Choose Love, Find Joy

The Rev. Leslie E. Chadwick

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John visit – 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Last weekend, sixty parishioners from St. Tim’s gathered at Shrine Mont for our parish retreat.  The mountains have never looked more beautiful.  Friday night, after a heavy rain, the world was new-washed, the grass, a vibrant green, flowering dogwoods and redbuds in full bloom.  Mountain streams raced by and the setting sun cast shadows over the ridge and made the trees look like a blanket.  Mist and fog unfurled like veils.  The words of Psalm 98 came to life: “Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.  Let the rivers clap their hands, and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord!”

The people from our church were fully alive, too.  The word that describes the mood among us was joy. Children kicked off shoes and socks, rolled up pants, and waded in the streams and lake, trying to catch salamanders and minnows in their net only to release them.  Youth lounged on blankets in the sun watching the children or got in the water to wade with them. Adults laughed and shed tears, deep in conversation with each other about the pain and richness of life.  We sang, prayed, hiked, and ate together.   The pressure was released from our lives for this time and the result was joy:   “Shout with joy before the King, the Lord!”

To share such undiluted shared joy is rare on this earth.  This kind of joy in community and nature seems discordant with what happened in Baltimore less than two weeks ago.  It seems incongruent with the tension and violence that erupt throughout the world on a regular basis.  But our Scripture insists that joy is different from merriness or fleeting happiness. Those emotions change with how we are feeling or what we are experiencing at a given moment.  Joy goes much deeper.  The people who wrote the psalm brought to mind and experienced joy in creation as a sign of God’s sovereignty over all.  They composed and sang this psalm not when all was well, but when they were far from home in exile.  In the gospel, Jesus wills for his disciples a joy that cannot be taken from them no matter what goes awry.  He wills this deep joy for them at a time when things are not going well.  He tells them this the night before he lays down his life for them and is handed over to be crucified.

Half a century later, when this gospel was written, the Evangelist John addressed a community also going through hard times.  We hear hints of their difficulties in the text. A few verses after our reading, Jesus says, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” He warns them not to stumble and predicts, “they will put you out of the synagogues.”  In spite of this discord, Jesus insists that the way to find the joy he promises is to choose love. Choose love in the face of hatred.  Choose love in the face of persecution.  Choose love in the face of uncertainty and fear.  Jesus himself did that from start to finish.  He reminds them, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”  I chose to love you first.  God chose to love you before you were born.  Not because you deserved it.  Not because you were perfect or because circumstances were optimal.  And because God loved you first, you can love one other.  You act in love not powered under your own steam, but by staying connected to the unending love of the living God.

In short, Jesus’ promise is “Choose love and find joy.”  That may seem impossible in this life.  Yet when we try to live out this command to love, we find ourselves not imprisoned by the impossible, but miraculously set free.  We find ourselves not pressured by something unattainable, but empowered to accept ourselves and others.  Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this commandment very well.  He knew that love was a choice.  Love is a choice not based on our feelings or circumstances; it brings about an inner joy and peace that transcend circumstances and feelings.  King writes, “I have decided to stick with love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear.”  This decision to love is not a decision to escape unpleasantness.  It’s not a decision to close our eyes to the injustice of a broken system, ignore tension, or to pretend that nothing is wrong.  It is a choice to act over and over with that principle of love guiding us:  King denounced willful ignorance, and silence in the face of wrongs; he urged people to see each other as brothers and sisters:  “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

So how can we, the Church, choose love in the face of problems that seem irreconcilable in our society?  We can educate ourselves instead of having knee-jerk reactions.  We can look head-on at the history behind what is going on in Baltimore and other places of unrest. The gospel does not promote one ideology over another.  God’s word is a living word, a double-edged sword, resisting our attempts to wield it as a weapon.  Jesus urges us to stay awake: to be conscious and intentional about acting in love.  To do that, we have to acknowledge inequities.  To listen without judgment to each other’s stories.  Starting from there, we can discern what is ours to do to act and find a way forward with God’s help.

Finding a way forward can seem daunting in the face of systemic problems like socioeconomic disparity, racism, and polarization.  But we do not have to take big steps to choose to act in love.   In a few minutes, we will commission the Lakota Team.  This team sees poverty and cycles of despair every time they make their pilgrimage to the reservation; but they go back year after year in love.  They experience a deep joy and find that joy in the friends that they’ve made there.  A website called posted some photos from Day Two of the riots in Baltimore.   The website assumed that everyone saw the acts of violence, but wondered how many of us were aware of acts of kindness and unity going on at the same time.  The post asks, “Have you seen the images of hundreds people coming together in the streets to sing Amazing Grace?  Or the guy putting himself between police and demonstrators to prevent a clash?  Or the African American Baltimore youth out in the street giving bottles of water to police? Or the activists feeding kids who weren’t getting lunch because schools were closed?  Or rival gangs coming together?

Jesus urges us all, “Choose love and find joy.”  Whether or not everything is neatly resolved, we can act in love one step at a time.  Jesus commands us, “Love one another as I have loved you.  I have said these things to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”