Sunday April 7, 2019
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: The Very Rev. Stephen Cherry
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
There is something especially powerful about Paul's letter to the Philippians. He wrote it from prison and yet it is full of joy and it brims over with happiness. This was not because prison life was soft in those days, but because happiness for Paul came from within. A changed man after his encounter with Christ, Paul no longer thought that happiness, fulfillment or peace of mind came as a result for what he did or achieved or earned. He knew that it came from within; that it was a gift of grace.
I wonder whether you have a feel for the improbable happiness to which Paul in prison is such an eloquent witness. And whether you do or not, I wonder whether you regard it as a spiritual matter - a subject fit for the pulpit? A subject fit for Lent?
It was there in the Psalm:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
There is a tinge of sadness about these verses, though, because they are not about happiness now but happiness then. Those bygone happy days now seem like a dream world, so the Psalmist confesses, and yet the memory is real: back in the day we were overflowing with laughter and joyful exuberance.
Our Eucharistic faith is in good part expressed in remembrance; but just as we remember the self-giving of Christ in order to make it present today, so we should remember the grace of God in order to bring joy into our hearts, and thence into our world, today.
In fact, I'd suggest that this is a spiritual duty, though not always an easy one. Remembrance of happiness past can sometimes make us miserable about the disappointments or inconveniences of the present day. But nostalgia isn't a virtue; nostalgia isn't a strength. Certainly there are moments when we should grieve the passing of the past, but there are far more occasions when we should delight in the present-ness of the present.
One of the reasons Buddhism is proving to be so attractive to western people today is its calm and peaceful acceptance of life in the present moment. Practices of mindfulness, which have proved to be so healing and life-enhancing to many, are derived from precisely this insight and conviction. But it isn’t just a Buddhist idea. What that tradition has called the 'eternal now' our own Christian tradition calls 'The Sacrament of the Present Moment'. The past and the future are important - but you only ever get one chance to inhabit each present moment and discover its sacramental quality; its particular gift and grace.
Let us return for a moment to Paul's letter to the Philippians and note that the happiness that animates this letter is more than a jolly feeling. Paul is delightedly aware of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord. It's this that puts everything else in perspective. Beside it, everything else is 'rubbish'. He's overstating things here, but I imagine him waving his arms dramatically as he makes the point, and perhaps smiling too. 'Come on', he might have written, 'true faith puts a smile on your face because it clarifies how very little we have to be anxious about.' And happiness is often the absence of anxiety.
An opinion piece in the Financial Times on Friday explored the puzzle that while there is a correlation between happiness and wealth, that correlation stops once people become reasonably well off. If we think about this a bit it makes sense to us, and maybe we know people for whom excessive wealth is a burden. What's odd is that this reality doesn’t stop some wealthy people doing all they can to become more and more wealthy.
This is an example of the spiritual sickness of insatiability - the inability to know when enough is enough; the desire to have more when you already have plenty. It’s a common malaise. We are so easily addicted to more: more food, more drink, more money, more treats, more gadgets at home, and all of us would like more time - more hours in the day, more days of the week, more years in our life. (A man aged eighty-four was asked by a cheeky boy, 'but who wants to be eighty-four?' The old man paused and answered, 'someone who's eighty-three'.)
Too many of us, perhaps all of us, are addicted to more. It would be too much to say that the word 'more' is the devil's word, but it is certainly not Paul's word from prison - why? - because he was living with a sense of the surpassing value of one thing. Knowing Christ Jesus as Lord was for him the pearl of great price. It was his spiritual treasure and it put all other 'treasure' in the shade, and delivered him deep joy and gladness.
Mary - the sister of Martha and Lazarus - was in a similar zone, so to speak, when she cracked open that alabaster jar full of spikenard, and lavishly anointed Jesus with it. This essential oil is derived from Himalayan plants and traditionally has culinary, health-giving and sacred uses. Maybe the family had hidden the pot away, saving it for a special occasion - like that bottle of vintage champagne that's been in your fridge for ages. It would have cost a bomb, and she blew it all in one go.
It's so sad that Judas didn't share the joy. It certainly was an outrageous thing to do, but it was too late to protest. That oil wasn’t going back in its shattered bottle. But this was too much for the treasurer. For Judas, it was the beginning of the end.
We remember them both, and most of us would prefer to be remembered as a Mary than as a Judas.
But we won't be unless we are prepared to let happiness and joy emerge from the heart of our being and the heart of our faith; faith in the undeserved and un-earnable grace of God, and joy in the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.