From Despair to Joy
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “God Transforms Reality”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
February 21, 2021
Mark 12:28-34 NRSV
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Love God, love neighbor. Easy! So why is it so hard? Why do we have so much hate in our society today? Why do we have so many saying they love God while wanting to kill anyone who is different? Why have we become so divided, so angry with each other?
I think that a lot of this comes from a sense of despair. We have created social structures that have turned us from citizens of one nation into tribes. We no longer agree on any common good. I fear that is because that requires sacrificing some privileges for the sake of others. Sadly, a certain segment of our society believes that any sacrifice of personal privilege is a sign of socialism, communism, the devil or whatever. We have no sense of a common understanding of what democracy means as a nation and that is a frightening situation. I think this has led to a deep despair. And I think that despair has led to the destructive actions of groups of people and to a general unrest of this nation.
People fall into despair when they believe there is no hope. People feel there is no hope when they feel powerless over their own lives, their future, their destiny. A lot of people feel that way, many for justifiable, understandable reasons, many others for self-inflicted reasons. One of the observations by social scientists about those who participated in the Capitol riots on January 6 was that one motivation was a sense of wanting to be part of something big and important and to feel part of something meaningful. Like teens joining street gangs despite the risks of drugs, violence, prison, and death, they needed some sense of being part of community, and any community is better than no community. This seems to speak to the question about the greatest commandment that the scribe asks Jesus about in our Scripture reading this morning.
Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment and gives a “two-fer” answer. He gives two commandments for the price of one. Love God – that’s one. And love your neighbor is really more than one, so Jesus’ answer is really way more than a “2 for 1.” It is one commandment that really lumps about 6 of the commandments together. Of the ten commandments 6 of them relate to how we “love our neighbor.” Honor father and mother, do not murder, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness against your neighbor, or covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, or anything else that belongs to them. These are pretty simple. What gives me trouble is the way Jesus expands that definition of “loving your neighbor.”
The Gospels tell us that throughout his ministry Jesus broke down the barriers to who qualified as my “neighbor.” First, he expands the definition to include people of other religions, races, and social classes – remember the “Good Samaritan?” Then he goes on to not just suggest, not even to recommend, but to make a commandment that I serve others as if I were their servant – to even sacrifice my own welfare to be sure that the neighbor is treated not just “ok,” but top of the line. Again, do I need to tell you the story of the Good Samaritan, or are we all on the same page? Ugh! Talk about despair! How can I possibly live up to that expectation, that commandment?
Well, the truth is I often fail, and when I do, that is actually a bad feeling. So as I thought about this, I began to realize that the times when I do what Jesus said I have a very different feeling, that in fact, rather than a sense of despair that I am not a good Christian, I get a sense of joy that serving others really is one of the most powerful ways to live. So with that in mind I want to explore how this passage of Scripture shows us the way to transform despair into joy.
I believe when we turn from the false narrative that we are powerless over our situation we will find greater joy. I believe the power that we have is not the power that comes from anger, hate, and violence. I believe those are false and destructive powers that do not lead to joy. This may seem obvious, but again, those practices and attitudes have claimed a lot of headlines in our society today. I believe that we have great power, but it comes when we turn from false narratives to truth. I believe the Scriptures reveal the truth of real power. My logic is that if we believe the Scriptures, they tell us Jesus was and is the most powerful being – equal to God. We call him Lord, Savior, Prince of Peace, King of Kings, and many such titles of power. But Jesus, we claim and believe, came in human form. This means that the power that he demonstrated as a human is the same power we have as humans.
Now don’t get confused about what kind of power Jesus had. We are often distracted by the stories of miracles. We think of them as “magic power.” But set those aside for later and let’s talk about the clearly human examples of power that Jesus showed us and called us to do. For example, he stopped to help a poor woman dealing with an illness. Set aside the healing, notice he took time to respond to her, despite his own disciples urging him to send her away. We can do that. When someone is need instead of classifying them as worthless or not worthy of our time, we can stop, respond, treating them as a neighbor. When religious leaders and faithful believers brought a woman to him who they felt deserved to be killed for her actions, he used his power, not to kill, but to make them rethink their religious fanaticism and hypocrisy by inviting any of them without sin to throw the first stone to kill her. Of course, no one did. They rethought their actions. When we see others doing wrong, instead of condemning, seek to understand, strive to befriend and perhaps offer a way to change direction. Build a relationship of grace and mercy. When Jesus was about to be executed at the hands of the Roman state, he gathered his disciples, got down on his knees, took a towel and a basin and washed their feet, telling them this is the ultimate example of power, of greatness, to serve another person as if we are their slave. These things tell me there is great power in serving.
