Let’s begin this morning with a kind of check-in:
If you’re here in the sanctuary, I invite you to raise your hand at the appropriate times. If you’re worshipping with us online, I invite you to register your response in the LiveChat feature by typing out something simple, such as “me!” or “yes!”
Are you ready?
Okay, let’s go:
If you’ve ever been criticized or made fun of for being too excited about something, raise your hand or type something into the LiveChat.
If you’ve ever felt like you would explode if you had to contain your joy, raise your hand.
If anyone has ever told you that you smile a lot, and that your smile makes them feel good, raise your hand.
Now, I’m going to move into a slightly different line of prompts and, I want to be clear: These categories of experience are not mutually exclusive; some of us have experienced all of the above and below. So:
If you’ve ever felt almost guilty for feeling happy or joyful, raise your hand or reveal yourself in the LiveChat.
If you’ve ever felt guilty or wondered if something was wrong with you because you weren’t feeling joyful in a situation where other people were, raise your hand.
If you’ve ever been so low or sad, if you’ve ever been so depressed or felt so numb that you’ve wondered if you would ever know joy again, raise your hand.
If you can’t remember the last time you felt true joy, raise your hand. God knows, as Tim Urban said recently in the New York Times, “The past couple of years has left us with a joy deficit.”
If you’ve never really understood the difference between happiness and joy, raise your hand.
Here we are.
Here we all come with our own thoughts, feelings, experiences, and even baggage related to joy.
And so it is with both humility and—dare I say it?—joy that I want to share with you the good news that we—each and every one of us—has been made for joy.
And so it is with both sensitivity (I hope) and concern that I say I hope you will be able to hear this word not as a burden or expectation, but as truly good, liberating, empowering, and healing news.
I believe God wants us to know joy!
Our scriptures mention the word “joy” no fewer than 267 times. And the word “rejoice” shows up another 227 times.
The Gospel of John goes so far as to have Jesus proclaim: “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
In his Letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
Not in our circumstances, mind you, but in the awesome goodness of our God. The God who, as our Black siblings are fond of saying, is good all the time. (All the time, God is good.)
In another New Testament letter, this one to the Galatians, Paul names joy as one of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The ancient Hebrew prophets and psalmists seemed to equate joy with the intended, God-given state of things. Whenever the exiles came home there was rejoicing; whenever God delivered her people from bondage and restored the wilderness and desolate places to their intended fruitfulness, it was said that joy and gladness were found.
In the glorious realm of God, where justice and peace have been restored and the lost and cast out have come home, joy is not limited to human beings; mountains and hills burst into song, and even the trees of the fields clap their hands.
I know. I know.
You might be thinking: This is all well and good, but we don’t live in Bible-world; we live in the real world. We live in the world where for six weeks now, Russian forces have been shelling and bombing, destroying and displacing, wounding and killing the people of Ukraine.
We live in a world where hundreds of thousands of brown- and black-skinned skinned refugees have been turned away from our southern border over the last couple of years but now certain white-skinned ones will be allowed into our country. We live in a world that’s on fire.
We live in a world where political forces pass laws and draw lines on a map designed to make it harder for some people to vote, as if it’s some kind of game. We live in a world that values some lives more than others, a world so narrow-minded and hate-filled that it wants our children to believe that some kinds of people don’t even exist and some parts history never happened. We live in a world where all kinds of people—including us—walk through life acting out their personal pain by slapping others in one form or another. We live in a world that, if we let it, will break our hearts on a regular basis.
And that’s precisely whyit’s also important to know, it’s also important to remember that we are made for joy. We are made to know that it’s joy and justice, peace and wholeness that are the natural order of things, the way things are meant to be, the way God designed them to be. We need to know to that joy is also a spiritual gift—something to be sought after, something to be practiced and nurtured, something to open our hearts to, something to give ourselves over to.
Joy is not a luxury. Joy is not a privilege. Joy is the spiritual and emotional by-product of living in harmony with God, one another, and all creation. Joy is what we feel when we are being true to who we are and what we were made for.
Joy is like that tiny seed Jesus talks about, that when planted or even just cast about in the wild hope that it will germinate, takes root and grows and becomes the largest tree, offering shade and fruit and beauty to all. Joy is like that little bit of yeast Jesus talks about; when we add just a little bit to the ordinary stuff of our lives everything is transformed, things that were flat and plain rise to become delicious and life-giving.
“Even a wounded world is feeding us,” says the indigenous writer and teacher Robin Wall Kimmerer. “Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the Earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”
The realm of God is not a place where transformed people burn themselves out trying to change the world. The realm of God is not a place where God’s justice-oriented people vacillate between anger and despair. The realm of God runs on love and joy, kindness and peace, faith and hope, community and solidarity, openness to grace and a willingness to change. The realm of God is the place where, as the psalms tell us, those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy and those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their harvest.
Joy is something to be cultivated. Joy is both gift and necessity.
“Joy is,” according to Gary Haugen, the founder of International Justice Mission, “the oxygen for doing hard things.”
Because, God knows, life can be hard. If we’re not rooted in love and joy, goodness and grace, if we’re trying to make it on our own power instead of Spirit power, life can grind us down and wear us out.
“Once upon a time,” says the naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams, “there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
Please understand: I don’t mean to pretend that joy is easy to come by. I don’t mean to suggest that “being joyful” is one more thing we should add to our to-do lists.
Please understand: Jesus came that his joy might be in us, and that our joy might be complete.
Please hear this not as obligation, but invitation. Not as a challenge, but permission. Not as duty, but as gift. Not as a bill that’s come due but as a free ticket to the wonders of other people, creation, art, music, and every little thing that makes our hearts sing.
Please understand that joy is not something to wait for, but something to make time for and to seek out.
“The world is burning,” says writer Margaret Renkl, “and there is no time to put down the water buckets. For just an hour, put down the water buckets anyway. Take your cue from the bluebirds, who have no faith in the future but who build the future nevertheless, leaf by leaf and straw by straw, shaping them and turning them into a sheltering roundness perfectly fitted to the contours of the future they are making.
“Turn your face up to the sky. Listen. The world is shivering into possibility. The world is reminding us that this is what the world does best. New life. Rebirth. The greenness that rises out of ashes.”
Beloveds, we are made for joy. So let us live like it.