s054e^96 Somerton Park OS21 25/8/96
"the compassionate, in cheerfulness" Rom 12.8
In the one year - book of Common Prayer - cycle of readings, this reading from Romans was the epistle for the second Sunday after the Epiphany and linked with that gospel, favourite amongst the red wine drinkers, the changing of the 120 to 180 gallons of water into wine. This gives us some clue to the extent to which we should be cheerful. 120 to 180 gallons of wine would cheer the heart of the most sober and earnest amongst us. That is 550 to 820 litres of wine, or 140 to 200 four litre casks - a huge amount! It is a decent size glass for each and every one of 5000 people.
As I said these readings, from Romans and the gospel of John were read on the second Sunday after the Epiphany. We associate "Epiphany" with the story of the Wise Men visiting the baby Jesus. However the Orthodox Church celebrate "Epiphany" as the feast of Jesus' baptism and this is the reason they have the solemn liturgical blessing of the waters on that day with the Bishop throwing the Cross into the sea for the young athletes to race to retrieve. But also "Epiphany" has been celebrated as the turning of the water into the wine, the first of Jesus' signs according to the gospel of John.
The other directions that St Paul lists in the reading bid us take our Christian profession seriously. "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice ... your spiritual worship ... do not be conformed to this world .." All good and serious stuff. But this is linked with the rather carnal and indeed carnival atmosphere of a wedding celebration - by being linked with the miracle at Cana. So not all is doom and gloom and hard work - St Paul adds this note of cheerfulness. In the Greek, it reads <ho eleon en hilarotati>. Those who remember singing the "Kyries" in Greek will recognise the <eleon> as the mercy in <eleason>. But the word which is translated "cheerfulness" is actually the word from which we directly get the English word "hilarious". So its a bit more jovial than just cheerfulness. There can be no seriousness in hilarity.
So my first message for today, is simply to say that fun, laughter, the French would say "joi de vivre", has its part in the Christian life.
However there is to be a second message in today's sermon, for St Paul says: "the compassionate in cheerfulness". Now being good Anglicans we all know that, first and foremost, the person who most frequently shows compassion and mercy, is in fact our heavenly Father. As the "Wee donut" puts it - the Prayer of Humble Access - "You are the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy." So God is not only merciful, but God is always merciful, God never ceases to be merciful, God is continually, forever, even eternally merciful. Now if St Paul's words are good enough for us, they are good enough for God. Far be it for God to disobey St Paul :-) So God is not only always merciful, there is an eternal hilarity associated with God's mercy. And if God is always showing mercy, the divine hilarity is unending.
What a remarkably different picture this gives us of God and heaven - to the traditional one. How many people only look forward to heaven because the alternative offered - "weeping and gnashing of teeth" is somewhat less palatable. To look forward to heaven in the traditional sense is I suspect like being invited to a formal dinner, where one's got to be all dressed up, being on one's best behaviour, deferring to the gentry - when all the time you would prefer to be having a quiet ale or on the golf course. Who would actually want to spend eternity prostrate before the throne of God with an eternal cricked neck as we "gaze" upon God - perhaps the chiropractors amongst us :-)
Inevitably as Christmass comes round each year, we hear of some member of the clergy or other has banned Santa Claus from their kindergarten. I once saw a poster, with pictures of Jesus and Santa on it, with the caption: "Just whose birthday is it anyway?" Yet if we were to think of what mythological or real person who more closely reflects the sort of demeanour of hilarity - it would be Santa not God. What message are we getting across to the world?
I want to suggest that it is at least sad that the "world" has been forced to invent a figure to bring joy into the world. Clearly "the world" has not found God to be this joyful despite centuries of preaching by the Church. Certainly I would be the first to agree that the joy of the Christian faith is based on much firmer foundations than the shallow "ho! ho! ho!" of Santa. But unless we recover some of the hilarity of God, the division between the world and our faith will only widen. If the world continues to fail to find something joyful in the churches witness to God, and joy is something of vital importance to us all, then people will fail to God as God really is, and will (perfectly understandably) fail to be attracted to God or the Church.
So we find that we have something to learn from our secular brothers and sisters. Indeed perhaps we need to repent of the seriousness of our faith and our reluctance to laugh and be happy.
Quite some time ago there was a popular song with the title "Don't worry. Be happy." Have we not something to learn from our teenage sons and daughters?
I remember once a member of the clergy who had a poster in his room which went something like: "Lord, make me remember and confess all of my sins today - I might forget them tomorrow." If this is what being a Christian means, I don't think I actually want to be one. I can cope with most of the eccentricities of our dear Anglican Church, but if we fail to hear God's laughter as he is showing mercy on us, we need our ears cleaning out.
Of course it is not always given to each and every one of us to be happy all the time. I am not wishing to make a virtue out of the particular personality trait of being joyful. What I am saying however is that God is happy and wishes us to be happy. We can't make a virtue out of serious and sad demeanours.
It is a joy to God to forgive us our sins and to pour mercy upon us. We might say it is God's task in life. The Cross, for all its serious implications about the hardness of the human heart, is essentially a joyous act of God, in love for all - for you and for me.
While it might seem that I'm being a bit critical here today, I as much as anyone else have to hear and heed this message. I have come to the conclusion that God calls clergy because we, more than anyone else, find it harder to hear and heed this message, and so we need to here in Church each week. I, and clergy, need as much, if not more than everyone else to be ready to laugh at ourselves and our own seriousness.
For all the serious terminology of the Church and the seriousness of our mission - joy is right at the centre of the message - or it isn't the message at all.
May the chorus of God's eternal laughter and our own resound around the world, that people will indeed stop and hear, rejoice and turn to God, who is our life, our joy and our peace. Amen.
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