I mentioned the word “joy.” As in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing…”as in the Gospel of John: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full…” as in the Book of Acts: “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit…” as in Paul’s recitation of the fruits of the Spirit for the Galatians: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Remember the prayer at the time of confirmation, when we affirmed our Baptism? “Stir up in your people the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence.”
It was Jewish rabbi, actually, who reminded me. I was a young pastor, teaching 5th graders and their families about Holy Communion and because of its connection to Passover, I invited a rabbi to speak. He spoke of the Jewish history, and the event of the exodus from Egypt that is celebrated every Passover. And he spoke of the fun they had in his family, the laughter and joy. One of the parents questioned whether that wasn’t sacrilegious, to seemingly make light of such an important event. But this is how the rabbi answered, “Oh, he said, we take this very seriously, and it is for that reason we refuse to take it somberly. You see there is a difference between serious and somber.” And then he added, “with all due respect, I wonder sometimes if you Christians really get it, because if you did, why do you act so somber with your Sacrament. If you truly understood the freedom it offers, wouldn’t you be filled with joy and excitement?”
Do we truly believe that in Christ’s dying, our sins once and for all have been forgiven? Do we believe that the message of Easter is that as Christ has risen from the dead, one day we will arise to a new and eternal life, that Christ has already accomplished that for us? Do we really believe that we are saved by grace through faith, and that such faith is a gift from God, not something we have to find or earn? If this is what we really believe, isn’t it cause for celebration, for thanksgiving, for joy? Do people see that in us?
Paul writes in Romans, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” We rejoice. It’s about joy. The pressure is off. Take that weight off your shoulders. We don’t have to save ourselves. We don’t have to spend our life impressing God. We never could anyway. And quite frankly, there are enough people out there keeping track of all the sinners in the world. We get to speak about reconciliation…and forgiveness…and rebirth. We get to speak about hope and joy.
I have shared with some of our pastors that as I look ahead to this year and 2013, I have come to the realization that quite frankly, I haven’t been very good at practicing joy lately. How often I have found myself trapped by the concerns that have surrounded the church in recent years…controversies…anger…fear. And too often, I feel, that yoke that is around my neck, that stole, as a burden…it becomes so heavy. I forget, you see, that it is really Christ’s yoke and that he would remind me that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. But how easily I forget.
It was just a month ago that I, along with Bishop Anderson from the Southwestern Minnesota Synod, were invited to speak to a group of pastors at Gustavus Adolphus College. Their theme was “rediscovering joy in ministry.” Bishop Anderson and I spent considerable time just telling stories, stories of joy in our years of ministry. And that is when it hit me – I had forgotten that joy. Ministry for me has been such a blessing, every call a surprising gift from God. To be invited into the lives of so many, called into the most unique circumstances, watching God perform miracle after miracle, being entrusted with proclaiming the life changing message of the Gospel. What a privilege.
When our oldest daughter was married, she asked me to perform the ceremony. I told her I couldn’t; it would just be too emotional. But her godfather was a pastor. He could do it. And that way I could walk her down the aisle and sit safely with her mother during the ceremony. “But dad,” she said, “you have to. You just have to marry me.” And so I gave in…and as I told others, “I have to marry my daughter.”
About that time, Walt Wangerin was writing a column in The Lutheran magazine. And in one of his articles, he told of his daughter being married. But this is how he explained it, “…and I get to marry her.” Notice, “I get to marry her,” not “I have to marry her.”
It hit me between the eyes. I wrote Wangerin a letter thanking him for reminding me of the difference between law and Gospel, the difference between “having to” marry my daughter and “getting to” to marry my daughter.
I had forgotten that these past few months. These opportunities for ministry. Too often I had thought in terms of what I “had” to do rather than what I “get” to do. It is the difference between law and Gospel. It is the difference between “going to work” and “practicing joy.”
So this coming year I am going to focus on “practicing joy.” I will continue to visit as many of you as I can, in your congregations, in your communities. I find great joy in worshiping with you, joining in your special gatherings, dreaming about missional ministry, finding creative ways to turn challenges into God given opportunities. Some exciting work has begun in this past year with family ministry and congregational mission planning, and we’re going to keep at it. And I am also going to make it to a lutafisk dinner or two (I haven’t for a few years) And wash some dishes with a congregation at their county fair restaurant. And take in a Twins game with our congregation on Lutheran night. And spend a few days of continuing education with some of our pastors, in what Luther would call “the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints.” And attend a congregational celebration, not to preach, but just as a guest. I’ve told some of our pastors I would love to come and just worship in your congregation. You have heard me preach enough. I would love to hear you.
Practicing joy: a description of the early Christians, one of the fruits of the spirit, and, I pray, a testimony to God’s mercy and grace in the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I thank you for the joy of ministry you have offered me these past years. I invite you to continue with me “practicing joy” in this coming year.