A version of this sermon was preached extemporaneously by the Rev. Bart Smith at St. Mark’s during the Jazz Sunday service at 11:00AM on October 15, 2017.
Philippians 4:1-9 (CEB) – “Joy = Gratitude + Connection”
Our second Lectionary reading is from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:
Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.
Loved ones, I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord. Yes, and I’m also asking you, loyal friend, to help these women who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the scroll of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.
From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.
I had written a full draft of a sermon and it was done last night. But I woke up this morning, decided I didn’t like it, so I started an outline on version 2.0. Then I decided I didn’t like that one either. And when Mike Smith (the drummer) said something earlier about Jazz Sunday being about improv, I thought, “What the heck?” So here goes…
The other two versions of my sermon were on the Golden Calf story from Exodus, because it’s a vivid story that’s always captivated me, but this morning our second reading from Philippians caught my attention. “How do we tap into our true source of joy?” is an important question these days because that’s something that I personally struggle with and I know I’m not alone. As your pastor, I see a community of people who want nothing less than to change the world, starting in Tucson and moving out from there. You want to see a more just, more peaceful world. But these are especially frustrating times if that’s what you’re aiming for because, let’s be honest, the world (excuse my “French”) seems like it’s going to hell in a handbasket. Y’all work so hard, you care so deeply, but frankly, you seem a little weary and a whole lot of stressed. It’s the state of the world, but it’s also the various personal burdens you carry. Am I wrong? Didn’t think so…
We’re all in need of finding joy– not as an escape, but more as a realignment with what’s most important, as a way to fuel ourselves being the kind of people we aspire to be.
Because of how overwhelming life can be, it’s so crucial that we know how to re-center ourselves on true, enduring joy. We need some source of strength, we need some grounding to endure this journey. In that light, we turn to what the Apostle Paul wrote on the subject.
I love this passage, don’t get me wrong, but the last thing someone who is in despair wants to hear is “Rejoice!” and the last thing someone who feels anxious wants to hear is “Oh, don’t worry about anything!” Yet here we have Paul’s encouragement: “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, rejoice!” and “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.” Since Paul was imprisoned at the time he wrote this letter, I think we ought to take what he says even more seriously. Locked up for his faith, finding himself the midst of incredibly difficult circumstances, he was still able to re-center himself on his enduring joy in Christ.
There are two main points I think we can lift from Philippians about how we can tap into our inner sense of joy: 1) Gratitude and 2) Connection.
I’ll explain what I mean. To help us get some insight into what Paul is talking about here, we turn to two sages who also know a thing or two about trying circumstances: the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Together they published a book late last year, “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.” Not a bad title for these times, right? The cover of the book alone will make you want to read it because there they are, these two wise men who have led mass movements for social change, but instead of looking all deep and contemplative they’re just smiling at eachother like long-lost friends who are positively giddy to see each other.
A funny story real quick… I ordered a copy of the book because, as a I said, I’ve really needed some inspiration about joy. What was funny was that I accidentally ordered two copies from Amazon and, get this, both copies were in the large print edition! A 32-year-old with a large print book… there’s something to make you joyful right there!
But back to the point. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu wrote this about how gratitude relates to joy:
“When you are grateful… you are not fearful, and when you are not fearful, you are not violent. When you are grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not out of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people and respectful to all people. The grateful world is a world of joyful people. Grateful people are joyful people. A grateful world is a happy world.”
Practicing gratitude is such a huge piece of finding joy. It’s no mistake that Paul emphasized thanksgiving in his letter. He wrote, “if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things.” It’s helpful to focus on the things that make us grateful. Try this sometime: it’s a fruitful exercise to literally write out a list of those things that you are grateful for. If you make a list until you absolutely can’t think of anything else at all, then by that point you might be feeling very thankful. By the way, toward the top of my list today would be our musicians for Jazz Sunday. Y’all are amazing! Jazz Sunday is such a joyful day because it breaks up the routine of our worship just a bit and allows for some spontaneity, which can be good for the soul. Thank you, our guest musicians, for being here today!
Another piece of finding joy is nuturing connection. Nurturing the connections we have with our loved ones, God, and creation itself is absolutely essential. That’s the point of life, ultimately. There’s a reason that everything from spending time with our grandchildren to seeing a beautiful Tucson sunset or sunrise makes us feel joyful: we were wired by our Creator for connection. It’s to that point that Desmond Tutu writes:
“What the Dalai Lama and I are offering… is a way of handling your worries: thinking about others. You can think about others who are in a similar situation or perhaps even in a worse situation, but who have survived, even thrived. It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole.” Once again, the path of joy was connection and the path of sorrow was separation. When we see others as separate, they become a threat. When we see others as part of us, as connected, as interdependent, then there is no challenge we cannot face—together.”
Sometimes tapping back into our inner sense of joy can be mistaken for an individualistic, self-centered activity, but it fundamentally is not, at least not in a spiritual sense. I’m confident that’s why, in this passage, Paul urged Euodia and Syntyche to reconcile. That’s why he followed up “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, Rejoice!” with the admonition to “Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people.” Joy is not an isolated experience; it comes from our connections with others. It comes from remembering who we are in Christ: made for relationship.
I’ll close with a story that has stuck with me for almost a year. The morning after the Presidential Election, a time in which I really, really needed to reconnect with some joy because I thought the world was going to end, I saw this post on Facebook from a rabble-rouser Presbyterian minister in Austin, Texas, Jim Rigby. Jim told this story that puts this passage from Philippians into practice:
When I was raising money to go to seminary, one of my jobs was working with scrap metal. That job introduced me to two Jewish men who were both Holocaust survivors. While we were breaking down a crate, one of the men showed me the tattoo on his arm with his number from the concentration camp. It was so strange to hear him laugh defiantly as he told me of the day he was almost taken to the gas chamber. He said he resolved at that moment to either escape or die trying. He showed me where the bullets had entered his body, and where the dogs had torn into his legs. The other man was a Jewish mystic. Both men had been through hell but both glowed with a joyfulness that comes from choosing to be fully human and fully alive no matter what the situation, and no matter what the cost.
One of the men had been a millionaire in Europe, lost it all, and was wealthy again in the U.S.A. He even offered to help me get through Presbyterian seminary even though he was Jewish. The point is, these two men had been through conditions I cannot even imagine, but both were two of the most joyful people I have ever met. They didn’t let anything bother them. They had made the choice not to hate, and not to waste even one minute of life in bitterness. This morning I am grateful to my two friends from long ago. We have no idea what the next years will be like, but the memory of my friends convinces me we can do this. We can refuse to drink the poison of bitterness or despair. This day, like every day of life, is a priceless gift. Like my two friends, we can choose to live this day in solidarity with others, in resistance to injustice, and, yet, in unshakable joy.
Gratitude + connection = unshakable joy. May we as God’s beloved people be the ones who, to quote the Apostle Paul, “practice these things.” Amen!
Featured image: Copyright © The Dalai Lama Trust, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, purchaseable on Amazon.com.