are overly concerned with budgets and pledges, places that are overwhelmed by the needs they address and the people they serve, organizations which forget that they are the Bride of Christ. Ever been to a joyless wedding? Why would a joyless church ever expect people to want to come and worship with them?
The 70 in Luke’s Gospel today get distracted by some of their work in a different way, but they are distracted nonetheless. They are amazed at the power with which they have been bestowed and the results of its use. They return from their work to the Master excited that they have healed the sick and cast out demons. Jesus refocuses them on what ought to be the source of joy in their lives. Do not be excited that you have healed or cast out demons; rather, be excited that your names are written in the book of heaven. Were the ministries of the sent real? Of course. Were they meaningful? You bet, especially to the ones who received the blessings of the One who sent them. But were those miracles meant to be their focus? Absolutely not! They were meant to be excited that they had been found by the Lord and commissioned for His work. Put differently, the miracles they performed on behalf of the Lord pale by comparison to what our Lord has planned for them and for us throughout eternity! That should be their and our focus.
So how do we know that our focus is correct? Perhaps sitting here this morning, the Holy Spirit has convicted some among us that we have lost our joy. Perhaps you remember yourself grumbling among those outside the parish about coming to church this weekend to worship God. Maybe you made some comments about fulfilling one of your ministries which those outside this church might interpret as resentful. Maybe you were like the 70 this morning and so focused on a miraculous healing that those not yet a part of the kingdom believe that you are more thankful for the exercise of power than the gift of God’s grace. How do we refocus? All it takes is a bit of repentance and reorientation.
Psalm 66 serves as a wonderful reminder of both our focus and God’s willingness to use us to each out among the world, even when we feel we do not deserve such an honor, and the accompanying emotion that should surround His willingness to bind Himself to us and us to Him. The psalm begins with a reminder that our primary responsibility is glorify God. We know this, but sometimes we forget, that all our works, words, efforts, thoughts, and even how we treat one another is meant to glorify God. That is the ultimate fulfillment of being made in His image and His likeness. But how do we glorify Him? Gods in the ANE were worshipped and glorified by sacrifices. We know that God wants a contrite heart far more than any sacrifices. The psalmist reminds us that we are to speak of His amazing deeds and of how He helped us during times of suffering or blessed us in times of abundance. This is done either corporately, as an entire body, or individually. Think on that call for just a second. The world is supposed to see, through our witness, that the sufferings of this life, no matter how raw and inescapable they may seem, are not able to keep us from experiencing the love and power of God. As the psalmist clearly states, we can go through fire and know that He will lead us to a place of abundance. Lastly, and this is skipped by our editors this day, we glorify God because we know that He will hear our prayers. Better still, we know that He will not withhold His love from any who seek Him. Can you imagine the audacity of such a statement to one outside the covenant? Not only does God meet our needs and bless us, but He keeps open the lines of communication with all who seek Him! We may have been the absolute worst human being possible, before we found ourselves kneeling before Him and asking Him to come into our lives; but once we invite Him, He always encourages us to seek Him and His will through prayer. Better still, He promises never to withhold His love from all those who love Him!
Given that all of this is our story, can you begin to understand why joy and excitement at the thought of serving God ought to dominate our lives? The stories that the psalmist tells are our stories. We are that redeemed people. Together, we share in the history of the Body of Christ. We can talk of the amazing works of power by which He has demonstrated His glory, whether in the Exodus event, Elijah’s battle with the Ba’al priests on Mount Carmel, in the Resurrection of the Lord Christ, and anything else which sings to us! Just as importantly, though, we can give evidence in our own lives of the redemption He has worked on our own behalf. Each of us gathered here, each of us here glorifying God today has multiple stories of how God met a particular need during a time of suffering or blessed us far beyond anything we ever could have asked or imagined. These are not just hypothetical events or past mythological happenings. They are and were real. We know because we have our own experiences and the memory of the Body.
Given all that, when is the last time someone asked for account of the joy that is within your life? Brothers and sisters, if you cannot remember the last time, I want you to spend some serious time in prayer this week asking God why. Why is nobody asking me for an account of my joy? Do I not have joy in my heart that He has redeemed me? Do I resent some of the ministries with which He has tasked me? Do I even recall all of what He has done for me? These are not easy questions. They are also not exhaustive. It is entirely possible that the Holy Spirit will prompt you to ask other questions, questions which cut right to the bone of your relationship with our Lord God, as you work to reopen the line of communication with God through prayer. But they are questions that need to be asked. As Pope Francis reminded those in his flock this weekend, we should be a joyful, laughing, exultant people. You and I proclaim that our Lord will one day host they greatest marriage feast ever. Should not our invitations to others, should not the expectation welling up within us cause others to wonder at our excitement and joy, and cause them, in turn, to be swept up in the excitement?