God Values: Joy
This week we conclude our series on God Values – we took a pause last week for World Communion, so I hope you can remember what we talked about – forgiveness, fairness, or maybe unfairness, and authority. When I planned this series, I had a number of different ideas about today's theme. At one point, I planned to focus on the gospel lesson and the feast images in the scriptures. Then, I decided I wanted us to give some attention to Philippians – we have been hearing, but not focusing on these passages. This passage has been one of my favorites since childhood, especially this verse: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
I guess, as a young person it caught my attention because of the word excellent. I grew up when the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure was popular – and excellent was used frequently in a slang style to denote something pretty awesome. It isn’t a very common word in the Bible – sometimes a person is described as being excellent. When Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 13 about love, he calls it the more excellent way. And in this verse – well, Paul is telling us we are supposed to think about excellent things. That appealed greatly to my young mind. And today I meant to talk about the God-value of excellence. But all week, I kept coming back to a different verse in this passage:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Such a simple verse. I knew it as camp song, a round we sang. But I never gave it much serious thought. Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say Rejoice. Excellent occurs a few times in the scripture – but joy and rejoice – these words occur several hundred times throughout the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, think of some significant ways. When the angels announce Jesus' birth, Gabriel says, I bring you good news of great joy. Jesus says to the disciples after teaching them: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. His parables and teachings about the kingdom of God frequently mention joy. Certainly the resurrection story is marked with the word joy. Joy, joy, and more joy.
Are you a joyful person? Is there joy in your life? Is there joy in the life of this church? Is it joy that marks your relationship with God? Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! For my mom, deep joy comes when all her children are together. She loves it when all four of us are at home, especially, but mostly when we are together and enjoying each other's company. Sometimes we will all be at home together for some reason or another, and my mother may be falling asleep on the couch late at night. But she is unwilling to actually go to bed. She will be half asleep, but with a smile on her face – she just likes to be around us when we are together and happy. It brings her joy.
Children are experts at joy, aren’t they? They don’t need much to be joyful, in that relaxed, worry-free way that only children seem capable of. Last night we took my nephew Sam to Cackleberry Castle in Camden, the pumpkin farm we always visited when I was little. These days it is a bit smaller than it was when I was little, but it didn’t matter to Sam. He ran around looking at the display of spooky decorations and beautiful pumpkins and was having the best time, with a sparkle in his eye, and that practically out-of-breath voice he uses when he just can’t tell you fast enough about the great time he is having. Joy.
Or maybe we need a more contemporary image than Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: This week I just finished rereading the Harry Potter series, books I enjoy enough to turn back to when I am between other new reads. I've been think a lot about dementors and patronuses. In case you aren’t familiar, dementors are these dark, hooded creatures that suck souls out of people, a fate worse than death. "Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."
To fight off a dementor, wizards have to produce a white, glowing figure called a patronus, which takes an animal form and chases away a dementor. Professor Lupin describes it like this: "A Patronus is a kind of positive force, and for the wizard who can conjure one, it works something like a shield, with the Dementor feeding on it, rather than him. In order for it to work, you need to think of a memory. Not just any memory, a very happy memory, a very powerful memory… Allow it to fill you up... lose yourself in it... then speak the incantation "Expecto Patronum." Harry himself says: "Make it a powerful memory, the happiest you can remember. Allow it to fill you up… Just remember, your Patronus can only protect you as long as you stay focused… Think of the happiest thing you can." At first, he tries thinking of winning a Quittich match – that a wizard sporting event. But that isn’t the deep joy that the spell requires. Our experiences that are so powerful that they can drive away the things that chip away at our very souls – that is joy.
When I talk about joy, I don’t mean some sappy feeling that masks what we are really experiencing. Even this week, I know we have lost some of our own church family; we have some who have lost someone dear to them. We have some who are critically ill and struggling. But joy doesn’t mean plastering a smile on your face when your heart is full of grief. In fact, I would suggest that we are capable of grief because we are capable of the joy our relationships bring us. Are you joyful? What in your life brings you joy?
You know that my sense of humor is pretty sarcastic. I love a good snappy retort. My whole family functions with this kind of humor. I ran into a bit of trouble my freshman year of college, because two of my suitemates were from China. Humor is very cultural and it doesn’t translate very well. Sarcasm, I found, especially doesn’t translate well, and my roommates often thought I was just being mean. We actually had to sit down and talk about where I was coming from and what they were hearing from me. I tried to curb my sarcasm with my roommates, and they also learned more about my sense of humor, and eventually, things worked out pretty well. But we were on some shaky ground for a while. Really though, I must confess I like my sarcastic sense of humor. And it seems to be my gut reaction, with my sarcastic response sometimes out of my mouth before I can stop myself.
The problem with my sarcastic outlook, though, is that sometimes it can serve as a wall between me and something I might more fully experience if I didn’t have my gut reaction of sarcasm. I’ve occasionally found myself unable to enjoy an experience that others might find moving, because I just can’t take it seriously – a performance, or a movie, or a story. Pastors sometimes have this trouble when we participate in worship instead of leading it. We spend so much time analyzing the worship services and how the pastor preached and what we would have done differently, that we kind of miss the worship itself, rejoicing in God, which is the whole point, isn’t it? I have a clergy colleague who, without fail, puts aside everything else and seems to be fully present whenever he is in worship – I admit I sometimes envy the joy and peace that seems to fill him when he opens his heart to God. What keeps you, prevents you, holds you back, lets you to hesitate from filling up with joy?
What brings you joy? How is it that you rejoice in God? What brings you joy in this place, this congregation, right now, today, in this moment, among these people? I think I know a lot about what our struggles are – what people want to change, what frustrates us, challenges us. But I am less sure what brings us joy, deep joy, the joy that Jesus seeks to bring us to make us whole, complete. Next week we shift gears and we begin to focus on stewardship and giving to God. I invite you to start as I invited the children to start. I want you to make a list – make it as long as you can. I want you to carry a slip of paper with you this week, or keep a note on your cell phone, or a document on your laptop. And I want you to list the moments that you find joy this week. What brings you joy? If you find this assignment to be a challenge, if you find it hard to create a list of joyful moments, maybe you will need to ask some tough questions – why does so much of what we do fail to bring us joy? What are we filling up our lives with?
And then as we begin thinking about giving next week, I will ask you to first offer up your moments of joy to God, who is the source of all good gifts. You don’t want the children to show you up, do you? Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say rejoice. Amen.