Thursday, 05 May 2016 00:00

"Light and Joy", May 1, 2016

“Light and Joy”
Psalm 97
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 1, 2016
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

The First of May, May Day.  

The International Worker’s Solidarity Day.  Labor Day for the rest of the world. Did the US move it to the first Monday in September to not be so associated with socialism?

May Day, when Morris Dancers are up before dawn beckoning Spring to invade and pervade our lives—all that good pagan celebratory energy.  Dancing with bells and ribbons and sticks and laughter.

May Day when the counterculture is alive and well in Powderhorn Park and the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater is on full display with their teaming hoards of people who have been cooped up inside for too long.

May Day, when indigenous people mark the change of seasons with ceremony and prayers by the river, keeping an ancient tradition alive and pondering the ever-flowing waters of life.

May Day, when students can taste the end of the semester, torn as they are between being outside and enjoying the weather or being inside and actually getting decent grades.

May Day, when we try to tackle the gardens once again after getting rained out last weekend.

May Day: when you and I say farewell for 12 weeks and we welcome our Sabbatical Interim Pastor Anita Hill.

To everything there is a season.  And this is the season of light and joy. It’s May Day.

Some of you have said, “You must be looking forward to being away from us.”  That’s not the case. I will not miss the being on call at all hours for the day to day maintenance of the building and the need to come up with something interesting and relevant each and every week.  But I will certainly miss you, because you are all dear to me. And I trust that you will have a wonderful time, just as I will.  We’ll reunite in a dozen weeks and we will have learned some things, maybe just how much we depend on each other.  We might even learn that we don’t have to do things the same way because of habit. We can try something new.  We can use some dormant muscles.

This will be a season of discovery. I’ll take some time to sing and enjoy some family time here and away from here.  I look forward to a season of light and joy.

I used to love to backpack. I had profound God-experiences on the trails of my youth and young adulthood. But I haven’t done much of it in the past 25 years. I have camped a little every year, but from a car, not what I can carry. You have to make different choices about what is essential. What you want verses what you need. I know I won’t be able to carry what I did in my 20’s. But I also have a different kind of wisdom at this ripe older age. I look forward to integrating these two selves and seeing what that reveals.

Maybe I’ll take Rumi’s advice as I traverse the Superior Hiking Trail:

I HAVE COME TO SHINE (translated by Shahram Shiva)

I have come to take you by your hand, and bring you to myself.
I have come to shine your way as you walk this path.
I will make you guiltless, I will make you fearless, then I will place you in the brightest point in the universe.
I have come like a breeze of spring to your field of flowers, so I can hold you by my side, and embrace you tight.
I have come to take you by your hand, and bring you to myself.
I have come to shine your way as you walk this path.
Like the cry of lovers, I will help you reach the roof of heavens.
From the dust of the earth to a human being, there are a thousand steps.
I have been with you through these steps, I have held your hand and walked by your side.
And I will be with you as you move beyond this human form and soar to the highest heavens.

That’s good advice.

I took the title for this sermon from the 11th verse of today’s Psalm.  “Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.” (2x)  How do we nurture and expect that light and joy?  How do we tend the soil so that light and joy can grow?  

May Day is all about light and joy.

What brings you joy?  For some of us it is light itself.  The longer days and the sunshine is nature’s antidote to Seasonal Affective Disorder.

For others, joy comes in flowers, music, justice, nature, friends, peace, family, a sense of purpose, or a combination of two or more of them.

Light gets us through the dim places of our lives.  Light feels like relief.

I imagine standing like John Muir of old, beholding a sunset.  Here’s what he said:

“I witnessed one of the most glorious of our mountain sunsets.  Not one of the assembled mountains seemed remote—all had ceased their labor of beauty and gathered around their parent sun to receive the evening blessing, and waiting angels could not be more hushed.  The sun himself seemed to have reached a higher life as if he had died, and only his soul were glowing with rayless, bodiless Light; and as Christ said to his disciples, so this departing sun’s soul said to every precious beast, to every pine and weed, to every stream and mountain, “My peace I give to you.””

With all of this in mind, let us turn our attention to the Psalm and see what leads up to the light and joy that abounds.

The psalmist is writing to a people that are too oppressed by the sovereign and are at their wits’ end.  It is either during the exile or just before it.  It’s the winter of their constant discontent and they long for the sigh of spring.

The Psalmist begins with these words, “Rejoice YHWH is King.”

When Israel was first founded as a nation, the great genius of it was that the only sovereign they recognized was God. Things went well, until they decided that they wanted to be like the other nations. And they asked God to grant them the ability to select a king. God reluctantly agreed and the people soon regretted the decision. The Bible is chock full of stories about good kings and bad kings. Power, it seems, corrupts.  I have watched a few episodes of Game of Thrones.  There hardly is a good or bad sovereign that lasts.  It’s a gore-fest and people are drawn to it. It asks the question, where is power if not by the sword?

