Joy in Heaven
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
September 15, 2019
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 51; Exodus 32:7-14; Luke 15:1-10
This gospel passage has much comfort for us. It is becoming common to hear in the media that humanity is facing an existential threat of our making. Jesus holds out existential hope of God’s making, hope enough to save us from despair and empower us to move boldly toward the change of consciousness, the metanoia, Jesus is calling us to undergo as individuals and as a species.
The surface level of the passage comforts us as individuals by telling us that whenever we are feeling lost in any sense, if we turn to find the sacred way, Jesus will come to us like a good shepherd taking us up in his loving arms and filling us with the joy he feels in our return. That was the way it felt to me the first time I walked through these doors. I had wandered from age 18 to 28 without a church. Ned and Vi Coffin invited me, the Rev. Dana Douglass compelled me and some of you were here and welcomed me with such love and joy that I felt found and held—back on the path with my flock—and it was such a comfort.
It feels like that when we have made a mistake or hurt someone or been captive to an addiction and we find forgiveness and a chance to start again. We feel that found-sheep comfort when we are lost in depression or anxiety, when death or illness or loss have taken away our hope, and we cry out for help and help comes.
There is an old story about a monk who was keeping vigil in the chapel when a crowd of demons swept in and started blowing out the candles and ripping the cushions and destroying everything. The monk was fighting them off, but then Satan himself came and took the monk by the collar and dragged him toward the door. The monk grabbed the doorjamb but his strength was failing. Finally he cried out, “Jesus, have mercy on me!” Instantly the devil and demons were gone and Jesus was standing over him. “Where were you?” the monk asked. Jesus answered, “I was here the whole time. All you had to do was to turn and call.”
Whatever we have done, whatever shape we are in, we have the comfort of this assurance. If we declare ourselves to be on the side of the Spirit and call out, help will come.
There are two deeper levels to this passage, though, that can provide even greater comfort.
The story includes five characters. “Tax collectors” were instruments of oppressive governments. They were greedy, making themselves rich by stealing from poor and working people. They showed no compassion, they did not act with love of neighbor or follow the Golden Rule. They betrayed their people and their God.
“Sinners” could be criminals or people who had neglected religious obligations or they could be people who had a disease or disability. They could be so poor that they were forced to illicit ways to survive. The social and religious establishment coldly rejected all these as cursed by God and impure and treated them as outcasts.
Then you have the “Pharisees” who were proud of their adherence to fundamentalist rules and beliefs that made them feel certain they were blessed in the eyes of God and the establishment. The “scribes” were similar. Their sense of self-worth came from doing important work for religious and political leaders.
The fifth character is “Jesus,” the famous healer and spiritual teacher who could use his power to gain the comfort of all the benefits the establishment can bestow, but who instead turns to the people he is expected to reject and offers them welcome and comfort. He says there is greater joy in heaven when one of them turns to God than there is in all the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes.
Here is the deep comfort. We all have these five characters in ourselves. Some of them we may see but others are lurking in our shadows like Russian operatives working on the internet to manipulate American voters.
We have our inner Tax Collector, a part of us that is selfish and willing to put itself ahead and gain what it wants at any cost. Most of the time we force it to stay hidden, but every once in a while it comes out.
Once I was returning from a long trip feeling sick exhausted after endless flight delays. I was out of balance with eagerness to get home. An unorganized mass of people was milling around the Dartmouth Coach stop at Logan airport, and as the bus approached I heard myself saying, “This is no time to be polite!” I wove through the crowd to get to the curb, my inner Tax Collector callously jostling aside lost looking college students and almost knocking over a distinguished couple who turned out to be the parents of a friend.
We have our inner sinners, too, that we are ashamed to acknowledge because we were brought up to think that we are not that kind of person, we could never have that deplorable bad habit or disease, we could never make that mistake. Our happiness depends on pretending that these parts of us do not exist.
And that is because we also have in our shadows the Pharisees and scribes, the part of our self that cannot stand failure, that has to be convinced that we are a success. They make us unhappy, anxious, full of self-loathing when we fail to live up to their standards.
Psychologists and theologians have some great names for these. One is Martin Smith’s “domineering virtues” as when our inner Pharisee stifles our creativity or joy or even our spirituality. The story of Martha and Mary is a classic example—Martha’s domineering virtue of serving wants to stop Mary from sitting in contemplation at Jesus’ feet.
Another great phrase is Karen Horney’s “tyranny of the shoulds.” Our inner legalistic scribes tell us we should be perfect, we should never need help or correction, and when we inevitably fail, the tyrannical voice of all those shoulds fills us with self-hate and casts us into outer darkness. No wonder so many of us never risk following the Spirit’s calling. No wonder we harbor the secret despair that everyone else is good except us.
But we also have the character of Christ, our truest, wisest and best self. By turning to our inner Jesus we find our tax collector and sinner welcomed and loved and defended from the attack of the anxious Pharisees and scribes.
Jesus shows us that we can be loved just as we are. Whatever we have done, wherever we are in life, there is joy in heaven when we turn toward the sacred way and allow the Spirit to help us evolve our lesser selves toward the heart and mind of Christ.
That is a tremendous comfort, but there is an even greater one.
The entire human race has become a lost sheep. We are lost in a wilderness of our own making that threatens our civilization with collapse and all species with extinction. Our culture is dominated by the worst of our tax collectors and sinners and Pharisees and scribes—the rapacious corporations and corrupt politicians they own and the fundamentalist preachers who bless them as they oppress the poor and destroy the earth.
Today’s passage holds out the hope that if we as a people cry out, if we turn longingly toward the way of the Golden Rule and loving our neighbor as our self, the Spirit that created us will welcome us with open arms and carry humanity back to the sacred way.
The great comfort for us on this Annual Meeting Sunday is that we as a congregation have a role to play, there is something we can do to help find a way through this existential threat. We have scriptures and hymns, we have spiritual practices and the wisdom of saints and mystics and scholars, we share the Perennial Tradition with all other faiths that describe the sacred way. We can offer help to lost and hopeless people.
We can undergo a spiritual transformation ourselves and help others to do the same. Spiritual transformation will lead to the cultural transformation that is our great existential hope—creating a sustainable, just and peaceful earth that can be our home for countless generations to come.
We are a small and aging congregation, we barely have the people and money we need to keep going, and yet we have hosted an extremely well attended climate book study that has helped make the town of Strafford a leader in the Climate Strike. Yesterday we had a capacity crowd for our healthy communication workshop. On Thursday we had yet another profound Heartfulness Contemplative Training Circle. Joey and Danette are launching a new children’s program on “loving our neighbor” and the Lord’s Acre has new, inspired energy this year.
God needs us, our children need us and the earth needs us to keep turning and trusting in the Spirit and doing all that we can. So today let us look not at our scarcity but at our abundance, knowing that there is joy in heaven at every step we take on the path of love. Let’s meet feeling full of that faith’s comfort and joy.
Let us pray in silence…
We took in a wonderful new member on this Sunday! Here is a photograph: