Self-Control Romans 7: 15 -25

Romans 7: 15 I do not understand my own actions. 

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 

16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 

17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 

18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

+++

Years ago, there was a television show, The Flip Wilson  Show. The star of the show, Flip Wilson, provided us with skits that made us laugh.  One of his characters was Geraldine, a woman whose outrageous behavior was funny because it was shocking. Often as not, Geraldine excused her behavior by saying “The devil made me do it.”  

When we recognize our own bad behavior, we have equally compelling excuses.  “I wasn’t’ thinking.”  “If you knew what I know.” “That’s just the way people are.” “He made me angry.”  “She had it coming.”

The Devil made me do it.

There is within us a tendency to sin.  Even though we are created in God’s image, we have been born into sin and we are as susceptible to sin as flowers are to wilting.

Paul puts it this way: 

19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So, do we leave it there?  Is it good enough to acknowledge, as Paul puts it, that we are slaves to sin? Then, is the next logical step to give ourselves over to sin and not be concerned about the effects of our sin? No. 

Even though our sins are forgiven, that is after that fact,  we are still held accountable by our community for the sins we commit. We are not free in this earthly life from the consequences of our sins. We cannot take back an unkind word, a careless thought, a harmful deed. When I sin against a friend, my friend remembers that and trusts me a little less.  When I sin against my neighbors, my reputation is tarnished. When I sin against God’s creation, I have left my mark, like litter in a ditch. When I ignore injustice in a system that benefits me and hurts others, I am sinning by allowing injustice to continue for those who mean nothing to me.

How can one embrace self-control in a world that encourages individual freedom to do as you please?

“I’m sorry; I can’t hear you over the sound of my freedom.”

“Double the guns; double the freedom.”

“I believe in free speech, unless it offends me.”

“If it feels good, do it.”  How often does sin feel good, not because it gives us pleasure, but because it is so easy to sin.  Self-control requires strength and intentionality. Sin doesn’t use any muscles or brains at all. 

This brings up the very basic difference between following Jesus and following everybody else. Who is the boss of me?  I am free to listen to anything I want to, but I ams also free to accept or reject any idea I want to.  

One of the fruit of the spirit is self-control.  Self-control is not automatic. It is a conscious decision, it requires an active mind and a strong faith.  Notice in our verse from Galatians that self-control, like kindness or generosity, is not the cause of our faith; it is the result of our our faith. Faith itself is not something we create ourselves: faith is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, there would be be precious little fruit and precious little faith.

We are slaves to sin, but the Holy Spirit, always present, gives us strength to reject sinful choices and gives us what we need to control our sinful impulses. 

Can we be happy if we’re always on guard for sin?  Think about all the sins you’ve committed. Would you be happier if you hadn’t committed them?  In my case, yes, I think I would have had less to worry about, less to try to correct, less to apologize for, less trying to make up for my mistakes. It takes a lot of time and energy to clean up after ourselves. 

It’s interesting that we see ourselves possessed by sin, but not by goodness. When someone does something good, we don’t say they are possessed by an angel. We like to take credit for our good acts and blame our bad acts on anything but our sinful nature.  The devil made me do it. 

On a roadside sign along Highway 20 is a sign that reads in bold letters, “The wages of sin is death.”  It was put out there years ago by some well-meaning person or congregation, as a warning to all of us driving by, that sin has consequences.  The ultimate consequence is death. My reaction is, “So what?”

After all, death is unavoidable.  So, what’s the point?  The point, which is not introduced in that sign, is missing.  Read the rest of the verse: Romans 6:23For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (KJV) 

The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Whoever put that sign up left off the most important information. The wages of sin is history for us sinners.  As Eugene Petersen puts it in The Message: [If you]Work hard for sin your whole life [and ]your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.

We do not have to give ourselves helplessly over to sin.

 Phillipians 4:12  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 

1 Corinthians 10:13  “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

How can you tap into this self-control that the Spirit offers you?

1 Corinthians 15: 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

We are in charge, only because we have been blessed with the fruit of the Spirit. Thanks, indeed, to God who gives us the strength to overcome our own sinful inclination and who rescues us when we can’t rescue ourselves.  Amen.

Generosity Luke 7

Luke 7: 36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

+++

Generosity.  To be generous.  

How do we recognize generosity? My favorite example goes back to my elementary school days.  Each August, we would get a list from the teacher. On the list were the titles of textbooks the we needed, along with a few supplies like pencils, scissors and crayons  The list called for a box of 24.  My mom bought me the box of 64!  I will never forget that luxury, that extravagance. That was generous—more than enough.  

In a time of fear and uncertainty, it is hard to be generous.  When we don’t know what the future can bring, when we can no longer count on how the economy and the government can work, we react by hoarding, by keeping, by  saving what we have, just in case.   (I know of at least two men who panic if the toilet paper supply gets down to nine rolls.)

How can I be generous when I only have enough for myself?   

I can only be generous if I have more than I need.  Then I can share what I don’t need.  Isn’t that how generosity works?  How can I be generous when I only have enough to get by? 

Generosity and self-protection are not mutually exclusive.  

I think of Corrie ten Boom, imprisoned by the Germans, along with her sister.  Corrie had with her a small bottle of medicine. She could have used it only for herself and her sister, but she used it on anyone in the prison camp who was ailing. Surprisingly, the medicine never ran out. That is being generous with a precious possession.

I think of my Great-Aunt Edna, who ran a mom-and -pop corner grocery store with my uncle.  As a little kid, I thought they were very rich; in fact, they had little to spare, but when I spent a week in the summer with them, I was treated to every good thing I wanted from the store, including banana popsicles. That is being generous with whatever is at hand.

I think of a friend, who when she hears of kids being mistreated, reacts with fury. The rest of us, me included, just say, that’s life. Bad things happen. Get over it. She says, “Do something!”  That is being generous with one’s heart.

The woman in today’s Gospel lesson is generous. She spends an inordinate amount of money on a very expensive perfumed oil. She doesn’t pour it on everyone. She doesn’t just massage a few drops into Jesus’s hair. She pours the entire contents onto Jesus. Why? Because she loves him. Because, perhaps she, better than the twelve male disciples, intuits that he is facing danger and death.

In those days, anointing with oil was used as a way to welcome guests, as a way of offering hospitality.  Notice that Jesus points out Simon’s lack of hospitality; he didn’t even offer to wash Jesus’s feet,, which was also standard hospitality.  Remember the most famous washing of feet? Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, a chore usually done by servants.  

In an article, “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,”  Walter Brueggemann relates God’s generosity, beginning with Genesis. “…it pictures the creator as saying, “Be fruitful and multiply. In an orgy of fruitfulness, everything in its kind is to multiply the overflowing goodness that pours from God’s creator spirit.”  God doesn’t stop with one of everything, two of everything…God wants multiples of everything.

Being generous is not about what we have and don’t have. We can be generous even when we don’t have enough for ourselves. Being generous is not just about material goods, like money and food. We can be generous with our time. Generosity, you may realize, is “other-directed”—that is, we use our generosity for the benefit of others. 

We can be generous with our talent.  We can use our talents   to please ourselves, or we can use our talents to benefit others.  A good example is a bake sale. Think of all the bake sales ever held in school gymnasiums, at ball games, in church basements.  The bakers were generous with their time, their talent and their ingredients.  No one ever brings a pan of cookies to a bake sale, expecting to be paid for the ingredients. 

Think of teachers who spend evenings and weekends reading  and grading papers and preparing lessons.  They are generous with their time so that their students may continue to learn. 

In times of uncertainty and fear, it is easy to be greedy and selfish, to look out only for oneself. Perhaps it is hardest to be generous to people who disappoint us, who puzzle us, who anger us.

I see comments from time to time about poor people. The assumption is made that people are poor because they are lazy. Then the logic follows, if they are lazy they don’t deserve help. They need to get a job.   

Generosity ignores why people need help. Generosity just helps. Generosity does not judge. Generosity does not analyze the situation. Generosity does not see reasons or excuses. Generosity sees need.  

God is generous. God ignores our sinfulness. God just helps us.  God does not judge us. God does not analyze our sinfulness. God does not wait for us to confess or repent. God saw a need: a  need to free God’s creation form the evils and dangers and consequences of sin. God sent Jesus; Jesus died, a very human death, was buried, and conquered death. Through Jesus, we too will conquer death.

Let us accept God’s nonjudgmental, life-giving generosity by showing it beyond our four walls. Thanks be to God for giving us more than enough. Amen. 

Kindness Acts 27: 21-44; Acts 28: 1-10

Acts 27: 21-44; Acts 28: 1-10

21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul then stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. 22 I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we will have to run aground on some island.”

27 When the fourteenth night had come, as we were drifting across the sea of Adria, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. 28 So they took soundings and found twenty fathoms; a little farther on they took soundings again and found fifteen fathoms. 29 Fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. 30 But when the sailors tried to escape from the ship and had lowered the boat into the sea, on the pretext of putting out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the boat and set it adrift.

33 Just before daybreak, Paul urged all of them to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and remaining without food, having eaten nothing. 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” 35 After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves. 37 (We were in all two hundred seventy-six persons in the ship.) 38 After they had satisfied their hunger, they lightened the ship by throwing the wheat into the sea.

39 In the morning they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned to run the ship ashore, if they could. 40 So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea. At the same time they loosened the ropes that tied the steering-oars; then hoisting the foresail to the wind, they made for the beach. 41 But striking a reef, they ran the ship aground; the bow stuck and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the force of the waves. 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none might swim away and escape; 43 but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, 44 and the rest to follow, some on planks and others on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

28 After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.

Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10 They bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.

+++

When Henry James, American author, was saying goodbye once to his young nephew Billy, his brother William’s son, he said something that the boy never forgot. And of all the labyrinthine and impenetrably subtle things that that most labyrinthine and impenetrable old romancer could have said, what he did say was this: “There are three things that are important in human life. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

What is remarkable about those simple statements to me is that Henry James did not usually write short sentences or repeat himself.  As I recall from the reading I was required to do, his sentences were usually about a page long, riddled with punctuation marks and required constant rereading to remember what the sentence was saying.

Be kind.  It’s easy enough. 

It’s our normal modus operandi, isn’t it?  We automatically do nice things for those we love; we respond to others with kindness.  

Kindness is especially easy to reciprocate.  You do something nice for me and I feel like doing something nice for you.

This story of Paul being shipwrecked shows kindness in times of stress. 

First, God is kind to Paul and the people on the ship by sending an angel with a plan: 23 For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 

Then Paul shared the plan with the 276 passengers and crew:

34 Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” 35 After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves.

 Paul was being transported as a prisoner, so his life was not so precious to the crew. They thought that they would just do away with any prisoners, but the centurion’s kindness and concern prevented that:

 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none might swim away and escape; 43 but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan

Once they were safely on land, they experienced the kindness and hospitality of strangers:

28 After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. 

Paul and the others received kindness from a prominent citizen of the island. Paul returned the kindness.

7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8 It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him.

We are given opportunities to be kind every day. I posted a question on Facebook: “What is the kindest thing anyone ever did for you?”

Some people found the question overwhelming and could not name a single instance, but several people shared cherished experiences.

From M: Gave me their kidney.

From B: Someone I have great respect for made a complementary comment about me when I wasn’t there, there was probably no way I should have ever heard about it but it was relayed to me months later by someone that was there.

From J: Told me if I truly wanted a better life and better relationships I had to own my responsibility in my own pain.

From C: Friends of ours took our daughter in last minute when her housing for the summer in another town fell through. They aren’t letting her pay rent and are including her in their family life.

From L: Kept me as family.

From D: Lent us the use of their second home when we had a medical emergency in another state. They would not take a cent for anything, such good kind people, God bless them.

From K: A kind note and a $50 bill to treat us to dinner out when our kids were all 10 and under. Found between our doors on Christmas morning.

From F: I was a single parent. My daughter was not quite two, I lost my job, a kid hit my car and totaled it. I had an opportunity to go to college, but needed a car. A wonderful person sold me an orange Ford Pinto for $800 and let me pay $40 a month. Getting my degree changed my life, and it wouldn’t have happened without that person’s kindness!

