Saturday, October 12, 2013

On the Whole I'd Rather Be Joyful

Thanksgiving Sunday
13 October 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus Text:  Philippians 4.4-9
         When I was in Grade 4, my teacher, Miss Imogene Carroll, discovered that I had never learned phonics.  Each word was, for me, a collection of shapes forming a pattern that I could memorize, but the letters or combination of letters did not represent sounds.  So, when a teacher asked us to sound out a word, I was completely at sea.  But having heard one of my classmates sound out the word, I would then tuck it away in my memory to be brought out when necessary.  When I incorrectly spelled a word on a spelling quiz, I would memorize the correct version.

         Miss Carroll gave me a crash course in the fall semester of Grade 4.  She showed how each letter or combination of letters represented a sound.  It was a marvellous gift which left a lasting imprint upon me.  I love words!  I love their different sounds and the subtle shades of meaning between two words that may seem similar in meaning but, upon closer examination, are not so similar as they first appear.

         Let’s take, for example, the words ‘happy’ and ‘joyful’.  For many English-speakers these two words are interchangeable --- but they are not.

         ‘Happy’ means ‘feeling or showing pleasure or contentment’ or ‘fortunate; characterized by happiness’ or ‘apt, pleasing’ or ‘slightly drunk’ or ‘inclined to use excessively or at random such as “trigger-happy” or “slap-happy”’.   The word ‘happy’ itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hap’ meaning ‘chance, luck’ or ‘a chance occurrence’ or ‘come about by chance’ or ‘happen to’. [1]

         When we look at this word more carefully, we see a word that really speaks about the ‘here and now’, a moment in time that comes and then goes.  In fact, to be ‘happy’ seems to be more a matter of chance or luck than it is the result of what one thinks or does or seeks.

         On the other hand, ‘joyful’ is derived from the Latin word ‘gaudium’ meaning ‘joy’.  ‘Joy’ is ‘a vivid emotion of pleasure; extreme gladness’ or ‘a thing that causes joy’ or ‘satisfaction, success’ or ‘rejoice, enjoy oneself, experience joy’.  Joy seems to be something that has a bit more depth to it than being ‘happy’.  There is less happenstance and more effort involved in joy.  We can, like C. S. Lewis, be ‘surprised by joy’ only to realize that it has been lurking just beyond our peripheral vision, waiting for us to notice its presence and give it an entry into our consciousness.  If given a choice between being ‘happy’ or being ‘joyful’, I think that the wise person would choose joy every time.

         Take Saint Paul for a moment.  In his letter to the Philippians Paul uses the word ‘joy’ or some form of it seven times.  When we remember that this letter was written during one of Paul’s periods of imprisonment, it is remarkable that he could write of ‘joy’ even as he was facing the deprivations of prison life and an uncertain future.  When we take one step further into the story behind the letter to the Philippians, we learn that the church in Philippi was experiencing internal disharmony.  At least two factions had developed, one led by a woman named Euodia, another led by Syntyche.  Paul asks an anonymous friend to help these two women come to an agreement ‘in the Lord’ for the sake of the unity of the community.

         If I look at the turmoil of the last fifteen years in this Diocese, then I am hard put to imagine that I could have written to one of our congregations to ‘[rejoice] in the Lord always’.  I think that I might have been more tempted to quote Charles Dickens’ famous words from A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . . .

I would have quickly chosen to say that it was the worst of times, an age of foolishness, an epoch of incredulity, a season of darkness, a winter of despair with nothing before us on our way going direct to a place other than heaven.

         But this is not Paul’s sentiment, precisely because he understands the difference between being ‘happy’ and being ‘joyful’.  He recognizes that the troubles of the present moment, as painful and as difficult as they may be, cannot overcome one fundamental truth:  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  In Romans Paul writes that he considers “. . . that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8.18)  Where some people can only see darkness, Paul only sees shadows that cannot endure the light of Christ.  Where some people can only see foolishness, Paul only sees the passing fancies of a world that, in time, will be set aside by the wisdom of God made known in Jesus of Nazareth.

         My friends, this Thanksgiving I have every reason for joy.  This congregation, while we face genuine challenges, never ceases to amaze me in your generosity and your self-giving.  When one of us is ill or in need, you uphold them in love and concrete acts of compassion.  Although all of us have busy lives, each one of you makes time to undertake to care for this place of worship and to reach out to the many and various people who come to us for assistance.  With little hesitation I could address to you the same words Paul used to open his letter to the church in Philippi:  “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.”  (Philippians 1.3)

         What I wish for you and for every human being is the joy of this occasion of thanksgiving.  For we have much to be thankful for:  a community of faith, resources to do the ministry entrusted to us, freedom to share the good news with the many who need to hear it, both rich and poor.  Our thankfulness has its source in a joy which, even in the face of challenges and uncertainties, gives us confidence to bear witness in our lives and our words to Jesus, our teacher, our friend and our example.

         So let us rejoice in the Lord.  Let our gentleness be known to everyone.  Let everyone discover in us that the Lord is near to them.  Let us not worry, but entrust our work and our lives to God so that we might experience the peace of God in our hearts and minds.  For happiness may come and go, but joy endures.  Amen.

[1] The Oxford Dictionary of Canadian English.

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