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This Week's  Sermon

The God in whom we live and move and have our being.
Text: Acts 17:22-31

Preached by Rev. James Murray at Dominion-Chalmers United Church, May 21, 2017

On Monday of this week the sun finally shone, and the temperature actually felt warm. All the tulips around the city began to sing “Hallelujah, I'm ready!” After weeks of holding back, in a mighty chorus, they all blossomed. That evening my wife Christine and I drove over to Dow's Lake to see all the colourful blossoms. We were not the only ones. There were thousands of us. It was as if we had all just come out of our caves after a long winter's hibernation. We were all being drawn to this first glorious burst of colour. On our way to the first beds of tulips, a young boy was running ahead of his parents. Then he just stopped dead in his tracks and shouted out “OH WOW!”. And he was not the only one. Everyone had this strange look on their faces. Everyone was smiling. Normally when we are out in public during the winter most of us have a very neutral expression. Some people wear a scowl on their face all winter, as if they are personally offended by the weather. I discovered on Monday that tulips have a magical effect on us. When people see tulips, we smile. A bed of tulips can even induce laughter. Everyone was taking pictures of their family in front of the flower beds to show how happy they were. And I do mean everyone. The full diversity of Ottawa's population was there. There were families pushing their baby in a stroller. There were elderly couples holding hands. There were multi-generational families talking together. Friends were meeting up to take in the sights. I lost track of the number of different languages that were being spoken in the park that night. Even though I did not speak their language, I could tell that the most common phrase on everyone's lips was “It's so beautiful!!!”

The beauty of God's handiwork does have this amazing power to speak to the depths of our spirit. The English mystic Julian of Norwich once experienced a very powerful vision of the beauty of God's love. Julian wrote down the details of her vision, and it is the oldest book in the English language that was written by a woman. After 700 years her book is still in print. Julian of Norwich says “The fullness of joy is to behold God in all things.” There is no greater joy than to be able to see God all around you. As I walked around those tulip beds, I saw the beauty of God at work. It was obvious to everyone that the beauty of the tulips was inspiring great feelings of joy.

So what is joy? I went through all my major religious encyclopaedias and even the Oxford Dictionary of Religion, and there wasn’t a single reference to joy. The bible mentions worshipping God about 150 times. For a book about a religion, you would expect worship to be a frequent activity. By comparison, the concept of joy and enjoyment is mentioned over 300 times. Joy outnumbers worship two to one. If worshipping God is important, then enjoying God is doubly so. Jesus goes so far as to say "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full." (John 15:11)

So why are we so bad at enjoying God? In traditional Christianity, morality and enjoyment were often seen as in fundamental opposition. We thought that in order to be good, we should take no pleasure in the things of this world. Singing, dancing, good food, and anything to do with sex was automatically suspect.  If it felt good, it was probably a sin. As a result, we became very good at killing joy. Stamping out creativity. Silencing our sexuality. Stifling individuality. It seemed like the chief duty of religion was to shut down all expressions of our God given talents and abilities.

What is joy, then? Joy is an appreciation of the beauty and goodness of the world which God has created. When you see a sunset, and you are moved by the warm glow on your face, that is joy. When a beautiful piece of music causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, that is joy. God uses this sense of joy to motivate us to do what is noble, right and good. In this way, our morality should stand in the service of enjoyment. Our morals should seek to guide us to enjoy that which God has created.

Saint Paul knew of the power of this joy to inspire us. Paul speaks of God as being 'the one in whom we live and move and have our being'. He's actually quoting the Greek poet Aratus. Aratus was talking about Zeus. The Romans liked to quote Aratus because he made them feel like they were Gods.

Saint Paul uses the words of Aratus to remind us that we can know God for God is present in our world. Paul's point of view is different from what many people believe about God. Some people describe God as a clockmaker who created the world and is just letting us do with it as we will. They feel like God has left the building and is not very important to what is happening today. Some people describe God as the novelist who has already written the complete story of everything that is going to happen. In this understanding, we are just merely acting our part in a drama where the ending has already been pre-determined. This means God gets all the important decisions and we are merely robots playing our predetermined program.

From my reading of scripture verses like this one in Acts, and my experience of God, I believe God is in all things, and all things are in God, and there is so much more to God than all the things we can see. God is matrix in whom we live and move and have our being. God is equally present to all things, just like the ocean is equally present to all fish in the sea. God is present in every moment, offering us choices. And depending upon what we choose to do in this moment, God will be present in the next moment offering us a new set of choices. The calling of God within each human heart requires our cooperation for its very fulfillment. Without our cooperation there will be tragedy. Even when we fail to respond to God's gracious invitations, it is God’s will to never give up on us.  Even in the face of tragedy, in all things God is with us. So God shares both our joys and our sorrows. No matter what we are facing, God is always working for good.  God is inviting us to choose a future built on compassion, mercy and justice. God is always trying to inspire us to build a more beautiful world together.

Just a few days after Easter I got to spend some time with Rev. Patricia Farmer. Rev. Farmer is a pastor with the Disciples of Christ Church in the USA. She is a theologian and a published poet. Rev. Farmer says that the beauty we find in the world has the power to transform us. She says that when we are  “ensconced in a book of poetry, or encountering a rare moment of social harmony in the midst of chaos, or witnessing an elegant act of courage in the face of evil, or studying a flock of pelicans gliding in through a red and gold twilight, we feel differently.  We act differently, too, with kindness and attention to the suffering of others; we tread lightly upon the earth; we seek a sense of fairness and symmetry and harmony in our social relations.”

The beauty of all these things inspires feelings of great joy. And the fullness of joy is to behold God in all these things. I'd like to close by sharing with you perhaps the most famous passage from Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love. “And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

Julian writes “In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.” And the fullness of joy is to behold God in all these things.

Source: Patricia Adam Farmer Beauty as a Spiritual Home
Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Divine Love
On Planting a Tulip-Root by James F. Montgomery

Here lies a bulb, the child of earth,
Buried alive beneath the clod,
Ere long to spring, by second birth,
A new and nobler work of God.
'Tis said that microscopic power
Might through its swaddling folds descry
The infant-image of the flower,
Too exquisite to meet the eye.
This, vernal suns and rains will swell,
Till from its dark abode it peep,
Like Venus rising from her shell,
Amidst the spring-tide of the deep.
Two shapely leaves will first unfold,
Then, on a smooth elastic stem,
The verdant bud shall turn to gold,
And open in a diadem.
Not one of Flora's brilliant race
A form more perfect can display;
Art could not feign more simple grace,
Nor Nature take a line away.
Yet, rich as morn of many a hue,
When flushing clouds through darkness strike,
The tulip's petals shine in dew,
All beautiful, — but none alike.
Kings, on their bridal, might unrobe
To lay their glories at its foot;
And queens their sceptre, crown, and globe,
Exchange for blossom, stalk, and root.
Here could I stand and moralise;
Lady, I leave that part to thee;
Be thy next birth in Paradise,
Thy life to come eternity!