I will say that it is not easy to be kind if we are ill or distressed. I remember in 8th grade, I had one of my spells of depression. I was standing by the water cooler crying.  Our teacher sent in the two nicest students to try to comfort me.  I threw water on them.  My personal experience is that depression distorts all perceptions and makes me strike out like a rattlesnake when help is offered.   

I share this with you as a warning to be conscious about choosing kindness over selfishness, over meanness, over anger.

It is easy enough to be kind when we are in neutral situations where there is not threat.But sometimes, kindness is not our first impulse. We want to punish or get even with someone who hurt us or someone whom we don’t like. 

One of my daughter’s classmates died at the age of 32. The funeral was packed with her classmates, both from high school and college.  One of the attendees seemed out of place.  This young man, John, had not been in Jessica’s circle of friends or in any activities with her.  Jessica’s mom thanked John for coming and he revealed that his presence was prompted by Jessica’s kindness to him when he was a student.  John was the kind of student others either bullied or ignored.  Jessica went the other direction and showed him kindness.

I want to try a little exercise with you. I received this in a daily devotional from a priest, Richard Rohr.

Begin by finding the place of loving kindness inside your heart (Christians might call this the indwelling Spirit).

Drawing upon this source of love, bring to mind someone you deeply care about, and send loving kindness toward them.

Now direct this love toward a casual friend or colleague, someone just beyond your inner circle.

Continue drawing from your inner source of loving kindness and let it flow toward someone about whom you feel neutral or indifferent, a stranger.

Remember someone who has hurt you or someone you struggle to like. Bless them. Send them your love.

Gather all these people and yourself into the stream of love and hold them here for a few moments.

Finally, let the flow of loving kindness widen to encompass all beings in the universe.

Fr. Rohr says that “The quality of loving kindness is already within you, but if you don’t practice daily and deliberately, it is unlikely that a year from now you will be any more loving.”  He suggests that “As you move into the world, find ways of extending loving kindness to yourself and others in practical ways. Remember that love is the very foundation of the universe. You are simply a conduit for the inflow and outflow of love.”

In other words, don’t let kindness happen as an afterthought. Seek out ways to be kind. Be alert to opportunities.

Let me share one other response to my Facebook question.

From D: Forgiveness of my sins.

Is that not the kindest thing anyone has every done for you, for me?  Jesus experienced life as a human, with all its joys and sorrows, with all its pleasures and discomforts. His kindness was surely one of the reasons he was so popular. But the ultimate act of kindness was doing something for us that we cannot do ourselves. He forgave, he forgives our sins. 

We can easily snap at someone, scold someone, or accuse someone. Let us practice kindness, even when we are challenged, in the name of our kindest Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

JOY Philemon 1: 1-7; 1-Matthew 28:1-10

Philemon Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.  I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

Matthew 28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

+++

Galatians 5: 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.

As we contemplate the fruit of the Spirit, it is interesting to note what didn’t make the list: thriftiness, cleanliness, independence, seriousness, success, wealth, work ethic. Yet these are values by which we are judged by the world. 

The fruit of the Spirit hold us to a different standard.

Joy is rooted in our being human and in our being created in God’s image. Joy is not the same as happiness. Frederick Buechner says that happiness is man-made, that it is something we try to make. 

How often have you tried to make someone happy? Have you ever tried to cheer up a friend? Have you ever given a friend a gift that you knew would delight them?  Have you ever denied your own happiness to make someone else happy? Happiness is something we can conjure with some extra thought and effort. Perhaps it is easier to make someone else happy than to make ourselves happy.  But we try.  How many people have found ways that provide a temporary fix?  Shopping for the fun of it. Eating because it feels good.  Running because it energizes us. Playing cards or hanging out with friends.  Going to ball games and concerts.  All of these can provide happiness, when we make the effort.  

Joy, on the other hand, appears without warning. Joy is not the result of trying or doing, but of knowing, of recognizing. Joy is deeper and can appear even in times of hardship and sorrow.

As you listen to me, I want you to multitask.  Let memories of your own moments of joy come to you as I share mine.

We feel joy when a child is born, even in the midst of worry and pain.  We feel joy when a child accomplishes something for the first time.  Let me give you an example:

My grandchildren visited me, along with their parents, for a couple days this past week.  One of the traditional activities is to spend the night in a tent in our backyard.  Aunt Mo had bought a new tent and she left it by the front door.  Charlie unpacked the tent, carried it down the stairs to the backyard and put the entire tent up all by himself. I felt such great joy in my heart watching this not-so-little-anymore kid do something so complicated.  He only paused to ask for a hammer and a glass of water. He methodically pounded all the anchors into the ground and did whatever else made it possible for him, his brother and his aunt to sleep under shelter for one night That brought me joy.

A year ago, we were in the midst of a pandemic that we didn’t understand and that frightened us in so many ways. I put together a mask-making “business” simply by asking for donations and volunteers.  I ended up with 240 “business partners.” Some donated fabric, some donated time, some donated prayers, some cut or sewed—we found a dozen ways to volunteer to make sure that the people who most needed masks would be able to have them.  My front porch became a workshop, my dining room became a warehouse and our Facebook page became a community. The joy that project brought to me still resonates every day. When I think back to last summer, it’s with joy that strangers came together as a community to help people they would never meet. I feel joy that I have new friends who have added so much to my life, who are still my friends today.  Truly, the joy from the project that was born out of panic and fear will never leave me or, I hope, those who participated.

I am telling you these personal stories because joy is personal. 

That’s one of the amazing things about God—God is not remote.  God is within us. 

Psalm 139 expresses this beautifully: 

7  Where can I go from your spirit?

    Or where can I flee from your presence?

8  If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9  If I take the wings of the morning

    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10  even there your hand shall lead me,

    and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If God is within us, if the Spirit is within us, then the fruit of the Spirit are within us, waiting to be recognized at the right moments.

Joy might seem contradictory to the stereotype of a Christian: serious, always concentrating on the Ten Commandments—You shall not this, you shall not that.  It might seem that worship is a time to be serious, solemn. No smiling, no laughing, just concentrating.  Yet think of the joy we feel when we gather together. Think of the depth of that feeling when we could see each other, even if it was only on ZOOM. And the joy of being together in person—it is electric. There is something in the air that lifts us out of the ordinary and into another realm.  That is joy.

The texts I chose today, from Philemon and from Matthew, give us two different settings of joy.

In Matthew, we experience with the two Marys the joy brought about by great love and knowing that the object of that love is alive. How often have we experienced a similar joy when a loved one recovers from an illness or returns after a long absence, when we can once again embrace without fear of losing that person.  

In the letter to Philemon, we would not expect to find joy.  Paul is writing from prison. Roman prisons in the first century were underground, hot, and dark. The prisoners were chained together. Prisoners depended on family and friends to bring them food. Yet Paul writes: I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love.

Paul writes about the joy he feels, even in these horrid conditions.  That is the thing about joy—it supersedes pain, hardship, and injustice. 

Have you ever participated in a Black worship service or watched a video of one? Most evident to me, as I watch Black people worship, is the joy expressed in the music, in the praying.  Frankly, I haven’t seen that kind of joy in the worship services of my experience.  How is it that Black people, who leave that church to go back into a world that shows them more hate than love, how is it that they can so openly express joy?  Is it the Spirit? Is it the fruit of the Spirit, embraced openly and eagerly?  

We white folk do find joy in worship. I think music and singing brings us the most joy. The prelude, the hymns heighten our sense of the presence of God and the community of saints.  

Jesus encourages us to see the rules of the world as secondary to the rule of God,  the rule of Creation.  It’s not that we are encouraged to break laws. We follow manmade laws to protect ourselves and others. Ultimately, however, we are subject to and beneficiaries of the laws of Love: Love God. Love everybody. When we love, we receive joy.

Now, let us sit quietly and dwell on our joy. When, like Mary and Mary, have you been surprised by joy? When, like Paul, have you found joy in the midst of misery? Amen.