Joy–A Sermon

SmileThe Rev. Noah Van Niel

June 4th, 2017

St. John the Evangelist

Pentecost (A): Acts 2:2-21; Psalm 105:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3-13; John 20: 19-23

Of all the things you learn from being a parent, I think the thing that has surprised me most is how much I envy my son, Vincent. I don’t envy the fact that he gets to take a three hour nap in the middle of the day, or gets to eat with his hands, though those things would be nice. More than anything, I envy Vincent’s joy.

Kids are bundles of pure, unadulterated joy. Joy is more than happiness or fun. Joy is a deep, powerful sense of fulfillment and excitement that comes from within, not without. It’s a way of being, not just an emotion. I feel happiness happening up here (face). Joy lives down in here (heart). Sometimes Vincent will just be so bursting with joy—for example if a large digger drives down the road—that his body will literally convulse with exuberance and he will shout and dance and smile and pretty much speak in tongues. I never knew large scale construction vehicles could be such catalysts for the Holy Spirit.

I envy this kind of pure joy because I find it a lot harder to come by than Vincent seems to. I think one of the most tragic things we lose as we grow up is how easily we can access joy. Did you know that the verb, adulterate, from which we get the word “adult” literally means “to make poorer in quality, by adding an inferior substance to it”?! That is the definition of becoming an adult! We start with joy and then we adulterate it. The pure access to it that children exemplify is somehow tainted by inferior substances.

Unfortunately, a lack of joy in life is not uncommon. Some of the joylessness in our lives comes from circumstances outside of our control. As we grow up our responsibilities inevitably increase and life gets more complicated. Vincent’s entire day consists of the following activities: sleeping, eating, dancing, reading, singing, digging up rocks, walking, and running in circles when it’s time for bed. Your life is probably more complicated than that, and with those complications come suffering, which is the antithesis of joy. And as we age, not only do our responsibilities increase, but we start to accrue more and more experiences that teach us the hard truth that the world is often a scary, unkind place, as we saw, just last night, in London. As a result, we protect our joyful nature from ridicule or disappointment by burying it so deep in our hearts that it’s safe from harm, but can’t find the way out. And what happens then, is that we come up with ways to dismiss our need for joy by categorizing people or children who do possess it as “naïve,” or “immature.” That way we don’t have to feel so bad about missing it so much. To be a grown up, we’ve decided, means being serious, being busy, being slightly unhappy and more than a little bit stressed. Joy would be nice, but it’s not necessary to life.

I think joy is actually the truest, most sincere part of who we were created to be. Joy is a gift from God. Just look at what happens at Pentecost. With the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the Disciples are filled to bursting with joy—it literally pours forth from their mouths. They are rejoicing in the good news of Jesus Christ! is the first, the truest manifestation of the Holy Spirit. To feel joy is to have been touched by God just as much as to feel love, or comfort or courage is. Joy is divine. It is not a benefit of God’s presence it is God’s presence!

Can you be a joyous person even though life is stressful or difficult? Can you find it if you’ve lost it?

This week I’ve been reading The Book of Joy which is a distillation of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu—two spiritual leaders who have suffered and seen immense difficulty and horror, and yet who are remarkably joyful people. Safe to say their lives have been harder than ours AND they are more joyful than us, so we have something to learn from them. The book is an attempt to figure out how they cultivate their joy in the face of all the pain and suffering they have had to endure. There’s lots of good stuff in the book, and I commend it to you, but what it boils down to is that if you maintain a self-centered focus in your life, all the bad things that happen to you and the good things that happen to someone else will be cause for negative emotions (disappointment, anger, jealousy, etc.) But if you train yourself to focus on others instead of yourself, suddenly life opens up and you can rejoice at all the good things that are happening in the world, and find solidarity with others when you are suffering. If you remain self-centered, joy will evaporate. And not just your joy, but you’re very life is threatened by a self-centered outlook. They’ve done studies that have found that people who use a higher percentage of first person pronouns (I, Me) have a greater likelihood of depressive symptoms and are at greater risk for a heart attack. But if you can train your heart and mind on others, you will find joy blossoming in your life anew. And it just may save your life! This makes sense because we have to have some source of joy in our life or else we’re living an emotionally and spiritually limited existence. Joy is what makes life worth it, what makes us want to get out of bed. It is Jesus’ gift to us because he has removed any fears that might rob us of our joy and sent his advocate, the Holy Spirit to fill us with it.

