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.