No Ordinary Joy

Older Homilies (2009-2013)

Preached for the 3rd Sunday of Advent with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice.

“Rejoice always,” St. Paul reminds us in the scriptures, “pray without ceasing, and in all things give thanks”; today we remember to rejoice. We mark the midway point in our Advent journey towards the Nativity of our Lord by remembering in the midst of our spiritual preparation, that it is God’s joy we prepare ourselves for. If you took the distance traveled between Memory and Hope during Advent, and strung it like a violin, Joy would be the bow for God to pull across it. If Memory were to fashion its Hope into a bell, Joy would be the tongue to make it sing. And it is true that God’s victory is great enough to ring that bell until the end of time. Always is, of course, a lot of the time; and there is an irony in marking a time specifically, to remember that we should be rejoicing, all the time. But such is the case when midway on our journey of faith our lives are also often marked by sorrow. We have a tradition in scripture and our lives of worship of singing songs of praise even when they seem to be unmerited by outward circumstances. Rejoice, always, the scripture says, and today we remember to rejoice.

I cannot hear St. Paul’s reminder to rejoice always and give thanks in all things without thinking of the women I used to teach preschool with. In those days, my colleagues were mostly middle-aged women from Pentecostal and non-denominational traditions; and they spent more time rejoicing in the Lord than anyone else I had ever met. These women gave thanks for everything. They could be in the midst of the greatest personal trials, families swamped with medical bills, cuts in hours and pay, burdened by the labor of continuing ed most of them were taking, and yet their mouths were always praising God- always speaking joyfully of the gifts God had bestowed upon them, and always expectant of the greater joys which their greater labors promised them. Their hope in a God who would restore all things and make all things new in his coming again was manifest in constant thanksgiving for the minor joys which bore the signs of joy to come. I never quite got the hang of this. Joyful was typically the last thing I felt in the middle of the school day. I just didn’t have time for it. From the first family to arrive in the classroom the day was a mad rush all the way through projects and story times and playgrounds right up until lunch and nap time at the edge of which some twenty five sets of feet moved in different directions with half-eaten plates of spaghetti for the trash with twenty-five cranky faces teetering on the verge of an afternoon meltdown, twenty-five sets of arms hauling cots twice their size to twenty-five different corners of the classroom. It felt, every time, as if the whole day might fall apart right there. Yet within minutes of this chaos, the lights of the classroom would be off, and nearly all twenty-five pairs of eyes would be shut in much needed rest; my teaching assistant would take out a magazine at the table to read, and I would take my lunch-break. Most days this involved walking to my car in the parking lot, closing the door, and putting my forehead on the steering wheel. But on the days when I had enough energy to pull the prayer book down from the dashboard, I would open it to the noonday office and read the words of the psalm we hear this morning. “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed* will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”

We find this psalm in the set of prayers designated for the middle of the day as a holdover from the Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict had his monks recite the entire psalter through once a week, and during the middle of the day he assigned the Psalms of Ascent, psalms from the middle of the end of the psalter, pilgrim psalms. Their made them among the easiest psalms to memorize and the easiest to recite during the middle of the work day, where the brothers might be in the midst of some field of their labor. Their density, the potency of their language and vision, made these psalms perfect for conveying whole themes of the faith in a swift moment of time, a function itself a holdover from their original use as psalms for the pilgrims journey on the way to the Jerusalem temple. Psalm 126 reminds the faithful of the rejoicing they may expect at the end of all their labors. I, for one, was much more prone to anxiety. But my colleagues in teaching reminded me by their daily witness that fear was not to rule the day for us. Our experience was rooted in the victory of God, and our hope was in its ultimate fulfillment. For them, the minor joys of any ordinary work day were strung together in the fuller goodness of God, a fragrant garland for the righteous where nothing was ordinary, no good thing was present without the touch of God.

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion* then were we like those who dream, Then was our mouth filled with laughter* and our tongue with shouts of joy.” The psalmist remembers the joy of Israel’s past mid-way through a journey where the fruits of such a victory have yet to ripen again. The Lord had indeed begun to restore Jerusalem from destruction, the captives had been returned from their exile and the Temple rebuilt. It is easy to imagine the rush of excitement which the signs of such a restoration brought on, the vivid hope of a return to the glory of former days. Yet something was still missing. Jerusalem was far from being the center of the known world, indeed her restoration was dependent on the tenuous support of a much more powerful nation; and the Presence of the Lord had yet to dwell in the Temple as it had in the days of old. Fortune had been restored to Zion, yet this fortune was like a first gentle rain over what long had been the desert of exile. Israel still longed for the rushing river which they had known of God’s favor in the past. Fortune had been restored, and yet the psalmist also prays, “Restore our fortunes Oh Lord, like the watercourses of the south.”

This psalm stands in-between the memory of promise and the hope of fulfillment, yet it is not a lament for what has not yet come; it is a song of joy for what is. This is a psalm about ranan. Ranan is a primitive Hebrew root word for a ringing shout and cry. Ranan is about movement, the shaking of the voice and the trembling of the body. Ranan might refer to being overcome by something, or a great torrent in the sea, or even the tremulous sound made by pole or mast when a great wind passes by. Placed in the human voice and body, it is an inarticulate outcry. Sometimes this crying can be a wail of entreaty or supplication. But it just as easily means a proclamation of joy and praise. In this psalm we read it as rejoicing, rejoicing that fills the mouth over with laughter, rejoicing that shakes the body to its core, rejoicing so evident that everyone who sees it stops to marvel at the blessing of the Lord poured out. What is more, this psalm connects the rejoicing associated with God’s people in Zion with the rejoicing of God’s people in their daily life. The psalm begins in the Temple and ends on the farm because for God’s people, there are no ordinary joys, all are a gift from the Lord of Hosts; and the joy of a harvest reaped from the years long labor is both a source of blessing for the present, and a token of the joy to come.

We sing these hymns of joy today in the midst of our own labor with God. We reach back in the collective memory of our church and sacraments to the rejoicing of our earliest days when we first knew that the Lord had come into the world of our flesh to claim it as his own. We are a people who were formed by rejoicing at the greatness of the Lord’s activity among us. A follower of Jesus was identifiable by their rejoicing in things once cast down being made new. We remember the rejoicing of his mother Mary when she first conceived by God’s Holy Spirit, the rejoicing which she shook her sister Elizabeth by the shoulders with, the rejoicing with which she praised God for his favor of the poor and and lowly and hungry of the world. And we remember the promise of Christ for a return of God’s victory in creation made anew again by the fullness of his presence.

For God’s people, midway on the journey of faith, there are no ordinary joys; because we gather in the worship of our soul’s truest delight, the font of every blessing, the one store of all good gifts and all true rejoicing. All good things come from God, from the smallest joys to bloom among the ashes of our daily lives to our greatest victories, from the quiet joy of walks beneath the bare winter branches of our streets, to the raucous laughter of our closest friends, to the long-awaited harvests of our life’s labor. Some joys catch us by surprise and some are eagerly anticipated, but all seem just past the reach of our manipulation, all are gifts, and all will be gathered by our Lord as a garland of righteousness for God’s rejoicing people. The occasions we find for joy are the reality of God seeping through into our Earthly life, currents springing up from the places in our lives where the veil is thinnest between this world and the life eternal. We do well to stoop down close to them when they come, and take a full measure of their blessing, that our bodies may tremble and our voices sing with joy at the nearness of the Lord.

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