Saturday, July 27, 2019

By Request: “Finding Joy” - July 28, 2019

Text: Psalm 30, John 15:9-15

This morning we continue our series based on ideas that were placed in our Summer Sermon Suggestion Box (and in case you were wondering, here is the actual box).  The congregation had the chance to submit questions or topics or scriptures that they would like to hear a sermon about.  Our suggestion for today is “Finding Joy.” 

You would think this would be an easy one.  I mean, we talk about joy a lot.  We sing about it.  There is “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” “Joy to the World,” and “How Great Our Joy,” as well as “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, down in my heart,” which I remember singing as a little kid.  CCLI, the licensing agency that allows us to print hymns and songs in our bulletins, lists 3579 songs on the theme of joy.  (I didn’t count, I took their word for it.) 

We all want to experience joy.  We talk about going on a Joy Ride, but nobody talks about going on a Misery Ride.  We jump for joy; we don’t jump for despair.  And while Beethoven composed the Ode to Joy, it turns out that he did not compose an Ode to Despondency.

The interesting thing is that people do not necessarily associate joy with the church.  Church is serious.  Peter Gomes, who for many years was the chaplain at Harvard, said that in the tradition that he (and many of us) grew up in, joy seemed almost frivolous.  He grew up in the First Baptist Church of Plymouth – where the Pilgrims landed.  They were grim people, he said.  You didn’t laugh – it was unseemly.  You rarely smiled – that suggested your mind was elsewhere.  The deacons at communion looked very sober – nobody ever smiled at the Lord’s Supper.  Prayer meeting – that was grim.  He thought that if heaven was like that forever, he wasn’t sure that was where he wanted to go.   

Very serious Puritanism had an influence in Plymouth, of course, but there is plenty of religion out there sorely lacking in joy.  I’m not sure why that is, because we are called to be joyful.  Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit.  And joy is a fairly central theme in Christian faith.  In 1 Thessalonians we read, “Be joyful always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”

The problem, of course, is that you can’t just command a person to be joyful.  If that were all it took, you wouldn’t have to command it anyway, because who doesn’t want to be joyful?  But you can’t command joy in somebody else, and you can’t just will yourself to joy.  So finding joy is not necessarily an easy matter.  And just a casual perusal of scriptures about joy might make a person have second thoughts about whether joy is actually worth the trouble.

The text we read from Psalm 30 is a wonderful psalm.  “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning…  You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”  What you might notice is that you have to go through weeping and anguish before you get to the joy.  Similarly, Psalm 126 says, “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

In the Book of Esther, we read that “for the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor.”  Of course, this came only after they were within an eyelash of mass execution.

These downcast and sometimes harrowing conditions for joy are found just all over the place.  In John 16:20, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.”  Jesus says that signing up for the Joy Train is not going to be an easy ride.

And then James writes, “My brothers and sisters,” whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy” - because these trials lead to growth.

Well, you get the idea.  We hear about no pain, no gain.  The Biblical message is almost “no pain, no joy.  “For the sake of joy that was set before him Jesus endured the cross.”  I don’t know about you, but getting yourself killed does not exactly sound like a recipe for joy to me.

So if we are looking for joy, we might expect right off that it is not always an easy road.  Yet we have all experienced those moments of joy, and of course we want to have joy in our lives. 

If you think about those joyful moments in your life, it is often true that they come after difficulty or trying moments or at least some measure of personal investment.

What comes to mind when you think of a time that you really experienced joy in your life?  A lot of people might say, “When our son was born, when our daughter was born, it was pure joy.”  Well, for the mother in particular, it wasn’t pure joy; there was a lot of pain mixed in there.  And there were those nine months of waiting and hoping and praying – then came the joy.

Or maybe when your child graduated or got married, or perhaps just to see a child thriving and doing well, that can bring joy.  Again, that can come after ups and downs and much effort and various heartaches.

Children can bring joy, but if someone asks how to find joy, we are certainly not going to answer, “Have a baby.” 

I don’t know that we can necessarily create joy.  We can work to create happiness.  Happiness is more of a human achievement.  It has to do with contentment and satisfaction.  It tends to be brought on by outward experiences and things.  A vacation or shopping trip or a nice dinner might bring happiness, but it won’t exactly bring joy.

Joy is something deeper.  Frederick Buechner says,

We never take credit for our moments of joy because we know that…  we are never really responsible for them.  They come when they come.  They are always sudden and quick and unrepeatable.  The unspeakable joy sometimes of just being alive.  The miracle sometimes of being just who we are with the blue sky and the green grass, the faces of our friends and the waves of the ocean, being just what they are.  The joy of release, of being suddenly well when before we were sick, of being forgiven when before we were ashamed and afraid, of finding ourselves loved when we were lost and alone.  The joy of love…  (in The Hungering Dark)
Joy comes when it comes.  But it comes when we are open to it, and it tends to be related to our personal investment. 

