Shield the Joyous
The Rev. R. Justice Schunior
November 15, Year A, 2020
24th Sunday after Pentecost
“Shield the joyous”, do you all know that prayer? Shield the joyous. It’s from the Book of Common Prayer, used in evening prayer or more commonly at Compline, our nighttime prayer. More than any other prayer, it’s the one that people tell me they love most of all. It begins with “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night.” It goes on – “give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous.” I often think of this prayer when I know of someone hurting or suffering. But this time it came to me when I witnessed joy, just pure unfettered joy.
Last Saturday, a week ago from yesterday, the presidential election was called, finally. It had been a long week filled with anxiety, foreboding, and hope. But it followed an even longer four years of worry. A four years of many people worrying about their immigration status; their ability to marry the person they love; our ability, as a nation to deal with big issues from police reform to climate change to the daily toll of gun violence. Not that we were doing such a great job of dealing with these issues more than four years ago, but last week, it seemed space to breathe and act opened up. And there was joy.
People were literally dancing in the streets from DC to Chicago to Atlanta to Denver and everywhere in between. They dressed up, they sang, they laughed, and they danced. I loved seeing it – even though Andrew and I stayed at home and when I stepped out on my balcony, the world was pretty much going on as usual. Construction workers continued to build ghastly McMansions without pausing to mark the moment. But I soaked in the images from my television screen. “Shield the joyous” I prayed. Shield because I wanted this moment to last for people as long as it could, because I know, and you know that moments like these pass. There is much work to be done. Shield the joyous because there is a virus out there. Joy is precious, like gold, and fragile, like glass.
So maybe you can understand when I read this week’s gospel – a story about a landlord who went away and left resources in the hands of the servants that I was struck by the word joy. The parable strives to focus our attention on the fearful third servant who buries his talent, but I got stuck on the first two. The first two servants, who took what was given to them by the landlord and made something with it, were invited to enter into joy.
I want to take a quick digression to remind us all of the purpose of parables. Because it’s easy to get tangled up in this one. I’ve never really liked it and one of the reasons is how it’s been used. Frequently it’s been used for church stewardship campaigns to remind us of how we need to use our gifts and give back – like, literally give our money back. The word ‘talent’ in the parable pairs nicely with our own word for special ability in English, ‘talent’. It’s also a story about a landlord with a lot of money and servants who make more money with the landlord’s money and they are happy to give it back to him. Making this story a nice capitalist fairy tale. Many interpretations manage to make this story both dull and coercive.
But remember that parables are not allegories. They do not contain one to one comparisons. The gospel of Matthew is not Animal Farm and Landlord to God does not equal Snowball the pig to Stalin the dictator. God is not very much like a landlord and we are not plantation administrators. Jesus is giving us little story plays that allow our imagination to wander and explore, not to be bogged down by what could never be contained in one story. That is why we have many parables, not just one. Play with these stories; do not turn them into concrete.
But there is a concrete detail that does help knowing about. A talent is a unit of money, for some reason I’m picturing a giant gold bar, and it is a huge amount of money, an absurd amount of money. Ten talents would be an equivalent of payment for 160 years of labor. Even one talent is just a fabulous amount of wealth. The landlord gave these servants this just obscene amount of wealth and they did something with it.
If this parable is supposed to tell us something about God and something about preparing us for a life of living with a God who is in some ways absent in that Jesus is not walking along beside us on earth in the same way he was with his disciples, then it has this to say: We are given just fantastic amounts of resources, resources of mind and heart and capacity for imagination and love. We are tasked with doing something with them. When God again returns to us and is present in a way God is not at this time, we are given not just joy, but more responsibility to do even more with our resources.
What I mean is that the joy that God invites us into is in some way connected to the life we make for ourselves and others right now. They are not dissimilar. The use of resources and joy are related. We are making the kingdom right now.
I listened recently to NPR’s Krista Tippet interview Karen Murphy, an educator who works with communities from countries recovering from violence and trauma. For example, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, South Africa, the former Yugoslavia…you get the picture. She talked about an assignment she gave to a group of teachers from Northern Ireland back in 2006, when peace was very new. She asked them to put together a toolkit of found items that would help them in their work for justice. They came back with items such as a mirror, because you have to look at yourself; a candle, because you always need hope; a flashlight, because you need to see your way; a book, because you need knowledge; a journal, because you need to reflect and you need to write history as you go along. And also, adhesive tape, glue, and a sewing kit, because this kind of work will always sever relationships.
It made me think about what a toolkit for sustainable joy would look like. Perhaps it would include music for dancing and a picnic basket full of food for sharing. I would love to hear your ideas of what a toolkit for joy might include. Whatever we choose to include in it, it seems like a worthy use of our vast resources to consider what to bring. And that we would want to try to start right now creating the kind of joyful place that God has planned for us in whatever future is ahead of us. Joy is our work because joy is energy for change – for greater justice and greater equity.
Let me stop for a minute and acknowledge the third servant – the one I believe Matthew wants us to focus on and struggle with. I am a committed universalist and I don’t believe that there is anyone or anything beyond the love, forgiveness, and grace of God. But Matthew won’t let me get away with just glossing over the hard parts.
There is a life without love. It is possible to live our lives totally in fear and in apprehension of the very worst parts of humanity. Next week’s gospel is the story, not a parable, but an actual account of how God sees us. Those who see God incarnate in our neighbor – our hungry, cold, thirsty, imprisoned neighbor will be welcomed into a new kingdom. Those who shut out their neighbors and lived a fearful, selfish, confined life will be excluded. It’s stark and even violent. Like a bracing splash of cold water remember that we live in the world we create for ourselves and our actions have consequences. Joy is not really that joyful unless is shared and shared broadly.
On a day of unrestrained joy for some, there were so many who stand at the margins. Those construction workers in my back-yard building houses that they will never live in; those who will suffer from hunger, need, and want during this winter of increased virus and political neglect. Joy is special because it grows when it is shared. We have been given so much, joy wages for years and years and years through the richness of scripture and the example of the saints; dozens and dozens of years of abundance. Don’t think about the third servant; the coward who hedged his bets who worried and fretted and bit his nails and and…I’ve been that third servant and I don’t want to be him anymore. Think about the first two servants who spent and saved and invested and created relationships and hoped and tried until they had so much. So much they received even more.
Shield the joyous. That includes me. Shield me, God from the woes and complaints of that fearful servant. I want to build and expand your joy – that amazing energy that leads to your kingdom here and right now. Teach us to see the tremendous, overwhelming, over the top gifts you have given us to waste and spend. Because what if we didn’t have to wait a long time? What if we could enter into that joy right now?