Passage: Philippians 1:3-11
Date: December 9, 2018
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
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“There is a truth past knowing. There is a joy past hope.”—Tracey Miller (my dad)
It’s hard to believe that twenty-one years ago, during Advent, I was newly pregnant with the person we came to know as Alex Vischer. The happiness was made brighter and sweeter by Christmas lights and candles, the fresh scent of the fir tree and the glory of Christmas music. I was happy, because I felt that I nearly had everything I wanted: meaningful work, a child to be born, a marriage, a home, two cats, and music.
But, underneath happiness lurked a persistent, serious concern. That was because recently, I had had an early miscarriage. The disappointment still radiated anxiety in my gut, and brain. Here’s something I realize: Joy isn’t the same as happiness.
Happiness depends upon circumstances: We feel happy when things are going the way that we want: love, material security, pleasure. But when those circumstances change, the possibility of happiness seems remote.But, joy is a gift, a sometimes fleeting,feel of love and hope, despite the circumstances. Having experienced the miscarriage, now I moments of joy, even in the midst of loss and fear.
In that year’s Christmas letter, I used this quote from Madeleine L’Engle:
“This is an irrational season, when Love blooms bright and wild. Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child.” Indeed-joy may seem irrational.
This passage we heard from Philippians was written by Paul as he sat in a prison cell. Certainly, this is not a circumstance that you’d expect to foster joy, but he wrote: “I am constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you. . .” Despite his situation, he knew that joy, from life centered in Christ, goes deeper than any happiness. And, joy is contagious.
Joy is found in the most unusual places. There were accounts of early church martyrs, described as joyfully singing, walking together toward their deaths. In Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, we learned about Father Stanley Rother, a priest from Okarche, Oklahoma who was martyred for his care of the poor. His joyful demeanor continued even as he was being threatened. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from prison, wrote of joy and sorrow. . .When we are equipped with joy, we can accomplish things that seem too daunting.
Joy is NOT the sentiment of people who have lost their marbles. It’s not pious wishing. Joy is contagious. But, so is its opposite: despair. And, who among us has not at times felt lured by the contagion of despair? Today, we could name a litany of reasons for despair (as a planet, as a nation, as a denomination, or as a family), but instead, I’ll just ask you to consider: What brings you to despair? And when have you felt joy? Who were you with? For most of us, despair becomes most pronounced and paralyzing when we are isolated.
Joy needs human contact the support of others to keep it alive.In the isolation of prison, Paul still stayed connected, by writing his letters.
The Dutch theologian, Henri Nouwen,lived and wrote about the finding joy in the L’Arche community. L’Arche provides homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers. Most of the core members of L’Arche have suffered mockery, stigma, and sometimes abuse, as a result of their condition. Together, they create an inclusive community of faith and friendship. Many of the caregivers are college age assistants who volunteer. They have great fun, laughing, and singing as they cook, making ceramics with those who can stir, pour and paint. Some volunteers come for a week, and then decide to stay a month, a year or a lifetime. One young woman, Elena, said that after a short visit, she found she did not want to leave and go back to her home. She feels close to God at L’Arche. She said: “Joy in this place, seems connected to tears.” Joy comes from an acceptance of what is, the utter unpretending. Perfection is not a goal. Instead, people strive to live, pray, play and work to the best of their abilities. Joy is the simple freedom to be one’s beautiful, imperfect self, related to everyone else.
Now, perhaps we don’t experience community as dramatically as that, here at Westminster. But, here, we also have the freedom to be our own beautiful, imperfect selves. We come with our losses. With physical and emotional vulnerabilities. Our impatience and fears. Our failures. We reach out to support one another by writing cards, calling and listening. We sing songs together, and drive vans, and feed others. Sometimes, things fall through the cracks, we admit our failure and try to improve. Perfection is not the goal.We strive to live, pray, play and work to the best of our abilities, grounded in God’s love. In this land of the “spiritual, but not religious,” why would one come to Westminster? Well-- you need human contact to survive. That’s a very big reason why we worship together.
Lately, I have been learning social dances, the East Coast Swing, Charleston, and Lindy Hop. Hundreds of people show up on Sunday nights at Norse Hall. There’s a short lesson, first, to orient beginners on the basic steps. Included in the lesson are guidelines, such as “Brush your teeth. And use complete sentences when asking a fellow human being to dance.” But my favorite one is the reminder that in each three-minute song, we are there for our dance partner. In that three minutes, (no matter how adept or stumbling), give your partner full, and kind attention. I have found that even when I’m able to give that three- minute gift, and when I relax into listening to the vibrant music, even with my mistakes, the joy is contagious.
Three minutes of kind attention. And it doesn’t only have to happen on the dance floor.
If this season, you are feeling more tearful than happy; if at times the infection of despair causes you fatigue remember that while you may not feel happiness, joy, and God’s love, remains.
“For anyone who has the courage to enter our human sorrows deeply, there is a revelation of joy, hidden like a precious stone in the wall of a dark cave.” --Henri J. Nouwen Can You Drink the Cup?