If you are a sports fan, seeing your team win the big game can bring happiness.  If the Cyclones beat the Hawkeyes, there will be a lot of happy people in Ames, no doubt about it.  If the Cardinals somehow win the World Series and if they sweep the Cubs in the playoffs to get there, I would be happy. 

But joy would be to coach a team of little leaguers or kids playing soccer or gymnasts, to work with a them, get to know them, see them grow, see them come together as a team, watch them overcome obstacles and just give it their all.  There is already joy at that point, and if they win, that is just the icing on top.  It is the personal investment and relationship that makes for real joy.  The outcome of the game can be almost incidental.

I think about something like our Music Camp.  We worked hard all week to learn a musical, to literally get our act together.  And we got to spend time with a special group of kids.

Several of them were not the most popular kids at school.  There were kids who were a little different.  There were former campers who came back to be counselors, and some of them are kids who have trouble fitting in.  To see all of these kids be a part of something and to see the excitement they had as they performed in the talent show – and then to see the campers all give each other a standing ovation – that brought real joy.  To know that all of the hard work really made a difference for kids who may need a bright spot in their lives – that brought joy. 

All of this to say that joy is not necessarily easy.  There is no magic formula.  And it sometimes takes pain to get to joy.  Because it is hard to get to joy without personal investment.  Without vulnerability.

In preparation for this sermon, I turned to that great source of Biblical interpretation and Christian commentary – ESPN films.  I hesitate to use a sports reference more than once in a sermon, but I’m making an exception today.  There is an ESPN series called “Basketball: A Love Story.”  What a beautiful title, right?

Well, it has a lot of has to do with the history of basketball.  It’s filled with stories of friendship and sacrifice and a lot of cultural commentary, not simply sports per se.  One segment got my attention.  It looked into what basketball coaches felt when their team won a championship.  Was it joy, or was it more like relief?

It was surprising how many said “relief.”  Some had been to the big game, to the Final Four or NBA championship more than once, but they hadn’t won.  One coach said, “If you get close a couple of times and don’t win it, you’re going to carry that with you the rest of your life.”  They were worried about their legacy.  And there was a significant amount of fear.  Pat Riley coached the Los Angeles Lakers, and he said that in 1985, if they had not won, he knew that he would be fired. 

Other coaches talked about the pure joy of it.  They were so thrilled for their players, who had worked so hard.  They had overcome adversity.  Some had never expected to get to that place.  Some thought about their own humble beginnings and all that had led to this point.  And when the time came, they were just living in that moment.

One coach said, “The day after, when you are sitting having a coffee by yourself, you realize the importance of every single guy, because it’s not a one-man band.”

The coaches who were primarily focused on the team, who talked about highs and lows and heartbreaks along the way, they were the ones who talked about joy.

Vulnerability, investment in others, being a part of something bigger than yourself, overcoming adversity together – basically it is about love.  You cannot have joy without love.

The scriptures speak of the joy of the cross – which sounds crazy when you think about it – but what led Jesus to the cross was love.  Love, at some level, is a prerequisite for joy.

In our scripture reading from John, Jesus says, “I have told you these things so that you might have joy.  And this is the main thing I am telling you: love one another.”  Love is the path to joy.

I was a bit surprised, to be honest, by how complex and complicated the whole phenomenon of joy really is.  Joy can come even in the midst of adversity, in the midst of pain, in the midst of struggle.  “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Pastor Lillian Daniel wrote:

Joy can occur even in unhappy situations, such as in the midst of a sacrifice.  Joy springs up in that odd moment when despair turns madly, unexpectedly, against all odds towards hope.

Joy can take place on either side of the hospital waiting room door.  Joy allows us to see the brilliance of life even as it is slipping away from us.  Joy is pure grace, a gift that is bigger than our human imaginations and sneaks up on us like a silent friend with a soft shoulder to cry on.  Joy is big enough to contain our deeply felt tears.
In just the last couple of weeks, I have received plenty of bad news.  A trusted colleague, a family friend, and our own church family have been touched by cancer, and I learned that my mom has breast cancer.

These are not easy times.  The political news gets meaner and harsher and more cruel every day, and it is all deeply troubling.  So this did not feel like a great time to write a sermon on joy.  These do not feel like joyful times.

And yet, this is exactly when we need joy.  And joy so often comes where there has been pain or hardship or disappointment or worry.  This is wonderful news because it means we are up to our ears in opportunities for joy to break out!

Now, as far as a recipe for finding joy – I’m not sure I have one, because it seems to be more of the case that rather than our finding joy, joy finds us.  Maybe the best we can do is to try and put ourselves in places where we can be found.

We can’t manufacture joy, but we can invest ourselves in relationships.  We can attend to meaningful work – we can be a part of things that really matter.  We can love God and we can love our neighbors.  We can be thankful and we can be attentive.  We can look for beauty.  We can spend time in nature, in God’s creation.  We can be a community that encourages joy, even as we are honest about the pain around us.

Jesus said, I give you a commandment: love one another.  When our journey is focused on love, we can find joy along the way – joy in the journey.  Maybe even right here.  Maybe even right now.  Amen.

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