“Come, share in my joy!”
Last week, in the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, we were given an image of the Christian life as a life of joy. Perhaps because Jesus knew how difficult it is for us to truly embrace the idea that we are called to share in the joy of God, he tries in the Parable of the Talents, to make the same point in another way.
As honest as you can be with yourself, how joyful do you feel right now?
From where I sit, our culture has made a fundamental error in how we think about what is most important in life. How often have you said or heard someone else say, “I just want to be happy” or “I just want my children or grandchildren to be happy?” This is obviously not a bad intention. But, it falls short of Christ’s deeper wisdom.
In this culture, we often think that the pursuit of my own happiness is the purpose of life. Perhaps this notion, in part, comes from our national heritage. We have been taught to embrace the words from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Somewhere along the line came a familiar way of thinking: To be happy, you must excel in school, get a good, well-paying job, marry, and have a family. If you do these things, then you will be happy. (Of course, notice that happiness is contingent upon being successful now to achieve a happiness that will come sometime in the future.) These basic steps in life, the “American Dream,” is seen by many as the path to individual happiness. (This idea is closely related to the nearly unquestioned American belief in the theory of Adam Smith – the father of modern economics, who believed that the best economic benefit for all can usually be accomplished when individuals act in their self-interest. We’ll leave the critique of Smith’s ideas for another time.)
Although the American Dream is not a bad path – it has inspired better life standards for generations of Americans – it misses the fuller picture of what actually brings us joy and how we are called by God to live. The American ideal also omits the very real challenges of succeeding in school, finding one’s vocation and partner, paying a mortgage and raising children, especially in the era of Covid. If this is indeed the path to happiness, why – even prior to COVID – are so many Americans miserable?
Today’s reading offers a different perspective. If we want to share in the joy of the Lord, we must have lives of purpose. And what is our purpose as Christians? To invest all of who we are – all of the blessings we have been endowed with by our Creator – to love and serve our God and one another. Our true happiness does not derive from looking out merely for number one. It flows when we share our gifts for the benefit of others. When we use our God-given blessings in the Lord’s service, we can find a joy that is deeper than the vicissitudes of our earthly life.
The good and faithful servants recognized that they were on God’s team, blessed by God, receiving all they needed and more, so much more, to accomplish the mission they had been given. All too often, especially when we are young, we make the mistake of looking at someone we think is more blessed or talented than we are and begin losing sight of our very real blessings. We need to remember that no matter what we have been given, if we use it in God’s service, the result is the same – we get to share in God’s joy. Too many people waste time comparing themselves to others, when we would be far better served by taking stock of our own blessings and developing what we’ve been given. Joy begins when we recognize what God has given us.
Think of those people you know who exude joy. Are they necessarily those with the most material success? Or those whose talents astound? Are they even those whose lives unfold in the way they would have expected or wanted? No… In fact, some of the most joyful people I know, like my friend Johanna Berrigan, have almost no material success, don’t see themselves as particularly talented, and have faced more twists and turns on the path of life than one would ever imagine. Johanna lives among the poor in Philadelphia, offering healthcare and spiritual care to people on the streets; she is humble about her talents, and a short while ago was released from the hospital after being in the ICU with COVID. But, I guarantee you, if you met her today you would immediately feel her warmth and her joy.
Joy develops when we use our gifts in the service of God. Helen Keller described joy as “the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.” C. S. Lewis referred to joy as “the serious business of Heaven.” In today’s parable, the faithful servants recognized all they had been given and couldn’t wait to get to work. Both are excited to be trusted with such a great treasure—to do something positive. They used all that they had in God’s service. They shared in God’s joy.
Pastor Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” had a profound impact on me when I began my work as a Hospice chaplain. I was reluctant to begin this ministry – I had to be convinced by a number of people that I was the right person for the job. Before beginning as chaplain, I had been the Volunteer Coordinator. In that capacity, I was part of each morning’s briefing. My colleagues used to make fun of me because of the green-grey color that would come over my face as I heard about the particularities of oozing wounds and uncontrollable phlegm – to name a few symptoms that still turn my stomach. How could I ever manage spending my days going into one home after the next with people who had such physically horrible things going on? The spiritual insight Rick Warren gave me made all the difference. Just start the day trying to please God. (2x) Everything will follow from that. And it did. And it still does.
Something else really important happened during my time at Hospice. People kept noticing how joyful I was and they just couldn’t believe that someone working in Hospice could be this way. How can you be so happy when you are doing such depressing work? Yes, I waded in the waters of sadness and grief on a daily basis. It was tough. But, by serving God through caring for others during such a tender time – and serving with others who were likewise dedicated – a well of eternal joy within began to flow, a well of joy deeper than even the sorrow that comes with death.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the servants who share in the master’s joy and the one who is cast into the darkness is how they perceived God and perceived their relationship to God. The third servant fears God. The passage says that he “knew” that the Master was ruthless. How did he know this? What were his sources?
Why does he misunderstand God’s nature? His limited ideas about God result in his limited actions; and things go downhill from there.
The worthless servant fails to recognize what he can do with what he has been given.
He is so concerned with his own security, his own self-interest, that he fails to see that he is called into God’s service. He is so afraid of God that he can’t see the creative possibilities for what he can do with what he’s been given. Fear shuts him and fear shuts us down. His motivation isn’t what he can do to please God; his motivation is what he can do to protect himself. His fear (and ours) has consequences. Because he can’t see himself, his gifts, or God in a full way, his actions create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lacking faith in a generous God, the fearful person also lacks faith in herself. The lesson is clear. If we live within our perceived fears, what we see is what we get.
When we believe and begin to act from a place that recognizes that our God is worthy of trust and that our God trusts us, unimaginable, creative possibilities can unfold. Once we step out and take a risk, we can grow in our confidence in God and in ourselves. When we have the courage to live in the direction of not merely the American dream, but in the direction of God’s dreams for all of us, in the direction of a world where all are invited to share in God’s joy, God empowers us. As the prophet Isaiah says:
God does not faint or grow weary;
With a depth of understanding that is unsearchable.
God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless…
But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Our understanding of who God is and who we are expands exponentially when we shift our focus from making ourselves happy to serving God with all we have been given. We do not know why the third servant has such a truncated, fearful view of God. We don’t know where he learned or why he concluded this. But, he has created a narrative about God and himself that simply isn’t true. It is a dangerous misunderstanding. Sadly, there are people today who continue to hold onto this view.
The good news is that it doesn’t take much to begin to see more about who God is and who we can be. All we need to do is begin by recognizing even one blessing, one talent, and to take the risk of sharing it with someone else. Then we can pause to feel the joy that comes from living in this way, living with purpose. The more we do this, the greater our joy. Our God does not demand that we use what we’ve been given in a prescriptive way. Instead, we can call on the very energy of life to be creators ourselves and in so doing, experience the additional joy that comes with creativity.
God has entrusted you with immeasurable blessings. God believes in you. What can you do to please God today? How does love call you to invest yourself fully? How can you share in God’s joy? Amen.