Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Third Sunday of Lent.
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
This week my seminary hosted a conference called “Play-ology: Experiencing God through the Art of Play.” When I first saw it advertised, I wanted to go—but then saw that it was during Lent.
Well, that’s not right, I thought to myself. There’s no crying in baseball, and no time for playing around during Lent.
But despite my liturgical misgivings, I did tune in the weekly chapel service, and within about three minutes, I was nearly doubled over in laughter. And oh, how I needed that.
As worship services go, it was cheesy. Hokey. Clunky. Unsophisticated. Some might have even said irreverent.
But oh, it was joyful.
They started by making a joyful noise. And not with the staid, balanced notes of a choir, but with whoops and hollers and claps and laughter and stomping feet. It was the sound that the crowd makes at the homerun or touchdown, or when the comic hits the punchline, or when the underdog wins the nomination. Real, actual joy. Not the sanitized joyful noise we so often offer to God.
As I watched the livestream, I noticed how people looked around at each other, as if to check that it was okay to make such a ruckus. Some of the laughter was a little embarrassed from these venerable scholars and pastors. But I also noticed how people drew a closer to each other, how their posture loosened. As much as I enjoyed the livestream, I found myself aching to be there, where the most joy was.
I’d been meaning to preach about joy this week. It’s right there in our psalm—“my mouth praises you with joyful lips… in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.” But with my head buried in the somber seriousness of Lent, and with my newsfeed covered in news of war and fear and anger, I was having trouble with the topic. Maybe I needed to focus on a different part of the psalm: the thirst and exhaustion of the first verse, or the power and glory of God’s provision.
But if I have learned anything, it is when I most shy away from joy that I am most in need of it.
It’s not just that I’m a stick in the mud—although I can be—but because, spiritually speaking, joy can feel irresponsible.
I remember some years ago watching a British talk show because I liked some of the actors appearing on it. It was one of those shows where all the guests talk together, and at the end of the couch was a comic, clearly not as famous as everyone else, clearly kind of nervous. He didn’t get a lot of airtime, but when asked about his comedy show, he answered,
“It’s generally about happiness and how hard I find it; it’s quite hard to be happy. I feel guilty about happiness because I turn the news on and horrible things have happened. And it feels like the news is going, “Oh, you had a nice picnic, did you? Someone died.” And you can’t just not watch the news so it’s this constant battle of almost feeling like I have to be miserable to empathize with the world.”
I don’t know anything else about this comic or his work, but in that moment I found myself shouting YES! THAT! at my computer screen. That’s it exactly! In a world of pain, happiness feels thoughtless and cruel. Unchristian, even.
But it’s not true. There is a false duality between compassion and happiness that says “only ignorance can be bliss.” But we are allowed a deeper humanity than that. It is possible to have compassion for the sufferings of the world and still to root ourselves deeply in the joy of God.
Our God is not a joyless God. Our God emanates joy.
Too often we have portrayed Lent as a time only to enter into the sufferings of Christ with some minor suffering of our own, like forgoing soda or chocolate; some years ago a colleague decided to offer a Lent of Joy series in her church, and I almost had a physical reaction of disgust. That’s wrong! I thought. Lent is for sadness. Lent is for misery.
But a few years older and wearier, and I see what she was doing. Christ does invite us to take up our cross, and to suffer for the gospel; but at the same time to enter his joy, and to make his joy complete. In the gospel of John, in Jesus’ last conversation with his disciples, his final words before setting his face to the cross, he tells them, “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete.”
Our psalmist today says “my soul is satisfied with you as with a rich feast.” What if, one year or other, we feasted for Lent? Feasted on the goodness of God, however that comes to us—in dove chocolate bars, in long walks in springtime, in real rest, in making art, in singing in the shower, in forgiving others, in forgiving ourselves—what it would be like if let Lent be a time for feasting? What if we went all in on the joy of God, for a season, for a week, even for a day?
There is a joy in following in the way of Christ, and not just a theoretical one. There is a dancing, singing, hooting, hollering joy of being part of the people who are loved, and who love.
Whenever I am having trouble reconciling this tension, I think back to the marches for racial justice in the Martin Luther King Jr era; the way they sang, the way they cheered, the way they danced and laughed. It was a harrowing time, a horrifying time; and yet they pushed forward with joy. Joy that the God they trusted would make a way, and they would be ready to walk it.
So I wasn’t surprised to find a beautiful quote about joy by Cole Arthur Riley this week. Cole is the creator of Black Liturgies, where she writes prayers and pieces for worship that follow in this legacy of being joyful, being thankful, being full of praise even before the world is perfect, even before everything falls into place. In her first book, she writes, “Joy doesn’t replace any emotion; it holds them all and keeps any one of them from swallowing us whole. Society has failed to understand this. When it tells us to find joy in suffering, it is telling us to let it go, to move on, to smile through it. But joy says, hold on to your sorrow. It can rest safely here.”
Joy says, let your sorrow rest here.
That’s the piece that I missed for so long. Joy and sorrow, happiness and empathy, they are not enemies. Joy welcomes sorrow as a houseguest it can take care of.
We are not horrible, shallow, thoughtless people for dancing while a world burns. We are dancing because we know it will not burn forever. We are dancing because we follow the One who can put out the flames.
There’s a common prayer in Christian circles: “God, break my heart for what breaks yours.” I love that one. It’s a way of asking God to focus our attention, to give us compassion, to help us empathize. Break our heart for what breaks yours.
But an equally important prayer is this: “God, heal our heart with what heals yours.”
Heal our heart with what heals yours.
So this week, as you go out into the world, I give your permission—no, I give you direction—to rejoice. To look for what gives God joy—acts of peace, signs of love, glimpses of beauty, growing relationships, steady faith, open hearts. Look for what gives God joy, and when you find it, rest there a minute. Rest in the joy, and let it connect you to God who is joy.
And once your heart is full, full to overflowing, let it spill out with joyful compassion, until all the world rejoices in what you’ve found.
 Arthur, Riley C. This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us, 165. New York: Convergent, 2022.