Relaxing into joy

Pentecost 4, Proper 7A

In the name of God who taught that in returning and rest, we shall be saved; in quietness and in confidence, we shall find our strength.  Amen. 

Over the past few weeks, Michael and I have been going about the process of planning our upcoming vacation.  We’ve often had “staycations”, but this year we’re actually going to “vacate”.  And, as is so often the case, our vacation will take us on a road trip through the southland.  The Indigo Girls have a lovely song romanticizing the region.  “There’s something about the southland in the springtime,” they sing, “where the waters flow with confidence and reason.”  There is some truth to the sentiment of their song, but the southland in the summertime is a different beast altogether.  She can be angry and oppressive.  She can storm and she can swelter.  But still, it’s my homeland, and I always find myself drawn back, at least for brief intervals.

I’ve often reflected on the cultural differences between there and here, but I think one of the sharpest ways to encounter those differences can be on a good, long road trip.  One of my favorite things that I’ve seen is along the interstate in Tennessee.  There’s a business that advertises itself: “Sad Sam’s Fireworks and Beer”.  It always struck me as such an odd combination: depression, alcohol, and explosives.

But the thing is, if today was your first or only experience of church, you might think we were in just as bad a place.  The readings today all have a real heaviness about them.  Certainly, a heaviness that seems antithetical to the blossoming summer season.  And more to the point, a heaviness that seems antithetical to the message of hope and promise of redemption that we expect to hear from Jesus. 

The first reading today highlights words like laughingstock; violence and destruction; weariness.  We hear phrases like “terror is all around” and “the Lord is with me like a dread warrior.” 

Sometimes we’ll get an odd phrase in one of the readings like that, but usually it relaxes, eventually.  Not today, though.  It continues through the Psalm: “for your sake have I suffered reproach,” “I have become a stranger to my own kindred,” “I put on sack cloth…”  And then, Matthew’s report of Jesus’ words is maybe the harshest of all: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,” etc.  I can’t tell you how much fun it is when this reading happens to fall on Father’s Day…

But the problem is, these kinds of harsh words, like we find throughout the readings today, are not how I understand this faith of ours.  Generally, I believe that we should approach our understandings and expressions of faith from a place of joy.  Certainly, there are other muscles we have to flex to be fully-rounded Christians.  We have to understand grief – that’s a muscle we have to flex from time to time – we couldn’t make it through Good Friday if we didn’t, much less all the other moments of grief that we experience in our own lives.  We have to be prepared to deal with uncertainty or derision – those are other muscles we have to know how to flex, because without them we wouldn’t survive almost any aspect of human existence.  But while we have to know how to flex these muscles, and others like them, my expectation remains that through our faith we will always relax back into joy.  That’s the starting position.  That’s the default.  Joy. 

So I catch myself struggling when we have these collections of readings like we do today.

The thing is, I really don’t think Jesus is trying to tear apart our families.  I really don’t think the point is ever reinforcing oppressive social systems – like the slave/master dynamic.  But I do believe that Jesus is acknowledging that the way of the Gospel isn’t always the easiest way.

During Lent, one of the projects that our bishop had for the clergy of the diocese was teaching us to better understand and embrace the idea of lament.  In what we hope are the waning days of this pandemic, there is a lot to lament about.  None of us have emerged on this side of pandemic entirely unscathed.  We all have changed in small and sometimes also in big ways. 

So lament is one of those spiritual muscle groups that we really should know how to flex, even though it’s not one we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about in the church.  But there are, throughout our sacred texts, lots of examples of our spiritual ancestors teaching us how to lament.  We have two of them today: in Jeremiah and again in the Psalm.  And, perhaps more to the point, there are examples of our spiritual ancestors teaching us that it’s okay to lament – that it’s actually a really important part of what it means to be a whole, spiritual being.  It is okay to cry out to God when we’re in pain – spiritually, emotionally, or in any way.  It’s okay to call on God to bring you justice when you feel you’ve been treated unfairly.

We all have those times.  While I do believe that joy should be our default position – that it should be that place that we rest into after experiencing everything else in life – I also understand that it’s not something to be forced.  Being a “good Christian” doesn’t mean feigning happiness all the time.  But it does mean knowing that we can turn to God in our times of struggle.

If you spend some time with some of the lament writings in the Bible, you’ll notice a general pattern.  They tend to start out by acknowledging how great God is – how powerful and wise God is.  Then they move on to addressing the problem.  They tell God about what’s troubling them, and then they call on God to fix it, already.  And then, after the one lamenting has gotten everything off their chest – after they’ve had the tantrum and demanded action – then they realize and remember that God is still good.  Even when we struggle, God is still good.  “Answer me, O Lord, for your love is kind; in your great compassion turn to me”.

Lament is honest, but it refuses to get stuck in the pain.  It relaxes back into praise and love – sometimes even honest joy.

When we are living through difficult moments in life, don’t be like Sad Sam.  Don’t turn to alcohol and explosives.  Be like Jeremiah or the Psalmist.  Acknowledge the pain, but remember that you’re never alone.  Remember that in the end, God is good.

As the cliché puts it, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.  Or, as Blessed Julian of Norwich put it, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”  If you haven’t reached “well” you’re not done.  Good is the plan.  Good is the default.  God created the world and said that it was good, so good is the place we relax into.  Amen.