A reflection with four stanzas or, four movements. Let’s call the four Joy, Love, Confusion, and – because there is a symmetry in beginning where we ended – Joy again.
Rejoice greatly, says the prophet Zechariah. These words are not phrased as a suggestion nor as an invitation. They are phrased as a command. Rejoice greatly, says the prophet speaking on God’s behalf. And maybe that suggests that joy is a holy act and a subversive act.
Dan Savage, the wonderful advice columnist and activist and champion of GLBTQ rights, has said homophobia and transphobia and all of their cousin phobias can more or less deal with gay folks and trans folks hanging out in seedy clubs and doing seedy things in the seedy darkness. But that what these phobias and their owners cannot deal with it, what really rots their socks, is gay and trans folks finding everyday joy out in the daylight: GLBTQ folks going about their lives, raising kids, washing dishes, riding bicycles, being startled by the beauty of sunsets, the list goes on. That is because it is in these everyday acts of joy that we discover our full humanity and the full humanity of our neighbour.
Similarly, in this season of moral awakening, a season in which we are, as a culture, are thinking deeply about racial justice, we are hearing an important reminder. And that is this: Yes, listen to stories about black pain. But also, equally importantly, listen and celebrate stories of black joy. Absolutely, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. But also read Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. Black joy matters for the same reason that GLBTQ joy matters. Because grief and suffering are part of being alive. But they are not the whole story. You need joy to have the whole story, to be fully human. When we honour our neighbour’s joy we honour their humanity, we see the image of God in them.
So rejoice greatly. And pay attention and celebrate as your neighbour rejoices greatly.
The Lord is loving to everyone
says the Psalmist
Compassion is all over God’s works.
As the feminist theologian, Ellen Clark-King says, God’s love is promiscuous. I adore Ellen’s language for a lot of reasons, one of those reasons being that it reminds us that the love of God is neither safe nor neat. Rather God’s love is transgressive and even dangerous.
Sometimes we try to force God into safe and neat categories. We tell God: you belong in this building, but not outside; you belong with these people, but not with those; this is where, God, your holiness is properly contained. But God won’t go along with our plans. We are like children trying to do that thing where you try to hold water cupped in your hands. Try as you might, God’s water runs out. Not all of it runs out – your hands remain wet and holy – but so does everything else.
Now, a major caveat before we go any further. The promiscuousness of God’s love, the go-everywhereness of God’s living water: this is not some cosmic moral relativism, where God is totally okay with you and me no matter how much we harm creation or harm our neighbour or harm ourselves. No. It is precisely because God loves you and me and loves us beyond limit that God confronts us in our sin.
Now, I realise that sin is a loaded word, so let me be clear that when I use that word I am not referring to anything as trivial as masturbation or listening to rock and roll.
Rather, what I mean by the word sin is basically the same thing that I mean by the word:
More on that in a second.
God loves you. And God wants you and me to be allies with God in sharing God’s promiscuous love, to participate in the compassion that is all over God’s works, in letting the waters of justice flow everywhere. If we allow it to be, if we put down our selfishness, our efforts to hoard God’s love, this might just be good news.
I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
Paul has a number of really famous lines. This particular one probably makes the top ten. Paul never says what the thing he hates is, never names what he elsewhere calls the thorn in his side, and so he has left room for generations of people to identify their own struggle in his struggle. You will meet alcoholics who are convinced that Paul was an alcoholic, compulsive gamblers who are convinced that Paul was a compulsive gambler, gay men who are convinced that Paul spent his life stuck in the closet.
This is not, by the way, a deficiency in anyone’s reading of scripture, nor is it a deficiency in Paul’s writing. Rather this is the genius of Paul. Whatever your struggle is, whatever your sin or your selfishness is, Paul is talking to you.
Because I don’t know about you, but there sure are times when I don’t understand my own actions, when I do they very thing that I hate.
I don’t understand why it is that I study and pray with the Gospel and yet I tolerate what Dorothy Day called the dirty, rotten system. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in my neighbour must sleep on the street. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in which my neighbour’s encounters with the police are regularly terrifying. I don’t understand – and I speak these words as the owner of shiny new iPhone – why I tolerate dirty, rotten the system in which my neighbour who built that iPhone is working in conditions straight out of the horrors of a Dickens novel.
I don’t understand why anyone tolerates a dirty, rotten system that is more or less okay with a pile of more than a hundred thousand bodies from COVID-19 so that we can tell stories of facile economic optimism.
Just like Paul, I am hurting. Just like Paul, I am confused.
This is where we began.
The Son of Man came eating and drinking,
and they say,
a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!
This is one of my favourite things that Jesus ever says in scripture. This is the moment when Jesus reveals that likes going to parties so much that his critics give him heat for it. This is the moment when, all of those oil paintings and sculptures of super-serious Jesus notwithstanding, we discover that Jesus loves wine and bread and being with you and being alive.
Jesus is a party animal.
This is not a triviality. Because joy, delight, curiosity, wonder, playfulness – they will change the world. The dirty rotten system that I was talking about a second ago – the system of sin and selfishness – cannot deal with joy. Because joy asks it dangerous questions.
The system relies on the God damn lie that our neighbours are less than human, that they are something less than the very image of God. But joy will have none of that. In sharing a party, in sharing in the holiness of a meal, joy sees us bonded together in delight. Our mutual humanity becomes inescapable, undeniable.
The system relies on the God damn lie that the exploitation of the earth, of its creatures, of our fellow human beings is the price of admission for a healthy economy. But joy laughs at that. And the system, just like the devil, withers before laughter. Joy knows about mutual thriving and vitality without exploitation.
The relies on the God damn lie that that it is inevitable, that it is like the sun rising in the morning, that there is no way that things could be different. But joy, delight, playfulness ask that childish and wonderful question:
Why do things have to be as they are?
Joy dreams of another world.
Jesus is at the table. There is a feast all around him: bread and wine and more. He is there with the tax collectors; with the sinners; with the people you saw sleeping on the street, homeless no more; with the immigrants, with the guy wearing the MAGA hat – who is seriously confused as to what he is doing at this party, but who is starting to have fun in spite of himself – with the trans kid, looking fierce and fabulous in her new dress; with your lonely neighbour; with everyone.
If you want, with you. There is a place for you at the table.
Jesus is drinking and eating and telling and listening to stories and laughing hard.
There is joy. Joy enough for everyone.