Does This Spark Joy?

February 3, 2019
Sarah Brouwer

Before coming to Westminster my husband and I lived in St. Louis for four years. I served a church there, in a community that was very affluent, and because of that we couldn’t afford to live among the people I pastored. Now, we had no trouble affording housing elsewhere, but I did get a small glimpse of what it is like to be priced out of certain parts of a metro area. This isn’t an issue isolated to St. Louis; affordable housing is a growing problem where there are not a variety of housing options, and the physical separation of rich and poor continues to grow.

In Minneapolis, the city council has been discussing this very issue. It’s becoming more expensive to live in the city than many of our suburbs, driving poorer folks out of their homes due to rent hikes, creating a greater distance from their jobs, and often times they don’t have cars to get back in for work. Some believe we should increase the amount of affordable housing we have in Minneapolis, which would grow the population, diversify schools, potentially increase traffic and parking, and possibly bring down the value of homes in certain enclaves of the city.

The issue is symptomatic of a larger issue, though, much like the one in St. Louis. When I was there, our house was in a neighborhood just south of Ferguson at the time Michael Brown was shot and killed. I had members of my congregation who were worried about where we were living, north of the “Delmar divide.” Of course, they had my best interests at heart, but, to me, their fear was misplaced and more unnerving than the protests exploding in Ferguson.

You see, Ferguson existed as a majority African American suburb, because those folks, and low-income housing were pushed out of the city many decades ago, in an effort to make the city appear to be thriving and wealthy. There were laws and policies, sometimes called red-lining, that made it nearly impossible for certain groups of people to live anywhere else than in low income, racially divided neighborhoods. It’s not hard to understand, then, how racism was perpetuated, with fearful ideas about the “other” further instituted by city lines, segregated schools, lack of opportunity and transportation.

Minneapolis, to a certain extent, has done this as well. And, for us, too, it goes deeper than affordable housing and red-lining. The reasons for it start with fear. It’s learned fear. Fear we have to unlearn. Those of us with privilege, who make our way easily through the systems set up to benefit us, have to do the work of dismantling these systems that also separate us, and keep many disenfranchised.

Could it be that Jesus was talking about something much the same when he referred to gathering the nations around him, separating the sheep and the goats? I wonder, was Jesus drawing a new line? Now, hear me when I say, Jesus is not exclusive with salvation, like some have interpreted this passage to mean. This isn’t Jesus at the pearly gates deciding who goes to heaven and hell. But it is a text about God, and God’s expectations for what the world should look like. Jesus says he will call upon all people and judge them for how they treat the least among us, separating those who will continue to operate as though nothing has happened, as though the world isn’t groaning under the weight of systems designed to serve only a few, and those who are willing to create a new future, for all people.

It might be surprising to some of us, but this passage is supposed to be good news- it was for those who heard it. It was directed at early Christians who had nothing, who were the persecuted minority, and God was finally pulling through for them, drawing a new line in the sand. The separating of the sheep and the goats meant everything was being flipped around; salvation would to those who existed among the least of these, and those who served them.

On a day like today, the Super Bowl, nearly half our nation will tune in to watch the game. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have fun watching the super bowl, and eating the snacks that come with it. But, let’s be honest, the super bowl is unapologetically reflective of a lot of what is happening in our nation right now. It celebrates power and patriarchy, excess, exclusivity, and violence. Let’s just say, if Jesus was separating the sheep from the goats here, it wouldn’t be between the Patriots and the Rams.

In stark contrast to the Super Bowl, though, I was recently watching the show that has become the cultural phenomenon of the moment- Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show Tidying Up. In the show she introduces people to the Kon Mari method, which is a way of tidying and organizing the home that has roots in the Shinto religion in Japan. Shintoism values simplicity, and the idea that there is a spirit to all things, even inanimate objects. Shintoists respect all the resources that go into creating even the smallest items, and therefore treat their clothes, kitchen utensils, tools, as well as sentimental things, with great care. Marie Kondo teaches people to take the excessive material things in their homes that clog up closets and create unmanageable clutter and asks them to consider if these things spark joy. If they don’t it’s time to literally thank them for their service to the household, and donate or dispose of them. Without trying to oversimplify an entire religion that is millenia-old, I think it’s a beautiful way to look at not only what we have, but how we draw lines in the world.

In response to the show, though, I’ve heard a lot of jokes lately about what in our lives sparks joy, as if the question itself is silly. I think it’s because the answer is one we’d rather not think about. Because, what in our lives does spark joy? Seriously, consider the question. The thing about joy is that it has nothing to do with happiness- it’s a feeling that goes deeper than that. It’s one of fulfillment, meaning, wisdom. When I think about what in my life sparks joy, it has nothing to do with the size of my house, the amount of clothes I have, or the value of the car I drive, which I am privileged to have, at all. I’ve found that joy is sparked more by relationships, an act of grace someone shows me when I mess up, learning something new about people I didn’t know before, seeing justice done for the oppressed, and seeing the oppressor, seeking repentance and forgiveness.

Is joy sparked by Jesus’ separating the sheep from the goats? Is joy sparked when he speaks truth to power? Is joy sparked when he calls for food to be given to the hungry, the prisoner to be visited, the naked to be clothed? Maybe, if we realize that it is not in the accumulation of more that we will discover a deeper goodness in the world, but in living smaller, within diverse and equitable community, growing our sense of empathy and distancing ourselves not from “the other,” but from supremacy and hate.

The psalmist reminds us, “how good and wonderful it is when people live together in harmony, in unity.” It is not good that we should live separated, whether it’s due to red-lining or sheep being separated from goats. And, I would venture a guess that Jesus’ joy is not sparked by having to relay this kind of warning and judgment. Jesus’ methods render as exclusionary to our modern day ears, but being uncomfortable and challenged is okay- in fact it might be part of the path toward real joy, for all people- and not just for us as individuals. He is here to tell us there is more to life. And, it may not be compelling enough for television, but I think that’s what Marie Kondo and Shintoism are about, too. There is more joy in less- less stuff, but also less that separates us from one another.

The most interesting thing to me about this text is that Jesus speaks first to the nations. To the systems that benefit us but seem too impersonal and large to dismantle. But then, later on he speaks to us personally. I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. There’s the realization that systems only have as much power as we give them. And what I choose to believe and do, who I choose to care about and make decisions on behalf of, not only decrease the distance between me and my neighbor, they renew my relationship to God.

Recently my colleague Alanna was talking about how those of us who navigate the world rather effortlessly have the opportunity to accompany those who don’t. Through this idea of accompanying one another she said we can do justice and mission. “You might understand better,” she said, “by remembering a time when you were accompanied.” Who helped you make your way from point A to point B, at some time in your life? Who continued to show up for you? You didn’t necessarily need to be hungry or naked, but you may have felt lost or alone. And someone was there beside you- a teacher, a youth group leader, the parent of a friend- someone showing you grace, mentoring you, praying for you. Now imagine yourself doing that for someone else. Maybe even tutoring a child, or delivering meals on wheels. Do these images of accompaniment spark joy? Do they feel like good news?

You know, Jesus himself was actually pretty simple, but he wasn’t a simpleton. He was telling people that the simplest gesture to those in need could close the gap between us, could cause whole systems to crumble and nations to be saved. Feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink. No need to overcomplicate. Because when we all have less, really, we all have more. Especially more joy. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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