We meet this morning in this lovely city of Charleston. Inside the walls of this great old historic edifice””we can only hope the wisdom of the years might seep into our minds that we might rightly appreciate the present, and more importantly imagine an even greater future for tomorrow. It is of course serious stuff we do here today.
Our beloved Episcopal Church has entered into a time of crisis quite unique in her history. And this flagship diocese of South Carolina has to negotiate right in the midst of the narrow strait and stormy seas the finding of a new helmsman. Like Magellan’s crew continuing their circumnavigation of the globe after their captain is gone. No easy task. All just a little nerve-racking. Serious business, I tell you. Serious business. A man could lose his footing; a diocese could lose its bearings. My wife suggested to me that you all might be under a lot of stress”¦. I told her, “Well I’m under a little stress myself!”
I have among my bookshelves in my office at the church a small book written by Michael Henshall, Bishop of Warrington, England. It’s made up of letters he wrote to his newly ordained son, Nicholas. In one of the letters the bishop mentions some counsel Archbishop Michael Ramsey gave to him at his ordination in 1956””“Always pay your bills on time. Always answer your mail on time.” Bishop Henshall said he thought at the time the advice was pretty banal. Later he grew to see how often we fail because of small procrastinations. It reminded me as I read it of my ordination to the priesthood 25 years ago. I was full of idealism; having, so I thought, a deep commitment to prayer, study, servanthood, sacrifice, and ministry in the Holy Spirit. I didn’t get to pick the preacher as many do today. I didn’t think at the time it was all that good of a sermon. I still don’t. But the preacher said something that stuck with me because it seemed to me at the time so trite. He said, “Don’t be a grumpy priest. Don’t forget to smile.” Now at 56, and two and a half decades after my ordination, it doesn’t seem so trite a charge. So facetious a warning. It is a constant with me””I have to watch out for grumpiness. It would be the gravest mistake if we who profess and call ourselves Christians allow our difficulties, struggles, and spiritual battles to cause us to lose our joy. G. K. Chesterton called joy, “the gigantic secret of the Christian.” Well why not. The Gospel begins with joy and ends with joy.
I was hiking one day on Mt. Desert Isand in Maine when I came across a Ladyslipper on the side of the trail. I knelt down to study it. I thought, “What a beautifully formed wildflower.” It brought me joy. And when I got up to hike there was a new lilt in my step. But it was a serendipitous, happenstance joy. Too many Christians seem to think that this is how our joy should be, just something we come across as we go through life. But Christian joy is a cultivated flower, planted, nurtured and water in cooperation with God’s grace. So I remind you of the joy of Christmas, even on this morning in September. “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord.” Read next the resurrection appearances and you’ll see this same joy everywhere between the lines of the narrative. The Road to Emmaus disciples run back to Jerusalem and discover Peter too has seen the Lord. They all share their stories and Luke writes, “While they disbelieved for joy”¦.”
One of the staggering things, though, about John’s Gospel is that the closer Jesus gets to the cross the more he talks to his disciples about his joy. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” He prays to his Father, “But I am coming to thee; and these things I spoke in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” Then to his disciples again, “I will see you again and your hearts shall rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you”¦ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be full.”
The French spiritual writer, Louis Evely has written, “Our sadness measures exactly our attachment to ourselves. The place we give to joy is the place we give to God. We believe no more in him than in joy.” Is our religion only a religion of the cross? Of sacrifice? Of denial? Of spiritual battles? Is there no place for the empty tomb, the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore, a charcoal fire, and the risen Christ with fish on the shoreline in the morning mist as the sun rises above the Galilean hills””and a voice calls out, “Children have you caught any fish?” “No.” “Cast the net on the right side of the boat”¦.” (He wasn’t talking politics when he said “right side.” Nothing here about theology). No maybe I’d better put it”¦ “starboard side of the boat and you’ll get a catch.” Joy you see runs right through the gospels from beginning to end.
The late bishop, Festo Kivengere, Anglican bishop in Uganda and well-known evangelist related how one day he was coming from the cathedral feeling very good that he had preached a fine sermon. (You can often tell how a preacher feels about the morning sermon by his gait as he goes to his car after the service when nobody is watching). Then a dear lady, 70 years old, illiterate, but a real saint, took his hand and thanked him for the message. Then, very quietly she said, “Bishop, what’s wrong? You seemed rather dry.” There was no despising or criticism, he said, just redeeming love. Before he could answer, she said, “Just take it to the Lord.” So bishop Kivengere went home and got down on his face. “I took it to Him””and it was the beginning of blessing. I’m learning we need to be in a blessable posture in our hearts in order not to hinder the stream of the Spirit.” So each of us needs to be in a blessable posture this morning so the Holy Spirit can move among and upon us.
Sure there are many concerns in the larger church. Struggles aplenty. This is serious business. So serious we dare not do it without joy of the Gospel. There’s no reason to let our concerns, ours struggles, our worries””our battles steal our joy. My grandmother used to have songbirds in her kitchen. She kept them in a cage. And they would sing to her throughout the day. Sometimes they’d make too much noise during one of her soap operas that she’d put a veil over it and they’d grow quiet. “Grandma” I asked, “why do you put that towel over their cage?” She said, “Mark, birds can’t sing in a darkened cage.” Yet you will remember Paul and Silas. Arrested in Philippi. Beaten with rods and put into stocks in the Philippian jail. Still there in the darkened prison that night they sang songs of praise to God. The jailer and prisons must have thought to themselves, “Who are these birds that can sing in a darkened cage?” May they say of this Diocese of South Carolina, in these stressful, troubling and sometimes-dark days, “Who are these birds””that can sing in a darkened cage? Surely the joy of the Lord must be their strength!”