What Brings Us Joy?

November 12, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Psalm 16; John 15:10-17

Several years ago our church elders adopted a statement called Westminster’s Hope for the World. It’s not meant replace the long-standing mission statement of the congregation, with its tagline, a telling presence in the city. But this new statement is an assertion of what God intends for the human community, a view of what the world would look like if God had God’s way with us.

In a year-long process with lots of listening and scripture study to develop he statement, five key words emerged. They’re not surprising to anyone who is part of this community; they’re what we try to do every week. But to hear them again re-centers our life together and focuses our ministry. God hopes for a world that is peaceful, just, sustainable, loving, and joyful.

Our stewardship ministry team has been using one of those words in the annual invitation to be generous in financially supporting Westminster. All of us have the chance to do that this week when we receive materials sent to us in anticipation of Pledge Sunday next week.

The logic is simple: if we’re being asked to support the work of this congregation in its effort to create a community that reflects God’s hope for the world, what does that look like?

This year the theme is Joy. “I have said these things to you,” Jesus says, “So that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15: 11)

The entire gospel message, the life and witness and ministry of Jesus, is captured in those words. Jesus wants to transfer the joy of God, which he knows in his life, to those who would follow him, so that our joy might be complete.

We try to reflect that joy in the church, in our education and worship and mission and ministry. We do that not merely because it is be good and nice, but because as followers of Jesus, our life is made complete with joy from our faith in God. Joy all around.

And then reality sets in.

How are we to be joyful in a world ensnared in violence, in a world infused with fear, in a world wracked by anger, dominated by patriarchy, beset with disparity, a world tumbling into tribal divisions? That’s a tall order. To be a joyful community in the face of the harsh realities of life in our time seems an impossible dream.

One of the prerogatives of a preacher is to point to history to help our perspective. Ask someone who lived through the Red Scare in this land in the 1950s how bad it was back then. Or ask a Baby Boomer couple that considered not having children for fear of bringing a child into a world where we lived under the doctrine of mutually-assured destruction. Ask a veteran who faced and fought the evil confronted in the Second World War, or who served our nation during the conflicts in Korea or Vietnam.

We could work our way back through the ages and find times when there was scant reason to hope for a better world, let alone one in which joy was resurgent. And yet, people of faith have always found a way forward, clinging to the deep joy that is ours in relationship with God.

Some 2600 years ago Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews were forced into exile in Babylon. Their faith in God was tested and the psalmist reports there was no joy among them: “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?”

That question hangs in the air every time we gather for worship in our time. How can we honestly sing Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of light when the darkness seems to be closing in all around us?

Last week in Christian congregations around the world we marked All Saints’ Sunday. Our worship here included a solemn reading of the names of the saints in our midst who had died in the past year. At the very moment that was happening here and in Christian communities across the world, the list of dearly departed saints was growing at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas: Lula White, Annabelle Pomeroy, Dennis Johnson, Brooke Ward, Emily Garcia, Noah Holcombe. And the list of the the names of the saints who died last week at First Baptist goes on and on.

A congregation at worship, mowed down like those at the Las Vegas concert last month and the Orlando nightclub last year. Those are the ones we read about and remember. Most of the more than 30,000 people who died from gun violence in America last year – two thirds of them by suicide – do not register.

That’s a long way from a world that is peaceful, just, sustainable, loving, and joyful.

We’re told it’s too soon to talk about gun control. Or that the shootings are not even about guns. Or that we should arm ourselves to go to church. “Thoughts and prayers” are called for; that’s fine, but legislation might actually diminish the carnage.

The downtown interfaith senior clergy went on retreat last Sunday, the day of the shooting in Texas. We spent a lot of time talking about it, as you can imagine. About fear and anger and hatred and threats and violence and safety and security. We learned from the rabbi that the Jewish synagogue has security every day their school is open and every time they come to worship because they receive threats so often We know that we have security and Central Lutheran has security. One of the imams at the retreat said said they receive threats all the time at the mosque , but cannot afford security; their Christian neighbors and people of good will gather outside and inside the mosque every Friday as a way to offer protection.

Hardly the world God intends.