In order to develop this other-focused perspective, we need to work hard to cultivate a spacious interior life of the Spirit because the world we live in encourages us to seek pleasure and happiness through external means, means which invariably are sold to us in self-serving ways. This perpetuates the problem of joylessness because we remain so fixated on how are these things going to make me feel? How are these things going to benefit me?  So that it’s virtually impossible for joy to take root. But the life of the Spirit is constantly calling us out of ourselves to think about and care about others. Pentecost takes a group of insular, inward looking disciples, locked away in an upper room, and sends them forth out into the world to spread the joy of the Gospel. It’s not about them, or what will happen to them. Joy moves outwards; anxiety, fear, depression keep us locked up in our selves.  That’s why I think joy is a gift from God, because God is always about trying to call us out of ourselves and into relationship with the world around us. It’s hard to feel joy alone. But worry, sadness, resentment all flourish in solitude and keep us focused on ourselves.

There’s a line towards the end of the Baptismal rite that often passes by unnoticed because it’s after everyone has been sprinkled and anointed and the babies are usually crying or getting squirmy. We pray for the newly baptized, and we say, “Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” This part always moves me because the fact that we need to pray for joy is sad, but true. In that moment it is my sincerest hope that these particular children will avoid whatever it is that drains us of our joy as we become adults. And that if, somehow, they lose it, they can find ways to discover it again by looking beyond themselves. For joy is a gift from God. It is at the center of our creation. We must nurture it. We must model it, not just for the sake of our children, but for ourselves as well. For It is the thing that will call you out of yourself, bring you out into the world and draw others to you as well. Joy is infectious. Joy will sustain you, and save you. Joy is what you were made for.

So this day, and every day, go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Thanks be to God.

Commencement–A Sermon

Grad CapsThe Rev. Noah Van Niel

May 28th, 2017

Easter VII (Sunday after Ascension): Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68: 3-10; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17: 1-11

Tis graduation season, my friends. All those colleges last week, High Schools this week, heck I even drove by Wilder School a few days ago and there were about a hundred cars parked out front for what I guess must have been pre-school graduation. And with all these graduations, you know what that means: commencement speeches! Who spoke where? What words of wisdom did they offer?

Today is also the final Sunday of Eastertide; the great fifty days of celebration after Easter are drawing to a close. And it’s the first Sunday after the Ascension, which was celebrated on Thursday. That’s why we hear about that episode in our first reading from the book of Acts this morning. The Resurrected Jesus has been appearing to and among his disciples for weeks now, and it is time for him to finally head to Heaven, to take his place at the right hand of God. But not before he promises to send an Advocate who will guide the disciples in his absence, which is what we celebrate next week, at the jubilant feast of Pentecost, with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and the birthday of the Church. With these two things, graduation season and Ascenciontide happening together, it got me thinking: today is kind of like the Disciples’ graduation—it marks the end of Jesus’ hand holding as they are sent forth into the world.

So I wonder, if Jesus were giving a commencement speech…what would he say?? Here goes:

Greetings class of 33 AD!! We made it!! I want to give thanks to my mom and dad and dad for all their love and support through the years. I wouldn’t be here without them. And I want to thank each of you, my disciples, for being with me through these last four years. It’s a miracle that I’m standing here before you, given everything we’ve been through, crucifixion and all. It’s a great honor to be able to address you one last time. I love you guys.

Class of 33 the past four years have been something else, like something the world has never seen—truly righteous. We had some amazing times and some hard times. We’ve grown together, bonded, blessed by all those experiences, good and bad. You guys remember that time we fed all those people with just a few leftovers some kid had? That was awesome. Or when we went to Jerusalem and I totally flipped out over those money-changers in the Temple? That was intense. And things were looking pretty grim towards the end there, but thanks be to God, we came out alright.  

