It is good be together on this third Sunday of advent, the joy Sunday. I imagine it would be even more joyful if we were together in person but part of joy is anticipation so this is all part of the process. (January 9, when we will be together in the building, is not too far off in the scheme of things.) When I think about being back in the building I remember not only singing with joy, I remember the delight of children who take advantage of their size to see the building from angles that adults don’t access – by crawling under the pews after the service. I remember happening upon the younger set, potluck food already consumed, holding an “afterservice” complete with preaching and song leading from the pulpit. What joy to explore and imitate.
Joy is alive in our congregation and is part of the faith tradition – the word joy appears more often in the bible than justice. And it is not always easy to find or live into joy. Suzanne Wolcott wrote in Anabaptist World this week, “I have learned that joy only makes sense, and light is most desperately sought, when everything seems darkest.” So maybe there is hope for those of us who tend toward depression or take life very seriously or are saddled with perfectionism that seems almost genetic. The prayer from John Philip Newell to “lose ourselves in gladness” may be a necessary mantra for those in an Anabaptist tradition that elevates martyrs and live in a country that reveres the stern Puritans. Dare to Imagine joy – indeed.
Joy is not superfluous, certainly it is not only the “property” of those who can afford it. Joy isn’t about ignoring the hard things of life, it is what we choose when we are reaching toward life. Take Philippians. There is Paul, sitting in prison, writing to the church at Philippi and he doesn’t say, “Look at my misery. Be miserable with me.” He says, “Rejoice. Rejoice! Be gentle, and don’t worry. Be grateful and be honest about your needs. And then in a way that is not really explainable, you will find peace, a mysterious peace from Christ Jesus.” A peace that grows out of joy.
What a contrast to how the gospel of Luke describes John the Baptist’s ministry. Joy? You brood of vipers. It is so startling that for those of us who are sensitive it is easy to miss the mixed metaphors that follow. John goes from snakes to fruit and trees and on to stones that can procreate. (It’s probably the “cliff notes” version with Luke leaving out the connecting parts and going straight for the gripping metaphors.) The crowd is convicted. They have come out to the river to be baptized; they are ready to be changed.
They hear John’s warning, that the axe is imminent if they do not bear good fruit. They hear the threat of fire. They want to change but they cannot quite imagine what good fruit might look like in their own lives, in their particular situations.
Imagination is underrated, it is too often seen as a plaything for children. But we all need imagination, it is necessary for living a full life. It is essential for joy; it is essential for justice. Take for example the delightful videos that Michelle has been making during advent. This is not only for fun. I hope I am not taking the joy out of it by observing that it is a spiritual exercise to which we are invited. Michelle gives us this very bare bones drawing and asks us to imagine what hope looks like, or peace, or joy.
Some of you have very well developed imaginations. You imagine in your mind how those few lines can become something beyond the hints on the page. From scant lines you are able to create volcanos, doves, flowerpots, blooming tree stumps. And you don’t let that little frame hold you back, your imaginations expand right on out of the frame to the edges of space. What joy to share these imagination exercises with each other.
John the Baptist is part of the tradition that uses prophetic imagination to help people see outside the frame of injustice and brokenness that they live within. The snakes, rocks, trees, ax, fire all open the people’s eyes – and hearts. The gathered crowd wants to be good trees that bear fruit. But they can’t imagine what that metaphor means in their own lives. They look at that rough outline of a candle and they can’t quite imagine what joy could look like. So the crowd pushes John to get specific. “You say bear fruit worthy of repentance but what should we do?” John doesn’t miss a beat. “What should you do? If you have two coats, take one and share it with someone who doesn’t have one.” Is that concrete enough for you?
John gets particular with the crowd. But the tax collectors and soldiers are also stumped. They can’t imagine what it looks like for them, what this looming baptism might mean in their lives. This is where we begin to see that John is not the same kind of rabbi as Jesus. John doesn’t take time to tell parables and ask questions and help the people come to their own answers. John just plows ahead and tells them the answer. “Collect only the tax that is owed; no skimming off the top. Don’t bully anyone. Don’t falsely accuse anyone. Be content with your pay.”
These unimaginative tax collectors are quite a contrast to Zacchaeus who meets Jesus later in Luke. Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, famously known for being small in stature, can’t see the preacher, Jesus. From the start we see that Zacchaeus is an outside of the box thinker. Maybe it is because he has gotten used to, as a little person, coming up with an array of alternate options. Instead of shouting and pushing his way to the front of the crowd, he climbs a tree to get a better view. And when he hears the message that challenges him, he doesn’t ask Jesus to tell him what this means for his own life. Zacchaeus has already imagined what he will do. He tells Jesus what he is going to do – give half my belongings to poor people and if I have defrauded anyone I will repay them fourfold. This is way more than what John recommends for the tax collectors that ask him for ideas. Zacchaeus imagines what justice looks like and it brings him joy.
John wraps up his preaching with more harsh language: the winnowing fork, the threshing floor, chaff burnt in unquenchable fire. And this is “Good News.” Luke says, Using exhortations like this, John proclaims Good News to the people. I wonder, the people who stick around be baptized, are they motivated by fear or by possibility, by imagination?
It could be the case that some of the people in the crowd are the ones that need that extra coat, that are sick of being ripped off by tax collectors, and tired of being bullied by soldiers. This is indeed good and joyful news for them. But we know the crowd is a mix of people since the tax collectors and soldiers press John for answers. Maybe it is a relief for everyone to have the hard truth spoken aloud, that the Roman system isn’t working for anybody, not the people who are being bullied and stolen from and not for the people who are put in the position of being the enforcers. Together, this crowd is beginning to imagine that there is another way. John the Baptist is helping them see that life can look different. That is good news and joy will follow.
The truth is though that joy doesn’t have to be what follows. Joy can be what leads. This is what Paul tells us from prison. Start with joy. Rejoice. Dismiss anxiety from your mind by admitting that you can’t do it alone. Then find ways to give thanks, in all circumstances. And peace, God’s peace, will follow. Lead with joy and peace will follow.
We need both approaches to joy, the very personal that Paul describes step by step, leading with joy and finding peace. And we need the Good News that John challenges people to live out, an imaginative justice that finds ways to chip away at the system that wants to suck all the joy from life.
But John the Baptist, what are we to do? What does joyful justice look like for us? This week it looks like sharing our building with Food Justice DMV who will have a toy and clothing give away on Saturday afternoon to which more than 50 immigrant families are invited. If you want to be part of making that happen starting at 11 am on Saturday, let me know.
This Tuesday, it looks like being part of the gathering of local folks that will be joined by people from Faith in Action federations in California, Colorado, New Mexico, New York to once again raise our voices together outside the halls of government power. You are invited to be part of that on Tuesday afternoon. I will drop details in the chat.
Or check the announcements for other ways to share an “extra coat” with LAR, with the Day Center, with children in foster care. So many possibilities for bringing imagination and joy to our work for justice.
One of the joyful things that has been hard to replicate over Zoom or experience in other ways these past 21 months is singing, in the same space. How can something so simple as feeling each other breathe as one, and then making sound together bring such joy? But not just sound, refined and organized sound that connects us to people across time. A breathe and sound that takes us beyond ourselves and yet to our very selves, to the part of each of us that is God within and touches the inexplicable that is God with us in an outward way. Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, Sing to God a new song. What joy.
We must imagine that joy is possible, that joy is accessible for everyone. Deep and sustaining joy is Good. News.
Rejoice. Again I say – imagine joy.