Critical Joy

St. Philip Lutheran Church
12 December 2021 + Advent 3c
Philippians 4.4-7
Rev. Josh Evans




Rejoice in the Lord always!
Again, I say: Rejoice!
Don’t worry about anything … just pray!

Well, Paul, easier said than done.

Especially where our world stands these days … a devastating reminder of the impact of gun violence as the community of Oxford, Michigan, continues to live in the aftermath of yet another school shooting … the uncertainty of a new COVID variant that threatens to send us back into lockdown … the destruction and loss of life in the wake of tornadoes that ripped through multiple states this weekend – including over 100 feared dead in Kentucky alone.

Doesn’t exactly seem like much cause for “rejoicing” to me. Don’t worry about anything? Have you seen what’s happening? I’ll at least concede the encouragement to pray – if only because it seems like sometimes that’s all we can do.

Rejoicing in the midst of such suffering and brokenness just doesn’t feel right. It feels uneasy, inauthentic, and out of step with reality. And yet…

Remember the images and videos that came out of Italy at the onset of the pandemic? In one of the hardest hit countries, under strict lockdown, video clips flooded social media, showing residents singing out of their windows and on their balconies. Maybe it was for lack of anything better to do in the boredom of home quarantine…

But I think there’s something more going on there. Something that American poet Jack Gilbert describes in his poem “A Brief for the Defense”:

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.

From the neighborhoods of Italy to my own neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee in those early pandemic days, I saw over and over again examples of people who risked delight … who refused to let their gladness succumb to the ruthless furnace of the world … who despite everything, kept the music going.

I’m always struck by that same kind of resilient joy, reading Paul’s words to the Philippians, particularly when I remember that these words were written from his prison cell. If anyone had cause to despair, it would be Paul – confined, awaiting trial, and anticipating execution.

There’s a difference between that kind of resilient joy – what Gilbert in his poem names “delight” – and mere “pleasure.” For me, “pleasure” is a bag of Reese’s trees (or eggs, or hearts, or pumpkins…it really doesn’t matter). But that kind of pleasure is a fleeting, momentary happiness. Joy, or delight, on the other hand, is something much more profound, deeper, lasting.

In his present circumstances, fleeting happiness is of no use to Paul. Fleeting happiness is of no use to the parents grieving the death of their children who went to school one morning and didn’t come home. Fleeting happiness is of no use to the person separated from their loved one by PPE and plexiglass because they’re dying of complications from COVID. Fleeting happiness is of no use to the home or business owner surveying the rubble left behind after the tornado.

But joy is something different.

“Joy,” as one theologian puts it, “is what happens when we daily live into the belief that God can and will bridge the gap between the world we long for and the world we see before our eyes.”

In other words, joy does not deny the reality of suffering and brokenness and injustice. But it also doesn’t leave us in those places.

Joy is a deep and profound expression of trust in the God who is coming and has come to make all things new.

Joy is a longing. Not a wishful thinking, “deus ex machina” kind of longing that lets us off the hook. “But a longing that compels us to participate in God’s good work… a longing that drives us to anticipate and enact [God’s reign of peace and justice] in every way we possibly can, while also admitting our desperation, our helplessness, our urgent need for a savior.” (Debie Thomas)

Joy is honest about our present circumstances – and joy is a resilient hope and the certainty that none of those things is the end.

***

Very recently, I’ve started doing something I never thought I would … playing Dungeons and Dragons. I am far from an expert, and one thing I’ve learned is that the rules of the game are so much more complex than I ever anticipated. Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m doing… 

I’ve also learned a great deal about the unpredictability of the game – with the fate of your character and your adventuring party literally in your hands with the roll of a dice.

When I’m not muddling my way through my own D&D campaign with friends, I’m watching a bunch of self-described “nerdy voice actors” do the same on the internet series Critical Role. In both cases, it’s dawned on me that the experience of playing D&D is a lot like the experience of being a part of a community of faith – or any community for that matter.

It can be chaotic and uncertain. You can get yourself into some deep trouble battling ogres and goblins and weird priest dudes in dark robes. But no matter how difficult the combat, you learn to rely on the collaborative effort of your adventuring party – coordinating abilities and spells and attacks to get through it together.

Let me say that again:
No matter how difficult our present circumstances, no matter how uncertain or unpredictable the future, this is work we are called to together.

“Who knows what will happen?” the new Critical Role theme song asks … and goes on to remind us:

“From darkness our friendship will rise.
But one thing’s for sure,
we never give up on the fight.”

It is in times of struggle and sorrow that community seems to be at its best – forging deeper relationships and bonds out of the shared experience of making our way through whatever life throws at us together.

In a game like D&D, you make allies, you take chances, you “hold your breath and roll” – knowing that you’re never on your own, but living into the kind of resilient joy found in community that Paul writes about.

Dear people of God:
Treasure these relationships.
Take chances.
Risk delight.
Make music despite everything.
Never give up.

And rejoice always.

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