In the Gospel according to John, Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding. Not a glass of water into a glass of wine, mind you. Jesus transformed six stone jars each holding 20 or 30 gallons of water into fine wine. That’s somewhere in the range of 600 to 900 bottles of wine. Because before Jesus ever preached a word of the Kingdom of God, before he ever came face to face with a world of sickness and poverty and sorrow, Jesus attended and served our joy. And this isn’t some heavenly “joy” so stripped to the bone that no one would ever want it. This is a party! This is carousing! This is 180 gallons worth of laughter, dancing, and celebration! Real, human, incarnated, communal joy.
And it wasn’t a one off either. Jesus described himself as the Son of Humanity who has come eating and drinking. And his critics would complain about him, “Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus was no John the Baptist eating locusts out in the dessert. No one would ever have accused John the Baptist of having too much fun. But Jesus’ ministry often happened at tables with food and wine and undesirables. For Jesus, repentance and joy were not incompatible. Repentance was a return to God, and a return to God is joy.
And so from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry we now arrive at the beginning of the end. Jesus is days away from being betrayed, being arrested, being crucified. He’s days away from his own death. But his joy hasn’t left him. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has come to be known as the Triumphal Entry, but we could just as easily call it the Joyful Entry. It’s a parade. It’s street theater. It’s a demonstration. It’s fun! Joy radiates out of the parade’s center—radiates out of Jesus. It infects the whole crowd. And precisely because it’s fun and precisely because it’s full of joy, it’s the ideal event to draw people in, to make them want to participate, and to help them understand that Jesus’ values are their values.
This is a sermon about joy, but here we have a question we need to take seriously as Christians and as the Church: Where is our joy? How often does our worship of God spill out into the streets? How often do we make ourselves a public spectacle? How often do we risk looking foolish (the way that Jesus almost certainly looked foolish riding on the colt of a donkey)? How often do passersby take a look at what we’re up to and say, “Hey, I don’t wanna miss this!”
All this Lent one of our themes has been Lent of Liberation. We’re reading a Lenten devotional by that name that hopes to empower us or challenge us to confront and reverse the detrimental legacy of slavery for Black people in America. In order for us to have this conversation (or any conversation we might have about race, racism, and privilege) requires us to cultivate certain values or virtues—virtues that makes us good communicators both in speaking our truth and in hearing the truths of others.
So, this Lent I’ve been preaching about virtues. I started with humility, courage, and compassion. But I worried a little bit about recommending virtues that are really so well inside our comfort zones. Because I think so often we Christians think of ourselves as the stable, respectable, virtuous types. And we can get stuck there. And we can take ourselves a little too seriously and we can be a little dour. The “frozen chosen” as we’re sometimes called. And we impose this stereotype back on our whole tradition, back on Jesus, and back on God. When we do that, I think we really idolize our own respectability rather than allowing God’s loving, and Jesus’ outrage, and the Holy Spirit’s ecstasy to transform us into the people God desires us to be.
We have to remember that Jesus was not respectable. He was an outsider, a rabble rouser, a baby donkey rider, and this morning he is days away from being just another executed criminal, just another Jewish dissident dead on a Roman cross. Which is why for these last three weeks of Lent I’ve tried to round out our respectable virtues with some virtues that are much more suspect—anger, longing, and today, most important of all, joy.
Joy gets a lot of lip service in the Church, certainly, but real joy, true joy—180 gallons worth of the finest, street-parading, crowd-rousing, slain-in-the-Spirit joy, does not often come out of the closet in most of our churches. We keep real joy in the closet because we’re respectable people with reputations to think about. And if joy comes out of the closet, we’re afraid of what might come along with it. Because once joy is really and truly out the closet, soon the joy of children comes of the closet as well. And the children are dancing and singing in the aisles during the hymns instead of being hushed and sent off. And then the joy of sex slips out of the closet. And people refuse to be ashamed anymore of who God made them to be or who God calls them to love. And the LGBTQ community, who have refused to die in the closet unacknowledged and unfulfilled, might begin to show up in numbers, in marriages, in families loud and proud and fabulous. And then there will truly be nothing left of our dignity to prevent us all (to borrow a phrase from Dan Savage) from skipping off to Gomorrah.
We are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, not to love respectability. And in the in the commandment that follows it and is like it, “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” the operative word is “love.” It cannot be reformulated, “repress your neighbor as you repress yourself.” Joy is at the very heart of the expression of love. If we don’t get joy right, we can’t get love right.
In fact, I’ll go even further than that. What use is any virtue if it makes you miserable? Remember what Jesus tells us every Ash Wednesday: If you’re going to fast this Lent, don’t be miserable about it. Don’t go around crying about it. Wash your face! Anoint yourself with oil! If you’re miserable about it, you’re just wasting your time.
Now, I’m not saying abandon all virtues or activities that are hard or challenging or uncomfortable to you and pursue the vices instead for cheap thrills. I’m saying that God is at the heart of all virtues. Therefore, joy is at the heart of all virtues. And if we practice a humility or a courage or an anger or a longing that isn’t joyful—deeply, soulfully joyful— we’ve missed the mark somehow. Virtues without joy are dead.
Jesus on Palm Sunday is the embodiment of joy in virtue. He is going to the cross to die. He’s riding on a baby donkey like a clown. But Jesus is answering his calling with a joy that we still feel today. We still wave our palms; we still shout Hosanna. Why? What is it that moves us about this story? We see Jesus fulfilling his highest calling. We see him putting together a bit of a show for us. We see the twinkle in his eye. The mischievous little twist of a smile on his face. We feel what I think the crowd must have felt when they saw him, “Well, I’ll be gosh darned! He’s doing what? Crazy son of a gun! Look at him go! I don’t want to miss this!”
And finally here is my best answer to how can we hope to have productive and empowering conversations with people who have truths to speak that are different than our truths, challenging of our privilege, and uncomfortable to our consciences. The answer is we must make a joyful entry enter into the conversation and into the relationship. It won’t always be easy to discuss what is dividing us and what is killing some of us or what the remedies are. I’ve found myself a little depressed and sometimes in tears and sometimes feeling a whole range of difficult and unpleasant emotions as I work through the daily devotionals of Lent of Liberation. But I return to my reading each day with joy because I know that the truth contained in these pages is a truth that brings me closer to my neighbors and closer to God. And a return to God is always a joy.
Beloved, Paul tells the Corinthians in our reading this morning that they should let the same mind that was in Christ Jesus be within them. Now the word translated “be of the same mind” here in the Greek wasn’t just a word about thinking, it was also a word about feeling. You could also translate it, “be of the same heart as Jesus.” Jesus, who gave himself to his calling and to the cultivation of his best spiritual gifts and who through humility, and emptying and longing, and courage, compassion, righteous anger, a bit of foolishness and theater, and a whole lotta wine achieved a joy that could not be contained, that spilled out of him. “If the people were silent, the stones would shout!” he says in Luke’s gospel.
If the stones can shout, then there’s hope for me, Beloved. There’s hope for all of us that we too can enter into God’s joy.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations