Joy Matters – sermon from 5/13/18

Rob Bell, a well-known pastor, author, and speaker tells a story about a time he was sitting in a meeting at the church where he was a pastor. It was a huge church and this was the meeting where the various leaders of the different departments of the church came together to discuss the running of the church.  Important stuff. But it was a very large staff, and so at one of their meetings, a couple of the people said that after those meetings they have to go back and tell everyone else about what happened in the meeting and so it might be good to invite more of the staff to come to the meeting so they could get the information first-hand. This was discussed for a long time and nothing was resolved, so they spent much of the next meeting talking about this, too. And Rob said that his heart began to sink because he realized now they were mostly just having meetings about meetings. So, he went to the person who was in charge of the meeting to talk to him and he said, “You know, I’ve noticed that we’re spending an awful lot of our meeting time lately just talking about the meeting,” and then he said he stopped because he realized with horror that in that moment he was having a meeting about a meeting about a meeting.

He talks about how in the course of all of it, he felt a whispering in his mind saying, “What am I doing here?” He said it was a feeling deep in his bones – that although figuring out all the meeting stuff was important and there were other people who may have been really into that and whom God put on earth to organize and attend meetings about meetings about meetings, he knew that was not his work to do. He had other work that needed to be done, other work that God had given him to do, work that energized him and gave him life and was hard in its own right, and it wasn’t to sit in meetings about meetings about meetings.

As we continue going through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul is talking a lot about humility and service. He says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

This is the kind of verse that is so contrary to our culture today. Most everything in our culture is hyper-focused on developing the self and looking out for number one. In fact, this culture elevates a positive self-image to such a degree that we run the risk of becoming our own false gods. Having a positive self-image is important, but it seems like it can run off the rails pretty quickly, too. For example, during a confirmation class some years ago, I asked a teenage girl to name someone she admired the most and she said herself.

Herself? Is that the message our kids are getting? That they should love themselves so much that they refuse to open their eyes and admire all the varied gifts and beauty of the people around them? To think so much of themselves that they have unwavering certainty that their way of seeing the world, their story, their little plot of land on which they live, their past and their future, is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end? I inwardly did the hugest eye-roll possible and then calmly asked her, “how about someone aside from yourself?”

Oh, trust me, Saint Paul would have done an eye-roll, too. As he sits in jail, writing letters of encouragement to his co-workers in Christ, urging them to put others first, think more highly of everyone before themselves, so much so that they consider themselves slaves to others.

These words about selflessness are powerful – and they can conjure up visions for us – maybe we think of Mother Teresa, serving the poorest of the poor in India. Maybe we think of our mothers, sacrificing their time, their energy, their own interests for the sake of our growth and security. Maybe we think of teachers, who so selflessly give of their energy and love and wisdom to teach our kids.

And probably, if you are at all like me, you feel a little guilty. Because it can feel like there’s no way to measure up to what Paul is asking of us here. The truth is that we don’t want to always think of others first – sometimes we want and need to look out for ourselves. We are fine with thinking highly of others, but we need to value who we are, too, and what we have to contribute to the world. And as far as being a slave to others?  It’s just hard to get behind that one at all.

But it’s good to remember here that the word slave is from the greek word ‘doulos’ – which means slave or servant – and usually by one’s own free will. One has chosen to serve, chosen to give one’s life over in this way. And that makes all the difference, along with something Paul says a bit later in this same letter, “Rejoice in the Lord.”

Yes, this giving over of ourselves, this putting others first, this thinking more highly of others than ourselves, it’s important to who we are as followers of Jesus, but the key is to find a way of doing that that brings us joy, and brings joy to the world through us. Joy matters.

There was a fellow I knew at seminary who, like me, was studying to be a pastor. He was a very good student, he always knew the right answers in class and everybody liked him. We graduated at the same time and lost touch, but years later he found me on Facebook and I was interested to notice he wasn’t a pastor anymore. He was a full-time traveling musician now and leads song-writing conferences and retreats. I asked him a little about his work and he told me a bit about his journey – how he had gone to seminary because his parents wanted him to and because it seemed like the right thing to do. He wanted to serve God. It seemed like a good thing to do, even though he wasn’t ever very excited about it. “Seminary was fine,” he said – “I liked the classwork and our friends and the variety – but once I got into a church it got harder. I felt claustrophobic and like I was playing a part that wasn’t me. I stayed for many years, partly because I had invested so much money in the education and partly because I felt like maybe I was just supposed to suck it up and try harder.” He talked about how the church he grew up in had stressed that you had to think about others first and die to yourself and so he wondered if maybe he was supposed to be miserable. Maybe that was part of learning how to really follow Christ. After all, he thought about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other martyrs who had suffered and died for the faith – surely he could withstand a bit of unhappiness for the sake of his love of the Lord, right?