Another way Jesus showed us how we are not powerless is how he gathered a community and worked together for blessing others. He gathered 12 people, very flawed, sinful, uneducated, and often poor examples of doing things his way. He gathered them and taught them and ultimately they followed his example enough that they had the power to transform the Roman world. This tells me that a community gathered to do what is right and good and is focused on serving and blessing is a powerful community. We need not give in to despair, to hate, or to violence. One writer says Jesus called us to be what the “community of the beloved.” We belong to the one who loves us – Jesus Christ – and he was God’s beloved as well.
Rev. Martin Copenhaver, UCC preacher and theologian, [ “The Serious Business of Joy,” January 25, 2017, Day1.org ], says, “Billy Sunday, a famous evangelist of the early twentieth century, observed, ‘The trouble with many people is that they have got just enough religion to make them miserable.’ Billy Sunday concluded, ‘If you have no joy in your religion, there’s a leak in your faith.’
“Some critics of Jesus thought he had the opposite problem-he was too joyful. Jesus and his followers did not fast as often as others did. In fact, Jesus enjoyed food and drink so much that some accused him of being a glutton and a drunk. Beyond that, Jesus just seemed to be having too good a time. There’s got to be something wrong with that, or so concluded some of his contemporaries.” Copenhaver adds, “C.S. Lewis once affirmed that, ‘Joy is the serious business of heaven.’ Jesus obviously thought joy is the serious business of living now, as well.”
Another UCC pastor Rev. Lillian Daniel, [ “Joy is the Intersection of Pleasure and Meaning,” day1.org, December 14, 2016 ], quotes a Harvard psychology lecturer who says that “joy is the intersection of deep pleasure and deep meaning. Joy can occur even in unhappy situations, such as in the midst of a sacrifice.” I would suggest that sacrifice is not always an “unhappy situation.” I believe the example of Jesus Christ reminds us that “sacrifice” is actually the key to the happiness we call “joy.” Let me suggest some examples.
Back when we decided to renovate the house across the parking lot to make it into a transition house for families from Family Promise, you stepped up and sacrificed time, effort, money, experience and leadership to transform that from a nearly unlivable pile of bricks and mortar to a clean, furnished, home that we were proud to have our “neighbors,” from Family Promise live there. These were neighbors some would sneer at as “lazy,” as “unworthy,” as “welfare queens” or worse. Yet you knew they were what Jesus called our “neighbors.” They were people like us who had suffered from bad luck, yes, perhaps had made some bad decisions, and were suffering from that, but that didn’t make them “bad people.” It didn’t make them any less our neighbors. That is the attitude we need to hold on to and hold up for the world around us to see and to learn from and to be transformed by. You and I have the power to join God in transforming the world.
Another example: a few years back JSO was arresting 800 children a year for things like stealing a can of Coke, for getting in a shoving match with another kid on a playground, for underage drinking or smoking marijuana. We decided we had power – as a community of the beloved – to join with other people of faith, faiths very different from ours in some cases to transform our world. We found that using a pre-arrest diversion called “civil citations,” could transform lives. Young people with an arrest record cannot get in to some colleges, into the armed services, can’t work in some jobs. In short, for foolish, nonviolent childish actions their whole lives would be harmed. That is a recipe for despair. But with Civil Citations these youth had the opportunity, not for a free ride or to escape with no consequences, but to transform their lives. They had to accept responsibility for their actions, make restitution to the victim if there was one, and then work a process to learn how to change their behavior. As a result, fewer than 100 children were arrested in the last year of full records. That is transforming despair into joy, because we used our power to transform our community.
These are a couple of ways you have been able to use your power of serving and blessing to transform despair into joy. I want to offer you a Lenten opportunity. In the pews are a few blank note cards. Take one write at the top of it: “I found joy by serving my neighbor.” Then, this week when you see an opportunity to do that, do it, and then write a brief note about it. If you will then either bring the card and put it in the offering plate – anonymously or with your name, up to you – we will post some of these on our Facebook page to encourage others and to serve as an example for them. You folks online can send yours in by email if you would like. Let’s do this as a Lenten discipline. I will remind you each week. Let’s see if we can join God in the work to begin to transform ourselves and our world, and create a habit that goes beyond these forty days of Lent to a lifelong, daily way to transform despair to joy – not only for ourselves but for those we serve!
Jesus Christ invites us to join him in a life of joy. He offers us a way to transform despair to joy. With Jesus we can use the power of serving and blessing others to find meaning, and life, and joy. Shall we follow Jesus? AMEN.