Anyways, I don’t have time to recount all the amazing things we’ve done, but I know you remember them. So let me be serious for a minute, I really just have one message for you today: share it. Share what you saw and heard. Be my witnesses. Go out into the city streets and into the countryside and across the ocean and tell people that you know God because you knew me. Proclaim that good news to all nations. Tell them everything that happened between us. The world needs to know, and I need to know you will talk about this. Promise me that. Promise me I won’t be forgotten because you were too shy or too scared and you just kept all this good news to yourself. Promise me that the proclamation of peace and justice, forgiveness and love won’t end with you.  Look, it’s up to you now. You know what I’m about, you know what I’ve been teaching you, you have seen me come back from the dead, so you know how powerful and amazing God is. Tell people. Share that good news.

I know, I know some of you don’t like talking about personal things like faith or why you believe God is real. But friends, what you know could change someone’s life. It could bring them hope when they’re in despair, bring them comfort when they’re grieving, strength when they are afraid, it can bring joy and purpose to their life. You’ve experienced that. I know you have. So why would you withhold that life-changing possibility from someone else? The point is not just to nourish your own soul but to share that nourishment with everyone. I’m not asking you to compel and coerce, I’m asking you to share and invite. Otherwise all this, even this glorious Resurrection—the triumph of life over death that we have been celebrating these last few weeks will go nowhere. You have been given a great gift, the gift of the knowledge of God through me. Give this gift to others. Go out there and do it. Look, they may not take it from you, but you have to offer it. That’s all I ask of you.

Friends, I would like to close with prayer. You know me, always praying. And because I know no better way to tell you how much I love you and want you to succeed in this good work: So let us pray, “Father, I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me…And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. Amen. ”  

Alright, Class of 33, that’s all I got. Be good to one another. Keep the faith. And remember it’s not “Goodbye”—it’s “I’ll see you later.” Go Saints!

Well, he may not have said exactly that. But I do think Jesus would want us to know that we are the ones responsible for sharing the good news of God in Jesus Christ. We have inherited that great commission. When we leave this place, the world needs to hear from us about what it is we found here. When we are dismissed at the end of the service, we should be propelled out into the world to spread the love of God that others may be transformed so that the world may be transformed.

I know talking about your faith and inviting other people into it isn’t easy for most of us; I’m sensitive to that. But it is also the one thing Jesus wanted to make sure his disciples did before he left them. Not all of you have to go straight to the street corner. Start by telling someone that in this age of anxiety, you have found a place of peace; a community where you also have a lot of fun and you feel welcomed and loved and supported. And then, if things are going well, throw in the fact that the reason that you are a part of that community is because you believe in God. And if you’re feeling bold, you might add (gulp) that you also believe in Jesus and all he stood for. And then, if they still haven’t left, you can work up to saying you believe God is still active and present and real in the world through the work of the Holy Spirit. And then my friends you will have become an evangelist; a herald of the good news. You might not feel like you’re prepared enough for such conversations, but you are. You know what God has done for you. And if ever you feel like you’re getting out of your depth, send the person on to me, I’d love to talk to them. And when I feel like I’m getting out of my depth, I’ll send them on to Fr. Tim. We’re all in this together. We are the ones Jesus needs to spread his message. We are the ones the world needs and is waiting for. We are those with the good news of healing and hope, for all to hear. We have been given our charge. We have been given strength for the journey. So when we go forth from this place, let us go forth in the name of Christ. Thanks be to God.

The Quest for Righteousness–A Sermon

Sermon on Mount

The Rev. Noah Van Niel

St. John the Evangelist

February 5th, 2017

Epiphany 5: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Cor 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

Why do you come to church? There are lots of reasons to come; lots of good reasons. But if you had to pick the one thing that keeps you coming back (hopefully) week after week, what would it be?

I’ll tell you why I come to church, what first drew me in and has kept me coming back: Righteousness. I come looking for righteousness, not because I have it, but because I know I do not. I come because I want it. Continue reading