How did the Hebrew people of old keep their faith when the world seemed to be falling apart – when they were carried off into exile or when their leaders wandered far from God’s way? They kept singing the songs of Zion, even when everything and everyone around them called for silence. They kept singing the songs of Zion. And their prophets kept calling for change. The Jews sat down by the rivers of Babylon with their instruments and wondered how they would sing, and yet still they sang. The songs of Zion and their prophets’ words became a way to resist the evil all around and make their way back to the light they knew was their God.

“Weeping may tarry for the night,” they sang from the Book of Psalms,. Weeping may last all through the night, “But joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)
They refused to lose sight of the light of God.

“You show me the path of life,” they sang, “In your presence there is fullness of joy.” (Psalm 16:11)

Fullness of joy.

That’s the same image Jesus gives us: being filled by joy no matter the circumstances. “I have said these things to you,” he said, “So…that your joy may be complete.”

That doesn’t mean life will be trouble-free, or that we’ll not go through times of trial, or that difficult news will never come our way. It means, simply, that underneath it all there’s a deep and abiding current that flows along under our lives and it’s a current of joy. And God’s joy will prevail in the end.  Our task is to deep into that current and draw deeply from it.

“The joy of God,” Irenaeus said in the second century, “Is a human being fully alive.”

A recent article in the New York Times explored America’s obsession with finding happiness. The app store on our mobile phones, the author notes, has nearly a thousand options we can choose from to find happiness help. Nearly all of them, she says, encourage us to look within, to find that inner light and to turn to it and find our centered spot in an interior way. The author bought an app that sent her a positive message about herself every hour, things like, “I am beautiful,” or, “I am enough.”

“The problem was,” she says,

“Every time my phone buzzed with an incoming message, I would get a Pavlovian jolt of excitement thinking an actual person was trying to contact me. ‘I am enough,” I would snarl upon realizing the truth, unable to shake the feeling that without friends or community, I really wasn’t.” (Ruth Whippman, “Happiness Is Other People: NY Times, 11/5/17)

She had learned a simple truth about human life: we need each other. God created us for community. God created us for community that is peaceful and loving and joyful and sustainable and just. God created us for community. If we are seeking happiness solely by turning inward, or by isolating ourselves or trying to hide from harsh reality, or by grasping at material objects or wealth, we will never get there.

Joy is even more profound than happiness, which can be fleeting and tied to conditions in life. Joy arises from places deep in the heart – sometimes hidden from us but it flows there: joy that is rooted in our relationship with God and neighbor.

The ancient psalmists refused to stifle the underlying current of joy they found in their relationship with God and with God’s people, even in the bleakest of times. They sang their defiance, and through their song they found their way back to the “path of life…where,” they knew, “There is fullness of joy.”

People on the receiving end of injustice, people suffering from violence and exclusion and indignity have always managed to find a way to assert their humanity in the face of those who would take it from them. They have turned toward each other. They have held fast to the promise of God’s joy.

Many years ago in our denomination’s struggle for the full inclusion of its LGBTQ members, after losing one of many efforts at the General Assembly to change the church’s constitution, I made a little speech at a gathering afterwards. “As a straight, white male, a person of privilege,” I said, “I find myself for the first time marginalized by my own church.”

Afterwards, Janie Spahr, who describes herself a “lesbian evangelist” and who had been involved in the struggle far longer than I had, came up to me and said, “Welcome to the margins, Tim. Only we think of it as the horizon.”

If the question on this Sunday as we head into our stewardship program for 2018 is, “What brings us joy?” surely the answer lies in our shared refusal to surrender to the very forces that would take joy from this world.

That’s what we do each week when we gather for worship: we acknowledge the shadows that hang over our world, but keep singing of the light. We face the violence that rears its head every day, but keep working to bring an end to it, striving for what Jesus and the Hebrews of old called “the fullness of joy.”

We know this world is not perfect, but we also believe it is full of possibility because it is God’s world. So we keep working for that day when every human being, every human being, will be fully alive.

Then, and only then, will we sing with no pain in our hearts and no tears in our eyes. Then and only then, will God’s joy be made complete.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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