He began to get chronic backaches and headaches, various other aches and pains – but figured he was just getting older and that happens. He got used to a low level of despair hanging over him and took comfort that his work may not make him happy, but at least he could be useful.

The only time he felt really joyful in his work was when he was leading music – which he would do often at church or for other events that needed a musician. He wrote music and recorded some songs, always thinking of it as a hobby but nothing more. It wasn’t until one day a woman in his congregation stopped him after church and told him about how she appreciated his ministry of music. He thanked her – others had kindly said this to him before. But then she added, “I wish you could only do that. I mean, it seems like that is when you are happiest.”  And something deep within him said, “Yes.”

Those few words she said shifted something for him that day and he knew what he had to do. He set for himself the goal that within a year he would find a way to let music be his full-time ministry. He said it wasn’t easy, there was no direct route to follow to do what he does now, it took longer than he planned, but he loves his work now because he’s using his best, most life-giving gifts, and he’s joyfully serving God and others. The backaches and headaches went away.

Joy matters. My prayer for all of us is that we find ways to put others first, to serve often and well, but to find ways to do that with joy. Rejoice in the Lord! If you consistently have a slow sense of dread on your way to do something, even if you are good at it, listen to what that dread is telling you. Is it time to find another way to use your gifts or perhaps change up the way you are doing the same old task? Is it time for that season to end so another can begin? Listen not just to all the needs of the world and the advice of those around you, but listen to yourself and the Spirit of God at work within you. Or as the author and theologian Howard Thurman said it, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Laughter

It was following the resurrection and disciples were still scattered about Jerusalem and the surrounding villages. John finds Peter and runs up to him. Excitedly he says, “Peter, Peter! I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Peter takes hold of John and calms him down. “Take it easy, John. What is it? What’s the good news?” John says, “The good news is Christ is risen.” Peter says, “That’s great! But, what’s the bad news?”

John, looking around, says, “He’s really steamed about last Friday.” 

I don’t know about you, but I could use a good laugh.  There are few things better than those times when something takes you by surprise and strikes you just as the funniest thing and it is hard to stop laughing.  Last week I was in a cleaning and laundry-doing frenzy and kind of in a crummy mood.  I was bustling around the house up and down the stairs and working hard.  After many loads I had finally caught up on all of our laundry – including washing several throw rugs.  I put the last rug that had just come out of the dryer onto the floor on Chad’s side of the bed and was folding some clothes when Chad came into the bedroom in his stocking feet and walked over and stood on that rug while he was talking to me.  Suddenly he stopped talking and paused – “Did you just take this out of the dryer?” he asked hopefully…and I burst out laughing because I knew what he was worried about.  The week before we had just had to get rid of a different rug we used to have in that spot that for one reason or another one of the cats decided to pee on repeatedly.  Even as he stood there talking to me, Sam, the cat who was the likely suspect in the earlier peeing incidents was sitting on the floor next to the rug looking up at Chad.  I knew Chad had felt the warm rug under his feet, looked down and saw Sammy sitting there and had a sinking feeling.  I still laugh thinking about it…the tone of his voice, Sammy and her perfect timing, and just the humor in that moment.  It’s true, isn’t it, that if we just open our eyes there are so many things around us that can make us laugh.  People do silly things left and right – intentionally and unintentionally.   

But what place does laughter have in church?  Is it proper, is it appropriate to do something so frivolous, so fun, so whimsical as to spend time considering the importance of laughter as we gather here to consider our spiritual journey? 

Actually, it used to be a tradition.  Early orthodox churches used to gather on the Monday or sometimes the following Sunday after Easter to tell stories, jokes and anecdotes.  This time right after Easter was set aside to celebrate the joke that God has pulled on Satan – that we can rejoice and be glad because God has had victory through Jesus.  To this day in Slavic regions Christians gather the day after Easter for folk dancing and feasting in the church yard.  It is known as Bright Monday or White Monday or Risus Paschalis, God’s Joke, the Easter Laugh. 

This day is not listed on the list of approved feast days of the major liturgical denominations, and while there is no mention of it in the “Revised Common Lectionary”, I think it sounds like a wonderful tradition.  To remember that we are Easter people – and that is something in which we can rejoice!  To remember that laughter is a gift from God and that there is strength and great hope to be found in knowing how to keep looking for the humor in things.   