The Psalm was written in a time when people had kings that they could not respect, kings who took away land, kings who killed with impunity, kings who taxed without representation, kings who made shady deals with other kings and the peasantry had to succumb to the results of such deals, kings who fought war after war after war, robbing generations of their lives, like pawns in a global chess game—all sacrifice to protect the King.  Does any of this sound familiar?  

The psalmist says “Rejoice, for God is your sovereign.”  It means you are not to be beholden to the earthly king or queen.  God is the ultimate sovereign.  It means you dance to a different tune. You are beholden to a different sovereign. Your body may be bound, but your soul is free.  And the heavenly sovereign is more faithful than the earthly ones.

In contrast to the sovereigns of the world, God is described as having righteousness and justice around the divine throne. (v.2) In Revelation the angel chorus sings “Worthy is the lamb that was slain.”  Not worthy is the earthly king who did the slaying.  God’s throne is worthy of praise, not human thrones.

The heavens proclaim God’s righteousness, and all people behold God’s glory. (v. 6) Think of the blooming trees and gardens, the rainbow after the storm, the sunrise and sunset that happens each day, no matter what happens on the earth.

All people who worship worthless idols are put to shame (v.7).  Those who worship the gods of dollar signs, oil futures, real estate deals, even candidates or party platforms.  All of these gads bow down before YHWH.  There is another reality really in charge.

God loves those who hate evil (v10). It doesn’t say God hates evil people.  God hates evil—the attitude that creates enemies, the attitude that uses violence and abuse as its tools.  God hates this practice and encourages us to embrace what is good.

One of the tenets of nonviolence is that people are not evil. Actions are evil. So we focus on the actions of our opponents, but not the dignity of their souls.  All souls are worthy of respect.  Evil actions are not.  Hate evil actions, not evil people.

Anne Lamott wrote that you can be sure that you have created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do. One of our core jobs as followers of God is to preserve the world from evil—to point each other in a better direction.

If you want to know God, think of light and joy. (v.11) “Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.”

Light is a reflection of God.  Joy is the feeling that God’s presence provokes.

Light is a reflection of color. It is truth.  When I was in San Francisco, there was so much suspicion in publicly funded programs that they enacted laws to make sure that the work and the spending and even the business meetings were out in the open. They called these sunshine ordinances.

Sunlight is what warms the ground and makes the flowers bloom in the spring.  We can’t survive without enough of it. And too much of it makes us burn.  So we seek balance.  When we speak of something as light, it denotes ease and freedom.  
Light dawns or is sown for the righteous.  Jesus is called the light and the righteous see that light. The light is the life of all the nations.

We sang, come live in the light.  We are called to bring hope to the hopeless…

And we celebrate the light on May Day: the light in all its glory, the light and hope for us all. I was listening to MPR this past week and heard the familiar strains of Gustav Holst’s The Planets.  They played the Jupiter movement.  Jupiter is the bringer of jollity according to Holst’s the Planets.  It’s often the brightest of the planets in the night sky. Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.

Joy is knowing your direction. It’s always out there, as a goal.  It’s an ideal.  And it happens when you are in sync with God. It’s not about happiness.  Happiness is fleeting and temporary.  Joy is knowing who you are and who you are called to be.  Joy is knowing that God is sovereign, which means that whomever we elect is not.  It means that advertisers and the corporate controlled media and even the mores of society do not have the last say.  Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.

The Psalmist calls us to celebrate life.  May we do so with abundance and joy.

I hope and pray that the next 12 weeks will be filled with light and joy for all of you.  You have a great light in Anita who will lead you with wisdom and grace.  

You have great light in the courage of this congregation and the ways in which you care for each other, for the earth, and for this world of ours.  In a day and age when people are hungry for hope, you don’t just spout platitudes.  You go deeper and find the grace, the light, the living word of God for such a time as this.

This church is a beacon of light. It provides hope and respite and sustenance for a neighborhood and a people in need of guidance.  Nurture that light.

Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart. I hope you experience some joy in these weeks, too.  

Enjoy the sunshine; tend the gardens and see what grows.

Enjoy a summer breeze and watch the wildlife around you.

But let not just natural beauty be your joy.  

Work for joy by treating each other with dignity.  

Work for joy by celebrating successes and learning from missteps.  

Experience the joy that comes when you take a risk because it is right.  

And know that when we do such things that there are others who prayerfully support us.  

Experience the joy that comes from singing with all your heart, and loving with all your might.  

Light and joy are contagious.  Share them and help them to grow.

As the hymnwriter says:

Praise to the living God, the God of love and light,
Whose word brought forth the myriad suns and set the worlds in flight:
Whose infinite design, which we but dimly see,
Pervades all nature, making all a cosmic unity.

Praise to the living God, who knows our joy and pain,
Who shares with us our common life, the sacred and profane.  
God toils where-e’er we toil, in home and mart and mill,
And deep within the human heart, God leads us forward still.

Praise to the living God, around, within, above.  
Beyond the grasp of human mind, but whom we know as love.
In these tumultuous days, so full of hope and strife,
May we bear witness to the Way, O Source and Goal of life.