Do you think that Jesus laughed?  Well, we don’t have any verse that says “Jesus laughed,” but Jesus was a joyful person, continually urging his followers to be joyful. In John 15:11 he explains to his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” In the book of Ecclesiastes it tells us that there is a time to weep AND a time to laugh! And we know Jesus loved a good party. He performed his first miracle so that a wedding party could continue. In Luke 15, every parable ends with a party. His famous story of the prodigal son ends with a party, and the older son who would not attend the party is portrayed as the one with the problem. In fact, the picky people around Jesus criticized him for being a glutton and having such a good time (Luke 7:34).  His standard greeting to his disciples and others was often to say “Rejoice”!  Does that sound like a somber savior to you? I feel sad when I realize how often people see the church as being such a serious place.  Certainly, there are serious things we talk about – like sin and death…but aren’t we much more about joy than sorrow?  It seems to me that even though we have our share of funerals here, I much more often hear the sounds of laughter echoing down the halls than the sounds of weeping.   When we meet Thomas in the Gospel today, he’s not ready to rejoice as the other disciples rejoiced when they saw Jesus again face to face.  He can’t believe the words that the others tell him – that they have seen the Lord.  He can’t bear to celebrate quite yet.  He can’t bring himself to believe such good news – yet.  He needs to see Jesus face to face and touch his hands and his side before he is ready to join in their jubilation.  He was so caught up in the sadness of what had happened that he couldn’t imagine that a time of rejoicing was now here! I wonder if we do the same sometimes in our own way?  When something happens that is difficult, or horrible, or just hard, we can get so used to being in a place of sorrow that we begin to forget – or even want to ignore – all the reasons there still are to be happy.  Certainly we don’t want to rush through our grief…but it is okay to be surprised by joy, too. 

When my Grandma Hetland died, I remember the whole family gathered in the basement of our church while we waited for the pastor to come in and pray with us before we would be seated in the sanctuary.  I was fourteen and in addition to me and my mom and my brother, there were tons of my cousins and aunts and uncles stuffed into that room – most of whom I had never met before.  I had grown up living just down the road from Grandma – her house was as much home as my own house was and her death was the first time I experienced such a loss.  At that age and with my lack of experience with grief, I seriously doubted I’d ever be happy again.  Plus, I was angry that all these cousins and aunts and uncles were hanging around – they all lived far away and I didn’t know any of them.  I didn’t consider them to be my family and I bristled at the idea that they were just as closely related to MY grandma as I was.    So we all sat in that basement room on the light green vinyl chairs and scratchy orange sofas and waited.  The room was completely silent.  Every now and then there was a sniffle.  I could hardly bear it – the silence, the sadness.  I wanted to just leave and go sit at Grandma’s kitchen table and have her be there, too, and we’d eat spice cake just like we did a few days before.   In the corner I heard a muffled sound that at first I thought was someone crying – but when I looked over I saw my cousin, Cookie, who was a few years older than me, was completely red in the face, her handkerchief pressed in a ball against her mouth, and she looked like she was about to explode.  Her shoulders were shaking and as she wriggled uncomfortable it only took a few moments before I realized she wasn’t crying – she was desperately trying not to laugh.  Her mother realized, too, what was happening and she was whispering at Cookie to behave and to ‘Shush”. But of course,  trying to hold in a good laugh is about as easy as herding a group of cats – and within moments, Cookie burst into laughter.  Even as she did it she said, “sorry, sorry, sorry…” but we knew she was a goner.  The laugh had to get out.  I looked at each of my cousins then, and bit by bit I could see each of them observing Cookie and trying not to smile themselves…but she really had become a funny spectacle, and one by one they started to giggle.  Then it was Aunt Vivian, then Aunt Marilyn, my mom, and suddenly the whole room was enveloped in laughter…and that is how Pastor Vetter found us when he came in to pray for us in our sorrow.   The thing I loved the most about that moment looking back, though, was as I looked at Cookie and her round face turning red and her robust laugh – I kept thinking about how she reminded me of someone when she laughed.  In a moment I realized she looked just like our Grandma when she laughed.   And I couldn’t help but think that if Grandma could see all of us in that moment she probably would have been pretty happy.  To see the country cousins and the city cousins, the unfolding generations of her offspring just laughing together.  It felt like such a blessing and a release to let go of the tears for a moment and see chuckles and smirks, chortles and smiles – a family, though we really weren’t much of one most of the time, brought together that day for a single sad reason, but truly united only in that one random burst of mirth. You can’t tell me that moment wasn’t holy. 

The letter to the Philippians says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I will say, rejoice!”  Brothers and sisters, as we make our way through the challenges and changes of this life, may we be willing to be surprised by joy.  Let’s not be like Thomas – so hesitant to believe in the good news, so hesitant to celebrate.  God has the victory.  This is the day that the Lord has made – let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.